Proceed with eyes open – Isthmus

Posted By on November 13, 2020

Spontaneous celebrations broke out across Madison this weekend as Joe Biden was announced the projected winner in the 2020 presidential race. Not everyone, of course, was excited about those results. Hundreds of Donald Trump supporters turned out for a pair of Stop the Steal rallies at the state Capitol. Included among the attendees were supporters of far-right movements, extremist media, and militia groups.

Were gonna recount, were gonna revote. I think thats what were fighting for here, is a revote, Alex Bruesewitz, a political consultant from Washington, D.C., told several hundred people gathered in front of the Capitol doors on Saturday.

I do organizing work, most recently with For Our Future, a super PAC that focuses on environmental and educational issues and that did electoral work in support of Joe Biden's campaign for president. My specialty is in relational organizing in rural areas, meaning that I spend time training people on how to have conversations with family members who disagree with them politically. It's what drew me to the state Capitol this weekend, where a Biden celebration and Trump rally were happening at the same time on opposite corners of the Square.

Though the pro-Trump rally was somewhat dwarfed by the thousands of Biden's supporters celebrating their victory just down the street, the energy among the Trump crowd remained high. Protesters flew a variety of pro-Trump flags and brought cardboard cutouts of Pelosi and Biden, the latter with the word Pedo written across its forehead a nod to the QAnon conspiracy that high-ranking Democrats are involved in a satanic, secretive pedophile ring that Trump is actively fighting to expose.

On the edges of the Stop the Steal rally where protesters and counter-protesters argued, those signs and flags drew the most attention. Easier to miss were flags that hinted at further extremism. On the western edge of the protest, a woman stood holding a flag with a large Roman numeral three, the year 1776, and the motto When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.

This flag represents the Three Percenters, sometimes referred to as 3%ers or Threepers online. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Three Percenters as an anti-government militia movement. Theyve been connected with several domestic terror plots in recent years, most notably the plot to kidnap and execute Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The second in command of Wisconsins Three Percenter chapter provided space and training to several of the people who were arrested in October for being involved in the plot, though he claims he had no knowledge of their plans at the time.

Bruesewitz was adamant that there were no militia members present. So the medias gonna twist it... ...theyre gonna see some great guys out here with guns, right? Theyre gonna go Oh my God thats a militia, taking on the [Capitol]. Thats not a militia. Were all peaceful protesters out here fighting for the country we love.

Undercutting this message was the tropical shirt worn by one of the men openly carrying a firearm at the protest; the shirt is a well-known sign in activist spaces for members of the Boogaloo movement.

The Anti-Defamation League calls the boogaloo movement an anti-government extremist movement. Its adherents, referred to as boogaloo boys or boogaloo bois, identify themselves with tropical shirts under military fatigues or by the use of igloo patches (big luau and big igloo sound similar to boogaloo and can help avoid social media keyword-based crackdowns). Boogaloo bois desire a second civil war and seek to apply pressure where they can to help start it. Over 31 members of the movement have been arrested in the past two years for crimes ranging from possession of unregistered firearms to murder. The movement is linked to at least five deaths and was also connected to the failed plot to kidnap and execute Whitmer.

After Bruesewitz finished speaking, he handed the megaphone to Ashley St. Clair, a social media personality based in New York who flew down for the occasion. In the midst of the crowd, a large flag prominently featuring the letters AF was present. Though perhaps unfamiliar to the average Madison resident, it has significant connections to St. Clair.

The AF logo is from the America First podcast, a white nationalist production of Nick Fuentes. Fuentes attended the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and frames his followers (referred to as the Groyper Army) as Christian conservatives concerned with multiculturalism. The Anti-Defamation League maintains an exhaustive list of racist and anti-Semitic statements by Fuentes, as well as his followers, and their connections to openly white supremacist groups.

St. Clair was fired as a brand ambassador for Turning Point USA in 2019 after photos surfaced of her at a dinner event with Fuentes and other alt-right figureheads. Though she has never voiced support for Fuentes or the America First podcast on the record, she also made no comment about the flag being present at this weeks event.

The Stop the Steal rally featured many familiar alt-right talking points demonization of the media and claims that Democrats hate conservative voters. Republicans were not free from their ire, either.

Paul Ryans basically a Democrat, Bruesewitz lamented about the former U.S. House speaker from Wisconsin. If youre a Paul Ryan Republican and youre watching this? Screw you on behalf of the American people. Politicians were also warned that if they dont demonstrate loyalty and show up to rallies to publicly stand by the president, well vote them out.

This rally was part of a larger organizing effort in several swing states across the country, all of which centered around similar grievances. Black Lives Matter activists in Madison responded to the presence of the pro-Trump rally by creating a car barricade around the Biden celebration which at one point was manned by armed activists openly carrying firearms of their own.

While militias and anti-government extremist groups are not new in America, their rapid expansion and increasing levels of activity in the past few years is cause for concern. We all knew that no matter who won the election, there would be protests. Clashes between protesters seem almost inevitable, although Madison was spared the violence seen in other cities. A fist fight at the Biden celebration and a pro-Trump UW employee driving his motorcycle through protesters were the only widely reported confrontations.

In a year of escalated civil unrest, where cars running through protesters is so frequent it rarely tops national news and people are hospitalized or killed during clashes, its become more important than ever that we recognize the signs of extremism when they come to town. The flags and symbols that were at this Trump rally are easy to miss, especially for your everyday conservative or liberal voter. But like an iceberg, they hint at something much larger and more dangerous below.

No one can predict what comes next. One thing has been stated very clearly: Regardless of the election results, these militias and extremist movements arent going anywhere. The least we can do now is enter the new year with our eyes wide open.

Bryan Boland is a Madison-based organizer and writer. He can be found on Twitter @RedheadBryan.

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Proceed with eyes open - Isthmus

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