Right-wing demonstrations protesting the November election results on Donald Trump’s behalf began winding down in numbers this weekend—but decidedly picked up intensity in the violence and threatening rhetoric that have accompanied them all this month, thanks mainly to the presence of armed paramilitary groups such as the Proud Boys and various militia groups.
The pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” protests seemed to lose some momentum this week, with just over a dozen such rallies recorded. However, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in ugliness: A demonstration in Olympia, Washington, on Saturday turned into a running series of brawls, culminating in gunfire, though no one was seriously injured. And in Michigan, a couple dozen armed protesters showed up at the home of the secretary of state during the evening as she was finishing up Christmas decorations and shouted threats at her and her family.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), the total number of demonstrations, including those against COVID-19 pandemic health measures, declined this week. The majority of protests were Stop the Steal events, though both the numbers of the rallies and the numbers of participants declined sharply.
However, the data collected by ACLED also showed a significant increase in participation by paramilitary groups:
Among the continuing pro-Trump demonstrations, militia groups like the Proud Boys and III%ers are increasingly visible. For example, the III%ers participated in a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in Georgia, while the Proud Boys organized similar rallies in Illinois, California, and Oregon. ACLED data indicate that militia groups were present in more than a quarter of all reported ‘Stop the Steal’ demonstrations last week.
These same elements played a significant role in the violence that broke out in Olympia when a couple hundred pro-Trump thugs, including Proud Boys and “III Percenters,” none of them from the city, came to protest Trump’s large-margin loss at the ballot box in Washington State. A much smaller group of antifascists turned out to oppose them and wound up engaged in a number of brawls.
The most significant of these occurred when a small group of antifascists attempted to burn an American flag and were assaulted by pro-Trump protesters who beat them with flagpoles. Videos of that assault were widely circulated and applauded on social media by such right-wing figures as Dinesh d’Souza and Andy Ngo, who portrayed it as justifiable violence in retaliation for the flag burning.
Most of the pro-Trump protesters arrived armed and brandished the weapons around the city’s downtown for most of the day. At one point, as a brawl broke out, one of them drew out his handgun and pointed it at antifascists, eventually firing once. The person he was aiming at reportedly was only grazed by the bullet and did not seek medical attention or file a complaint with police, who issued a statement asking the victim to work with them.
Police arrested a 27-year-old man named Christopher Guenzler, who was charged with first-degree assault, a crime that carries a minimum 20-year sentence in Washington. Guenzler’s Facebook page is mostly filled with photos of him driving his pickup truck adorned with a Confederate flag.
Police said the largest brawl involved about 200 people armed with guns, bats, bottles, rocks, and chemical sprays. It broke out near The United Churches of Olympia, the pastor of which is the Rev. Tammy Leiter Stampfli, who was shoved to the ground during the altercation.
Leiter Stampfli posted about it on Facebook: “Yesterday I was knocked down in the church parking lot by (a) Trump supporter,” she wrote. “This was after being screamed at for being a pastor of ‘such a Church.’ I had stopped with another member to use the bathroom. There had been a full on brawl between antifa and Trump supporters. People were beating each other, spraying chemicals in each others eyes, yelling, screaming obscenities.”
The Michigan protest outside Benson’s home similarly featured threatening behavior against perceived enemies. “As my four-year-old son and I were finishing up decorating the house for Christmas on Saturday night, and he was about to sit down and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas, dozens of armed individuals stood outside my home shouting obscenities and chanting into bullhorns in the dark of night,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement.
According to MLive, the 20 to 30 protesters were openly carrying guns. Participants posted livestream videos of the rally showing protesters demanding election audits and chanting, “Stop the steal.”
“They shouted baseless conspiracy theories about the election, and in videos uploaded to social media, at least one individual could be heard shouting ‘you’re murderers’ within earshot of her child’s bedroom,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a joint statement on Sunday. “This mob-like behavior is an affront to basic morality and decency.”
The rally was a threat against not only Benson and her family but also Michigan voters, Benson said in her statement:
The demands made outside my home were unambiguous, loud and threatening. They targeted me in my role as Michigan’s Chief Election Officer. But the threats of those gathered weren’t actually aimed at me—or any other elected officials in this state. They were aimed at the voters.
There were similar Stop the Steal protests also featuring armed participants and threatening rhetoric around the country this week:
- In Georgia, where rallygoers were urged not to participate in the Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections in the state as a way to protest the state’s Republican leadership for having affirmed Trump’s loss in the election.
- In Wisconsin, where a smallish crowd gathered in Appleton to demand a recount for the state. “I think it’s pretty evident that there is a legitimate concern [that] people have about what is going on," said Matt Albert, the Outagamie County Republican Party chairman. "Today is not about believing whether it’s true or not. Today is about believing it could be true, and if it could be true, why don’t you figure out if it’s true, and that is important for both sides."
- In Pennsylvania, where a gathering of several dozen pro-Trump protesters at the state Capitol in Harrisburg demanded a recount in their state as well. “You are not gonna steal this election from us!” one protester shouted. A speaker at the rally proclaimed: “It’s gotta be America First, or it’s going to be America Last!”
- In Colorado, a similarly small gathering of protesters demanded a recount in those swing states outside the Capitol in Denver. “Our goal was to show solidarity with the states where the fraud is rampant,” a Republican organizer told KDVR-TV.