In 2019, a small group of truly unpleasant people banded together to be loud, obnoxious, and wrong outside a Texas Planned Parenthood. While the tactic isn’t new, the faces were: the Proud Boys wore their signature black and gold polo shirts, while the InfoWars personalities they stood beside wore the channel’s T-shirts; both wore red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats, waved Trump flags, and perspired under a merciless sun, yelling anti-abortion slogans at passing cars and anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot. A guy wearing a shirt from the militia group Texas Nomads SAR (which stands for Security and Resistance) and a crooked helmet emblazoned with a Trump bumper sticker proudly offered his thoughts on Planned Parenthood for a far-right livestreamer: “It’s eugenics,” he said, squinting at traffic and half-heartedly waving a Trump flag. “It’s not for the purpose that was stated.” He segued into a selection of questionably related and exceedingly racist thoughts on the dangers of “illegal immigrants” raping women. And all the while, Texas law enforcement agencies were watching, and were taking note of the attendees’ capacity for violence.
The rally, such as it was, was dubbed “Make Parenting Great Again,” and was hosted, according to a law enforcement report, by InfoWars personality Owen Shroyer. The “featured guests” included Proud Boy leader Ethan Nordean (who goes by the nom de guerre “Rufio Panman”), clad in a Proud Boys polo and mirrored green sunglasses, jovially interviewed by Shroyer, as well as an alt-right blogger named Jason Lo who reportedly went by the name “Maga Titan,” and a handful of members of two local militia groups. (Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of VICE. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He later founded the Proud Boys in 2016.)
It was both a non-event, and, in hindsight, a preview: the Make Parenting Great Again rally was a precursor of much worse to come from some of its individual players. According to prosecutors, two years later Nordean played a major role in the January 6 Capitol riot, along with other anti-government militia groups like the OathKeepers, while InfoWars founder Alex Jones helped foment the violence and then cheered it from on-air.
The violence of that day was not a surprise to abortion providers, who have watched the far right use anti-abortion talking points to build relationships with one another for years. “Our providers saw familiar faces on their screens as they watched the storming of the capitol on TV,” the Very Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale told VICE News; she’s an Episcopal priest and the president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association for abortion providers in the United States, Canada, and Central America.
And the relationship cuts both ways: besides Proud Boys and other far right extremists, anti-abortion activists --well-known ones as well as regular clinic protesters-- were seen protesting in D.C. on the day of the riot.
In all, fewer than 50 people appear to have attended the anti-Planned Parenthood rally. But in the lead-up, attendees who registered as “Going” on a Facebook page for the event were subject to scrutiny by state authorities, according to an open records request obtained by the government transparency group Property of the People and shared exclusively with VICE News. A law enforcement analyst took note of the fact that Nordean, Shroyer, and a tiny constellation of other far-right trolls were banding together and even flying in from out of state to attend, a clear sign that these groups were both building relationships and taking them offline.
The “Make Parenting Great Again” event was specifically monitored by the Austin Regional Intelligence Center or ARIC, a fusion center that’s run by the Austin Sheriff’s Department; 19 state law enforcement agencies share information through the fusion center, and with federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Property of the People, the group that obtained the document, is a nonprofit that uses FOIA requests to create transparency about the inner workings of government.
The ARIC documents, PoTP Executive Director Ryan Shapiro told VICE News, were obtained as part of an ongoing investigation into the nation’s fusion centers, which were established after the September 11, 2001 attacks to create better intelligence sharing among state and federal authorities and prevent future terrorist attacks. PoTP was motivated to start FOIA-ing for fusion center documents after the Capitol riots, he said, “to uncover documents on intelligence and law enforcement operations in the run-up to, and wake of, the attempted coup.”
Fusion centers may have been founded with the goal of better information-sharing, but that has not historically guaranteed that the information gathered or shared by them is particularly good. Instead, fusion centers have experienced the same kinds of mission bloat and odd fixations as other American law enforcement agencies. One center in Washington State promoted antifa conspiracy theories, while in Oregon fusion centers both tracked lawful environmental activism and, in one instance, had an investigator using government tools to digitally track people using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #FuckthePolice, which state Attorney General Ellen Rosenbulm told the Willamette Week left her “outraged.”
In 2018, Texas Governor Greg Abbott unveiled a program for teens to anonymously report their classmates to a fusion-center run program called iWatch; the program, ostensibly to prevent school shootings, raised concerns among civil liberties groups about the broad surveillance of adolescents. In 2008, the ACLU wrote that there were “serious questions about whether data fusion is an effective means of preventing terrorism in the first place, and whether funding the development of these centers [was] a wise investment of finite public safety resources,” warning that the centers were already “hobbled by excessive secrecy” and risked becoming “wasteful and misdirected bureaucracies that, like our federal security agencies before 9/11, won't succeed in their ultimate mission of stopping terrorism and other crime.”
“Fusion centers are often plagued by precisely the same kinds of disastrous assumptions and priorities which led to the intelligence failure that birthed them,” Shapiro told VICE News. “This makes it especially noteworthy when fusion center products, such as these ARIC reports, do a surprisingly good job identifying, accurately describing, and flagging for others threats posed by fascists and other violent far-right actors.”
The report from the ARIC analyst, written four days before the rally, and updated a couple of days later, found that there were “no indicators of planned or potential disruptive activity, counter-demonstration activity, or credible threats at this time.” But it noted that the event would feature attendees from two militia groups as well as “well-known alt right figures,” and accurately defined alt-right to mean “espous[ing] a far-right extremist, white nationalist ideology.” (The Proud Boys specifically have strenuously insisted they are not a racist group and in the past sought to downplay their connections with the larger far right.) The analyst also specifically noted that the Proud Boys “sanction and embrace the use of violence to further their ideology and members have been involved in multiple violent assaults in multiple states.” Nordean, it added, had been seen on livestreams of previous rallies “assaulting antifa affinity demonstrators,” writing that “Nordean consistently used his fists in these incidents and gained a reputation within the alt-right as a fearsome and revered street fighter.”
The analyst also dryly noted that Shroyer of InfoWars had recently appeared at a Beto O’Rourke rally to troll the attendees on camera while dressed in a cow costume, adding, “Shroyer drew cheers from fans as well as insults and heckling from detractors; however, Shroyer was not involved in any disruptive or unlawful activity.” A previous anti-Planned Parenthood rally Shroyer organized, the analyst added, “took place without incident” and drew some two dozen attendees.
The fact that the Make Parenting Great Again attendees found their common ground in protesting abortion access is not surprising, Rev. Ragsdale told VICE News. Beginning in the 1980s, she said, disparate sectors of the right and far-right “began to see the power of organizing against abortion,” the ways it could be used to coalition-build, along with, as she put it “other dog whistle issues,” like fomenting anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant sentiments.
“Absolutely they should’ve been looking at who’s gathering around the clinics,” she said. “And who hadn’t come before: who decided to use the issue to build and grow a movement that had a much broader agenda?”
But an individual analyst’s concerns over the links evidenced at the Make Parenting Great Again rally didn’t stop what was to come. The growing connections between far-right groups, along with the ways that their paranoia and false grievances were supported by more mainstream GOP players, continued to grow, finding a shared common ground in everything from anti-lockdown protests to crusades against porn.
And of course, it found its latest, most deadly form in the Stop the Steal movement, which brought all of these players crashing through the doors of the Capitol. Besides Nordean, an InfoWars editor named Samuel Montoya was arrested in connection with the Capitol riot. Variety reported that according to a law enforcement affidavit, Montoya uploaded a 44-minute video identifying himself as “Sam with Infowars.com” and at one point turned the camera around to show a clear image of his face while declaring, “It feels good to be in the Capitol, baby!” (InfoWars has claimed that Montoya was exercising his First Amendment and free speech rights, and promoted a conspiracy theory that he’s being targeted by prosecutors for filming the shooting of protestor Ashli Babbitt by a still-unidentified Capitol Police officer.)
All of which, Shapiro of Property to the People told VICE News, is why ignoring even the most minor or even trollish-seeming of actions—an InfoWars host milling around in a cow costume, a bunch of idiots yelling insults outside a Planned Parenthood—is, in the long run, a bad idea. “So much of the alt-right, and now just the general right-wing, model is to engage in actions that are simultaneously corrosive of democracy and absurd,” he said. “By masking authoritarian advances as mere trolling, genuine threats often get dismissed as jokes rather than evidence of the long-term coordination of fascists and allied far-right forces towards their shared aim of overthrowing democratic governance.”
For her part, Ragsdale said that even the most uneventful of clinic protests are deeply stressful for both providers and patients. “Providers know people who have been killed. It’s threatening to them and their families. It brings back grief over the people you’ve lost and fear you could be next.” Patients, no matter what the circumstances around their abortion—or even if they’re simply going into a clinic to pick up their birth control, also face added stress, fear, trauma and harrassment from clinic protesters, no matter if they’re prayer warriors or InfoWars trolls.
And in the uneasy aftermath of the events of January 6, Ragsdale added, things in front of the nation’s abortion clinics are still not calm.
“What we’ve found at our clinics is that folks are showing up with guns strapped to their sides,” she said. “That was happening prior to the Capitol invasion, but not much. We’re seeing sidearms and machine guns in front of clinics that have been shot up in the past, that have been bombed. It’s incredible trauma for all sorts of folks. I wish we’d see backing off. But anecdotally, instead, we’re hearing of increased invasions, armed people and terror.”
The May 24, 2019 report as obtained by Property of the People is below.
Correction, April 28, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Texas Nomads SAR’s acronym stands for “Sons of the American Revolution.” It actually stands for Security and Resistance, per a Facebook post by the group. We regret the error.