Donald Trump may not want to believe it, but the evidence is beginning to mount around the nation that white supremacists and assorted far-right “Boogaloo Bois” are working overtime to leverage protests around the United States against police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd killing—not to merely join the protests, but to both inflict violence and property damage, as well as to threaten other communities with it, all in order to heighten political tensions around the protests.
The tactics vary: Some are showing up disguised as anarchists or sympathizers, while some are arriving fully armed, in camo and body armor, with the Hawaiian shirts signifying the far-right “Boogaloo” civil-war movement. Others are simply spreading false information on the Internet by posing as antifa and telling smaller suburban and exurban communities that hordes of ravening anarchists are about to descend on their communities and break all their windows—sending those communities into fits of paranoid overreaction.
Trump has been insistent that the violence in the streets has primarily been the work of antifa, while denying the presence of far-right extremists: “I don’t see any indication that there were any white supremest groups mixing in. This is an ANTIFA Organization,” he tweeted on Monday.
In fact, there is abundant evidence that, as The New York Times’ Neil McFarquar observed, the mix at the protests has involved a broad range of actors. And so far, according to The Nation, the FBI has found no indication of organized antifascist involvement in the protest violence.
“We’re going to see a diversity of fringe malefactors,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told the Times. “We know for a fact there have been far-right agitators both online and at these rallies, as well as far-left.”
Not only are white supremacists involved in the violence and property damage at the protests, but it’s clear that they are working multiple strategies to leverage the chaos into what they hope will be a democracy-destroying race and civil war. The tactics so far include:
- Dressing up in clothing typically worn by antifascist demonstrators, mainly the all-black clothing and masks worn by so-called “black bloc” activists. This has been observed both in Portland and in Seattle, where well-known far-right “Proud Boy” street brawlers have been spotted and reported on social media.
- Turning up at protest demonstrations fully armed with body armor, often wearing the Hawaiian shirts that signify participation in the “Boogaloo” civil-war movement, and claiming to be sympathetic to the anti-police protesters (many “Boogaloo” enthusiasts are indeed violently disposed toward law-enforcement officers). This has occurred in a variety of places, including in North Minneapolis, in Salisbury, North Carolina, in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as in Seattle and Los Angeles. The most notorious case occurred in Denver, Colorado, where a “Boogaloo Boi” was arrested by police at a protest with a large arsenal in the trunk of his car.
- Pretending to be antifascists or anarchists on the Internet, primarily with the purpose of duping the public into believing that antifascists were on the verge of attacking communities. One fake flier, spread around Olympia, Washington, offered people $200 to act as “paid protesters,” all of it ostensibly paid for by George Soros and the Open Society Foundation. The most glaring hoax was a Twitter account calling itself “ANTIFA US” began posting wildly incendiary exhortations: “Tonight’s the night, Comrades. Tonight we say 'F--- The City' and we move into the residential areas... the white hoods.... and we take what's ours …” The account was taken down after Twitter ascertained it was associated with activists involved in the white-nationalist Identity Evropa organization. Despite being a fairly obvious hoax, it nonetheless duped Donald Trump Jr. into repeating the post on Instagram with a message supporting his father’s attempts to blame antifascists for the violence.
The latter tactic has also been part of a broader spread of disinformation about supposed planned antifascist attacks on smaller communities, often near urban areas that have seen protests and clashes with police—despite zero evidence that antifascists have even considered doing so. Police have responded to these fake threats by sending out substantial police forces in cities such as Sacramento and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
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.”
No such plans existed, however. In nearby Payette County, the rumors nonetheless grew so out of hand that the sheriff had to issue an announcement refuting them: “The Payette County Sheriff’s Office has not had contact with and has not verified that Antifa is in Payette County… The information in this social media post is not accurate.”
The most disturbing scene, however, may have occurred in Snohomish, Washington, 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.
It’s also possible that at least one instance of serious property damage was caused by a far-right activist: The man arrested this week for torching Nashville’s historic courthouse during Saturday’s anti-police protest, 25-year-old Wesley Somers, sports a number of tattoos, including one that observers believed might represent the “III Percent” militia movement—though it might represent other entities ranging from the neo-Nazi gang The Base to Monster Energy drinks, which uses a similar logo and has no connection to extremism.
In Cleveland, officials say they have evidence white supremacists were involved in protest violence there Saturday, and will be investigating it closely. According to Cleveland Jewish News, a woman who lives in the warehouse district told authorities she was looking out for undercover police “when she noticed a group of white men dressed identically in black with backpacks, gloves and masks who appeared to be well organized.” The men, she said, appeared to be communicating about property damage at the scene, which “was really outside of where most people were,” she said.
“They were all planning things,” she said. “It just seemed to us that there were provocateurs there.”
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, three young white men wearing masks were filmed savagely beating two nonwhite protesters who had followed them while they committed property crimes, and then asked them where they were from. The men, one of them with a machete, rushed their interlocutors, beat them with fists and a pole, and left them huddled on the sidewalk.
The preponderance of evidence so far suggests that, as in Minneapolis last week, right-wing extremists are playing a powerful if not decisive role in the violence at the protests, particularly the kind taking place apart from police confrontations: interpersonal confrontations, as well as property damage. Moreover, there may be worse to come: On at least one Telegram channel, neo-Nazis could be found urging their comrades to attend protests and then shoot into the crowds.
Trump’s attempts to blame antifascists—who, in reality, are not a massive, dark conspiracy to destroy America, but rather a smallish, intense, but generally nonviolent movement that at the same time does not eschew it, and lacks the capability to commit the kind of organized attacks on communities that it’s depicted as planning—is part of the right’s long tradition of justifying violence against “the left” by painting it as inherently violent itself.
That narrative was trotted out for prime time on Fox News Tuesday night on Tucker Carlson’s program, when he claimed that in the riots’ aftermath, law enforcement will wither, and “violent young men with guns will be in charge. They will make the rules, including the rules in your neighborhood. They will do what they want. You will do what they say. No one will stop them.”
Ironically, that happens to be exactly the scenario that far-right “Boogaloo Bois” have in mind for their post-civil-war political landscape. Projection isn’t just for theaters.
As Cassie Miller at the Southern Poverty Law Center recently noted: “The ‘violent left’ narrative is dangerous not only because it heightens already raised suspicions, but also because it can be used to delegitimize genuine political activism and justify right-wing acts of violence and even terrorism.”