Police officials’ amplification of ‘antifa bus’ hoax rumors in summer 2020 bodes ill for future

The infamous “;antifa buses”; hoax that hit multiple rural and exurban communities in the summer of 2020 was in many regards a series of comical events, with pickup-driving, banner-waving, gun-toting “;Patriots”; swarming their towns in futility because they believed an army of black-clad leftists were en route to lay waste to their communities. It all had the feel of a practice run for the civil war that so many of them eagerly anticipate.

Its most disturbing aspect, however, was the role and behavior of law enforcement throughout the episode, as well as in subsequent similar hoaxes a few months later involving supposed “;antifa arsons”; along the West Coast–;namely, giving the hoax rumors official imprimatur by spreading them on social media and in police communications with other offices. That behavior was made clear in documents published last year, which revealed the extensive role of local and state police in spreading the panic in northern California.

The documents, published in August by the nonprofit public-interest group Property of the People, involve the June 2020 panic by law-enforcement officials–;including the northern division of the California Highway Patrol (CHP)–;responding to hoax social-media posts claiming that buses full of black-clad “;antifa”; were en route to their districts to wreak havoc. The release included some 107 pages of documents, primarily “;incident reports”; filed by the respective police agencies, and emails exchanged by top law-enforcement officials.

The panic apparently originated with a law-enforcement official in Redding who, on Jun. 1, shared screenshots with her staff of a couple of social-media posts warning of approaching “;antifa buses.”; She asked them to check out the reports.

One was an Instagram post: “;BE AWARE,”; it read, “;I have heard, from a reliable source, that ANTIFA buses with close to 200 people (domestic terrorists) are planning to infiltrate Redding and possibly cause distraction and destruction.”;

The other was a Facebook post featuring a grainy image of a van with “;Black Lives Matter”; written on the back. It claimed that busloads of protesters from Portland had stopped in Klamath Falls, Oregon, “;but there was no rioting or burning as they decided to move on.”;

These posts were similar to others that were shared in a number of locales across the country, often spurring a similar response. Indeed, the scene in Klamath Falls had been spurred by similar hoax posts, as NBC News reported at the time.

“;I am not one to spread false information,”; one claimed. “;There are two buses heading this way from Portland, full of ANTIFA members and loaded with bricks. Their intentions are to come to Klamath Falls, destroy it, and murder police officers. There have been rumors of the antifa going into residential areas to “;fuck up the white hoods.”;”;

That thread gained support with a screenshot message from Col. Jeff Edwards, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard”;s 173rd Fighter Wing based in Klamath Falls, posted to one of the groups, reading: “;Team Kingsley, for your safety I ask you to please avoid the downtown area this evening. We received an alert that there may be 2 busloads of ANTIFA protesters en route to Klamath Falls and arriving in downtown around 2030 tonight.”;

A spokesperson for the 173rd Fighter Wing confirmed that the message had come from Edwards, saying he had sent it “;to the Citizen-Airmen of the 173d Fighter Wing for their situational awareness and safety.”; She noted that Edwards”; message was shared with local law enforcement, and it spread from there.

In Klamath Falls, the whole town was buzzing with anticipation of the incoming “;antifa buses.”; It became something of a game, shared on Facebook: An empty green bus at the community college was spotted. So was a white bus with “;Black Lives Matter”; and peace signs painted on it, in the local Walmart parking lot. A U-Haul in front of T.J. Maxx somehow set off alarms.

“;I saw some scattered SJWs and some in black at Albertsons,”; one woman posted.

A handful of Klamath Falls “;Patriots”; took to the streets, weapons in hand. “;As you can tell, we are ready,”; one such man said in a Facebook livestream. “;Antifa members have threatened our town and said that they”;re going to burn everything and to kill white people, basically.”;

The person whose Instagram post was circulated by Redding law enforcement commented on the scene as well: “;Word got out and the populace of the area showed up in town armed to the teeth. Never seen so many AR-15s.”;

The same day that Redding officials circulated the memo, NBC News reported that at least some of the rumors were started by the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, posing on Twitter as “;antifa”; and threatening to “;move into the residential areas”; of “;white hoods”; and “;take what”;s ours.”;

Among the law-enforcement officials contacted by Redding police about the rumors was Elizabeth Barkley, then the CHP northern division chief. She asked colleagues to look into the stories and “;notify our allied agencies in town.”; Shortly afterward, her request was shared with officers by another CHP official, who commented: “;The thought is these buses are roaming–;looking for events to attend (and possibly cause problems).”;

In short order, a CHP sergeant told a listserv of commanders that “;possible ANTIFA buses [are] heading to Redding,”; and that they “;could be wandering around Northern Division.”; He added that the agency”;s tactical alert center had been notified and that an aerial search was underway: “;Air Ops is currently up and trying to locate them on I-5 if possible.”;

When The Guardian”;s Sam Levin queried CHP officials in August after Property of the People published the documents, they explained that the CHP had dispensed with the rumor relatively quickly, with its investigative unit reviewing the social-media posts “;to evaluate potential public safety issues”; but finding nothing substantive.

“;A CHP air unit conducted a short search for the buses; however, they were unable to locate them,”; a spokeswoman said, adding that no one was ever contacted or put under surveillance, and the aerial search was brief: “;The Antifa bus mission was a 12-minute event.”;

Nonetheless, CHP”;s imprimatur convinced a number of local law-enforcement officials to spring into action–;particularly Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, who shared the information with his entire staff, urging them to “;BOL [be on the lookout] for ANTIFA buses from Oregon.”;

Honsal emailed sheriff”;s office staff on Jun. 2 to say he had “;confirmed with CHP that the bus is currently in Redding”; and that CHP had a “;surveillance team”; monitoring. At a press conference on Jun. 4, Honsal again raised concerns about supposed antifa threats, saying his agency had “;substantiated law enforcement reports”; that “;antifa did have people in buses”; who “;want to disrupt things and want to cause violence.”;

A week later, Honsal released a new statement to local media repeating the hoax claims. “;CHP confirmed the reports of an Antifa bus or buses,”; he asserted, adding that he would “;continue to share information on radical groups (right or left) that promote violence.”;

Honsal insisted that the hoax was perfectly legitimate: “;We did have reports–;substantiated, law enforcement reports–;that said antifa did have people in buses that were in southern Oregon and in the Central Valley,”; he said. “;These aren”;t unsubstantiated stories. This is the reality, and we have to deal with that.”;

Queried by Levin in Aug. 2021, a spokesperson for Honsal said Honsal had “;made those statements based upon information provided to us by the California Highway Patrol.”; She noted that no bus was located in Humboldt county.

The California law-enforcement officers weren”;t alone in succumbing to the hoax by any means: It spread to virtually every corner of the country. In Curry County, Oregon, Sheriff John Ward informed his constituents: “;I don”;t know if the rumors are true or not just yet but I got information about 3 bus loads of ANTIFA protesters are making their way from Douglas County headed for Coquille then to Coos Bay.”;

Police in Columbus, Ohio, targeted an old school bus called “;Buttercup”; used by a group of artists but decorated with “;Black Lives Matter”; and other slogans, suggesting that it was being used to transport violent protesters. On Facebook and Twitter, Columbus police on Jun. 1 posted a photo of it being pulled over and explained: “;There was a suspicion of supplying riot equipment to rioters. Detectives followed up with a vehicle search today and found numerous items: bats, rocks, meat cleavers, axes, clubs, and other projectiles. Charges are pending as the investigation continues.”;

No charges were ever filed, but the disinformation spread like wildfire. Angry Facebook commenters railed against antifa rioters, claiming they were funded by George Soros. On Twitter, where CPD”;s post was retweeted nearly 14,000 times, others commented: “;Here ya go doubters … this bus was bringing riot tools to protests in Columbus. Columbus police caught them. Good.”;

Florida Senator Marco Rubio joined in the hoax, quote retweeting the CPD post with the comment: “;Police in Ohio found a bus near protests filled with bats, rocks & other weapons. But I guess still “;no evidence”; of an organized effort to inject violence & anarchy into the protests right?”;

Meanwhile, in Snohomish, Washington, the police chief responded to the Facebook rumors by staging 50 officers at an emergency operations center, “;ready to converge if necessary”; should any reports of arriving antifa buses or accompanying property destruction arise. The chief also positioned officers on the roof of the city hall.

A disturbing scene soon developed in Snohomish, a suburb about 30 miles outside Seattle, where similar rumors grew so thick that a large contingent of heavily armed “;Patriot”; militiamen showed up on the streets of the town, ready and eager to defend local businesses from marauding antifascists. As the scene grew rowdier, Confederate flags began to show up. Proud Boys also made their presence known, flashing white-power “;OK”; hand signals and wearing body armor.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney nonetheless defended them afterward: After speaking with two groups of armed locals on opposite sides of the Snohomish River bridge, he pronounced them all to the county council as Snohomish parents and business owners, “;not white nationalists, they were not extremists.”;

In Coeur d”;Alene, Idaho, dozens of people showed up on armed patrol, toting AR-15s and wearing body armor, at a downtown shopping strip mall. In a cellphone video shared on Facebook, one videographer said: “;If you guys are thinking of coming to Coeur d”;Alene, to riot or loot, you”;d better think again. Because we ain”;t having it in our town. …; I guess there”;s a big rumor that people from Spokane are gonna come out here and act up. But that shit ain”;t gonna happen.”;

A “;prepper”; YouTube personality added: “;There”;s a lot of good guys with guns out here. I don”;t think they”;ll be setting foot in Idaho.”;

A caravan of pickups chased a mixed-race family from Spokane in a vehicle mistaken for an “;antifa bus”; out of Forks, Washington, in June 2020.

The most disturbing of the situations, however, occurred in the lumber town of Forks, Washington, where locals thought they had finally spotted one of the elusive “;antifa buses.”; It actually was a family of four from Spokane, who had arrived in town with a full-length bus they had converted to a camper, intent on visiting the local rain forests. (Forks also attracts a number of visitors because it is the setting of the popular Twilight series of vampire novels and movies.) First, they paid a visit to a local sporting-goods shop in town to stock up on supplies. According to the sheriff”;s office, after getting their goods, the family found itself confronted in the parking lot by “;seven or eight carloads of people,”; who “;repeatedly asked them if they were “;ANTIFA”; protesters.”;

The family–;comprising a husband and wife, their 16-year-old daughter, and the man”;s elderly mother–;told their interrogators that they had nothing to do with the movement and were just there to camp. Thinking the matter was resolved, they nervously drove their bus past the groups and got onto Highway 101, then drove up the side road taking them toward the Sol Duc River. They found themselves being followed by about four vehicles from the parking lot, and told the sheriff later that they believed a couple of people in the vehicles had semi-automatic rifles. Eventually, they turned onto a logging road and pulled off to set up camp.

While parked there, they began to hear gunfire and the sound of chainsaws. So the family decided to pack up and head back, but now found that their way had been blocked by trees their pursuers had cut across the road. Fortunately, some local teenagers arrived from the other side and cut down the blockade, freeing the family, who promptly fled the area and called authorities. Apologetic deputies helped the family get its bus running again after a brief breakdown.

Local “;Patriots”; were quite happy with themselves on social media afterward. A set of screenshots showed a picture of the trees blocking the road, captioned: “;Protect your town! #forksstrong.”; One of the replies: “;This makes me happy. I love our locals and feel pretty damn safe.”; Another resident said: “;U think they realized they [came] to the wrong place yet?”; To which one replied: “;I think they have a good idea now.”; He later added that “;it”;s like the purge.”;

These incidents all vividly demonstrate the ability of law enforcement and other official authorities to inflame hoax-driven hysteria and potentially create violence in their communities. Their propensity for gullibility in the hoaxes also reflects their own sympathies with right-wing extremist conspiracism, an outgrowth of the growing problem of radicalization among law enforcement.

Michael Brennan, a national-security expert with the Brennan Justice Center, told Levin that the behavior of California police amid the hoax rumors was dangerous on multiple levels. Using a photo of a specific van while warning officers to “;be on the lookout”; could have “;resulted in serious harm to people who are driving that kind of bus when there was no evidence that anybody has done anything wrong,”; German said. “;Based on the vagueness of the rumor, it”;s hard to imagine why they would have deployed those tactical resources,”; he added.

Moreover, these incidents illustrate how pervasive right-wing ideologies have become within American police agencies, German observed. Departments have repeatedly shared baseless claims about antifa or BLM endangering them, he said, but have downplayed or ignored real threats to their safety, whether from COVID or far-right extremists such as sovereign citizens, who have an extensive track record of lethal attacks on officers.

“;Something that really does kill police officers is treated as not a problem, while imaginary threats are treated as real,”; German said.

The same dynamic played out later in the summer of 2020, when similar hoax rumors on social media claimed that “;antifa arsonists”; were secretly behind the wave of wildfires that were then ravaging the West Coast. Once again, rural areas were subjected to clusters of heavily armed men roaming their towns and even setting up vigilante checkpoints along roadways–;all while being encouraged and enabled by local law-enforcement officers.

This has contributed to the growing environment of fear and intimidation from right-wing extremists in America”;s rural precincts for anyone who fails to enthusiastically embrace their conspiracist and eliminationist politics–;particularly as they ratchet up their violent “;when do we get to use the guns?”; rhetoric, eagerly anticipating their long-desired violent civil war in which they fantasize that they will get to mow down their political enemies.

What we saw in the summer of 2020, however, also makes clear that anyone hoping that normative law enforcement might somehow restrain them should be prepared to be disappointed, if not ultimately betrayed.

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Written by mettablog

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