The mock mass shooters who tried to terrorize the University of Texas at Austin were no ordinary Second Amendment advocates, it turns out.
They were far-right conspiracy theorists who believe that other mass shootings—most notoriously the Sandy Hook shooting—were hoaxes perpetrated by paid “crisis actors.” They took to the streets last Saturday to terrorize our community into believing that by showing the gruesome violence of a staged mass shooting—replete with fake blood and all—all citizens, somehow, should be armed with assault rifles.
But in YouTube videos and memes posted over the last week on the event’s Facebook page, their motives proved even more sinister. They believed that the 20 dead children and six dead adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School never existed at all—and that those grieving on the news were actors paid by the government.
Conspiracy theorists who don’t believe that 20 families who now mourn dead children never existed at all had now invaded our town to stage terror.
And we farted in their faces.
It all started, as many things do nowadays, on Facebook. The story about the planned mock shooting had gone viral early in the week, and like many in Austin I felt a combination of disgust and fear that a real shooter might be inspired to act out at this event. I was also annoyed that the press and social media were giving these assholes the very sort of attention they craved. A friend of mine who had attended UT around the same time as me—10 or 15 years ago—posted about it and asked “Where is the Knighthood of Buh when you need them?”
It was a brilliant question—The Knighthood was an absurdist comedy student group of the era that was infamous for doing sophisticated yet silly performance art pieces around campus like bizarre student government campaigns and “No Pants Day.” Tim Sookram, a veteran of The Knighthood, responded to my buddy’s comments: “We could buy those fart guns and hold a fake Mass Farting.”
He was referring to a toy called the “Fart Blaster” marketed as a tie-in with the Dreamworks animated feature Despicable Me. I know how to organize protests and a Facebook event page and press advisory later the farting was really happening.
Tim and I first met in person when we got to the demonstration with dozens of other people and media from around the world. The only word I can use to describe the scene is “spectacle.” Police were everywhere, but the gun nuts were nowhere to be seen. They were scheduled for the same space we were in—technically off campus, but right on the property line—30 minutes after our scheduled time.
There were reporters from every major network, major national daily newspapers, and even the notorious conspiracy “news” site Infowars, owned by Austin local Alex Jones. People brought fart noisemakers and dildos—an homage to an earlier campus demonstration called “Cocks Not Glocks” highlighting the fact that sex toys are more regulated in Texas than handguns. Very quickly our ranks swelled, and the atmosphere was silly, empowered, ready to take on the extremists. It was exactly what Tim and I had hoped for.
About 15 minutes into our demo we got word that the gun nuts had already started their mock mass shooting on the other end of campus. We rallied our troops and marched as fast as we could to the spot where they were putting on their skit.
I had a hard time believing that these guys had spent all week stringing the media along only to do the main event at a time and place they knew the media would miss. We came upon them just as their scene was ending and their leaders scattered, chanting “We fart in your general direction!” and “Where’s My Burrito?”
In the end we outnumbered them probably 20 or 30 to one, and the only thing I could think is that they were scared of the optics and decided to do their thing where they wouldn’t be compared to us.
Now I’m not so sure. They said that they had planned to do this all along to prove that mass shootings don’t happen where and when you expect them, so we should all be armed at all times. This was an unhinged sort of theory from top to bottom, but it wasn’t the first sign that we were dealing with crackpots.
Going back to the initial planning for our demonstration, the flyer they’d created to promote the shooting had a curious note on it: “Crisis Actors Wanted.” “Crisis actor” is a loaded term used by some of the most loathsome conspiracy theorists out there.
If you haven’t already heard of Sandy Hook Truthers, know that there is a small but noisy class of people who are convinced that the Sandy Hook mass shooting never really happened, and they have a habit of harassing the very real survivors of this tragedy. They believe that the government staged the whole thing, that the 26 children and teachers gunned down are either works of fiction or are living their lives on an island somewhere, hidden by the government.
They believe that mass shootings—there are “Truthers” for the murders in Roanoke, Virginia; San Bernadino, California; and Umpqua Community College in Oregon, among others—are actually performance pieces put on by professional actors, and that all of this is done by the government as part of their plot to disarm the public and install a totalitarian police state or one world government or rule by reptilian overlords.
In their fevered imaginings the government is clever enough to pull this off without getting caught, but lazy enough to recycle the same actors between events. In fact, this is one of their major pieces of “evidence”—pictures of similar-looking trauma victims at different shootings that they believe to be the same person. The most infamous of these is a young woman—or in truth young women—that they call “cell phone girl.”
These conspiracy theorists find it hard to believe that there would be three different vaguely pretty young brunette white women crying at shootings in Connecticut, Oregon, and California. In lieu of reasoned argument they produce Internet memes with pictures of these women arranged next to each other and allegations that they are the same woman, an actress hired by the government.
The organizer of the mock mass shooting we farted at last weekend—a guy who goes by the name Murdoch Pizgatti—has recently posted a picture of their protest with one of these “cell phone girls” photoshopped into it. This was met with laughter and much approval on their Facebook event page before being pulled down; an activist friend of mine captured the posts. They also had good fun discussing this conspiracy theory in another thread.
Of course if they are wrong—and they are—they have made a joke out of a woman who witnessed children being gunned down and they have laughed at infanticide. Not only that, but these guys are even dumber than we realized: They think we need to allow guns everywhere so that we can stop mass shootings, even though they claim mass shootings are all just mocked up by the government. I’ve never been prouder to intentionally fart on someone.
To their minimal credit, other gun-rights groups condemned this action, but gun-rights fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists still think in similar ways. As Ben Collins pointed out in The Daily Beast about Roanoke and Sandy Hook Truthers, these conspiracy theorists are “the last believers in an ordered world.” Conspiracy theories seek to bring order and reason to a world that is chaotic, where things that make absolutely no sense happen all of the time.
This is pre-modern thinking where data is discredited in favor of what “feels” right—they typically argue that mourners in footage at or after mass shootings don’t “seem like” traumatized people. It is pre-postmodern in that they expect there to be a coherent plan organizing everything even in an age without metanarratives.
The mainstream pro-gun movement shares this sort of thinking. The data is unambiguous: more guns mean more gun deaths, especially from accidents and completed suicides. Concealed carry does not reduce crime, and while it is hard to get data on concealed carry because the gun activists block its collection, the best information we have today suggests that permit holders are more likely to commit crimes with their guns than they are to stop a criminal.
Gun advocates refuse to consider the data, however, and fall back on anecdotes or speculation: Wouldn’t you want someone to have a concealed handgun if there was a mass shooting? On its surface this seems reasonable, but the fact is that you have a much better chance of being killed by your own gun if you own one than you do a mass shooter if you don’t.
They are substituting made-up stories for facts they don’t like, and they have convinced a lot of our elected officials to make policy based on the stories and not the data.
The weirdest fact of all in this story is that I think everybody here—the gun advocates, the extremists putting on this mock shooting, and the dildo-waving farters—are all coming from the same place: a place of nihilism.
The chaos of our historical moment, I believe, can all be traced to a slow awakening our society is coming to that nothing has any meaning: that nothing matters, that our way of life has backed us into a corner that we can only get out of by destroying the very things that make us “us.” As President Obama infamously put it in the 2008 campaign, some people cling to their guns to try to force sense upon this senseless world, and it appears that some people imagine ludicrous plots to fake the mass murder of elementary schoolchildren. Others, however, have decided that the proper response to this absurdity is to laugh, and to have a little fun while we still can.
It may not matter how it all turns out, but I know I certainly have my preferences about what kind of life I’d like before I slip back into oblivion, and one ruled by laughter and a little good-natured debauchery seems more pleasant than one ruled by fear and hateful paranoia.
Our media culture consumes stories in a matter of days and then forgets they ever happened. By this time next week, Tim and I and the folks that were actually there will be the only people who really remember this whole spectacle until it gets recycled into trivia and nostalgia.
Still, I’m proud that we took action against the fear that rules these times and laughed in the faces of those who would have us cower before imagined villains and arm ourselves against our neighbors. It’s not every day that you get to do that and fart on some Sandy Hook Truthers to boot.