One of the key organizers of the Unite the Right demonstration that roiled Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend has Maine roots.
Born in Lewiston, Nathan Damigo, 31, founder of California-based Identity Evropa, was arrested for refusing to obey an order to disperse from a city park where white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed Saturday.
His prominence as an alt-right leader is “very difficult” for his family, his grandmother Frances Lodge of Minot said Monday.
Lodge described her grandson’s change from “just a terrific kid” into a national leader of a movement denounced by President Donald Trump Monday as “criminals and thugs.”
Spurring that change, she said, was a tough time in the military that led to a stint in prison that changed his outlook.
Damigo’s father, Peter Michael Lodge, is an adjunct history professor at the University of Maine’s Bangor campus, Lodge said, and his mother is a prominent figure in the effort by Blue Star Mothers to secure better care for America’s veterans.
Damigo, whose name at birth was Nathan Benjamin Lodge, moved to California at 8 months, his grandmother recalled. His parents divorced not too long afterward, she said, and his mom, Charilyn, remarried.
Neither Damigo nor his mother or father could be reached Monday. But his father issued a statement through his mother indicating that he “does not support” his son’s actions “and opposes his beliefs completely.”
Though Damigo lived in California, Lodge said he came back to Maine every summer for many years for a week or two, giving the family here time with a child she adored. She described him as “a very sensitive, outstanding artist.”
Lodge said he grew up out West “in a strong Christian home” under the influence of his mother, whom she described as wonderful.
Damigo’s stepfather had served in the Marines, Lodge said, and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, her grandson decided he wanted to follow in his footsteps. At age 18, right out of high school, where he’d done some military training beforehand, he headed off to boot camp.
Lodge said that Damigo proved to be a good soldier. But a couple tours in Iraq where “many of his friends were killed” left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
He also carried survivor’s guilt, Lodge said, because he was in a tank that drove over an improvised explosive device that didn’t go off. He felt as if “he should have been dead” like his buddies, but he wasn’t, she said.
Because of failings by the Veterans Administration, she said, he never got proper treatment for the awful things that weighed on his mind.
She said that “during one of his episodes” one night in San Diego, which he mistakenly thought was Iraq, he saw “a Middle Eastern-looking man” putting something in the trunk of a taxi. A confused Damigo thought he was planting a car bomb, she said and pulled out a gun to stop the man.
He held the gun to the man’s head and then suddenly realized that it wasn’t Iraq. Unsure what to do, Lodge said, he asked the fellow to give him his money.
The police caught him. And since California has a mandatory minimum sentence of six years for any offense involving a gun, Damigo got six years after a trial where “the VA was no help” and the judge declared he had no choice on the punishment.
Damigo bounced around a few of California’s overcrowded prisons before winding up in one in Oklahoma where he continued the reading he’d begun in the service, racking up college credits and helping a fellow inmate master the material for a General Education Development certificate, which is equal to a high school diploma.
“This is a kid who really tried,” his grandmother said. “He went through an awful lot.”
But Damigo also experienced the racial tensions of a big prison, she said and picked up a volume by Louisiana racist David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader.
Introduced to Duke “and some of those alt-right people,” Damigo absorbed some of their thinking.
“He’s not a neo-Nazi. He is not KKK. He’s somewhat of a white supremacist,” Lodge said.
The so-called alt-right is an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism.
When he got out of prison, Damigo formed Identity Evropa, which now has chapters across the country.
On its website, it describes its members as “a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that we are part of the great peoples, history and civilization that flowed from the European continent.”
It says they are opposed to those “who would defame our history and rich cultural heritage” and vowed to “resist our dispossession.”
Lodge made it clear she doesn’t share her grandson’s ideology.
“It was the prison experience that gave him those white supremacist ideas,” she said.
“This is not what we expected. This is not what we believe. But we love him anyway.”