Indeed, the weekend’s events turned out mainly to be large draws for antifascists and Black Lives Matter protesters and their supporters. At one of the events—in Raleigh, North Carolina—the small crowd of counterprotesters who turned out encountered no one else at the park where the event had been planned. So they wound up marching around the city’s downtown behind a large white sign reading: “WE ACCEPT YOUR SURRENDER.”
White Lives Matter was designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2017, described as “a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement,” though since its early origins it has morphed more into a movement built around slogans and propaganda than an actual organization.
“White Lives Matter isn’t a group; it’s a whole subculture,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, told the Los Angeles Times. “The swastikas and Klan hoods just aren’t great branding and recruiting tools. Their focus now is the message that whites are under attack.”
The purpose of the weekend’s events was primarily to provide a forum for white nationalist groups to rally and reestablish their presence, which has been largely scattershot since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and the subsequent law enforcement crackdown on radical right groups. Posts on Telegram explained the intent: “To revive the White Racial Consciousness and to unify White People against white hate. A show of support for White victims of interracial crime.”
However, during the week leading up to the events, it was revealed (via Tess Owen at Vice) that the White Lives Matter organizers in several cities ran their Telegram channels as “honeypots”—faux organizations intended to draw racist activists out of the woodwork so that they could be exposed. Antifascist activists infiltrated their online groups and leaked internal chats to journalists.
The chats indicated various far-right organizers for the events, including the the Proud Boys and self-described fascists and Nazis, though publicity for the rallies framed them as peaceful events unaffiliated with known hate groups, evidently to recruit more mainstream participants.
The result was a long list of lackluster events were documented by livestreams and photos posted to social media, as well as a constant refrain of disappointment afterwards.
An organizer for a march in Kenner, Louisiana, reported on Telegram: “No one has shown up to the meetup point, it has been close to two hours since the technical start time for the march. We’re gonna call it, the march is canceled. If anyone is still trying to make it, I advise you not to.”
Another would-be participant in Memphis, Tennessee, described on Telegram how he and a few others “sat around the area” of the protest, but “no one showed up” Sunday.
An administrator of the Telegram channel for the rally in Nashville, Tennessee, commented: “Welp, I was the only person to show up and after being here an hour and a half for nothing I’m going home.”
In contrast, large numbers of counterprotesters in various cities had quiet days. Activists in Philadelphia tweeted photos of a picnic with pizza and Tastykake snacks for anti-racists, while over a dozen counterprotesters in New York City stood seemingly unopposed across the street from Trump Tower, where the White Lives Matter rally had been announced. A single young man wearing a white nationalist “Siege” skull mask showed up.
The rally in Huntington Beach drew the largest crowds. The White Lives Matter marchers numbered in the dozens, and included gun supporters and anti-abortion advocates as well as members of the Proud Boys. But even before they arrived, a crowd of about 500 counterprotesters turned up and was waiting for them.
At first the two sides intermingled, but as the size of the gathering grew, so did the numbers of confrontations that broke out, particularly as White Lives Matter supporters were spotted mingling with the rest of the crowd. Among the well-known racists attending Sunday was California Klan leader William Quigg.
A man with a “Totenkopf” skull tattoo—long recognized as a neo-Nazi symbol—on his forearm was accused of being a white supremacist by several counterprotesters after they saw a skull tattoo on his right arm. The man, who identified himself as a Marine, cursed at the group and tried to cover the ink, which he said represented being part of “an elite military unit.” (The Marine Corps Reconnaissance Unit uses a skull-and-crossbones symbol, but not in the classic SS Panzer design on the man’s arm.)
As confrontations—both verbal and physical—between attendees broke out, police declared the event an illegal gathering. Diners eating lunch watched the chaos unfold from a second-floor patio at Fred’s Mexican Cafe and Cantina.
Police interceded in several fights, including one in which a large group of counterprotesters chased a man and a teenager waving large Trump and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags around the main intersection downtown where the factions met. After the pair were surrounded, police on horseback waded into the crowd and took the two of them away in an SUV.
A total of 12 people were arrested during the rally, mostly counterprotesters. Two people were accused of using amplified sound. At least one man wearing a Proud Boys shirt and sporting white supremacist tattoos was arrested. Police said one person, who was charged with obstructing law enforcement, was found carrying a metal baton, two cans of pepper spray, and a knife in his backpack.
The chaos and poor turnout reflects the diminished state of far-right organizers after Jan. 6, which had been earlier seen when no one showed up in Washington for a supposed “Million Militia March.” As Levin told NBC News, their subsequent bans from social media have played a powerful role in this.
“Not only have organized larger groups splintered, but so, too, did their social media footprint,” said Levin. “Some extremists continued a whack-a-mole migration underground to encrypted, affinity-based platforms, while others exited these movements altogether.”
Many experts, however, note that historically, such declines in far-right organizing typically are only temporary—and that during such periods, the risk of domestic terrorist violence from white nationalists frustrated by the organizations’ failures but willing to commit “lone wolf” acts rises substantially.
That means that while organized large-scale far-right violence is currently on the downswing, there is simultaneously an increased risk, Levin says, from “loners and cells, who act on their own combination of hatreds and idiosyncrasies often cobbled together from a constant all-you-can-eat buffet of stereotyping and conspiracies that still populate online discourse.”