Opposing Nationwide Protests Against Police Brutality
Fewer antigovernment groups were active in 2020, but we witnessed the mobilization of extremist groups against the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).
BLM, a nationwide movement aimed at challenging and dismantling the structures of systemic racism, protested the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who was killed in May by a police officer while being detained on suspicion of buying cigarettes with a fake $20 bill.
In response to protests in more than 150 cities, antigovernment groups that have historically been at odds with government agencies experienced division when some factions initially came out in support of the protests.
Early signs of support
In Virginia, the Boogaloo group and militia organization Virginia Knights initially defended the rights of protesters to rally for justice. In a Facebook post shared in June, the 20-year-old leader of the group, Mike Dunn, shared an image of members taking on the role of security for a Black Lives Matter event in South Boston, Virginia. Dunn expanded on his post by saying: “Protest was a success and wonderfully peaceful! We stood in support of the protest and were blessed many times by the words from the speakers.”
These calls for police accountability also spilled over into the larger boogaloo movement, a community of far-right antigovernment libertarians who openly call for a second civil war. In an article published by Bellingcat, reporters Robert Evans and Jason Wilson documented the internal struggle within the movement.
In Boise, Idaho, antigovernment activist Ammon Bundy voiced support for BLM rallies, saying in a Facebook live video, “You must have a problem in your mind if you think somehow the Black Lives Matter is more dangerous than the police.” The Bundy family is best known for their ongoing disputes with the Bureau of Land Management that have resulted in high-profile standoffs between federal officers and Bundy family supporters.
The initial outrage over the killing of George Floyd was even evident in some on the far right, but early signs of support quickly turned into disdain as antigovernment paramilitary organizations and others likened BLM – including through conspiracies and disinformation - to the anti-fascist movement, or antifa, a loosely organized network of leftwing activists.
Then-President Trump also weighed in on the ongoing protests, but he focused much of his attention on a handful of violent incidents that occurred near peaceful protests. The White House’s response to the social unrest helped shift the antigovernment movement’s posture toward BLM from one of uneasy support to open antagonism. In late May, Trump exacerbated tensions when he published a tweet describing protesters in Minneapolis as “thugs” and saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Shortly thereafter, the Oath Keepers militia, a far-right national vigilante group, took to Facebook to issue a statement reading:
I see some of you conflicted about how to handle what’s going on in the streets of this country. I too was conflicted but let me say this. Maybe you better read that Oath again it said protect the constitution from all enemies foreign and or here’s the part you better read slowly… Domestic … Once these thugs turned to burning, killing and looting, they became domestic enemies.
“An unsanctioned show of unregulated force”
The Trump administration’s role in portraying BLM protesters as “thugs” only encouraged the mobilization of far-right wing extremists. These actors quickly claimed to their supporters that armed citizens were needed in the streets to protect communities from vandalism and destruction. These groups capitalized on the domestic terrorist narrative to justify vigilantism, a role right-wing militias have historically embraced in their attempts to circumvent the law.
This vigilante narrative served as a rallying cry. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted at least 50 instances where far-right wing extremists showed up to BLM rallies during the summer. One of the most notable encounters occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25, when Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, traveled from Antioch, Illinois, to “patrol” the streets, firearm in hand. Police say Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two, after a heated confrontation with BLM protesters.
The event in Kenosha wasn’t the only incident involving right-wing militants trying to act as ad hoc law enforcement. In June, members of a group calling itself the New Mexico Civil Guard were arrested after they tried to intervene in a shooting incident in Albuquerque. The group, which claimed they weren’t familiar with the victim or the shooter, were present at the scene brandishing firearms and donning paramilitary attire.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Grisham quickly condemned their actions. She said, “The heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: to menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force.”
On Facebook, antigovernment groups praised the militia activity. After the shooting in Kenosha, Dunn, who had backed the initial BLM cause with his group Virginia Knights, flipped his stance and posted to his page: “No Kyle shouldn’t have been there. Yes he acted in self-defense. No he shouldn’t be a statist (sic). Yes people can change. Kudos to him for not lying down for a beating.”
Chris Hill, leader of the III% Security Force militia, decried the arrests of the New Mexico Civil Guard members and instead tried to push the notion that antigovernment extremists were unjustly being targeted: “You see this shit?..random dude gets beat with skateboard, mob moves in to knock him out, stab him, and he shot the assailant. So, armed militants are the terrorists! This is a coup guys. Think big picture.”
Over the course of 2020, the right wing increasingly turned their ire toward the Black Lives Matter movement as a perceived counterpoint to antifa. Armed militants will likely continue to make their presence felt at future public protests.
Photo byGetty/AFP/Logan Cyrus