The right-wing extremists—Proud Boys and white nationalists and far-right populists, some of them associated with Trumpist Kari Lake’s GOP gubernatorial campaign—who turned out to counter-protest abortion rights protesters in Phoenix on Tuesday were not just there to cause violence and threaten women and “leftists,” though they succeeded well enough at that. They were also packing heat.
One of the men—Michael Merritt Graham, 34—was carrying a .45 caliber Glock 36 pistol when state troopers arrested him after observing him punch two protesters. Arizona Mirror reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy reported that Graham had tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants, out of view, but also witnessed other counter-protesters “openly carrying firearms.”
This was not an anomaly, but rather fits a growing pattern of violent and threatening authoritarian aggression directed at women’s rights activists—along with an increased animus directed at the LGBTQ community—that has broken into the open since the news this week that the Supreme Court is preparing to gut abortion rights in the U.S. Right-wing extremists not only are avidly celebrating the news, they are openly planning violence in response to the predictable protests in defense of abortion rights.
Graham was wearing an InfoWars T-shirt with the slogan “Baby Lives Matter” on it. Before the violent confrontations, he and an anti-LGBTQ/anti-masking provocateur named Ethan Schmidt-Crockett had brandished bullhorns to harass the protesters, who had turned out by the thousands to protest the imminent demise of the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. They were joined by a cluster of about 20 other young men who mocked the protesters from the edge of the crowd.
Graham was among roughly 20 counterprotesters who showed up to the event where over 1,000 protesters marched in support of abortion rights in the wake of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark court decision of Roe v. Wade and strip the right of women to seek an abortion that was established nearly 50 years ago.
The men had attempted to provoke violence throughout the evening; at one point, Schmidt walked straight into the crowd while recording video and mocking the protest in a blatant attempt to create a confrontation. Eventually, they succeeded when Graham ripped a protester’s sign out of his hands and threw it to the ground; according to state troopers, when the protester reached down to retrieve it, Graham punched the man in the face and bloodied him.
As he attempted to leave, Graham “sucker-punched” another protester named Jace Robert Denis, 20, who responded by chasing after Graham. The troopers then arrested both men. Schmidt was also briefly arrested but then released with no charges.
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Nick Martin reports that Schmidt-Crockett has developed a social media following as a far-right provocateur, primarily for harassing people in various public settings for wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has filmed himself harassing cancer patients—who he describes as his favorite targets, since they are “weak and vulnerable and easy targets.”
He recently filmed himself harassing churchgoers at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and was asked to leave multiple times but refused. This is consistent with his criminal record, which includes third-degree criminal trespass for refusing to leave businesses when requested, for which he then violated probation multiple times. He was arrested last June for extreme drunken driving and posted video showing his ankle monitor and telling the audience, “I drive better when I’m drunk.”
Schmidt-Crockett proudly promotes his antics in online videos. In one he can be seen throwing up a Nazi salute while confronting Black lawmaker wearing a mask, telling him it’s a “slave muzzle.” In another, he rants at length about his support for Russia in its war on Ukraine, calling for the assassination of Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelenskyy. At the end, he throws up another Nazi salute and shouts, “Heil Putin!”
More recently, he’s become threatening and aggressive toward the LGBTQ community. In one of his videos, he can be seen attacking a Pride display in a Target store, calling it “disgusting … it’s devil worship.” He’s also posted videos and texts saying he’s “going hunting for LGBT pedophiles” and “non binaries,” saying ominously: “We’re hunting for you.”
Joining Schmidt-Crocket and Graham in the crowd of counter-protesters were members of the American Populist Union (APU), a white nationalist group closely aligned with Nick Fuentes’ America First and its “Groyper army.” Kyle Clifton, who posts white nationalist propaganda on Instagram, was one of the APU members present.
According to MacDonald-Evoy, Clifton arrived with a group of staffers from far-right GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s campaign, some of whom handed out Lake campaign signs. Matthew Martinez, Lake’s field manager, was among them.
The APU’s Twitter account has recently embraced the Supreme Court’s imminent ruling with typically ominous rhetoric:
Roe v Wade must be overturned, but let's stop pretending that abortion is a "states' issue."
Abortion is murder, and it should be federally illegal in all 50 states.
Overturning Roe v Wade is just the beginning, not the end.
Elsewhere, Proud Boys could be seen hovering around crowds of angry abortion rights protesters. Outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., Proud Boys were spotted trolling protesters who had arrived to voice their anger, but no violence erupted.
These same violent neofascist elements have exploded with joy and anticipation online, as Tess Owen reports for Vice—eagerly awaiting fresh opportunities to target their “leftist” enemies. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are dipping into the usual cesspool of misogynist and violent language about women and sex, particularly on Telegram.
“Hahahaha fuck you whores,” wrote Tulsa’s Proud Boy chapter.
“BEGIN PREEMPTIVELY ROASTING HOES NOW,” Nick Ochs, who founded Hawaii’s Proud Boy chapter, posted.
“Happy ‘whores on suicide watch’ day, boys!!!!” wrote someone in a white nationalist channel.
At other extremist platforms like Gab, the story was the same. “The same people who openly want vaccine mandates are the same people who want to normalize pedophilia, are the same people who want to legalize baby murder,” wrote one verified Gab user. “Leftism is literally satanism.”
The eliminationist references to Satanism and witches were everywhere. On Twitter, one user with a crucifix and an American flag in his handle wrote: “Witches (many beyond their child-bearing years) are in absolute despair at the prospect of fewer child sacrifices occurring in America. Abortion is their most unholy sacrament with Satan, their husband.”
QAnon cultist Lauren Witzke, the former GOP nominee for Delaware’s Senate seat, posted an image from the protest outside the Supreme Court to her Telegram channel, urging readers to “check out the witches gathering.” Another leading QAnon figure, Ghost Ezra, has also been posting voluminously since Monday on the repeal of Roe v. Wade, as Alex Mendela reports. Notably, Ezra’s posts are typically dripping with antisemitic paranoia, claiming that only Jews were upset by the decision—and connecting abortion with the Canaanite god Moloch and Ba’al, which references a core belief of the racist Christian Identity movement.
The appearance not merely of Christian Nationalist beliefs within the ranks of the online far right, but of Christian Identity—the bigoted theological movement claiming that white people are the true “Children of Israel,” that Jews are the literal descendants of Satan, and that all nonwhite people are soulless “mud people”—has been a building trend in the past couple of years, and now appears poised to break out in far-right civil violence over abortion.
Many of them are clearly eager for just that. When the news of the ruling broke on Monday, a Nevada Proud Boys chapter exulted on Telegram: “BRO LET'S FUCKING GOOOOOOO.” They contrived a poll asking whether any protests that break out over the collapse of abortion rights should be called “Hoe rights,” “Slut riots,” or “Baby Save Bash 2022.”
This is not a new thing for the Proud Boys, who are better known for deliberately creating violence targeting urban leftists, particularly the antifascists who turned out to oppose them at various provocations/rallies. Less than 10 days ago—but before news of the ruling had broken—they turned up at a Sarasota, Florida, women’s rights rally to harass people attending the “March for Our Futures” there, which featured a number of pro-LGBTQ groups as well.
A dozen uniformed police kept them away from the marchers. Marcher Kate Tardif of Naples, a self-described “60-something,” told a reporter: “It was a little scary walking through [the Proud Boys] to get where we were going, and there were a lot of police.”
The Proud Boys’ signs conflated women’s rights with child sex abuse, comparing the discussion of LGBTQ-friendly topics with young children to “grooming” them. One cardboard sign read: “Stop grooming children! Respect a parent’s rights!” Another read: “No groomers in Florida!”
We have known for some time that violent street groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have shifted their post-Jan. 6 strategy from a focus on large national events to small, mostly local opportunities to attach themselves to various right-wing causes. These events are generally organized as right-wing protests related to COVID-19 restrictions, or the supposed infiltration of critical race theory (CRT) into school curricula, or abortion rights—generally any cause will suffice. Once attached, the thuggish elements bring threats, intimidation, and actual violence.
One of their chief avenues for this strategy is to hook up with Christian-nationalist groups organizing religious events of various kinds, ranging from anti-pandemic health measure protests to anti-abortion “Church at Planned Parenthood” gatherings, which themselves are an aggressive and invasive form of protest. Proud Boys also have found opportunities to harass school boards, health boards, and city and county councils as part of their explicit assault on American democratic institutions in the name of “patriotism.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s exploded into violence, as it did July 14, 2021, in Salem, Oregon, when a group of about 20 Proud Boys, armed with holstered handguns, paintball guns, bats, and body armor gathered outside a Planned Parenthood clinic where protesters were demonstrating against abortion laws, and were met by a crowd of at least 40 counterprotesters. The opposing sides ended up brawling, and Salem police arrested two people.
The threatening language now emanating from the “Patriot” movement and its acolytes in places like Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—where a militia-oriented biker group’s members have vowed to “go head to head” with the city’s Pride event in June, though a spokesman recently tried to backpedal on the threat—reflects how widespread this kind of anti-abortion extremism has become, primarily through neofascist movements like the Proud Boys and the Groypers whose racial and ethnic animus have often been considered defining features, but for whom in reality misogyny and a reflexive loathing of women is even more foundational.
Misogyny has always been a central component of fascist politics, and so the “manosphere” has long played a key role in organizing some of the most vicious violence that has emanated from the extremist right over the past decade. The trend has seemed to spiral into an even more toxic phase over the past couple of years, fueled in part by the public’s increasing time online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. An MIT study published last year found that there appeared to be a serious spike in interest in so-called “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) groups that promote a nihilistic view of society.
As Helen Lewis explained in The Atlantic in 2019, the realm of online misogynists is in many regards the beating heart of the radical right, since they generate many of the core ideas of white nationalism and other extremist belief systems, including the belief that “feminization” is destroying Western civilization and that women need to be subservient to men in order to create a strong society. They also all promote the idea that the world can only be saved by strong men committing acts of violence.
This is why, as they prepare to take to the streets in protest of the loss of abortion rights, progressive factions need to make careful preparations for the likelihood they will be targeted by these neofascists. The calm before the storm we’ve been experiencing may be about to expire.