We’d scheduled a phone interview with a member of the Midwest Youth Liberation Front to talk about how they’d recently exposed a school board candidate as a white nationalist.
But 19-year-old “Sam”, who uses they/them pronouns and asked us to use a pseudonym to conceal their identity for safety purposes, was running a few minutes late. They couldn't talk yet because their parents were still within earshot.
Sam’s family, and most of their friends, have no idea that they moonlight in an antifascist youth crew whose members, mainly teens or people in their early 20s, are scattered across the Midwest. The Youth Liberation Front, or YLF, describes itself as a “decentralized network of autonomous youth crews.” Pacific NorthWest Youth Liberation Front was the first of its kind, and has existed since at least 2017, amassing thousands of followers on its Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“People were really treating kids like shit in activist circles and protests,” said Sam. “You got a bunch of kids in shitty situations, even abusive situations, because that was all that was available to them.” Last summer, amid nationwide protests after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, more YLF crews started cropping up online—including the Midwest’s YLF.
The Pacific Northwest YLF crew, which has no direct relationship to any of the antifascist chapters in the area, is notorious for its embrace of anarchist, confrontational tactics that have recently come to define stereotypes of protests in Portland and Seattle. Those sorts of tactics have drawn the attention of “antifa hunters” like Andy Ngo and other right-wingers, who routinely highlight anarchist activity in an attempt to make sweeping generalizations about leftists. Those generalizations fuel the caricature of the “antifa” boogieman, which is often invoked by Fox News and the GOP to argue that the real domestic terror threat is coming from the Left. (The FBI and Homeland Security does not agree with this assessment, having repeatedly stated that the biggest threats to national security is coming from racially motivated violent extremists and violent militia groups).
But Sam, and the Midwest Youth Liberation Front, consider themselves to be more of the antifascist flavor of leftist organizing, which, to them, means spending time online trying to gain access into far-right networks rather than, for example, throwing a brick through a Starbucks window. When Sam isn’t studying or working their part-time job, they spend hours crafting alternative personas, which they use to infiltrate far-right chats, and lure racists into unwittingly sharing personal information.
The fruits of those efforts came to light recently when they successfully catfished Josh Wells, a resident of Hutchinson, Kansas, an active participant in a White Lives Matter Telegram channel, and a school board candidate, by posing as fellow white nationalists.
In screenshots of chats shared with VICE News (which were first reported on by the Kansas Reflector), the account linked to Wells spouted racism, bragged about his involvement with the Proud Boys and a Three Percenters militia, expressed admiration for the white supremacist group Patriot Front, and talked about forming his own Midwest Nationalist Party which he hoped would lay the groundwork for establishing a white ethnostate. (VICE News was unable to independently verify whether he was an official member of the Proud Boys, as he claimed).
Midwest YLF doxed Wells in late May in a long thread posted to their Twitter account. Sam said that the thread was circulated within antifascist circles online, until it got the attention of Sherman Smith, a reporter with the Kansas Reflector, who identified Wells as one of the candidates vying for a spot on the Haven School Board. Smith wrote about Wells in late July. Since then, Wells has refused to withdraw his candidacy.
In text messages to VICE News, Wells described Smith as an “jealous, envious little man who couldn’t size up to me in high school and definitely can’t now.” (Smith told VICE he never went to high school with Wells.)
Wells didn’t deny being a Proud Boy, and said his involvement with a Three Percenters group was “short lived and years ago.” And with regards to his pet project, the Midwest Nationalist Party: he claimed that it’s not focused on establishing a white ethnostate, it’s “just based off of the Republican party platform just more family and military dedicated.”
He also rejected the suggestion that he was a white supremacist.
“My wife is Hispanic therefore I have Hispanic children so to say that I'm anything close to being a white supremacist is not only libel content it's plain ignorant,” he wrote to VICE. “We all know that unless you are liberally hypnotized and agree with the lefts way of doing things then you're an extremist or racist.”
Wells also claimed that the screenshots and videos provided by Midwest YLF were “some of the worst photoshopped I’ve ever seen.”
In an earlier interview with The Wichita Eagle, Wells defended the Proud Boys, saying they’d been maligned by the press and that his ties to the group were “irrelevant” to his candidacy for school board.
“Anyone who actually knows a Proud Boy would be the first to tell you that we’re all good guys and stand up for ourselves, our brothers and family and the rest of the country,” he told the paper. “I’m not dropping out of the school board race.”
Ever since his views were exposed, Wells candidacy has underscored simmering fears about extremists and ideologues attempting to gain a foothold in politics by seeking office in local elections. School board elections, in particular, have become a particular area of concern. In recent months, school board meetings have become flashpoints for broader culture war issues, amid growing anger from the GOP about “Critical Race Theory,” which has become the catch-all term to describe any educational program that seeks to unpack the legacy of race and racism in America.
Kansas State Sen. Cindy Holscher told the Kansas City Star that she’d been monitoring local races for extremist candidates and is keeping a close eye on school board elections.
The central role that Midwest Youth Liberation Front played in exposing Wells has meant that the multifaceted, and often misunderstood antifascist movement—or “antifa”—is actually getting some somewhat positive coverage in local news.
Sam said they got lucky with a “palatable” story.
Sam and other members of Midwest YLF encountered Wells when they infiltrated a slew of Telegram channels that were dedicated to organizing “White Lives Matter” rallies around the country back in April. The far-right movement’s terrible OPSEC meant that the organizing channels on Telegram provided a playground for young antifascists looking to flex their doxxing skills.
Midwest YLF, posting as fellow white nationalists, were able to establish a rapport with Wells, and they began chatting over the encrypted messaging app Signal. Sam shared screenshots and recordings of their conversations with VICE News. In one exchange from April, Wells shared a draft of a statement he hoped to get published in a local paper.
“We are advocates of white nationalism and or a pro-western Christian theocracy with a protected white majority status,” Wells wrote. “Which ever one is more obtainable.”
In other screenshots of messages, Wells boasted about his membership in the Proud Boys and even shared a picture of an FBI agent’s business card, claiming he’d gotten a visit the feds after a group of Kansas City Proud Boys were arrested and charged for their alleged role in the January 6 insurrection. Wells also shared a video that he claimed was from a national Proud Boy meet-up that he attended last year, showing a large group wearing Proud Boy uniforms in some sort of warehouse chanting “fuck antifa.”
While many young antifascists may seek mentorship from more established antifascists online, Sam said that for the most part, they were self-taught. They’d pore over ItsGoingDown, an online hub for leftist organizing, looking for the occasional article exposing a fascist, and then try to work backwards to figure out what their process was.
Sam repeatedly stressed the importance of good “OPSEC” (operational security) which was why they were reluctant to divulge almost any concrete details about how Midwest-YLF operates. They wouldn’t even tell us the approximate number of members they have.
By contrast, Sam said, there’s a lot of fairweather teen antifascists who glom onto the movement because it’s cool—but who don’t really know what they’re doing, which can endanger their personal security and produce “bad doxxes” (which is something seasoned antifascists are often seen complaining about on Twitter).
“You see 16-year-olds on TikTok with the username ‘AntifaLord” or some crap. There’s a popularization of it,” said Sam. “People come in with no experience, and they want to get involved but it takes a lot of due diligence.”
An online blog hub for YLF crews also offers some guidance to budding anarchists or antifascists. “Practice good security habits and digital hygiene,” they advise. “Have fun and don’t get caught???”
Sam says that misconceptions about antifascism is why they haven’t told their parents about their involvement in the movement. “There’s this idea that I’m gonna dox your grandpa just because he watched FOX news,” said Sam. “The people that antifa targets are fascists and racists. If I could explain that to my parents, maybe they'd understand. But it’s always going to be the associations with the word [antifa] that come before that concrete reality of what I’m doing.”
“It is strange the ways in which so many people have suddenly been able to take up that antifascist shit online,” Sam added. “It’s just a thing you do, maybe out of ethical obligation, or maybe an emotional urge to prove something to your parents, or get rid of some guilt about that incident from two years ago or whatever.”
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(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)