Since the killing of George Floyd, I’ve been tracking vigilante incidents against anti-racist protesters and people of color across the U.S. My count is up to about 425: they include the throwing of lighter fluid and burning an 18-year old bi-racial Jewish woman in her car in Wisconsin, the attempted lynch of a Black man in the woods in Indiana, and the gang beating and stabbing-by-flagpole of a small group of antifascists in a ditch by "Blue Lives Matter" protesters in Colorado.
Most recently, and a drastic example, was a pipe bomb attack on protesters in Portland, Oregon: the perpetrator has been identified as an ex-Navy SEAL with a history of posting antisemitic Nazi propaganda and Soros conspiracy theories on social media.
Most of these incidents appear to have been carried out by violent radicalized individuals with little to no specific training. However, the Portland incident fits an emerging pattern: an increasingly coordinated right-wing vigilante movement, fueled by organizers with counterinsurgency skills, committed to using their military or security forces experience against Black Lives Matter and the ever-amorphous "Antifa."
Their tactics arsenal includes the infiltration of local demonstrations as provocateurs to stir up violence, delegitimize the protests and invite a far harsher police response.
It’s not new that far-right activists inserting themselves in civil protest movements have come from military service and the ranks of the police, or that street militia actively recruit from those pools. Five years ago, the Oath Keepers, an extremist paramilitary organization drawing members form the police and armed services, did just that in Ferguson, Missouri and other places.
A number of members were arrested for criminal activity, often involving illegal weapons or explosives charges. A militia born in the Tea Party era dedicated defending the Constitution against a "tyrannical" government, Oath Keepers have had a number of members arrested for criminal activity, often involving illegal weapons or explosives charges.
But now, since right-wing militias now feel that the serving U.S. president is on their team, they are refocusing their message: No longer anti-government, but anti-opposition.
- Biden slams Trump for 'terrible day' in Charlottesville: 'A wake up call for all of us'
- Portland is Trump's testing ground for authoritarian rule
- 'Fascistic:' Trump slammed by Federalist Society co-founder for election delay idea
- The pro-Trump racists and anti-Semites who could bring down Trump – and American conservatism
That evolution has been apparent ever since Donald Trump’s election. Straight after his November 2016 win, the far right, including a hodgepodge of street-fighting young militants, transient biker gangs, and rural militiamen, took to the streets, adopting an aggressive posture targeted at liberal U.S. cities, despite widespread local opposition. Their message: We’re in power now.
I witnessed this newly empowered right-wing violence first hand, in Portland, a city once known as the skinhead capital of America but which had been largely free from open far-right violence for decades.
As the Trump presidency brought fresh blood into the militia movement and pitched battles erupted in cities across the U.S., rural and urban groups, pro-Trump and anti-government groups began mingling and synthesizing. The Proud Boys, self-styled "Western chauvinists" with their own particular dress code and memes, started appearing in various cities in military fatigues and brandishing assault rifles.
As the COVID-19 crisis accelerated, they mobilized to "occupy" state capitol buildings, formally protesting lockdown regulations they considered a form of totalitarianism, turning out in their thousands with AR-15s and combat gear. From Washington to Michigan, Wisconsin to Kentucky, the far right found a locus point around which to organize and maneuver.
Another extremist group with a distinct iconography, the "Boogaloo boys" emerged: often heavily armed, they see their mission as accelerationists, agitating for what they see as an inevitable "Second Civil War." Some argue for left-right anti-government alliances to organize for the coming insurrection.
When police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, triggering widespread protesting, the far right and its Boogaloo auxiliaries recognized an opportunity.
According to city police, the very first instigator of rioting in Minneapolis was a white supremacist intent on stoking racial tension and violence; he was spotted with the Aryan Cowboys biker gang a month later harrassing a Muslim woman and child in a Minneapolis suburb. He had been nicknamed "Umbrella Man" because viral footage showed him holding an umbrella and smashing the windows to an auto parts store.
This was only the first episode of far right infiltration and provocation. In Tampa Bay, Florida, white supremacist "groyper army" leader, Nick Fuentes, entered a protest against racism dressed as a Boogaloo boy, even appearing on mainstream news in what appeared a party-like atmosphere.
A little over a week later, a Proud Boy skulked into the Seattle occupied protest. A few days later, an armed Proud Boy with a penchant for Confederate flags inserted himself in a protest in Indianapolis to "defend" shops from looters. In Florence, Alabama, a couple of weeks later, a member of the far right attempted to infiltrate a protest with a flag decorated with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, trying somewhat pathetically to draw a visual parallel between protesters and what the pro-Trump media constantly frame as subversive far left "anarchists."
These examples of infiltration, incitement and counter-intelligence tactics are forms of "entryism," whereby provocateurs insert themselves in mainstream protest movements either to co-opt them or destroy them from within. Although not exclusive to the far right, it is a modus operandi well-established in far-right activism.
Entryism was deployed by fascists in post-war Italy with some success, derailing some Autonomist groups and framing anarchists for violent attacks against civilians. It was also used by the so-called "National-Anarchist Movement," whose former member Craig Fitzgerald is now a Proud Boy and member of the so-called New Mexico Civil Guard, which New Mexico state authorities have characterized as "an unaccountable vigilante militia, endangering the safety of Bernalillo County’s residents, visitors, and law-enforcement officers."
Over the last few months, there has been a worrying change in the tactics and tenor of recent far right entryism, provocateurism and deliberate conflict.
From being a panoply of disorganized and marginal micro-groups, there is a new spirit of organization, tactical experience and militarized violence, and it is a reasonable assumption that that ‘upgrade’ is being led by the increasing involvement and profile of counterinsurgency veterans, former CIA contractors, and law enforcement officers in the anti-protest far right.
One key and intriguing facilitator of this trend is a new website with a secure server and social media app customized for far right needs. "American Contingency" – slogan: "Prepare. Mobilize. Defend" – was developed by Mike Glover, former Green Beret and CIA contractor and current Instagram influencer.
Under the "Mobilize" slogan, AMCON enjoins users to "Have a geographical understanding of your compatriots and where allies are in your region."
And that’s what the app and site offer: shareable "security briefings" and "intel" for a broad social network of regionally-organized vigilantes – and specifically offers police officers the same access. In an American Contingency update on YouTube, Glover claims that police officers are "part of this network."
Oath Keepers, fascists, QAnon believers, military veterans, and former law enforcement are all active participants. $5 per month allows users to view all posts and comment on them, such as photos from counter-protests, and organizing for local meetups. One user estimated, perhaps generously, there were some 18,000 registered users. At the bottom of each webpage there is a counter showing the hours, minutes and seconds left until election day, with the tag: "Will you be ready?"
It is in American Contingency’s own mission statements that its militia-speak and extremist ideology is laid bare, as well as its specific 2020 twist. The United States and the west have, apparently, been under continuous "globalist" and "Marxist" assault since the early 1900’s. Right now the "international elite" in collusion with "international progressive" and "Islamofascist" elements seek "the overthrow of the United States” to establish a Marxist “new world order" – "total control of the global population allowing for the imposition of global government."
Who constitutes these grave threats to American life and liberty? They’re quite varied. AMCON’s list takes in Antifa, BLM, George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Democratic Socialists of America, the National Lawyers Guild and CAIR – but also China, Russia, Hezbollah, ISIS, Iran, Cuba and Pakistan.
In this grand conspiracy, antifascism and jihadism are in cahoots: indeed, according to one of Glover’s recommended reading resources, "The Left is America’s original 'civilizational jihad.'" Little wonder he rails against the old antisemitic trope of "Cultural Marxism" too. Needless to say, no far-right domestic group makes the list.
Glover’s Instagram account is followed by a tactical training company called Red Frog Team set up by a Portland-area resident named Louis Garrick Fernbaugh, who according to his social media profiles is a former Navy SEAL and CIA contractor. Fernbaugh has shared anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda online, and has publicly claimed to have infiltrated the daily protests occurring around Portland over more than 70 days. In a Facebook post, Fernbaugh writes, "I'm surprised no one has slaughtered these sheep that have grown horns (ANTIFA)."
According to activists in Portland, it was Fernbaugh who threw pipebombs at protesters and media in the early morning hours of August 8. A protester’s video shortly after the blasts captures a man holding a tactical helmet complete with night vision goggles, who cautions the cameraman, "I'm not the guy you want to fuck with." Despite Fernbaugh being personally identified by acquaintances on local news channels, police have not verified him as a suspect.
Fernbaugh’s social media posts express a violent hatred of Antifa (equating what he describes as Soros-funded leftist radicals with ISIS and al-Qaeda). His right-wing ideology, extensive military training, and infiltration claims fit the profile of a new kind of domestic terrorist, thriving in the ecosystem of the contemporary far-right.
Veterans have turned to hate in the past: just two examples are Klansman Louis Beam and Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh; they have even become leaders of far-right political movements, such as former Special Forces lieutenant colonel-turned Christian Identity warrior Bo Gritz. But those vets’ efforts to "bring the war home" did not have the same fertile conditions to take root as now – nor to seriously challenge the democratic system.
Today, the far right’s appeal to decorated military veterans may have more sway. The narrative is simple: Police are losing stature, riots are taking over cities. And the clock is ticking towards the November elections. In the event of a Trump victory, the police will be overwhelmed, and will need backup from militia members trained in in counterinsurgency techniques.
Influencers like Glover, who is half South Korean, insist they are not racist and denounce white supremacist posts, but their rhetoric about "Cultural Marxism" and other conspiracy theories are an open door for violent antisemites and fascists to use their platforms.
That crossover is already happening: Fernbaugh won a glowing profile on the Veterans News Report, whose sister site is the anti-Semitic disinformation site Veterans Today, whose board members include Mike Harris, a man with ties to the National Socialist Movement, and Kevin Barrett, who attends Iran’s Holocaust deniers and fascists conferences
I myself have often heard right wing activists state sincerely that they see their role at recent protests as preventing looting and defending free speech – and then turn around and brutally attack left-wing protesters. Only this time, they have clear civilian targets and a President who eggs them on.
There seems no doubt that America’s far right is keying up for conflict in the lead-up and aftermath of the presidential election in three months’ time.
Unlike at any time previously, they are enabled by technology to more effectively organize locally and incite violence as a collective enterprise; they have recruited military and security force veterans; in some cases, they seem to have implicit backing from police officers themselves; they have an apocalyptic and mobilizing hostility towards "Antifa" and BLM that is no longer a fringe position on the right; and they have a president floating the idea of rejecting an unfavorable election result.
If Trump refuses to acknowledge the results, his militias are certainly prepped to come out into the streets to prevent a peaceful transfer of power – or, as the far right prefer to call it, a "Democratic coup."
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of "Against the Fascist Creep" (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross