America's militia movement found its next generation of soldiers: teenage 4chan trolls
On a small hill in Boston Common, a crowd of black-masked anti-fascists shouted taunts down the grassy slope toward hundreds of far-right demonstrators gathered before a stage. Inside the bandstand, guarded by burly veterans, 17-year-old Steven Verrette hung back quietly with his young friends, checking his phone for new threads on 4chan about the rally. Though an unassuming youth, Verrette had been the lead organizer of the event.
The veterans who stood guard over Verrette — and the rest of the mid-May rally — were from a group called the Oath Keepers, one of the largest right-wing organizations in the militia movement. The Oath Keepers had shown up in Ferguson, Missouri, during the riots, and they'd been at the Battle of Berkeley, a street brawl between far-right and far-left demonstrators in mid-April in California. Now, they were watching over a younger, stranger clutch of radical conservatives, ready to retaliate for the first punch if things grow violent.
Verrette, who's from the nearby town of Peabody, seemed pleased to have the brute force of the Oath Keepers there, but unsure of their ideological motivations for showing up in Boston.
"They're passing down their beliefs," he said. "I don't know their full views, but..."
"Well, they're pro-constitutionalists," his friend Kevin Crowley, another kid from the Boston suburbs, jumped in.
"Yeah," Verrette affirmed. "I agree with them on that."
The Oath Keepers, for their part, were more than clear on why they were there.
"What's happening now is what I call the uniting of the American warrior class," E. Stewart Rhodes, the group's founder, had said earlier in the afternoon from the makeshift pulpit.
Rhodes was addressing a crowd bearing American flags set on weighted poles that doubled as weapons, shields and Pepe the Frog masks. The scene could have easily been mistaken for bizarre medieval cosplay, if not for the Oath Keepers scattered along the perimeter, decked out in modern military fatigues.
A far-right mass movement
Two generations of right-wing soldiers came together in Boston — the embittered young alt-righters hopped up on memes and looking for a fight, and the old guard of anti-government radicals wanting to pass the torch to a younger, more goofy generation of far-right activists. It doesn't matter if the New Right doesn't have politics of their own. They have their anger, their anxiety and, most importantly, a common enemy: the liberals that attendees in Boston so delighted in "triggering."
Verrette set off the Boston rally with a post on 4chan's /pol/ message board, a forum where the lines between sincere hate speech and provocation are intentionally obscured through irony and trolling. It was only a few days after the far-right's last big "free speech rally" exploded into a massive street brawl in Berkeley, and the call to action was clear.
Dos: Bring pepper spray, weighted gloves, heavy flagpoles, body armor and other gear for a fight. Don'ts: start the fight before anti-fascist activists, dress like a skinhead or bring deadly weapons like knives. "Boston is saturated with antifa," Verrette's original post said. "Expect a shitload to be there. They WILL be violent."
After Verrette's note, it wasn't just 4chan trolls who answered the call. Soon, an A-list of modern neo-reactionaries and militia groups had signed on, all spoiling for a fight. That fight didn't materialize in Boston — police kept the sides apart.
Fighting, though, isn't the sole purpose of the rallies. While the absence of violence in Boston meant there wasn't much splashy news coverage, the rally nonetheless accomplished a far-right goal of coalition building. There are bonds being forged in battle preparations — even absent the battle — that are bringing together activists with profiles ranging from middle-aged combat veterans to couch-addled teenage gamers.
In this, the alt-right is borrowing from the organization of its very foils on the left. Liberals and progressives have been busy organizing mass protest movements that can spring quickly into action. The Women's March on Washington built a rapid response network that led to the mobilization at airports across the country during the so-called Muslim ban. And the People's Climate March included a week's worth of programming on movement building and training candidates. United by the banner of opposing President Donald Trump's agenda, disparate progressive interest groups are showing solidarity and working together.
So, too, is the American far-right uniting. Factional divides are set aside in favor of shows of force. It's ultimately a practical tack. "If you're so far to the right that you've been excluded from mainstream American political discourse, you'll take whatever you can get to get your message back into the mainstream," said Alice Marwick, who recently co-published a study from the Data & Society Research Institute on the emergence of the new far-right.
The rallies like the one in Boston represent the dawn of a new and frightening mass movement.
"My goal is to get the younger generation, born well after me, to get them back in."
The organizing was evident on the dais at Boston Common. During the afternoon, a 4channer who goes by the name "John Rasmussen" took to the dais to give rapid-fire talking points on gaining political power — identifying central causes, sending out letters for a campaign, building roots with influential members of the community, participating in local meetings, finding local allies and, eventually, getting into local government. Rasmussen, who says he has served on his local school board in Maine, wants his fellow reactionaries to get off the internet and into local office.
"You need to be ask to be appointed to the planning board, ask to be appointed to the board of appeals, all of these boards municipalities create to make bureaucratic work for us," he said. "And once you're in it, you can get rid of it. You really can. It's remarkable."
Rasmussen was an organizer with Occupy Maine before being becoming a self-professed millennial "/pol/ack" — or a devotee of 4chan's politics message board. He spent time throughout the rally with the small group of teenage organizers he sees as the next big opportunity to put reactionaries into power.
"My generation's been so cast aside by the political system by the elite who are trying to maintain their generation's control over everything, they didn't bring my generation in," Rasmussen said. "My goal is to get the younger generation, born well after me, to get them back in."
It's not entirely clear the younger generations want in — or what they want into. While Rasmussen spoke, the younger crowd, bearing the flag of Kekistan, a fictionalized right-wing country born out of gamers' imaginations, stood taunting the antifa on the front lines.
The Kekistanis, however, delighted in the speech delivered by Kyle Chapman, or "Based Stick Man," an alt-right celebrity brawler famous for bloodying anti-fascists in the Battle of Berkeley. Chapman had flown into Boston thanks to a last-minute $1,500 flight; a girl who appeared to be no older than 12 wandered the common collecting donations to make up his cost.
From the dais, Chapman gave a growling sermon about demolishing what he called the George Soros-funded threat of antifa, the apparent foot soldiers of the communistic Democrats. "We need to put our foot down and make sure these sons of bitches don't have a foothold here like they have in Europe," Chapman shouted. "We need to crush them, destroy them. We need to demoralize them."
Behind the bandstand, a group called the Proud Boys, a traditionalist "neo-masculine" fraternity for adults, was initiating prospective members in a loose huddle. In matching black Fred Perry polo shirts, they have each prospective member recite the mantra, "I am a Proud Boy, I am a Western chauvinist and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world." And then there's the beat-in: A handful of Proud Boys punch the initiate repeatedly until he shouts the names of five breakfast cereals.
Each group had its own competing chants. The Proud Boys yelled "Commie faggots" in unison while the 4chan trolls preferred "Normies out!"
Militiamen, libertarians, bona fide white supremacists, "classical liberals" and men's-rights reactionaries were all brought together against a common enemy. Strange bedfellows, but necessary allies.
"Antifa, in a way, is a godsend."
Even if these disparate coalition members can't articulate a cohesive politics, they are united in what they feel is under assault: traditional values, whites, masculinity, the West, free speech and the Constitution.
"They're saying we need to hate white people, hate the people that make it great, hate all of our presidents," Liam (last name withheld), a 15-year-old wearing a pin that said "free speech is lit," told Mic. "If you stand for nationalism you stand for the Constitution, you're a bad guy. So what's being given to me, what am I inheriting? I don't know anymore. It's all going away. It's scary."
And now, these embattled, politically underdeveloped kids have a black-masked crusade to go to war with. Pro-Trump media has spent months painting anti-fascist violence as a new terroristic threat unknown to American politics for half a decade, paving the way for the radicalization of embittered young men who are told they're the only line of martial defense against a literal communistic threat to the country.
Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, remembers meeting with other veterans throughout the Obama era. He and the other old hounds of the militia movement lamented the lack of youth leadership. Rhodes wondered why his membership didn't bring along their sons and grandsons.
The Oath Keepers had been premised on preparing for violence, but it came sparingly. The looming specter of political correctness and multiculturalism didn't need to be fought with assault rifles; memes, harassment campaigns and vicious pranks were enough.
With the emergence of anarchist black blocs, however, the militias have a more tangible foe to fight with in the streets.
"Antifa is now helping to galvanize and keep alive the patriot movement," Rhodes said in an interview. "The movement tends to die off during Republican administrations. Antifa, in a way, is a godsend."
The escalation is predictable. Throughout the history of anti-fascist violence, leftist resistance has been used as an excuse for building a unified, militarized front.
"Violence from opponents of fascist regimes usually gives more intense, overt power to that regime," Nitzan Lebovic, the chair on Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University, told Mic shortly after Trump was elected. "In any of the cases I know, it plays right into the hands of the regime, and is used as an excuse to harshen the punitive measures against critics. It doesn't benefit those who are interested in democracy."
"Juvenility and hyper masculinity"
As the rally reached its end, the far-right activists marched together through the streets of Boston. They shouted a hodgepodge of right-wing slogans; "Blue Lives Matter," "All Lives Matter," "USA!" and "Lock her up" among them. Upon the group's return to Boston Common, the crowd of antifa had largely dispersed. "Let's take the hill!" someone shouted.
The makeshift coalition gathered for a group photo, a victory over an enemy that literally wasn't present, and was never confronted. The Oath Keepers were happy to keep things safe, but the 4channers needed to pose in costume without having worn the uniform, to take valor never won, to protect oaths they never swore.
For kids with abhorrent personal politics, the far right gives a sense of belonging. For the more mature — aging, even — militia movement, the young alt-righters provide a new energy. Along with its often wacky aesthetics, though, the alt-right brings little in the way of substance; the grizzled veterans of the Oath Keepers may yet be disappointed in their younger comrades. The two factions have the preparedness to turn toward violence in common, but even there the younger generation has a shallow approach.
"The juvenility and hyper masculinity are things you see in the Chan world," Heidi Beirich, an expert on extremism with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "It seems more like a childish attempt to re-enact fight club under the banner of free speech."
"I don't know if it's a phase, or what it is."
After the rally, Verrette and his young friends were grinning from ear to ear, excited organize more events. But Verrette is not sure what's next. "I don't know," he muttered when asked. Few in the movement seem to have grappled with what comes next.
Verrette's mother Melissa, for her part, knows what she wants: for her son to grow out of the alt-right and its juvenile trolling.
"I don't know if it's a phase, or what it is," she said. "But I'm fully against it."
Not all parents are so weary. Over where the Proud Boys were initiating new recruits, somebody asked if there was an age requirement for getting beat-in. When another Proud Boy shouted "18," a tall kid with a mop of curly hair and an American flag looked back to the edge of the crowd to his father, who gave him a coy smile and nod of approval.