White supremacists and neo-Nazis tried to co-opt the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder last week, turning the day of mourning into a national publicity stunt for their cause. On Telegram—an encrypted app popular among the far-right—there was deliberate encouragement of users to entice local media into coverage.
Several Telegram channels that are widely shared in far-right circles and known to VICE News posted images of men dropping banners over highway overpasses with the slogan “No More White Guilt” and other variations of the “White Lives Matter” line. 4Chan, an anonymous messaging board chock full of racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist users, also had posts organizing a “Worldwide coordinated banner [drop]” encouraging members to help the cause.
The national initiative among a grassroots hodgepodge of racists across America who predominantly organize their activities online and on apps like Telegram, is further evidence that the far-right hasn’t been completely hampered or dissuaded by the mob-attack on Capitol Hill. Many remain focused on public displays of white supremacism and seek to incite and radicalize new followers, even in the face of countless arrests of far-right actors by authorities across the U.S.
“Looking forward to seeing those that people said they'll be hanging during rush hour,” said a neo-Nazi Telegram user with thousands of followers who was coordinating and leading the scheme, before asking others to make sure to send him pictures and videos of their publicly displayed banners.
According to an expert analyst of the far-right, that same user sold and created the trademark materials that popped up in online images from the campaign.
“This was an attempt by the Telegram channel admin to enlarge his reputation, mock the murder of George Floyd, seek to sow discord, and spread white supremacist ideology very publicly,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a terrorism researcher at the Counter Extremism Project. He said the admin of that particular channel not only sold banners but “flags, patches, and other items” used in the event to advertise their brand in an effort to legitimize and take advantage of the present momentum of far-right activism.
The videos and images of bigoted banners and placards were seen in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington, Minnesota, Arkansas and Connecticut, garnering thousands of online views. One video shows the banner hung next to a sign that signals a turn off toward Staten Island in New York City, when the driver yells “White Power.” One neo-Nazi streetfighting gang, led by a former member of domestic terror group the Base, dropped a video of a banner placed in New Hampshire with five of its members protecting it.
While an exhaustive FBI crackdown on attendees of the Capitol Hill mob attack in January has garnered over 400 arrests nationwide and neo-Nazi terror groups are continually dismantled by authorities across the country, some far-right organizations have struggled for online legitimacy. Behind these inflammatory and overtly racist banners was a calculated effort at monopolizing the moment for a craven attempt at exposure.
Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), said that her organization hadn’t been aware of the banners or any counterprotesting at George Floyd memorial gatherings last week, but pointed out it was likely because those actions were “marketed in spaces that Black people or people of color would not be privy to—hate-filled pathological spaces where those sentiments are shared.”
Eniya was clear that this type of far-right counterprotest, one with an overt racist agenda, was inevitable in the face of continuing marches across the country demanding an end to white supremacism writ-large.
“We have always understood that standing up for racial justice, calling out systemic racism, and speaking truth to power would come with risks,” she said. “We have always understood the tactics of these groups but we have absolutely not been deterred at all—hence why the movement for justice is still going strong.
What's clear is that these groups and individuals that are a part of these groups are desperate to try to advance their hate-filled messages. But we have history and truth on our side, so we keep marching forward in spite of their efforts.”
Some of the participants in the banner campaign specifically targeted local media as a means to spread their cause at a regional level, seeing them as an easy target for further amplification of their message.
“Banner drop from a local (white nationalist) group in Harrison, Arkansas,” reads one post with an accompanying image of one of the banners. “Harrison Daily Times on Facebook needs to hear about it for extra reach [smiley face symbol].”
At least one Fox News reporter at an affiliated station in Arkansas tweeted a banner, and a local CBS station in Connecticut devoted a segment to bewildered drivers who saw a similar placard at an overpass. Still, the nationwide stunt didn’t totally work.
Fisher-Birch said the move to target local media was significant and shows white supremacists, even while organizing a national effort, think it can reach and profit off of a localized audience in parts of the U.S.
“Like many propaganda actions, getting media attention to amplify the event and its message was key, and in at least one case, an individual who allegedly participated encouraged others on Telegram to contact local news,” said Fisher-Birch. “This is an example of individuals in multiple groups, and those who are unaffiliated, coordinating for the purpose of advancing a specific white supremacist message.”
The same ringleader of the campaign is now planning for further banner initiatives among his Telegram followers and praised their collective work.
“You guys are showing your ability to make effects on 3 dimensional reality,” he wrote the day after the banner stunt. “Keep momentum […] We are just getting started.”
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