On far-right social media, violent rhetoric continues unabated

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Far-right activists Kevin Cormier, Peter Boykin and Jovanni Valle aka Jovi Val (l-r) in real life in September 2017. (screengrab)

One week after Pittsburgh, violent rhetoric against migrants, Jews and leftists continues unabated on far-right precincts of social media.

Hours before he walked into Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and fatally gunned down 11 elderly Jews participating in Shabbat services, Robert Bowers made a now infamous post on Gab, a social media platform favored by white supremacists: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The post, which referenced the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, perfectly encapsulated three intertwined phenomena: antisemitism, anti-migrant sentiment and violence.

Bowers engaged with several high-profile alt-right figures on Gab, according to a recent analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Network Contagion Research Institute, including Brad Griffin of the League of the South; Patrick Little, a former US Senate candidate from California; and an online persona known as “Jack Corbin,” who has harassed antiracist activists at UNC-Chapel Hill during the “Silent Sam” protests.

It’s not difficult to find posts and comment threads promoting violence against migrants, Jews and leftists on accounts whose members are linked to far-right extremist groups, even after the Pittsburgh shooting.

Kevin Cormier may not be as well-known as Griffin, Little or Corbin, but he helped organize the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington in August and perpetrated a hoax KKK rally that prompted antiracist students and faculty to organize a counter-protest at UNC-Chapel Hill in February. The Raleigh man has claimed involvement with a host of right-wing organizations, from the NC Republican Party to the Proud Boys, Libertarian Party and Oath Keepers. His affiliations appear to be fluid — in August he said he was no longer a Proud Boy — but his output on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is consistently inflammatory and often promotes violence.

On Wednesday night, Cormier made a post on Facebook bemoaning not the Pittsburgh massacre itself, but the public-relations challenge it posed for the far right.

“What’s with right wingers infighting after every incident like that shooting?” he wrote. “Sure it’s sad, but screw them, I’ll keep my guns and never apologize for being right.”

About an hour later, in another post, Cormier suggested people might have to resort to violence because of tech companies suspending far-right activists’ social-media accounts. Although he didn’t mention Gab specifically, the platform went down two days after the Pittsburgh shooting when its hosting company pulled the plug.

“If we cannot communicate our ideas without being censored and called ‘Nazis,’ what options do we have left other than torches and pitchforks?” Cormier wrote.

The comment thread quickly escalated beyond the anodyne sentiments of the initial post.

A Facebook user named “Adam Alt Richard” commented, “5.56 > tiki torches.” The number refers to a type of ammunition used with .223-caliber Remington rifles.”

Another user named “William Smith,” whose profile alludes to the alt-right icon Pepe the Frog and the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s practice of extrajudicial executions, goaded, “Quit talking about it and do something.”

Instead of dialing back the rhetoric, Cormier reacted defensively, writing, “I’ve been doing plenty.”

Another user Tony Szabo added, “Or AK-47s at the synagogue.”

Cormier punned in response: “You are Hitlarious.”

Another user named “Thorium Vain” agreed that 5.56 was the best ammunition for a “close range” shooting, adding, “City blocks don’t usually require 300m accuracy.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cormier agreed. “Next they will take away our democratic voice. We are living in a technocratic dictatorship and we need to purge and rage.”

Cormier could not be reached for comment for this story.

The rhetoric is not new for Cormier. In March, he tweeted a video of a female Stoneman Douglas High School student speaking out against gun violence, writing, “The shooter missed this one… What a skank.” A couple days later, he set up a Twitter poll that referenced another Parkland survivor, writing, “Should we execute communists who seek to undermine our country and constitution? (Think David Hogg.)”

And in a leaked Facebook chat group set up to organize Unite the Right 2, Cormier expressed the opinion that movies dramatizing police violence against black people would lead to a “race war,” and cited The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel revered by white supremacists.

“We wouldn’t lose it,” Cormier said. “Even though it would be very costly, we will need a civil war.”

Reflecting the fluid associations on the far right, the final comment on Cormier’s Oct. 30 thread came from Peter Boykin, a Republican candidate for state House District 58 in Guilford County who is the founder of Gays for Trump and who once emceed a rally for the Islamophobic group ACT for America. Boykin, whose profile photo showed him wearing a green “Make Orwell Fiction Again #FreeSocialMedia” hat, left the final comment on the thread: “My account was disabled.”

Asked about his participation in the thread, Boykin said he was unaware that some of the other comments promoted violence.

“I don’t have time to read all these threads and things these people post,” Boykin said, adding that he was removing his comment. “Just because I posted a comment doesn’t mean I okayed the thread.

Boykin argued that Cormier is not a white nationalist, on the basis that he is married to a Latinx woman, despite ample evidence in his social media posts that suggests otherwise.

“People like Kevin and people I know like dialogue,” Boykin said, also claiming to be unaware of any of Cormier’s posts promoting violence. “They do encroach on subjects I wouldn’t talk about.”

Boykin said he opposes violence. He added that he showed up for the Rally Against Hate and Violence at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, but couldn’t get in because the building was at capacity. Boykin said he ended up speaking outside and urged people to not let hate sway their vote in the election, no matter which side they’re on. (Rabbi Fred Guttman restricted dozens of politicians inside the synagogue from speaking, arguing that faith-based institutions are better equipped to bring people together and politicians bear significant responsibility for the current climate of hate.)

Inflammatory rhetoric shared by politicians and terrorists

Robert Bowers used the word “invaders” to describe to migrants — a dehumanizing term that reframes people who are fleeing violence and seeking economic opportunity as a hostile force and national security threat. Two days after the Pittsburgh shooting, President Trump deployed the same rhetoric, tweeting in reference to the caravan: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric has been widely used in campaign ads by Republican candidates, from US Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee to state Senate candidate Trudy Wade in North Carolina, who respectively used the terms “illegal alien mob” and “a mob of illegals marching on our border.” The GOP campaign rhetoric is largely indistinguishable from the language used by white supremacists and other far-right activists: On a separate Facebook page on Oct. 20, Cormier wrote: “I started a Twitter hashtag #StopTheInvasion.”

In the past seven days, Trump has escalated the rhetoric by pledging to repeal by executive order the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of birthright citizenship, which legal scholars widely view as a violation of the Constitution. And on Friday, he said, “Anybody throwing stones, rocks like they did to the Mexico military and the Mexican police, where they badly hurt police and soldiers of Mexico, we will consider that a firearm, because there’s not much difference when you get hit in the face with a rock.”

Shane Burley, the author of Fascism Today, said he views Trump’s rhetoric as being primarily motivated by the desire to help Republican candidates win elections, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.

“Any time that the far-right rhetoric is heightened it creates an impetus to act,” Burley said. “I don’t think it’s the election; it’s the rhetoric around it. The reason Trump does it is it gets turnout from the Republican base. I don’t think he has any plan to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment, but he’s saying that to get Republican base voters to come out for the mid-term election. But the rhetoric encourages violence.”

Trump’s promise to respond to rock-throwing with gunfire drew immediate engagement on the far-right precincts of social media.

Joshua Long, national vice president of the American Guard — a civic nationalist group whose crossed-cleavers logo pays homage to the character “Bill the Butcher” in the Martin Scorcese film Gangs of New York — posted a video on his Facebook page on Friday, commenting, “The second caravan of poor refugees… trying to shoot down a helicopter.”

The video actually shows a group of young men throwing rocks at a helicopter. And some commenters in the thread below the post seemed to take the statement as irony. One wrote, “Hahaha ‘shoot,’” while another wrote, “Look at all those assault rocks!”

But others responded with comments that appear to endorse shooting migrants. An American Guard member identified as Drew Smith posted a photo of a blond-haired man operating a machinegun on a tripod, while another person named Trevor Hennessey wrote, “Meet violence with violence. A gun run should cure the issues.”

In a Facebook message to Triad City Beat, Long characterized any inference that the thread promotes violence against migrants as “a pretty far conclusion to reach for.”

“The American Guard does not promote violence, of any sort,” he wrote. “Especially towards innocent people. We absolutely believe in the right to defend one’s self from violence, and the right of a nation to defend its border from violent attacks.”

Long added that the audio in the video reveals “multiple reports from small arms fire.” The video does feature the sound of sharp reports, but it’s not obvious that it’s gunfire as opposed to, say, people banging on metal fencing with sticks.

The American Guard was founded in 2016 by Brien James, who previously founded the Vinlanders Social Club, a violent and racist skinhead group whose members were responsible for the brutal beating of an African-American man in downtown Indianapolis in 2007, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Despite the racist past of the organization’s president and other members, Long said the American Guard “has never been a white nationalist organization,” adding that the group opposes “harmful identity politics that divide our nation” and promotes “a common defense of individual liberty.” Long also said the organization’s national spokeswoman descends from Mexican immigrants and one chapter has a president who is black and gay.

Notwithstanding Long’s disavowal of violence, on Saturday James posted an image of Bill the Butcher — based on the real-life nativist gang leader William Poole — holding a cleaver and machete describing it as his “stance on immigration.” On Thursday, he posted a link to an article headlined “Actor James Cromwell warns of ‘blood in the streets’ if Democrats don’t win election,” warning that while the left might be better organized and more committed, “they have consistently crumbled when met with naked right-wing aggression.”

A commenter named David Litts wrote, “Fact is they are violent and we must use the tool of violence better than they do. If they attack then we lay them to waste.”

James responded, “Absolutely. Once it starts I will give them no quarter. Some of you may be ashamed to know me when it’s over.”

Litts added, “If we lose though I will be a bigger war criminal than some that have been tried, but hey it is what it is.”

‘Create coalitions of goodness’

In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting and other atrocities going back further like James A. Fields Jr.’ car-ramming attack against antiracist marchers in Charlottesville, white supremacists often minimize violence by sharing jokes about it on social media.

Manuel Luxton, a North Carolina white supremacist who attended the first Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, posted a meme on Facebook the day after the Pittsburgh shooting reinforcing Holocaust denialism and making light of the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II. Luxton wrote, “11 people were tragically killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and 5,999,989 remain unaccounted for.” Luxton has previously posted vicious anti-Semitic memes on Facebook, including one depicting a Hasidic Jew in miniature being shoved into a clay pizza oven, and has celebrated the murder of migrants by using a photo of Luca Traini — an Italian man who was recently sentenced to prison for shooting six African migrants — as his Facebook profile picture.

Although Luxton’s place of residence is not known, he carried the Guilford Courthouse Flag in Charlottesville and administers a white supremacist Facebook page called Guilford News Network, indicating strong ties to the area.

Days before the Pittsburgh shooting, Luxton posted a photo of the migrant caravan with a Dodge Challenger similar to the one driven by James Fields in Charlottesville photoshopped in to make it look like it was careening towards the line of people.

Hunter Smith, a white supremacist from Davidson County who carried a shield with Luxton in Charlottesville, commented, “A hero emerges.”

Luxton and Smith could not be reached for this story.

Burley, the author of Fascism Today, said that social media posts celebrating violence are so ubiquitous that assuming every one of them was real would likely lead to people “living under a rock.” But he added, “We should listen when people say things and take buffoonish claims seriously. We also need to be creating community structures of support and defense and understand that synagogues have been targeted by white supremacists for years.”

Rabbi Fred Guttmann said Temple Emanuel has “really good security,” adding, “I can’t tell you anything about it.”

As a general response to threats of violence, Guttman offered that the most important step is for everybody to vote on Tuesday if they haven’t done so already.

“The underbelly has been ripped open of American society,” he said. “What it’s exposed and what’s coming out is racism, sexism, bias and bigotry and homophobia and antisemitism. We’re going to have to sew up the fabric of American society. It’s not going to be easy. All of these fringe elements have been empowered.”

Guttman also cited the importance of proactively building alliances between different faiths — something the Jewish community in Greensboro has been doing for decades.

“I think we just need to redouble our efforts to create coalitions of goodness between various groups,” he said, “and to make those coalitions stronger.”

Burley said communities need to be both vigilant and proactive in responding to threats of extremist violence, echoing some of Guttman’s ideas and adding others.

“Antisemitism is a conspiratorial worldview that rests alongside anti-black racism and homophobia,” he said. “I would like to see community groups recognize and organize together. I’m glad to see rapid response networks getting set up. When you talk about community defense networks, it could be something like a community watch.

“Seemingly random lone-wolf acts of violence are very, very hard to defend against,” he continued. “We’re two decades from the Oklahoma City bombing, and we still don’t have a clear idea what to do to prevents acts like that. You can’t put armed guards on every synagogue and mosque. We need to go much more holistically on this and create vibrant community linkages. We need to go on the offensive to stop white nationalist organizing before it can have the capacity to enact violence.”

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