In rural towns across America this past week, men with guns have been roaming the streets, looking out for the threat to their homes they were warned about on Facebook: hordes of ravening “antifa” activists, loaded en masse onto buses and intent on wreaking havoc. Local sheriffs jumped on the bandwagon, too. Nevermind that it was all a hoax.
In at least one case, a suspected “antifa bus” (actually occupied by a multiracial family of four, out for a camping excursion) was surrounded in a parking lot and chased out—then later harassed at their campsite by locals felling trees across their access road in order to trap them.
The hoaxes were primarily spread on Facebook, though some Twitter accounts relayed the fake information as well. A typical post followed the formula used in others: a claim to have “real information” about “antifa” piling into buses from nearby urban centers with the intent of attacking defenseless small towns.
One such hoax circulated in the Midwest, citing the notorious conspiracy-theory operation Natural News, and claiming that “Antifa operatives are organizing a plan to bus large numbers of Antifa terrorists to the vicinity of Sparta, Illinois, where they will be directed to target rural white Americans by burning farm houses and killing livestock. The purpose of the attack, according to sources, is so that Antifa can send a message to white America that “not even rural whites are safe” from the reach of Antifa, and that if their radical left-wing demands are not met, all of America will burn (not just the cities).”
It went on:
Antifa terrorists are currently expected to move along state routes 154 and 4, seeking out rural targets including isolated homes and farms to cause maximum mayhem and property destruction. Although our sources did not specifically mention the methods by which killing livestock would be accomplished, it seems almost certain that firearms would be the most effective way for Antifa terrorists to achieve that morbid goal.
In Idaho, rumors spread by the militia group Real Three Percenters of Idaho on Facebook claimed that antifascists were being bused into Boise and neighboring counties to ransack local businesses. “Their plan is to destroy private property in the city and continue to residential areas,” the post said. “We are calling on all business owners to contact us if you are concerned for your business and your private property immediately. We are here to protect you, your private business, and have teams on the ground standing by.”
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the local chamber of commerce spread the rumors, tweeting out: “We're being told that buses are en route from Fargo for today's march downtown. DT businesses—please bring in any furniture, signs, etc. that could possibly be thrown through windows. Let's keep our city safe and peaceful!"
"I am not one to spread false information," one post circulated in Klamath Falls, Oregon, claimed. "There are two buses heading this way from Portland, full of ANTIFA members and loaded with bricks. Their intentions are to come to Klamath Falls, destroy it, and murder police officers. There have been rumors of the antifa going into residential areas to ‘fuck up the white hoods.’"
That thread gained support with a screenshot message from Col. Jeff Edwards, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing based in Klamath Falls, posted to one of the groups, reading: "Team Kingsley, for your safety I ask you to please avoid the downtown area this evening. We received an alert that there may be 2 busloads of ANTIFA protesters en route to Klamath Falls and arriving in downtown around 2030 tonight.”
A spokesperson for the 173rd Fighter Wing confirmed that the message had come from Edwards, saying he had sent it “to the Citizen-Airmen of the 173d Fighter Wing for their situational awareness and safety.” She noted that Edwards’ message was shared with local law enforcement, and it spread from there.
In Humboldt County, California, Sheriff William Honsel not only spread the hoax widely, but insisted afterward that it was perfectly legitimate: “We did have reports—substantiated, law enforcement reports—that said antifa did have people in buses that were in southern Oregon and in the Central Valley … ,” he said. “These aren’t unsubstantiated stories. This is the reality, and we have to deal with that.”
In Curry County, Oregon, Sheriff John Ward informed his constituents: “I don’t know if the rumors are true or not just yet but I got information about 3 bus loads of ANTIFA protesters are making their way from Douglas County headed for Coquille then to Coos Bay.”
And in Snohomish, Washington, the police chief responded to the Facebook rumors by staging 50 officers at an emergency operations center, “ready to converge if necessary” should any reports of arriving antifa buses or accompanying property destruction arise. The chief also positioned officers on the roof of the city hall.
Some law-enforcement officers did try to squelch the false rumors. In Toms River, New Jersey, the sheriff and county prosecutor posted warnings on social media that the widely circulating rumors of “antifa” planning to riot in “primarily white neighborhoods” were “not true.” "I am spending an inordinate amount of time dispelling social media rumors and misinformation," said Ocean County prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer.
Yet even despite those warnings, the outcome became predictable in an age where armed “Patriots” eager for a “Boogaloo”: Businesses boarded up their windows, and militiamen began organizing street patrols through social media.
In Klamath Falls, as Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins reported, the whole town was buzzing with anticipation of the incoming “antifa buses.” It became something of a game, shared on Facebook: An empty green bus at the community college was spotted. So was a white bus with “Black Lives Matter” and peace signs painted on it, in the local Walmart parking lot. A U-Haul in front of T.J. Maxx somehow set off alarms.
"I saw some scattered SJWs and some in black at Albertsons," one woman posted.
A handful of Klamath Falls “Patriots” took to the streets, weapons in hand. "As you can tell, we are ready," one such man said in a Facebook livestream. "Antifa members have threatened our town and said that they're going to burn everything and to kill white people, basically."
They didn’t find any “antifa buses” in Klamath Falls. But in the coastal Washington state town of Forks, they thought they had. It actually was a family of four from Spokane, who had arrived in town with a full-length bus they had converted to a camper, intent on visiting the local rain forests (Forks also attracts a number of visitors because it is the setting of the popular Twilight series of vampire novels and movies). First, they paid a visit to a local sporting-goods shop in town to stock up on supplies. According to the sheriff’s office, after getting their goods, the family found itself confronted in the parking lot by “seven or eight car loads of people,” who “repeatedly asked them if they were ‘ANTIFA’ protesters.”
The family—comprised of a husband and wife, their 16-year-old daughter, and the man’s elderly mother—told their interrogators that they had nothing to do with the movement and were just there to camp. Thinking the matter was resolved, they nervously drove their bus past the groups and got onto highway 101, then drove up the side road taking them toward the Sol Duc River. They found themselves being followed by about four vehicles from the parking lot, and told the sheriff later that they believed a couple of people in the vehicles had semi-automatic rifles. Eventually, they turned onto a logging road and pulled off to set up camp.
While parked there, they began to hear gunfire and the sound of chainsaws. So the family decided to pack up and head back, but now found that their way had been blocked by trees their pursuers had cut across the road. Fortunately, some local teenagers arrived from the other side and cut down the blockade, freeing the family, who promptly fled the area and called authorities. Apologetic deputies helped the family get its bus running again after a brief breakdown.
Local “patriots” were quite happy with themselves on social media afterward. A set of screenshots showed a picture of the trees blocking the road, captioned: “Protect your town! #forksstrong.” One of the replies: “This makes me happy. I love our locals and feel pretty damn safe.” Another resident said: “U think they realized they [came] to the wrong place yet?” To which one replied: “I think they have a good idea now.” He later added that “it’s like the purge.”
In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, dozens of people showed up on armed patrol, toting AR-15s and wearing body armor, at a downtown shopping strip mall. In a cellphone video shared on Facebook, one videographer said: “If you guys are thinking of coming to Coeur d’Alene, to riot or loot, you’d better think again. Because we ain’t having it in our town. … I guess there’s a big rumor that people from Spokane are gonna come out here and act up. But that shit ain’t gonna happen.”
A “prepper” YouTube personality added: “There’s a lot of good guys with guns out here. I don’t think they’ll be setting foot in Idaho.”
A similarly disturbing scene developed in Snohomish, a suburb about 30 miles outside Seattle, where similar rumors grew so thick that a large contingent of heavily armed “Patriot” militiamen showed up on the streets of the town, ready and eager to defend local businesses from marauding antifascists. As the scene grew rowdier, Confederate flags began to show up. Proud Boys also made their presence known, flashing white-power “OK” hand signals and wearing body armor.
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney nonetheless defended them afterward: After speaking with two groups of armed locals on opposite sides of the Snohomish River bridge, he pronounced them all to the county council as Snohomish parents and business owners, “not white nationalists, they were not extremists.”
And in Coos County, following the rumor posted by the neighboring sheriff, hundreds of armed men turned out on the streets of the county seat, Coquille, determined to fend off the antifa hordes. "...When people tell us someone is coming to our hometown, after hearing threats and reading them online, I feel defensive and want to protect my home," one of the men told a local reporter.
On several occasions, the turnout of large groups of armed men have been in response to actual protests of the killing of George Floyd by local activists, mostly Black Lives Matter groups and their liberal associates. And when that has been the case, their presence has served mainly to intimidate and threaten the protesters, who frequently have simply been young people carrying no weapons.
This was the case in Medford, Oregon, as well as in Klamath Falls, where the intimidation was even more self-evident: The armed “defenders” carried “flags, baseball bats, hammers and axes. But mostly, they carried guns.”
Frederick Brigham, 31, Klamath Falls resident and musician, told NBC News that the presence of the armed “defenders” was chilling: "It felt like walking through an enemy war camp," he said.
In Sandpoint, Idaho, a “Black Lives Matter” protest was met with a similar attempt at intimidation. That prompted the mayor of the town to post a protest of his own on Facebook: “None of the young protesters I spoke with felt any safer in the presence of these armed vigilantes,” Shelby Rognstad wrote Wednesday. “Rather, they felt scared, intimidated and in some cases harassed. None of the downtown business owners I have since spoken to felt any safer from the militant presence.”
Beyond my experience with the young protesters, I received many emails, messages and calls last night where Sandpoint residents expressed their fear to be in the presence of a large number of heavily armed people in our quiet, peaceful downtown. Other vigilantes had less noble intentions as there were numerous other reports of targeted harassment and intimidation.
“Far-right and anti-government groups are eagerly helping spread misinformation about anti-fascist protesters gathering in local communities,” Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center told Jason Wilson of The Guardian.
She added: “The rumors may not be true, but extremist groups find them useful for activating their supporters and sowing turmoil and division. We encourage law enforcement, media and the general public to carefully evaluate claims and guard against spreading misinformation.”
One of the major problems is that some of the disinformation is being spread at the highest levels of law enforcement. Attorney General William Barr gave serious credence to the groundless claims last week in an official Justice Department statement on the George Floyd protests: “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence.”
In fact, the FBI has said that there is no evidence of antifa involvement in the protest violence to date.