Spurred By Debunked Antifa Rumors, Armed Men And Women Stand Watch Over Protests
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Justin and his buddies look like they're from a special ops team – they're wearing flak jackets and carrying assault weapons. But they aren't military and they aren't police.
"I see myself as a concerned citizen who happens to be armed," he says.
They won't give their last names, citing safety and job security. But on a recent evening they are standing watch over about 200 protesters at a rally over the death of George Floyd in Missoula, Mont. If someone begins inciting violence, the men plan to enter the crowd and grab them. They carry handguns and assault weapons in case someone starts shooting, they say.
"I'm not going to bring fists to a gunfight, man," Justin says.
Similar scenes are playing out at rallies across several Western states and the country – armed people and militia members showing up at rallies over police violence and racism.
Their presence is fueled, in part, by a widespread rumor on social media that antifa activists are coming to small towns and cities like Missoula to incite riots. That's why Calvin is here holding his AR-15. He says he isn't a counterprotester.
"I'm not racist, I have zero problems with people protesting and I support it 100 percent," he says. "But I don't support my town getting burned down."
But there's no evidence that antifa, which is short for anti-fascist, is behind any destruction or violence at Black Lives Matter protests. Rumors of coming faceless mobs of far-left anarchists have been widely debunked by local law enforcement agencies across the country.
"They're not true," says Missoula City Police Chief Jaeson White. "We've got no credible intelligence that leads to any truth to those social media posts."
White, along with Missoula mayor John Engen, posted a video to social media dismissing the rumor. But some armed men, including Calvin, aren't having it.
"They don't have any credible info that they aren't coming either," he says. "Look at all the other cities they showed up in."
The persistence of this narrative has real consequences.
For example, according to the Peninsula Daily News, a vacationing family in rural western Washington was harassed by some locals who accused them of being antifa activists. They even chopped down trees and trapped the family at a local campsite. On community Facebook pages in Idaho and Montana, people are posting photos of vans and school buses they believe are carrying members of the movement.
"We do see people sharing these messages out of fear," says Joan Donovan, an expert on media manipulation, online extremism and disinformation campaigns at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The idea of an outside force coming in and invading your small town in particular does feel threatening."
However, antifa, a loose network of left-wing activists who sometimes violently confront fascists and white supremacists, is more of a movement than a well-oiled organization.
"Antifa operates as a designation similar to the way someone might describe themselves as a punk rocker," Donovan says.
Still, Donovan says there's been a lot of disinformation coming out about antifa in recent days, including from President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr. Both assert the movement is behind the violence at rallies across the country, and Trump threatened to list antifa as a domestic terrorist organization.
"You also have a right-wing media ecosystem that is pushing this narrative," Donovan says.
However, the origins of this particular rumor are still unclear. Twitter recently suspended a fake antifa account run by the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, also known as the American Identity Movement. Before going dark, it had tweeted that antifa was coming to "take what's ours" in white residential neighborhoods.
Similar fake accounts were recently shut down by Facebook. But the rumor that antifa was sending busloads or planeloads of activists to small towns has spread on community forums and right-wing militia pages, prompting armed men and women to descend on rallies like the one in Missoula.
The weapons don't make protester Erin Giefer feel safe.
"The presence of guns and people who have a military getup and camo swarming the area makes me feel unsafe," she says. "What if somebody does shoot, or one of these cars backfire and then someone starts shooting. That has far more potential for violence and recklessness than anything else."
Nate Hegyi produced this story for the Mountain West News Bureau as part of the America Amplified: Election 2020 initiative, using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You can follow America Amplified on Twitter @amplified2020.
However, a few protesters and organizers have welcomed the armed presence, including Morenike Akiwumi, who is using a different name citing safety reasons. She is helping lead Missoula's protest this evening and says she has felt at risk. That's why she turned to a couple of these armed people.
"I have a pretty big target on me so I had requested that these two folks that are ex-military please escort me places because I've been getting followed around and I've been having pictures taken of me," she tells a reporter with Montana Public Radio.
She sees these guys as people who care about the community. But the majority of protesters and organizers are deeply skeptical. They believe their presence hijacks the protests' narrative and draws attention away from racism and police violence. They also worry about white vigilantism.
"That kind of vigilantism can get dangerous very quickly," says Harvard University extremism expert Joan Donovan. "If you try to stop people or detain them under the color of an authority you don't have, that can instantly lead to deadly consequences."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.