Protesters in Minneapolis didn’t know the precise affiliation of a man who showed up on Tuesday at the first night of unrest over the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in police custody. What they did know was that he was white and heavily armed.
“There was what we think was a white supremacist who was fully armed with clips and everything, who some of the men in the crowd were able to identify and remove,” Nekima Levy-Armstrong, a civil rights attorney who attended the Tuesday protests, told The Daily Beast. “He [the armed white man] actually said, ‘You all just saved some lives tonight.’”
The Minneapolis protests this week—which resulted in fires and broken windows and reports of at least one adjacent shooting death—aren’t just drawing racial justice activists. They’re attracting attention from heavily-armed forces on the right. Some of them, members of a growing white supremacist movement, openly hope to co-opt the protests to start a race war. Others claim to make common cause with anti-police protesters, but may be inclined to turn guns on protesters when they appear to threaten private property.
Both are a potential powder keg as protesters take to the streets in cities across the country, and hint at a new coalition of volatile right-wing ideologies.
Brian Hughes, associate director for the Polarization & Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, said the protests were drawing attention from a range of far-right tendencies.
“On the far other side of the spectrum, you have accelerationist and dyed-in-the-wool fascists and neo-Nazis,” he told The Daily Beast. “They want to see ‘Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo’ happen, and make it a race war.”
“Boogaloo” is a reference to a far-right meme-turned-movement, in which white supremacists fantasize about a coming civil uprising that will lead to government overthrow and wholesale slaughter of their opponents, namely people of color. “Accelerationism” is a tactic in which extremists sow discord in the hopes of destabilizing society.
The Boogaloo movement has moved increasingly offline and into the real world in recent months, with members showing up at right-wing “re-open” protests, heavily armed and wearing Hawaiian shirts (a really tedious riff on a misspelling of “boogaloo” as “big luau”).
Some movement members appeared at a Wednesday night protest in Minneapolis, in hopes of participating in a chaotic scene. Members of at least one “Boogaloo” Facebook group shared pictures of men holding a Boogaloo flag (patterned after a “Blue Lives Matter” flag, but with the movement’s trademark tropical pattern) outside an AutoZone that was later set on fire.
Some members of the group used the picture to call, superficially, for “solidarity” with protesters, claiming that “this is not a race issue.” But members of the group who posted in real time with supposed updates from the protests revealed other intentions. One, who claimed to be in a group of 16 other movement members at the protest, soon threatened to shoot Black Lives Matter activists because they were not helping enact his visions of violence.
“Fuck BLM. They just shout and march,” he wrote. “None of them are kitted up or carrying guns so how do I know they have my back? Nah, fuck BLM. I see any of those freaks and I’m dropping [shooting] them on sight.”
In private chat groups viewed by Raw Story, Boogaloo sympathizers set up communication channels for peers at the protest, and discussed coordinating travel to Minneapolis.
The ideology of some heavily-armed figures in the city this week was harder to identify.
A viral video from Wednesday night’s protest showed two white men with semi-automatic rifles standing outside a tobacco store. They said they sympathized with demonstrators. But the “heavily armed rednecks,” as one of the men described them, weren’t there to march in the streets—they were there to guard private property like the tobacco store, potentially turning their guns against the protesters they claimed to support.
The pair voiced opinions compatible with those of the right-wing Patriot Movement. Members of this scene “have a very romantic view of the founding of the United States: the ideals of individual freedom, the idea of the rugged individual and a lack of government interference,” Hughes said.
Although these activists often view themselves as not racist, their presence with guns, standing off against potential protesters, can help uphold racist dynamics. (The tobacco store owner told The Daily Beast that they knew the men, and while they hadn’t asked them to show up, they did not believe the men were associated with any ideological groups.)
Hughes cited the pair as a possible example of “people who have good intentions who don't necessarily understand or think about the structural racism in this country.”
In another incident Wednesday night, a white woman claimed to have been assaulted by protesters in a Target that was looted. But elements of her story came under question when cell phone footage revealed her blocking the Target exit with her wheelchair and brandishing a knife at people who tried to exit.
A similar dynamic played out during police brutality protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, when right-wing Oath Keepers militia showed up. Initially, the group claimed to be on the side of protesters, and decried the over-militarization of police, according to Sam Jackson, the author of a forthcoming book on the group.
But soon the militia turned its eye against demonstrators, he recalled. “Instead they're focused on the reports of arson and looting that are accompanying the protests,” Jackson told The Daily Beast. “In the end, most of what the Oath Keepers did was protect local businesses from vandalism and looting.”
Even the group’s supposed attempts at empowering black activists cratered, due to their failure to understand the challenges facing black people in America, Jackson added.
“At least one of their members tried to organize an open carry march for local residents,” he said. “But when Oath Keepers would talk to local residents, what they said they heard from local residents in Ferguson was that they, especially the black residents, felt like they couldn't open carry even though it's legal. If they tried to open carry, they would be met with hostile force by the police.”
Hughes said there was a risk that more overt racists of the Boogaloo movement might seek to radicalize more banal militia types who attend Minneapolis-inspired protests, whether in that city or nationwide.
“We're witnessing the merging of internet troll cultures, irony cultures and the militia movement, via these online spaces,” he said, adding that the movement appears to mirror a previous merger of trolls and real-life radicals “into what ultimately became the alt-right.”
As the protests (and reports of looting that might draw right-wing antagonists) continued in Minneapolis Thursday, the ambiguity—who believed what, and who was there, for what reason—was a festering problem.
“When you have white supremacists showing up at a demonstration fully locked and loaded,” Levy-Armstrong said, “you don't know what the outcome is going to be.”
With reporting by Solomon Gustavo
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