Older members of the crowd carried Confederate flags, while the younger, internet-driven masses wore patches with 4chan’s Kekistan banner. Rally-goers in homemade armor and semi-automatic rifles paced Houston’s Hermann Park, waiting for an enemy to appear.
The crowd, several hundred strong, gathered in the park on Saturday to defend a statue of Sam Houston, a slaveholder. They had gathered in response to reports that leftist protesters had planned a rally to remove the statue, despite Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner publicly stating that removing the statue wasn’t “even on my agenda.” But as sniper rifles and Infowars-branded jackets crowded the park, it became evident that the left protesters were not coming. They had never planned to come. The rumors of an antifa protest were actually a hoax, orchestrated by an anti-left group defending Confederate monuments.
The rally began, as so many armed conflicts do, with Facebook posts.
“We’re about to have a huge event in Houston June 10 with the combined forces of several large groups, perhaps our biggest ever,” the page Texas Antifa (short for anti-fascists) posted on May 18. “The Fascists better not show up with violence or they will be limping home bruised, broken, hurt, and crying with their tails tucked between their legs.”
The “Texas Antifa” is not a real group. The page is the latest in a growing genre of anti-antifa hoaxes, perpetrated by anonymous internet users on the right. Texas conservatives still fell for it.
Antifa have emerged as a perfect bogeyman for the alt-right, who have spent years online stoking fear about violence from imaginary enemies (usually people of color), or the perceived loss of their rights (usually at the hands of liberals, feminists, or family court). In antifa, the nebulous alt-right found an equally amorphous foe, one whose members openly boasted of punching the alt-right in the face. Alt-righters who go outside began planning armed counterprotests against antifa. And alt-righters on the internet began creating fake antifa accounts to discredit the largely anonymous movement.
One such parody account, @OfficialAntifa on Twitter, stirred outrage from the general public after it tweeted pictures of vandalized cemeteries on Memorial Day, purporting to have destroyed soldiers’ graves in an act of protest. The images, which actually contained images of years-old graffiti, were quickly picked up by alt-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, and disseminated to thousands of enraged followers. (@OfficialAntifa currently tweets anti-trans and anti-Muslim jokes.) A page purporting to be “Boston Antifa” drew the ire of actual New England antifa after it was revealed to be run by trolls.
In Houston, where Saturday’s protests took place, multiple antifa pages claim legitimacy. The Houston Antifa appears to be the longest-running account, active since January 2016 with photos of its demonstrations dating back to that month. But there’s also Antifa Texas-Oklahoma, as well as Texas Antifa (a “public figure” profile run by an alt-right user), Texas Antifa (a community page created last month that first advertised the June 10 protest against the Sam Houston statue), and Houston Antifa (a community page created last month that also advertised the protest and attempted to delegitimize the old Houston Antifa page).
In a Facebook messenger conversation, the older Houston Antifa page described the confusing state of affairs.
“Ah the beauty and the horror of anonymous decentralized organizing,” Houston Antifa told The Daily Beast.
Shortly after the Texas Antifa posted their plans to rally in Houston’s Hermann Park, the Houston Antifa took to Facebook urging readers to “unlike and unfollow this fake ass Texas Antifa page. Do NOT attend the June 10th Rally! This account was started a month ago and is in NO way, shape, or form affiliated with any actual Antifa Organization, PERIOD. Nice try, #MAGA chuds, go fuck yourselves.”
The Houston Antifa told The Daily Beast that “we are 100% positive that this group are outside actors/provocateurs and not just liberal centrists who are mistakenly proclaiming themselves ‘Antifa.’”
But just three days after the brand-new Texas Antifa page advertised its rally, the much-larger conservative group This Is Texas announced a counterprotest in response.
“Antifa has come out saying they will be bringing several large (communist) groups together to host a rally around the Museum District in Houston, Texas on June 10, 2017,” This Is Texas organizers wrote in a post to their nearly 4,000 members. “This list includes Black Panther Party, Antifa & more. Their goal is to remove the Sam Houston statue.” (This Is Texas did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
But the so-called Texas Antifa’s goal was actually the opposite. The page was secretly run by a group claiming to be affiliated with the hacktivist collective Anonymous. In a Facebook conversation with The Daily Beast, the group claimed to have 11 members, although it refused to offer proof that it was affiliated with a larger Anonymous group.
In a video uploaded to the Texas Antifa YouTube channel (not to an Anonymous account) on June 7, the group declared that they had actually created the page as a hoax to drive gun-toting conservatives to defend the Sam Houston statue, which Houston’s mayor has stated is not being considered for removal.
“It was always an Anonymous event to drive support and attention to an expired Texas law that protected its historical monuments,” the group said in its video. “It never made it to the floor because the Democrats used a filibuster to run out the time so it could not be voted on.”
“The right rarely has but 5-30 people at any given event,” the Texas Antifa page told The Daily Beast. “We gave them a well known enemy, a righteous cause, and an immediate threat.”
Some local and leftist media saw through the hoax. The website It's Going Down called the Texas Antifa page a hoax shortly after its first post in May. The Houston Press’ Craig Malisow debunked the page as an alt-right prank on June 1, although the page’s moderators, still proclaiming their authenticity, took to Facebook to attack Malisow by name.
The other group only partially duped were alt-righters who were better acquainted with internet hoaxes.
“This is from a shitty satire page,” a 4chan user posted last week about the alleged antifa rally, “ignore it.”
“The normies are gethering [sic] in Houston,” another 4chan poster wrote the day of the event. “Proof that America can be trolled into being great again.”
The statue defenders stormed the park, ready to defend themselves against the antifa and Black Panthers they had been told would be rallying. One young attendee, who was wearing an undersized Roman-style chestplate over makeshift military fatigues with a 4chan arm patch told the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Mintz that he’d donned the armor out of fear that antifa would stab him.
But no leftists appeared. Outside the amplification chamber of the internet, the rally goers were just a crowd of people wearing ill-fitting armor to the park on a sweltering Texas day.
After the crowd ambled home, This Is Texas leaders returned to Facebook to address allegations that the whole event had been driven by a hoax.
“For those who didn’t know Antifa showed up and was putting on their mask in the bathroom by the amphitheater, once they turned the corner & saw the crowd they thought twice about it,” the group posted. “The [sic] did tag downtown up with posters on street signs & the metro rail area. So to those that said this is a hoax, maybe think twice before you speak next time.”
The Houston Antifa said it was possible that the rally goers had spotted some antifa on their way to counterprotest at a nearby anti-Islam event, though its members had agreed to skip the hoax-driven in the park.
At least one This Is Texas organizer realized the makeshift army had been tricked.
In a now-deleted post, a This Is Texas administrator named Dave confessed his disillusion to the page’s followers.
“People - you were duped,” he wrote. “The charges you have heard about this being based on a hoax are all true. Did you see ONE Antifa, Black Panther, Black Lives Matter, or street gang member there??? At all?? ANYWHERE???
“We were told Black Panthers were mobilized from Atlanta and we were told ‘buses and buses’ of anti’s were on their way - never saw them,” Dave wrote. “Oh yeah - I saw a black guy with an AR-15, dressed in black, near the restrooms and thought YES! I found them! Then he stood up and I saw a Texas flag sweat towel in his pocket.”