Protests and violence in large cities over the death of George Floyd have dominated national news networks. But in smaller towns across America, counter-protesters are showing up to monitor or harass—and in some cases assault—peaceful demonstrators.
And in places like Snohomish, Washington, and Missoula, Montana, some of these agitators have been heavily armed as they stake out protests against police brutality.
The Missoulian, a daily newspaper, reported that a couple of pickup trucks, with people waving Trump campaign banners and American flags, parked near Missoula demonstrators on Tuesday night. Some armed men also stood sentinel at a pawnshop.
In Snohomish, protesters marched downtown Monday, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and hoisting signs, according to local TV station King5. They were ambushed by at least one white man in a camouflage sweatshirt and baseball cap who started punching demonstrators, video shows. “I just saw someone get punched and before you know it, I had two, three people choking me,” Julien Crawford told the news outlet.
On Tuesday night, a faction of “heavily armed men” joined the protesters. One of them, carrying an assault rifle, announced: “We support you. We just want you to be safe, we want you to be peaceful. We don’t want any vandalism or graffiti.”
Tensions have flared in the city about 30 miles north of Seattle. King5 reported authorities arrested one man for a hate crime after he hit “a mixed-race woman” with his car. Her arm was injured, the report says. (A spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office told The Daily Beast that the incident occurred Sunday and was “unrelated to the protests.”)
On Wednesday, police in Medford, Oregon, announced the arrest of a white man who pointed a handgun at a crowd that was protesting the death of Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
David Westmoreland, 51, is charged with menacing and disorderly conduct for allegedly waving his firearm at demonstrators on two separate occasions on Monday, including while standing in the bed of his pickup, News 10 reported.
Lindsey Wright, 26, was marching in the street with other protesters when she came upon Westmoreland standing in his truck, which was parked in a lot next to the demonstration’s route. “When we first walked up, we thought he was a bystander there to cheer us on,” Wright told The Daily Beast. “People were so supportive, high-fiving us.”
Instead, according to Wright, Westmoreland was hurling slurs. “That was the first time I’ve ever had a gun pointed at me,” Wright said, adding, “We were peaceful. Nothing got stolen. We didn’t disrespect anything. Everything was peaceful until that moment.”
A black protester entered the truck bed with Westmoreland, footage shows, as a crowd surrounded the pickup. Wright said this man was trying to stop Westmoreland from spreading hateful messages. “Even people who are hating, we still love them, we still care about them. The main goal is not to promote violence and destroy, it’s to rebuild and make things better,” Wright said.
Paul Morton, 27, who was protesting not only for Floyd but his cousin who was killed by police, told The Daily Beast that he witnessed Westmoreland load the gun.
Westmoreland’s wife also had a firearm and yelled that the KKK would be coming back for them, Morton said. (Footage shows the woman standing on the ground against the truck, as police officers hovered close by.) When cops first arrived, they didn’t arrest the gun-wielding man; instead, they seemed to be trying to determine whether Westmoreland was protecting himself from the protesters, Morton said.
Police let Westmoreland go. But they arrested him about 15 minutes later when he allegedly pointed his weapon at Morton’s friend, Tre Colter. “To me, it’s just ridiculous because I feel like if it was a person of color or a protester waving a gun, they would have shot us or immediately handcuffed us,” Morton said.
Tre Colter, 25, said he was angry the police didn’t seem to be doing anything about Westmoreland, so he waited further down the parking lot and approached the pickup truck after Westmoreland and his wife drove off. “The cops weren't arresting him,” Colter said. “They were being nice and cordial to him.”
Colter and the couple began arguing, before Westmoreland allegedly aimed his weapon at him. “I don’t know how he felt the audacity to pull out his gun at me,” Colter said. “Then I started laughing. It’s not the first time I’ve had a barrel in my face before.”
Later that evening, counter-protesters carrying assault weapons arrived to guard Medford businesses, according to Colter and Morton.
“They were carrying rifles and following us while we’re marching,” Colter told The Daily Beast in an interview. “That’s not a counter-protest—that’s definitely harassment. The cops didn’t stop that either.”
In Cookeville, Tennessee, activists gathered outside the Putnam County courthouse on Tuesday night were faced with a small group of angry counter-protesters, including one man named Kevin Martin Pullum, who was arrested for aggravated assault.
At one point a white pickup truck, with a Confederate flag draped over the tailgate, pulled up and squealed its tires. Other trucks peeled past the crowd, too.
Emily Ely, 31, was having dinner across the street and watched the scene unfold. Pullum, she said, was ringing a courthouse bell to drown out the protesters. She told The Daily Beast she saw pickups circling the group and decided to start filming. She said she later heard Pullum warn, “If you guys say F the KKK one more time, I’m going to make you stop!”
“I’m going to shut you up! Do you understand me?” a tall, burly white man in a bright-orange shirt—identified as Pullum—yells at the group, according to Ely’s footage. “Fuck racism!” and “Fuck the KKK!” the crowd chants in response.
“Do you understand me?” Pullum growls as he descends on a smaller protester and appears to grab his throat, while a woman in a black mask tries to get between them. “Do you understand you’re being racist?” someone calls out in response.
Cookeville cops showed up to monitor the scene and make sure nothing happened to the group after Pullum was cuffed, Ely said. She added that Pullum doesn’t represent “the majority of people” in her city. “I don’t want people to think our town is like that at all.”
Capt. Bobby Anderson of the Cookeville Police Department told The Daily Beast that Pullum (whose name is spelled Pullen in a police report) “was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after he assaulted a protester by grabbing him around the neck.”
“The arrest occurred after they argued over a difference of opinion during the protest,” Anderson said in an email. “Mr. Pullen was taken into custody and transported to the Putnam County Jail. He was given a $7,500 bond.”
Multiple other apparently racist agitators have been captured in cellphone video circulated on social media in recent days.
One counter-protester was videotaped in Redding, California, on Tuesday waving an American flag and shouting at people gathered in peaceful protest: “Slaves belong on their knees. Are you slaves?” A protester yelled, “Stay peaceful! Only the ignorant speak like that!” and people cheered in support.
Counter-protesters gathered near the Shasta County Courthouse in Redding that night, including “one man in tactical gear with an iron cross tattoo,” according to the Record Searchlight newspaper.
About two dozen counter-demonstrators appeared at a Black Lives Matter rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, carrying flags of the following variety: American, Confederate, Trump campaign, and Thin Blue Line. Cops told the Rapid City Journal that the right-leaning hecklers were trying to rile up the protesters on Tuesday.
On Monday, the police chief of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, announced a crew of armed men—who were possibly white supremacists and wearing body armor and toting guns—had infiltrated protests the night before, Lancaster Online reported.
Not all armed cliques appeared to join demonstrations to stir unrest.
In Spokane on Tuesday, men decked out with assault weapons arrived to watch a group of about 25 young protesters, according to the Spokesman-Review, which reported the two sects appeared to peacefully coexist. One of the men said he showed up to stand guard after catching wind of a recent internet hoax about antifa, or anti-fascist, militants plotting violent riots and attacks on white people.
“We’re making sure they’re heard in a peaceful way, plain and simple. But if things go bad, we do whatever we have to. We will not let our city burn,” another armed attendee told the Spokane newspaper.