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By Ken Stone, Times of San Diego, a member of the San Diego Online News Association

Photo:  A screen shot of “ubeartron” video of Dustin Hart at Santee Food 4 Less includes a BitChute ID of “1488,” references to Hitler or neo-Nazi views. He says he just Googled the Nazi flag and printed it out. His body camera “came from Amazon.”

May 27, 2020 (Santee) - Dustin Levi Hart says he and his wife wore small swastikas on their faces for almost an hour while shopping May 7 at Food 4 Less in Santee. It was a protest against state lockdown orders, he said.

“If they’re going to act like Nazis, I’m going to use the same iconography,” he said a day later in a phone interview.

Only 14 minutes of his shopping trip were posted from his self-made video (soon deleted). But along with a Klan-hooded Vons shopper, it drew global attention and prompted county officials to revive a Human Relations Commission to combat hate. The Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation of Hart.

So did Times of San Diego.

Hart contends he was merely exercising his First Amendment rights and not channeling white supremacy or anti-Semitism. But his social media footprint — with many tracks erased in recent weeks — documents deep involvement in online hate culture.

At North Carolina’s Elon University, Professor Megan Squire is an expert on extremism. With a doctorate in computer science, she explores the Dark Web.

Squire reviewed screen shots of Hart’s original Dusty Shekel page on Facebook (since removed) and posts or memes under names such as Ubeartron, Slayercortex and Reichard Nixon on sites like Gab — a Twitter with looser rules — and He sells Honk Honkler shirts and even face masks via iterations of his 3-year-old website. (Honk Honkler is a euphemism for Heil Hitler.)

“I heard nothing new,” she said in a phone interview. “Zero. He’s not interesting to me at all. … I’ve seen a thousand guys like this guy. … But he went to the store, … he took an action. Most of these guys just sit behind their keyboard.”

But Hart’s behavior is still “concerning,” she said.

“I certainly feel he’s following a path that other dangerous people have followed,” she said. “But you don’t know until you know. … He’s crossed the line of socially acceptable behavior and he’s walking the line of legally acceptable behavior.”

(Another Hart video showed an expletive-filled exchange with a man outside a post office objecting to Hart’s swastika. “You’re going to be a Nazi?” Hart is heard saying. “I’ll have a Nazi flag.”)

So what do we know about Hart? And how does he explain his views?

Quizzed the same day he uploaded body-worn camera footage to BitChute and last Friday via email, Hart said he’d lost his job as a costume fabricator for a small company that serves Comic-Con and other cosplay clients.

Hart denies taking part in “reopen California” rallies, but a Twitter account says he has.

Four hours after this story was posted, Hart said he made visible his 14-minute video on BitChute (without saying why it was hidden) for “your readers convenience.” He also said it was frustrating to be singled out for his protest “when many people were at the beach doing similar things. I had no idea about the other protests until days after the fact.”

Was he aware of the white supremacist history of Santee?

“Fake news,” Hart replied.

His reaction to the county reviving its Human Relations Commission?

“It’s laughable at best,” Hart said via email.

Hart said he has an engineering background, and Qualcomm later confirmed that he’d left their employ five years ago. He worked there “not long enough for my stocks to vest,” he said. The company declined to share any other details.

His family moved to California when he was 6 months old, he said, and he’s lived in the area ever since. But he didn’t attend San Diego State University, UC San Diego or National University, those schools said. Hart wouldn’t say where he attended college.

His parents, Chris and Marsha Hart, are in the process of selling their four-bedroom cul-de-sac home in Santee. Chris Hart didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But a female classmate of his at Santee’s Rio Seco School and Santana High School recalls him mostly from sixth to eighth grades.

A 2005 Santana graduate like Hart — who didn’t want her name used — says he was “just odd” and always did “weird or gross” things.

“It always seemed like he got a kick out of the attention,” she said of Hart, who also played varsity lacrosse. “I want to say I remember something about boogers or scabs, but it’s been well over 20 years. As for high school … I don’t remember seeing him much but what I do recall, he was just the same as always.”

In a May 8 phone chat, Hart was asked if he had any connections to white supremacist groups.

He replied: “I don’t have any connections to the federal government. … That’s my answer. … I don’t have any ties to any federal organization like that. … If you Google … the Ku Klux Klan or any of these other neo-Nazi groups on the Internet, they’re all controlled by the federal government.”

Hart contends such groups are all infiltrated by the feds.

“None of those groups really exist in our country,” he said. “That’s a myth. They’re all fabricated.”

Professor Squire said she looked and doesn’t think Hart belongs to an extremist group. He’s not listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s "extremist files" database either.

“He’s part of the much larger … troll army,” she said. “He said it himself. He said ‘shit-posting’ a couple times. That’s one of their terms for how they get online and just mess around, make memes and see what sticks.”

But for Hart, whom she called “a classic troll,” the Food 4 Less incident was a huge win, Squire said, noting its wide media coverage.

“He’s more of a … 4chan style of person, rather than an actual Klan member. That’s rare nowadays,” she said. “They are a shell of what they once were. They’ve been bankrupted so many times.”

Squire noted a now-deleted Facebook post from August 2019 — the time of the El Paso Walmart mass shooting. Hart gave tips on how to use an anonymous browser to go to 8chan to continue commenting on the Texas attack. 8chan has since been removed.

She didn’t see his presence via Telegram app, “a favorite place for white supremacists,” but he might be using a different handle. Hart indicated he rejects VKontakte (VK), the Russian Facebook.

Hart, in his chat with Times of San Diego, referenced a police slaying mystery.

Squire translated. “Duncan is dead” is a reference to a Maryland man shot by police under still uncertain circumstances, she said.

“The fact that a guy in California would know about Duncan Lemp and talking about his being a martyr is just evidence of the way these guys are all online,” she said. “And that’s where they live and spread information and create their narratives.”

At the Food 4 Less, Hart’s wife (pushing her daughter in a stroller) wore a T-shirt depicting Honk Honkler (Clown Pepe) in a rainbow wig.

How could that be a hate symbol?

“It’s designed to keep you swirling around whether they are serious or not,” Squire said. “That’s their whole raison d’être.”

Hart has used other racist symbolism, including references to Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant via his post urging followers to “subscribe to PewDiePie.” Hart cites “88,” a reference to Heil Hitler, and “14,” which refers to the 14-word neo-Nazi slogan“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Hart, 32, said many statements on his old Facebook page were satirical.

“Some of them are there just to prove that this is the edge of the content that you can post before you get censored,” he said.

“A lot of people say conservatives are overwhelmingly censored on the internet, and I think that’s a lie. I think it’s a lot of people don’t know how to communicate effectively on the internet, and they get mad and their stuff is taken down.”

Born just before Independence Day in 1987, Hart hasn’t always been conservative.

According to his voting record, he was registered as a Democrat as early as 2008, when he was 20. He later changed to NPP (no party preference) but has been a registered Republican since at least June 2016.

What led to his views?

“Well, I have a lot of experiences in life, and you do a lot of reading — a lot of different types of books and talking to other people, and you live and learn,” he said. “I don’t have any mentor. I’m not a white supremacist. I’m just a guy who is interested in his freedom of speech. And to not have to obey these insane laws that are not even laws — they’re like suggestions.”

Hart, who told the San Diego Reader that he’s been contacted by sheriff’s investigators, said he didn’t think his video indicated any kind of hate crime.

“If anything, I should be suing Food 4 Less for discrimination and the Sheriff’s Department for whatever they did,” he said. “I’m sure there are some lawyers who would be more than happy to take up the cause.”

He rejected implications that Santee has a racist bent.

“You go to Santee now and that’s not a problem,” he said. “It’s a very progressive city. In fact, I would say that white people are in the minority in Santee now.” (Actually, 2019 census data indicates non-Hispanic whites makes up 69% of the East County city’s population.)

Despite saying he lives in Santee, his whereabouts vary according to source.

The county Registrar of Voters Office says he lives in El Cajon. A law-enforcement source says Hart lives in unincorporated El Cajon — the Flinn Springs area. And a Santee councilman recently called Hart an Alpine resident, based on news accounts.

Hart admits an aversion to the LGBT community.

“Just because someone’s upset and their feelings are hurt doesn’t mean you don’t have your First Amendment rights anymore,” he said of the swastika incident. “My feelings are upset every time I see an LGBT Pride parade going down the street, but I can’t call the cops and have them shut down.”

However, he says he has “total respect for these people” despite their being “intolerant and hateful towards me.”

“If they want to live that kind of life, then that’s on them. But if they want to parade around in public up and down the street, I don’t see why anyone else can’t parade their beliefs up and down the street.”

Alluding to his T-shirt site, now based on Wix and Zazzle, Hart later added: “If there can be fascist homosexuality out on the street that we all have to participate in, it’s like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Who’s going to push the envelope?”

Squire, the expert on online extremism, said Hart is “herding and spending” the currency of meme culture.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he believes in national socialist views of things,” she said. “He’s just expressing it in a way that’s more new than wearing a Klan hood and marching in goose step down the street. He’s just doing it online.”

If Hart were honest, he’d confess to sharing neo-Nazi views, Squire said.

“But he’ll never be honest — because he’s a troll, and that’s what they do. … You’re not going to get a straight answer out of him.”

That was evident in an email Q&A last week. Here is how Hart dealt with some questions, along with Squire's translations of his responses.

Times of San Diego: How long have you been on 4chan? Have you been on Telegram or VK?

Dustin Hart: 4chan is fake news. Rules 1 and 2.

Megan Squire: This is kind of a riff off of Fight Club (what’s the first rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club.) More here.

Do you have any other screen names besides Ubeartron and slayercortex?

Hart: Over 6 million.

Squire: This is a reference to the commonly cited figure that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust (which as a Holocaust denier, he is mocking).

Hart responded to some of Squire’s quotes about him.

“Nazism and Far Right views are the cheapest thrills online right now, even cheaper in real life. It doesn’t matter what you really believe — it’s the reaction,” he said.

Squire commented: “There are plenty of things he could do to get a reaction. He could have gone in the store naked. He could have played the tuba wearing a clown wig. He chose this because wearing symbols of the Holocaust is an effective way of hurting people.”

Hart said of the unnamed professor’s comments: “Either he has seen a thousand goys like me or he has not. Either I did something unique that garnered worldwide attention to my complaint or I did not. I hope people will be inspired to stand up for their rights.”

Squire said: “They always assume I’m male when they hear a computer scientist is doing massive data mining on their world. A 4channer once accused me of being transgender since ‘everyone knows girls can’t code.'”

On Squire saying he’s following a path that other dangerous people have followed, Hart said: “Fear mongering, these responses are literally the reason shitposters exist, this exact reaction is what makes it funny, this whole over response is fantastic. Either I am just a guy sitting behind my keyboard, or I am someone that is ‘concerning.’ Honk Honk. Buy one of my shirts at”

Squire: “Wow, what a big brain genius. Let me explain to Dustin how time works. First he was behind the keyboard, then later he left it and took a real-world action that was designed to garner media attention simply because it was so hurtful and morally repugnant. This isn’t that deep: first one thing happens, then it escalates into another, more serious thing.”

Squire continued:

“Here’s all you need to know about Dustin Hart. He is a boring ‘shitposter’ with infantile views that are designed to hurt people who are a certain color or have a certain background. Dustin’s big plan was to visit a grocery store wearing a mask with a symbol from a 100-year-old failed political movement (Yes, the swastika flag was invented in 1920) in order to get media attention so that he can make five bucks profit selling shirts for a dead meme he didn’t even invent, and engage in endless back-and-forth with anyone willing to give him the time of day so that he can get ‘internet famous.’ What a waste of time.”

Hart doesn’t have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, sheriff’s officials say, but he continues to carry on a winking conversation with Facebook followers.

After his first “Dusty Shekel” page on Facebook was removed — likely by Facebook, Squire says — Hart started another.

His first post was a link to a clip from the recently released animated feature “Trolls World Tour,” which celebrates musical diversity.

In it, Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) sings: “Trolls just wanna have fun.”

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