UCLA Student Charged In Capitol Riot Took Inspiration From Online Extremist
For nearly a year, UCLA students said, they raised the alarm about one of their classmates.
On Twitter, classmate Christian Secor attacked women and minorities, they said, and embraced the ideology of a far-right extremist. On campus, he pushed a student Republicans group toward extreme positions against all immigration. And on the video streaming site DLive, Secor took on the handle "Scuffed Elliot Rodger" — an apparent reference to the misogynist gunman who killed six people in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014.
Students of color and Jewish students said they felt targeted by Secor's rhetoric, and given his self-proclaimed "love" of guns, they worried about their own safety. Multiple students told NPR they took their concerns to the UCLA administration but said the school took no action.
So when they recognized their 22-year-old classmate in footage from the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, they weren't exactly surprised.
"I was a little shocked," said Grayson Peters, a Jewish UCLA student, though "not because I thought it would be out of character."
The Department of Justice alleges that Secor stormed the chamber of the U.S. Senate and sat in the chair occupied just hours earlier by former Vice President Mike Pence. Secor is now facing multiple federal criminal charges — including assaulting, resisting or impeding officers — in connection with the violence at the Capitol.
Of the more than 300 people now facing charges, Secor and his path to the Capitol shed light on how far-right extremism among young people that is fostered online can bring violence to the real world. At a time when experts say extremists are increasingly looking to recruit young people, the case also highlights the struggle of public universities trying to tamp down on extremism, while adhering to First Amendment protections.
Secor's attorney declined to comment for this story. In a court filing, his attorney conceded that the evidence that he was present in the Capitol on Jan. 6 is "incontrovertible" but argued that he was acting under the sway of former President Donald Trump and that there is no evidence he planned the riot or assaulted law enforcement officers.
In a statement, UCLA told NPR, "Information on this person is not available to the public."
NPR has pieced together a portrait of Secor by looking back at who he was online and on campus in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
"Not a libertarian anymore"
Secor is from Orange County, Calif., which is among the wealthier counties in the state. It's also closely divided politically.
In an interview on a far-right podcast in 2020, Secor said he grew interested in politics as a teenager through Ron Paul, the libertarian former congressman from Texas whose policy positions, such as ending all foreign aid and halting U.S. military interventions abroad, would become central themes in Trump's political campaigns. Paul's unsuccessful presidential candidacies were often fueled by enthusiastic young people who found each other online. At times, Paul also received backing from right-wing extremists, including anti-government militias and white nationalists, though the former congressman disowned such supporters.
Christian Secor told the little-known right-wing podcast New American Patriots that 2017 was a turning point for him.
He was 19 at the time, and he said he and his friends went to a protest against racism in Laguna Beach, Calif. soon after the deadly Charlottesville "Unite The Right" rally.
Secor told the podcast he and his friends decided it would be "funny" to carry a Rhodesian flag around a group of left-wing protesters he described as being part of antifa. The flag originates from a former white-ruled apartheid state in Africa and has been embraced by white supremacists. The man who massacred nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 wore a Rhodesian flag patch.
So when Secor and his friends carried the flag at the rally, he said, "we're walking around waiting for them to realize what we were."
A group of protesters then surrounded him and his friends, he said, screaming at them that they were white supremacists. Secor said at that moment he realized that antifa was "evil" and "these people need to be crushed, which is why I'm not a libertarian anymore."
Taking inspiration from an online extremist
At UCLA, Secor majored in political science and joined the Bruin Republicans, a conservative student group on campus that included moderate Republicans alongside more pro-Trump members.
Around this time, Secor also started to embrace a pro-Trump podcast host and extremist named Nick Fuentes.
The Anti-Defamation League describes 22-year-old Fuentes as a "white supremacist." Both Fuentes and Secor have Hispanic ancestry, but Fuentes, who has Mexican roots, has said he identifies as white. He marched in the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally, which he described as "incredible," and has been denounced by other conservative groups for his extreme views. He advocates a halt to all immigration to the U.S. to stop what he terms "the racial displacement" of white people. Variations on that theory — including the "Great Replacement" or "White Genocide" — are at the core of white supremacist propaganda.
Fuentes' show, America First, typically consists of apparently unscripted rants. He wears a suit and uses a green screen to digitally add a city skyline behind himself — creating the effect of a low-budget TV set.
Fuentes claims his most extreme statements attacking African Americans, immigrants, Jewish people, women, LGBT people and many others are satire. He has engaged in Holocaust denial and used other anti-Semitic rhetoric, only to later claim he was joking. Eventually, in February 2020, YouTube banned the show for violating the platform's policy on hate speech.
But Fuentes has continued to find other platforms to stream his show and has amassed a following.
Fans of his America First podcast describe themselves as "Groypers," a reference to a mutated version of the "Pepe The Frog" meme popular among the "alt-right." They often attack opponents online to provoke a response. Secor's Twitter feed, identified in court documents, frequently used that kind of "trolling" provocation. Near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, he tweeted, "Can ICE just cough on illegals or something?"
"This is hateful, direct attacks on members of our community," said Aidan Arasasingham, a UCLA student whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka. He described the rhetoric coming from Secor as "incredibly traumatizing."
Classmates said that online tactic sometimes crossed over into the classroom. In 2020, for example, Secor took a course in authoritarian politics, and one student, who asked not to be named due to fear of backlash from extremists, told NPR that he was known for asking "devil's advocate"-type questions in class. But the real concerns came when Secor deployed those provocations in a student debate.
"Hateful, direct attacks" on fellow students
Several students pointed NPR to a debate in February 2020 between members of the campus Democrats and Republicans. Secor, who holds extreme pro-gun rights views, debated for the Republicans on the topic of gun control. He told the New American Patriots podcast that fully automatic machine guns should be legalized and added, "I love guns — everybody should have guns."
Witnesses of his debate performance described him as "combative" and extreme. Combined with his Twitter feed, his support of Fuentes and his use of a school shooter's name as an online avatar, UCLA students grew increasingly worried.
"I felt threatened," said Oona Flood, a Japanese American UCLA student and member of the Bruin Democrats.
Multiple students told NPR that they reported concerns about Secor to the UCLA administration, but they said they did not see the school take any action.
Experts say that because UCLA is a public university, its response to extremism is limited by the First Amendment. The Constitution does not protect serious threats of violence against specific people, but extremists are often careful to avoid crossing that line. Secor's attorney has argued in a court filing that his campus political activities amounted to "protected First Amendment speech."
"Hate speech most often is free speech," said Elissa Buxbaum, director of campus affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.
Given the legal restrictions, Buxbaum argues that university administrators should fight extremism on campus with their own counter messaging. "Counter speech is the most important tool in the toolbox," said Buxbaum. "So just because someone is allowed to spread messages of hate doesn't mean that it goes unnoticed or without opposition."
In its statement to NPR, UCLA said: "UCLA believes the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol was an attack on our democracy. As an institution, UCLA is committed to mutual respect, making decisions based on evidence and using rational debate — not physical violence."
Some UCLA students said they were disappointed that the university's statements about Secor did not denounce extremism.
"I would have preferred something along the lines of 'We condemn white supremacy. We condemn white nationalism. And we support students who might be affected by this,'" said Grayson Peters.
In response to that criticism, a UCLA spokesperson pointed to an "ongoing racial justice and equity initiative" that the university announced in June 2020, following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
A hard-right turn
UCLA students described a kind of feedback loop between Secor's activity online and on campus, as he took ideas from online extremists, brought them to UCLA, and then pushed the campus Republican group to take more far-right stances — especially on social media.
Moderate members of the Bruin Republicans found themselves increasingly alarmed about Secor's rhetoric and the hard-right direction he was pulling the group. Eventually, Secor broke away and founded a campus group called America First Bruins (bearing the same name as Fuentes' podcast), but he still had allies among the campus Republicans.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Secor's group and the Bruin Republicans both signed on to a statement calling for an "Immediate and Indefinite Immigration Moratorium."
Secor commented to The Gateway Pundit, a far-right website known for promoting conspiracy theories, that "our coalition of young students have come together to ask for President Trump to keep true to his word of America First and close the borders."
Several moderate members of the Bruin Republicans disagreed with the statement, and in response they resigned from the group.
"Many members are children of the very immigrants the letter rails against," several former Bruin Republicans wrote in a letter. "Xenophobia and racism have no place within the conservative movement."
Multiple UCLA students described the situation to NPR as a "coup."
"Bruin Republicans used to be a really honorable group," said Evan Farrar, president of the Bruin Democrats. He said he used to work closely with campus Republicans to organize quarterly debates. But by 2020, he said, he witnessed a "decline into retweeting alt-right conspiracy theories."
The Bruin Republicans would later claim that they "banned" Secor from their group for "inappropriate behavior" and said the group was wholly independent from Secor.
But the group's Twitter feed suggests the group continued to hold far-right stances. In one tweet, the group continued to call for "zero immigration" to the U.S. and argued that "America is not a nation of immigrants but a nation of settlers and citizens. America would still be America without immigrants, would it not?"
Bruin Republicans declined to comment for this story and did not respond to questions from NPR.
The road to the Capitol
After the November 2020 election, Secor; his group, America First Bruins; and the Bruin Republicans all embraced the baseless conspiracy theory that the election was "stolen" from then-President Donald Trump. Fuentes appeared at "Stop The Steal" rallies and urged his followers to join the protests.
On Jan. 5, Secor tweeted a photo from an airport with the caption "be there or be square..."
On Jan. 6, federal prosecutors now allege, he joined the storming of the Capitol, wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat and carrying a blue "America First" flag.
In one video, prosecutors say, Secor was seen among "a group of rioters attempting to push through a doorway that is blocked by no less than three police officers" and "breaking through a police line."
There's no evidence that the Bruin Republicans knew Secor may have been among the rioters. But the group tweeted support for the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, describing them as "grassroots Trump supporters protesting for our country."
"The ones committing 'violence' are probably Feds," the group stated in another tweet.
Nick Fuentes was in Washington, D.C., during the rioting and declared it a "glorious day," but he said he never breached the Capitol. Fuentes did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
Here is the full clip of Nick Fuentes telling his supporters to destroy their phones and SIM cards if they entered the Capitol building on January 6th -- and then backtracking. pic.twitter.com/oFdqRPk5X3— Zachary Petrizzo (@ZTPetrizzo) January 16, 2021
Later, on his livestream, Fuentes urged his followers who might have entered the Capitol to "destroy your phone, your SIM card, all your information." He seemed to then backtrack, adding, "I don't know, is that a crime to say?"
Based on federal court records, Secor may have agreed with that advice.
One witness told the FBI that Secor moved back in with his mother in Orange County after the rioting, "got rid of his phone" and "bragged that he would not be caught."
The FBI conducted surveillance of Secor in late January, according to court documents, and he was arrested on Feb. 16.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.