Members of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremist group Patriot Movement AZ (PMAZ) have often bragged about “triggering liberals.” Now they say they’ve been defamed by an Arizona lawmaker who called them out for flashing the “OK” gesture — a favored method of trolling by many on the far-right.
Four members of the group filed a lawsuit earlier this month alleging that a Democratic state lawmaker in Arizona tarnished their good names by posting a tweet saying the group’s founder, Lesa Antone, flashed a “white supremacist sign” in a photo with Gov. Doug Ducey.
In the photo, Antone could be seen making the “OK” hand gesture alongside Ducey and her fellow members of PMAZ at a local Republican meeting in April. The image was posted to the group’s Facebook page and quickly drew criticism from Democrats, who called on Ducey to condemn the group, which often spouts hateful rhetoric. He soon did.
Arizona Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs was at the forefront of that criticism. She posted the photo to Twitter on April 29, writing: “Governor @dougducey I hope you realize this woman is flashing a white supremacist sign. These are part of the group that shows up at the Capitol w/AR-15’s and harass elementary school students and democratic staff, calling them illegals. You must denounce!”
Now the PMAZ members want Hobbs, who is currently running for Arizona secretary of state, to pay for her tweet, which they allege led to an array of professional and personal problems, including “damage to reputation, defamation of character, anxiety and fear, humiliation, shame, mortification, threats to personal and family safety” and more, according to the complaint filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix.
According to the filing, one active PMAZ member who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jennifer Harrison, said she was fired from her real estate agency over the matter. Two other PMAZ members – Jeremy Bronaugh and Antone’s husband, Russell “RJ” Jaffe – also joined the lawsuit with similar claims of emotional distress and damage to their reputations.
The PMAZ members filed the suit Oct. 12. Court records show they filed it on their own behalf and offer no sign that they’ve hired an attorney to represent them.
Hobbs declined to comment when contacted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
What does the “OK” gesture mean?
The lawsuit will likely be an uphill battle for the plaintiffs.
For one, the meaning of the “OK” hand gesture has gotten complicated in the past few years thanks to the efforts of far-right trolls and, yes, white supremacists.
Traditionally, the gesture has been benign — a friendly way to signal agreement with something. Other times, it was just a meaningless motion made while someone was speaking.
But more recently, the sign has become something of a weapon for trolling by the far-right — a way to deliberately “trigger” liberals into reacting. Often, trolls who use the hand gesture set up a strawman argument that liberals are labeling everyone who uses the gesture as a white nationalist. They mock the idea by pointing to photos of people like President Obama and Oprah Winfrey making the gesture. That kind of weaponization of the “OK” sign was fueled by trolls on the 4chan message board who schemed to spread the hoax that the sign had a racist secret meaning. They dubbed the plan “Operation O-KKK.” But it has blossomed beyond that.
At the same time, the gesture has also been genuinely embraced by white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racists as a signal to people with similar views. And to add to the confusion, members of the antigovernment Three Percenter movement have adopted a variation on the gesture to signal that they are part of the small percentage of the population that’s ready to fight another revolution.
(For an in-depth explanation of how the gesture took hold with extremists in recent years, check out this recent Hatewatch article by David Neiwert.)
In the aftermath of the tweet by Hobbs, members of Patriot Movement AZ posted different explanations on social media about what was meant by the gesture.
Harrison, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, referenced a white nationalist slogan — “It’s Okay To Be White” — in a tweet directed at Hobbs:
She also described the gesture as a Three Percenter symbol:
The following day, Harrison also used her Twitter account to link to an article published by the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate symbols.
The May 2017 article, headlined “No, the ‘OK’ Gesture Is Not a Hate Symbol,” dismissed the idea that the gesture had links to extremism, calling it an online hoax. The article made no mention that white nationalists like Richard Spencer and racist trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos had been using it in real life since at least 2016.
In September, however, the ADL updated its article. The new headline read: “How the ‘OK’ Symbol Became a Popular Trolling Gesture.” The article was changed to reflect the fact that “people across several segments of the right and far right — including some actual white supremacists” have begun using the gesture to “trigger or troll people on the left and cause them to react.”
Throughout the weeks and months that followed the tweet by Hobbs, members of PMAZ increasingly took their fight against her to new lows.
On May 12, Harrison posted a photo on Twitter of the lawmaker’s teenage son standing next to a young woman. In the photo, the son was holding up three fingers — his pointer, middle and little fingers.
The three-pronged gesture is a hand sign used by students at Arizona State University, whose mascot, Sparky the Sun Devil, carries a pitchfork. On the university website, under “ASU traditions,” the gesture is described as the “Fork ‘Em Devils hand sign,” which is “the universal sign of ASU pride.”
Harrison, however, used the photo to mock the lawmaker and her son.
“is that your son flashing a white power symbol?? I'm so confused,” Harrison wrote in a tweet directed at Hobbs. (Capitalizations hers.)
The following day, Harrison posted the same photo alongside a screenshot of an ADL article about a similar hand sign used by the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a racist prison gang. The sign uses a different combination of fingers — the pointer, ring and little fingers — but Harrison used it to take another dig at Hobbs and her son.
“Here is an actual hate symbol in the ADL database and here is @katiehobbs son making the very same hand gesture. I'm no pro on hate symbols so maybe she can clarify if her son is a white supremacist,” Harrison wrote.
Later that month, the group stood outside a Hobbs campaign event with a sign that included the photo of the lawmaker’s son alongside the young woman. “Sen. KATIE Hobbs DENOUNCE These WHITE SUPREMACISTS,” the sign read.
Then on June 1, the group posted the same image of Hobbs’ son to its Facebook page, which today has nearly 20,000 followers.
“KKKatie Hobbs’ son….. Aryan hand sign or ASU sign?” the Facebook post read.
Patriot Movement AZ has embraced some white nationalist symbols
Another thing that might hurt PMAZ’s case is that the group has embraced symbols more explicitly associated with the white nationalist movement.
In photos and videos that the group has posted online, members can be seen waving the flag of the fictional kingdom of Kekistan – an invention of the racist “alt-right.” The pattern of the green, white and black flag resembles the red, white and black German Nazi war flag.
PMAZ members have also posted images on social media depicting Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that has been co-opted by white nationalists and antisemites. The group went as far as to make T-shirts with a depiction of Pepe holding a gun and the words “Trump’s Army.”
Additionally, the group used its official Twitter account to send a picture of the frog character to Hobbs, the defendant in the case.
In an April 29 tweet, the same day Hobbs posted her own tweet calling out the “OK” gesture, PMAZ used its Twitter account to send a message to the lawmaker, “Pepe is the real victim here,” the tweet read. The image attached showed the cartoon frog making the “OK” gesture.
That’s not to say Patriot Movement AZ is a white nationalist group. It has had members who are black, Hispanic and Jewish, and it generally does not make claims of white superiority, despite its flirtation with such symbols. A black member of PMAZ has even used her own Facebook account to praise Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the black nationalist Nation of Islam, an SPLC-designated hate group.
It’s not clear whether members of PMAZ know the symbols they throw around so loosely are tied to a specific racist movement. They often mock the idea out of hand. The more likely explanation is that the group has embraced white nationalist symbols as some ill-conceived effort to troll people.
“Oh, you foolish leftists. The Kekistan flag #Triggers you so easily. And means absolutely nothing. Is that not the true beauty of it?” the group wrote in a tweet earlier this year.
PMAZ has repeatedly bragged on social media about “triggering liberals” and “triggering the leftists” by using such symbols. In a post on March 11, the group’s Twitter account responded to someone who pointed out how much the Kekistan flag they carried looks like the Nazi war flag.
“We proudly support Israel & it's hilarious u r triggered by a kek flag!” PMAZ replied in a tweet. “Pepe is the victim!”
In real life, the group’s actions have routinely devolved into “triggering” people with whom they disagree. Members have often showed up at events in the Phoenix area and engaged in actions seemingly designed to provoke a backlash — like walking through a gun control rally while openly carrying firearms. Responding to someone on Twitter who objected to the way PMAZ members acted at the rally, Harrison put it this way: “When you try infringing upon constitutional rights of Americans, prepare yourself for some harassment.”
The group's rhetoric, while not white nationalist, has veered into other types of hate. It has been active in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim activities in Arizona and Southern California, and it has forged alliances with an array of extremist groups, including militias and SPLC-designated hate groups. Antone, the group’s founder, has openly declared, “Islam is our enemy.”
That type of extremism has led to legal trouble for followers of the group. In March, two women who’d taken part in multiple PMAZ events were arrested for going onto the grounds of a local mosque and removing items from the property while spouting anti-Muslim slurs. One of the women has since pleaded guilty to a felony. The other is awaiting trial on multiple charges.
The criminal case is taking place in the same court where the PMAZ members filed their lawsuit.
The group’s activities have also attracted the interest of at least one notable white supremacist. In April, a roster of its private Facebook group, which at the time had 831 members, showed that among them was Harry Hughes, an Arizona resident who recently was named nationwide public relations director for the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a violent neo-Nazi group. Hughes was a friend of the late NSM member J.T. Ready, who killed himself in 2012 after murdering four people in what authorities said was a domestic dispute at a house in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert.
PMAZ’s roster showed Hughes had been a member of their private Facebook group starting in October 2017. The membership list is no longer publicly viewable, so it’s unclear whether he remains part of the private group. It now has more than 1,300 members.
This kind of lawsuit has been attempted before
In many ways, the suit filed by Patriot Movement AZ is similar to one attempted last year by right-wing conspiracy theorist Cassandra Fairbanks.
That case revolved around an April 2017 photo of Fairbanks and fellow conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. Both were shown making the “OK” gesture while standing behind the lectern in the White House press briefing room. Fairbanks posted the image on her Twitter account.
In response to the photo, journalist Emma Roller of Fusion commented: “just two people doing a white power hand gesture in the White House.”
Less than two months later, Fairbanks filed a defamation suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. In her lawsuit, Fairbanks alleged that her personal and professional reputation had been hurt, that she had “suffered financially” and endured “mental anguish and personal humiliation.” She demanded damages of at least $100,000.
Unlike the members of PMAZ, she was represented by two attorneys.
Judge Trevor McFadden, who oversaw the case, didn’t buy it. In June, nearly a year after the suit was filed, the judge said he was throwing it out.
“Plaintiff Cassandra Fairbanks trolled the web through Twitter, releasing a photo of herself and a fellow journalist in the White House press room making a gesture widely recognized as the ‘okay’ hand symbol but also speculated at the time to be a ‘white power’ symbol,” McFadden wrote in the first line of his memo explaining his decision.
He went on to note that the First Amendment set a high bar for defamation cases and that Fairbanks and her attorneys failed to clear it.
McFadden also addressed the debate over the meaning of the “OK” gesture: “At the time, there was ongoing public debate about whether the alt-right movement had turned the gesture into a hate symbol,” he wrote.
And Fairbanks’ own tweets, in which she openly acknowledged she was trolling by using the gesture, came into play, too. The judge noted one tweet in particular in which Fairbanks responded to someone about whether the gesture was racist: “They’ve become so easy to troll that you don’t even have to make an effort anymore,” she wrote at the time.
Fairbanks’ failure to prove that Roller had acted with malice, however, ultimately led to the judge’s decision.
Even if Roller was wrong about Fairbanks using the gesture in a racist fashion, that wasn’t enough to penalize her in court, the judge decided. “Free debate inevitably leads to some mistaken statements and punishment of these statements would chill the freedom of speech,” he wrote
From the judge’s memo:
Especially given the public debate about the “okay” hand gesture at the time of Ms. Roller’s tweet, Ms. Fairbanks’ allegations do not provide clear and convincing evidence of actual malice. Indeed, the inescapable conclusion one reaches upon viewing the photo and tweets at issue (including Ms. Fairbanks’ tweets) is that Ms. Fairbanks intended her photo and hand gesture to provoke, or troll, people like Ms. Roller — whether because the gesture was actually offensive or because they would think that it was offensive — not that Ms. Fairbanks was the victim of a malicious attack based on innocent actions.
The judge closed the memo by noting that the First Amendment is committed to public debate being “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” The amendment, he wrote, “offers broad protections to those who make these gestures and those who accuse public figures of making them.”
Read Patriot Movement AZ's lawsuit below. Personal information for the plaintiffs, including home addresses and phone numbers, have been redacted by the SPLC.