This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
A version of this article was first published by New Mexico In Depth.
Facebook took down hundreds of pages Wednesday in a crackdown on “movements and organizations tied to violence.” Among them was a right-wing militia that rapidly rose to prominence this summer: the New Mexico Civil Guard. Like militias across the country, the group got attention by showing up to protests against police brutality and racism wearing camouflage and carrying rifles to, in their words, protect private property, while claiming to stand against racism as well. One such protest made national headlines on June 15, when a demonstration at a statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque ended with a protester being shot. While the shooter, Steven Baca, had no known affiliation with the civil guard, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez would later accuse the group of exacerbating tensions in the lead-up to the gun attack.
As journalists and activists documented various members’ white supremacist tattoos and participation in one organization the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group, the militia’s founder Bryce Provance sought to distance them from racism and violence in statements to the media.
But court records and interviews with Provance and others show his record in this regard is more extensive than has been previously reported: He spent most of his adult life as a violent and committed neo-Nazi skinhead.
Provance said he quit the civil guard a few weeks ago, after Torrez filed a lawsuit against the group alleging they had illegally usurped law enforcement duties and fostered violence. But he appears to continue to control the group’s email list and a PayPal account that collects donations on a New Mexico Civil Guard website that remains online.
That website says they do not tolerate “Racism of any kind,” but the policy its current leadership describes is more like “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I can’t for sure say someone would be exorcised from the unit for past beliefs or current beliefs as long as they keep them to themselves” said one of the NMCG’s current leaders, John Burks. “Nobody needs to know about it; Keep it to yourself.”
The New Mexico Civil Guard launched a Facebook page in March the day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. The group recruited armed volunteers in between memes implying the coronavirus was a government conspiracy and comparing Dr. Anthony Fauci and Lujan Grisham to Nazis.
The group gained local media attention after it shifted its focus from government “tyranny” to anti-racist protesters. Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, members began showing up at Black Lives Matter protests around the state, wearing camouflage and openly carrying rifles, posting on Facebook that they were “protecting local businesses.”
National media followed after the June 15 shooting at the Oñate statue.
After the shooting, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Provance had a swastika tattoo, but that he got it “to survive” a lengthy prison sentence. NPR wrote that he had been accused of being racist, but quoted him as saying he was “not a white nationalist.”
But confronted with documentation, Provance acknowledged in an interview last week that in fact he had spent nearly a decade as a heavily indoctrinated member of a violent neo-Nazi prison gang that he’s only fully disavowed since leaving prison at the end of 2016.
“I used to be a really bad person. Like, really bad,” he said. “It would have made the world a lot better place if my brains would’ve got blown out when I was 16 or 17.”
Civil War-era myths are kept alive at Confederate monuments with stories of “benevolent slave owners” and enslaved people “contented with their lot.”
The Washington Department of Corrections didn’t respond to questions about gangs in its prisons, but Chris Magyarics, an expert on white supremacist prison gangs at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, expressed skepticism: “The majority of prisoners in those state facilities: they don’t join prison gangs. The idea that somebody has to join in order to survive, it doesn’t hold water.”
Necessary or not, it happened almost immediately.
Within two weeks of entering prison, Provance said he had “put in work” for the gang: “assaulting somebody, stabbing somebody, things of that nature.”
He subsequently spent a year reading white supremacist texts by Adolf Hitler and other white supremacists. “Looking back on it now, it’s a measure of brainwashing that you do to young guys to pretty much reprogram them into thinking violence and this sort of supremacy is tolerable, that it’s normal,” he said.
Hints of his new violent white supremacist identity show up in court records, where he’s referred to as Bryce Spangler. (He successfully petitioned to change his last name to Provance in 2015, according to a court clerk in Walla Walla, Wash.)
He got an additional six months added to his sentence when, according to an affidavit from a responding police officer, he and a cellmate knocked out a window, flooded a cell and then while being removed from the cell, “made racist remarks such as ‘White Power’… in the presence of multi race (sic) inmates and deputies.”
He was back in jail within a year of his release for an incident in which he shoplifted a shirt at Sears and then, when confronted in the parking lot, pulled a knife on loss prevention officer Brenton Peterson. “This crime has made me more cautious about who and how I approach anyone,” Peterson wrote in a statement at the time, “I am a little afraid to stop anyone else.”
Back in jail, Provance got in trouble for a swastika painted on his cell wall, “surrounded in red like a flag.” A few months after that, briefly out of jail again, a woman he was dating got a domestic violence restraining order against him. Her petition accused him of driving around high on meth with a shotgun, and, in one incident, hitting her, throwing her around “as well as on top of the kids,” and then trying to stop her from leaving “with physical force.”
The restraining order notes that Bryce by this point had “skinhead army” tattooed on his forearms.
“The fact that he’s having tattoos on him, I think shows a level of commitment to the ideology,” said Magyarics, of the ADL.
The commitment carried over to statements he made outside of prison.
According to the sparse court record of an arraignment for violating the domestic violence restraining order, Bryce “advised [the court] he’s a Nazi.” Meanwhile, acting as his own lawyer in a separate but concurrent criminal case, he made numerous filings in his own florid handwriting where he identified himself as “Aryan Barbarian” and “SS Standardtenfuhrer” — a Nazi paramilitary rank — as well as “SS Standardtenfuhrer Totenkopfverbande” — a commander of a “Death’s Head” unit that administered the Nazi concentration camps.
Provance referred to himself in one court document as “SS Standardtenfuhrer Totenkopfverbande”—a commander of a “Death’s Head” unit that administered the Nazi concentration camps.
Asked if he recalled anything about Provance that would shed light on the extent of his white supremacist views, the attorney who prosecuted the case, Edwin Norton said he didn’t recall the case specifically, but “if he filed those motions you’re talking about, there’s your answer.”
In that case, Provance ultimately pled guilty to a litany of felonies, the most serious of which included threatening to kill a prison guard, and was sentenced to five more years in prison.
He was released in late 2016 at the age of 27 having spent virtually his entire adult life as a violent neo-Nazi skinhead.
Provance said he has changed since 2016, pointing to the red hair he’s grown out and the hundreds of dollars he says he has spent covering up tattoos like the “skinhead army” on his forearms and SS bolts on his face. He has also recently been in touch with the Free Radicals Project, an organization that helps people disengage from violent extremism.
Bryce Provance attempted to block protestors from reaching the Oñate statue in Albuquerque. His bright blue face covering stood out in the crowd. CREDIT: Shaun Griswold
But how far he’s traveled in his journey out of the white supremacist movement is an open question given his newfound enthusiasm for the Confederacy, reenacting Civil War battles, joining the New Confederate States of America and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Sons of Confederate Veterans will publicly say we don’t allow white supremacists in our ranks,” said Magyarics of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, “but there are those extremist elements within it.”
In an interview, Provance repeated false “Lost Cause” talking points about Robert E. Lee’s kindness to his slaves, and the virtues of Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan. “For me, as an expert on white supremacy, it doesn’t work,” said Magyarics.
Provance said his interest in the confederacy dates back to childhood, though his southern accent was developed just in the couple of years between prison and New Mexico that he spent in Kentucky. “You pick it up being out here long enough, by God,” he said.
He’s now returned to that state, leaving New Mexico and the New Mexico Civil Guard, claiming to have no plans to become involved in another militia.
The group is now run by a group of approximately 10 people according to “Major” John Burks. He said they plan to take the group in a new direction, doing humanitarian work and ceasing to show up armed at protests.
After Facebook removed the New Mexico Civil Guard’s pages, Burks insisted the group would continue. “We dont need face book (sic)” he texted. “We know how to network with out the web.”