A Plot in L.A. to Avenge the Christchurch Shooting
“Martyrdom to me is like [heart-eye emojis],” Mark Steven Domingo wrote several weeks ago in a message to a covert employee of the F.B.I. he had met in an invitation-only online forum. Domingo, a twenty-six-year-old former U.S. Army private who had served in Afghanistan, lived with his grandmother, aunt, and younger brother in the Los Angeles suburb of Reseda. On April 26th, he was arrested for plotting a catastrophic terrorist act in the Los Angeles area. According to an affidavit, which reads like notes toward a Robert Stone novel, he planned to detonate “weapons of mass destruction,” in the form of improvised explosive devices packed with three-inch nails. “The human body is very easy to break,” he mused.
Domingo, a recent convert to Islam and an admirer of ISIS, was infuriated by the persecution of Muslims around the world. After the mosque shootings in Christchurch, in March, he posted an emoji of a sad face to the online forum, writing, “there must be retribution.” A couple of weeks later, he met up with another person from the forum—someone he believed to be a sympathizer but who was, in fact, a paid informant for the F.B.I. In audio- and video-recorded conversations, Domingo revealed that, beyond retaliation, his deeper intention was to “stir up the hornet’s nest” and “kick off civil unrest.” Kill a cop to “get like the police riled up.” Target the “yahud”—an Arabic word for Jews—on their way to synagogue. Set off an I.E.D. on the freeway. “Then the fun starts,” he said. At one point, he wondered if he should kill his irritating neighbor, who kept putting trash on his lawn, to test the response time of the police. Maybe, if he had the patience to wait till summer, when the crowds are at their peak, he could set off an I.E.D. at the Santa Monica Pier—the quaintly seedy seaside amusement park whose Ferris wheel lights up Technicolor neon when night falls, as much a marker of time and a symbol of place as the sunsets over the Pacific, just beyond it. The pier, Domingo mused, was promising: an enclosed place—a bottleneck of carnival games and penny arcades and a century-old hippodrome—that offers no easy means of escape. More than six million people visit the Santa Monica Pier each year. Casualties would be high; many of them would be kids.
Then, on the first night of Passover, Domingo showed up to meet the F.B.I. informant. Domingo wore camouflage and, in his backpack, carried an AK-47-style weapon, which he had previously described as “illegal af.” (“AF is slang for ‘as fuck,’ meaning very,” a footnote to the affidavit explained). The rifle was configured with a collapsible wire stock, to facilitate a drive-by shooting—he’d talked about firing on police officers who drove with their windows down—and a detachable high-capacity magazine. After praying and eating, Domingo and the informant began discussing how to get an I.E.D. Domingo said that he had failed chemistry—“Science is not my forte”—but the informant assured him that he knew someone trustworthy, a fellow-hater of non-believers he’d met at the mosque, who could build a bomb for them. Domingo revealed that he had found his target: a far-right rally set to be held at Bluff Park, in Long Beach, the following Sunday, April 28th, which he’d been hearing about on the news and online. Conversation veered between the diabolical and the mundane. “Parking’s gonna be an issue,” Domingo said.
The rally, named Freedom’s Safest Place—presumably a reference to the National Rifle Association’s television campaign—was conceived by the United Patriot National Front (U.P.N.F.) with help from Antonio Foreman, a brawny red-haired violinist who lives in Southern California but has travelled the country to participate in white-nationalist rallies, serving as a bodyguard for alt-right stars like Tim Gionet, a.k.a. Baked Alaska. In the summer of 2017, when Foreman was stabbed in a Santa Monica parking lot, he said that it was because he supported Trump, though the police did not concur with his claim. After taking part in the anti-Semitic tiki-torch rally in Charlottesville and the official Unite the Right march that followed—and where a protester, Heather Heyer, was killed—Foreman received a letter from the University of Virginia Police Department banning him from campus for four years, “based on evidence that on August 11, 2017, you assaulted another individual while you were on University property.” Richard Spencer was also banned, along with several others, four of whom were charged with breaking federal laws against rioting.
Foreman, speaking with a reporter from the Long Beach City College Viking News, said that the goal of the planned April 28th rally in Bluff Park was to encourage “activism” in a place that hadn’t seen much of it. (Foreman is a master of poker-faced appropriation; upon being expelled from Revolution Books, a left-wing bookstore in Berkeley, he began shouting, “Hands up, don’t shoot! Hands up, don’t shoot!”, a Black Lives Matter slogan used to protest police brutality.) But if activating Long Beach was the goal, Foreman achieved it. As news of the right-wing rally spread, a large counter-protest, organized by Anti-Racist Neighborhood Front and the Democratic Socialists of America, began to take shape. “The presence of dogs and children keeps MOST people peaceful, but the UPNF is a violent radical extremist hate group,” one flyer warned. “Please Exercize [sic] Caution in deciding if yours should attend or not.” The flyer suggested that participants bring apples, water bottles, identification, cell-phone chargers, and rainbow flags, and leave guns, swastikas, syringes, and bags of poo at home.
Meanwhile, Domingo was acquiring parts—nails long enough to penetrate organs, Christmas lights, remote controllers from toy race cars—and handing them over to the bombmaker, an undercover law-enforcement officer. The undercover officer was Caucasian; he could blend in with the “Nazis” at the rally. Domingo would dress as a counter-protester and carry the I.E.D.s, which were now equipped with timers but, unbeknownst to him, inoperable, into the thick of the crowd.
On the evening of Friday, April 26th, as Domingo, the informant, and the undercover officer made a reconnaissance mission to Bluff Park, Domingo was arrested with the inert I.E.D.s. Sunday morning came, with no news of Domingo’s arrest. Thirty minutes before the rally was scheduled to begin, Foreman’s associates at U.P.N.F., which was now calling itself Everything Patriot and Tactical, officially pulled out, possibly due to tepid R.S.V.P.s. (The day before, at a rally against sanctuary cities in Huntington Beach, Foreman had said he would not attend.) Nonetheless, hundreds of people assembled at Bluff Park in the name of defeating racism and white nationalism; many held signs that read “Unite to Smash White Supremacy!” Red-shirted representatives of the Party for Socialism & Liberation held a banner exhorting the crowd to “Stand with Immigrants, Black Lives, Muslims, LGBTQ People and Low-Wage Workers!” Ironically, it’s likely that some of Domingo’s victims would have been people who had chosen to spend their Sunday morning defending Muslim rights. It’s not clear he would have even cared.
On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates, seeking moments of political transcendence, have been talking about how much ordinary citizens in our painfully divided country truly have in common. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the nation’s extremists. In Foreman’s profile picture, which he changed a week before the planned rally, he has a semi-automatic weapon strapped to his chest and a kaffiyeh tied around his neck. (When I reached out to him on Facebook, he did not respond.) After Charlottesville, Foreman, according to a college friend of his, had posted to Instagram an A.P. photo of himself with Gionet—possibly close to the moment of the alleged assault—and captioned it, “Out there doing my thing 6 weeks after being stabbed. All wars begin with a spark.” It struck me that Domingo would have found much to like about Foreman—from the gun and the tiki-torch chants to his desire to incite large-scale violence—and yet would happily have murdered him, along with untold others, last weekend.
Meanwhile, in the hall of mirrors that is Facebook, the page belonging to the Everything Patriot and Tactical was pulled, but not before its owner posted that the rally-that-wasn’t had been a triumph: not because mass casualties had been averted, but because the threat of right-wingers in Long Beach had smoked out the opposition. “Got all the intel we needed on which groups organize in that part of town,” the post claimed. “Cops got what they needed. Successful day. Doxxing campaigns to come folks. 2020 gonna be lit. No safe space for communists. Good job to our undercovers.” A screen grab of the post went up on the Anti-Racist Neighborhood Front page, but as of this writing that page, too, has disappeared.