America’s far-right “Patriots” explored new ways to snooker themselves this holiday weekend in two rallies, both ostensibly aimed at attacking the “radical left,” on opposite sides of the country.
In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hundreds of militiamen swarmed to the Civil War historical site to defend it against a supposed “antifa” protest that was in fact entirely a hoax and so never materialized. Meanwhile, in Seattle, a small cluster of about 30 Proud Boys and assorted far-right “Patriots” responded to a fake-news outfit’s plans to march through the city’s Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone—which in fact had been cleared out earlier in the week and was under control of the Seattle Police Department—and found themselves eventually chased out of the city by a similarly sized contingent of counterprotesters.
The Gettysburg rally attracted an armed crowd, many of them carrying semi-automatic rifles and handguns, waving all kinds of banners: the American flag, the Confederate flag, the bright-yellow Gadsden flag, and Trump flags. They all believed they were coming to prevent “antifa” from burning American flags.
“These people are acting like savages,” one AR-15-toting participant told his fellow patriots, according to the Washington Post.
“We’ve been letting them get by with it for too long, but that changes now,” said Don Kretzer, 52, of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Rather like the crowds of similar so-called “Patriots” around the country who turned out with guns to protect their small towns from “antifa buses” they were told were about to descend on their communities, the militiamen who gathered in Pennsylvania had been duped on social media. There never was a legitimate threat from any antifascist group to burn flags—just trolling spread widely on social media, particularly Facebook.
As the Post explored in some depth, the tales of a July 4 “antifa” rally at Gettysburg appear to have originated with a Twitter account with dubious provenance by a man named Alan Jeffs, who claimed to be a 39-year-old graphic designer and onetime Bernie Sanders supporter (his former handle was @Bernieorelse). His personal photo was faked, and none of his claims checked out.
Still, the posters promoting a “Flag Burning” event in Gettysburg (“Antifa is Coming to Take Our Country Back From Right-Wing Lunacy”) created by Jeffs’ new Twitter handle—@LeftBehindUSA—spread quickly on social media, which accelerated even more rapidly when right-wing media such as the Gateway Pundit blog picked it up and ran with it.
Pretty quickly, other hoaxers jumped aboard. One poster shared widely on Facebook—announcing a “4th of July Flag Burning” featuring “Children Welcome—Antifa Face Painting”—was accompanied by dead-serious text claiming that the “antifa plan” had been “confirmed by the Gettysburg Police Department” and chiding readers: “If you fail to copy or share this you are not a patriot you are part of the problem.” It told readers that the “antifa” activists in every state were “trained by radical Islam” and that “they plan on killing as many Trump supporters and whites as possible!”
Hal Turner, a notorious ex-radio host with a long history of involvement in white-supremacist movements, also promoted the Gettysburg hoax, along with a similarly groundless tale that “Antifa” was distributing fireworks in Black neighborhoods as part of a nefarious scheme to condition Americans to the sounds of explosions just before they went on a national rampage killing white people. He claimed the July 4 flag burning was to occur “just before they begin MURDERING White people and BURNING DOWN Suburbs the same day.”
“So yes, this is the great purge,” Turner wrote. “The evidence is all there. … The objective is clear: It makes no difference as to what ideology a white person has; as long as you are white, you must be erased. This is their sick agenda.”
None of this was true, of course. That, however, did not seem to perturb the people who turned up with guns on Saturday.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a hoax or not,” one of them told the Post. “They made a threat, and if we don’t make our voices heard, it’ll make it seem like it’s okay.”
The gathered crowd was apparently on edge for much of the day. A seminarian named Trent Somes showed up to pay his respects to an ancestor buried in the Gettysburg cemetery wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. He was instantly surrounded by a cluster of “Patriots” who proceeded to badger him. Police escorted Somes from the scene “for his own safety.”
In Seattle, the hoax was more direct: A fake-news site called Prntly began promoting a rally to “retake” the autonomous zone on Capitol Hill, which supposedly featured the participation of Bikers For Trump and the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia organization. The only problem was that both groups denied they were involved in any such plans.
Prntly’s owner/founder, Alex Portelli, boasted on social media that he had convinced “12,000 patriots to commit to tearing down the barricades” on the Fourth of July. He collected donations for it as well.
But the crowd of “Patriots” who turned up Saturday on Capitol Hill numbered closer to 30, according to Puget Sound Anarchists (the gathering was so small that the Seattle Times did not bother covering it). Most of the participants were familiar to observers of the far-right rallies that have been organized over the past three years in the Pacific Northwest by the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, particularly onetime Proud Boy Alan Swinney of Portland.
They marched relatively peacefully from nearby Volunteer Park down to the CHOP zone farther south, and then found themselves surrounded by a crowd of residents when they attempted to march through Cal Anderson Park, the center of the zone. Police intervened and largely protected the marchers for awhile, but eventually they wound up being chased back to their cars at Volunteer Park, spraying mace in the direction of their pursuers as they fled.
At least one “Patriot” participant, Drew Duncomb—an African-American who apparently flew up from California to participate—voiced his disappointment at being hoaxed. “Alex with Prntly never showed up to this event,” he wrote on Facebook. “He organized it then left us out to face the violent mob alone. If you donated money for the event in Seattle demand a refund.”
“They claimed they were going to ‘clear CHOP’ yet when faced with an evenly-matched crowd largely comprised of the same people they claimed they were going to remove from the city, most of whom have spent the last month fearlessly confronting SPD and facing down violence and mass arrests, they literally ran away,” noted Puget Sound Anarchists reported AlterNet. “Antifascists didn’t even call for a public mobilization and still the far-right were run the f*ck out of town.”