When white nationalists did not come out in threatening numbers on Sunday at a rally in Huntington Beach, many counter-protesters saw it as a victory.
“We won the day,” Los Angeles activist Najee Ali said hours after the protest began. “They won’t show up. They are vastly outnumbered. The community of Huntington Beach won.
Yet those who track extremist movements say the truth is more complex and disturbing.
Internal strife, disorganization and other factors could have prevented neo-Nazis and other extremists from coming forward with the kind of force seen at the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
But they also warn that white nationalists appear to be exploiting the low turnout at the event – and the fact that they have been overwhelmed by counter-protesters – to boost their recruitment under the pretext that whites are being attacked.
“It fuels the agenda that white men no longer have constitutional rights,” said Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County and Long Beach. “They’re trying to come together, and they can’t come together. They are trying to have freedom of speech, and they cannot.
The weekend fiasco at Huntington Beach, repeated in more than a dozen US cities where similar rallies were planned, could not only play for an aggrieved base of white-centric groups, but could also help them build relationships. ties to other right-wing ideologies, extremist experts said. . Far from signaling a breakdown in white supremacist activity, Sunday could be a curtain raiser for things to come, as issues such as immigration, border security and police reform continue to rock. politics.
“It was a cynical publicity stunt,” said Eric Ward, an extremism expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Western States Center. “It sets the base on fire. This makes these individuals [who attend] automatic heroes.
In recent years, counter-protesters have increasingly clashed with far-right protesters as passions grew on both sides. During Sunday’s event, opponents swarmed with apparent white supremacists and like-minded protesters, often chasing them from Huntington Beach Pier amid chants of “Nazis, come home.”
Several groups, including Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, made it clear before the rally that they did not support the counter-protest. Some have said the low turnout could have been a strategy and believe white nationalist groups have used similar events in the past to drag them into confrontations.
“They use it for prosecutions. They use it for public relations. They’re using it to get media attention, and that’s extremely problematic, ”said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State LA. “We don’t want to buy into their story; we don’t want to feed their story. I don’t think they usually take up public space if they can’t get attention.
But Sunday’s flop wasn’t just about being outnumbered.
The far-right groups behind the event were crippled by paranoia, mistrust, lack of clear organization, and participants’ desire to remain anonymous – issues that have become increasingly evident in organizations. days leading up to the rally, which was promoted on the Telegram messaging site from in March.
The surge of “White Lives Matter” rallies on April 11 has prompted nearly 50 city-specific groups to host events in multiple states, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Yet despite what appeared to be a vigorous and targeted promotional campaign – including flyers from the Ku Klux Klan in Huntington Beach, Long Beach and Newport Beach – turnout was low across the country.
“There is no central organizer,” wrote a director of Proud Boys’ spin-off group Western Chauvinist, which has more than 46,000 Telegram subscribers. “YOU are the organizer. If your local walk is not taking place, it is because YOU did not organize one.
In the days leading up to the rally, the Huntington Beach Police Department said it was trying to contact organizers to “avoid surprises” and remind them of city codes and laws. But on Sunday, police spokesman Lt. Brian Smith said they had been unable to identify or contact the people behind the event.
Even William Quigg, who is known as the head of state of the Loyal White Knights faction of the Ku Klux Klan in California, did not appear to be in charge on Sunday, Levi said.
“It does not seem that there was any real organization on the ground around these demonstrations,” he said. “We saw maybe 10 White Lives Matter walkers, but they didn’t seem to coordinate with each other at all, and there wasn’t anyone who seemed to be in charge.”
Several gatherings planned in other states and counties did not show up at all. In Sacramento, only one White Lives Matter supporter showed up at McKinley Park and “quickly left,” officials said. In Fresno, a contingent of Proud Boys attended a weekly protest that rocked its arts district over the sale of a historic theater to a conservative church, a police spokesperson said.
The White Lives Matter organization has also been infiltrated by left-wing activists who have confused its online channels on Telegram. On Sunday morning, the future WLM demonstrators displayed their uncertainty about the locations of the demonstrations and other information.
On April 9, White Lives Matter organizers attempted to reassure supporters about the posts, writing “90% of them were made by goodwill patriots, while 10% were created by antifa maggots. – now deleted. ”
And while some people at the Pier on Sunday were open about their ideological positions, others supported various causes. One person waved a large Trump 2020 flag while another waved a flag emblazoned with “All Lives Matter”.
Diane Cruzen, 65, said she and others were there to show their support for the police. “We’re here, but we’re not here with flags, signs, things on our sweatshirts,” said Cruzen, who felt that much of the crowd was against the counter-protesters.
“I don’t see why ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be more important than ‘All Lives Matter’,” she said.
A wide range of people are showing up at events such as Sunday’s rally, experts said. Some cherish the idea of joining radical groups, some want to see what it is about, and a third type wants their point of view to be heard on an evolving world that they do not understand or are with. not comfortable, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
“There are people who come forward knowing exactly what’s going to be in the cereal box,” Levin said, “and there are others who falter and still others who are adjacent to the Nazis. All of these people want to be heard, but the direction and depth of their prejudices are not homogeneous.
Advertising is the main purpose of these gatherings, he said. Groups also want to demonstrate their relevance and recruit new members.
“With these kinds of gatherings, even when they fail, they provide a high degree of publicity, which is part of the oxygen that these groups need,” Levin said. He added that “it also shows how helpless and irrelevant they are, not only with mainstream people, but also with people on the extreme who think they are doing it wrong.”
And while Sunday’s low turnout may suggest people are increasingly unwilling to be publicly associated with white supremacy, some pundits are more cautious.
Several said they expected more white nationalist activity in the coming months, which could include lone wolf violence or organized marches. On Monday, one of Telegram’s white nationalist channels pledged more action and better security and announced another event in May that would be “extremely controlled this time.”
“Don’t think the extremists are out of order – they’ve just realigned themselves in a disturbing way,” Levin said. “Now we are seeing a leaner, meaner, less publicly brazen type of extremism.”
Lowell Smith, president of La Sierra University’s criminal justice program and a former Orange County law enforcement officer specializing in far-right movements, said the groups he monitors hope to exploit fears about the Biden administration’s immigration policies and other current policies.
Extremist groups claim Democrats are plotting to change voter demographics through illegal immigration. As the border crisis unfolds, he said racist groups would likely take advantage of it and also take hold of issues such as fairness in policing. One potential flashpoint will be the jury’s decision in the trial of former white Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This week, the murder of another black man, Daunte Wright, by a Minnesota police officer sparked both civic unrest and a backlash from conservative groups.
The underground movements, said Smith, “will monitor the political environments in the United States, and they will choose the issues they can defend.”