Richmond, Virginia, leaders say white supremacists disguised themselves as Black Lives Matter activists to start chaos at a protest on Saturday. But complicating that story is a more intricate entanglement of rival activist groups and police forces—one that has roiled a season of protests across America.
The protest began with a flyer that no one wants to take credit for, advertising a protest in Richmond’s Monroe Park. Without clear organizers, the rally attracted a crowd of demonstrators at different —and sometimes opposing—points on the political spectrum: anti-fascists, a controversial Black Lives Matter group, and members of the “Boogaloo” movement—a loose right-wing and libertarian scene that, nationally, has overlapped with white supremacists.
As the event wore on, some members of the crowd began to target a controversial militia figure at the front of the march, chanting “Fuck Mike Dunn!” The protest all but imploded from there on out, with police arriving a short time later and deploying less lethal rounds and pepper spray. Amid the chaos, a dump truck and some dumpsters were filmed on fire, and windows were discovered smashed at the city’s Virginia Commonwealth University. Police made six arrests, although the political affiliations of those people are unknown.
While city leadership are blaming white supremacist infiltrators for the trouble, the protest’s various feuding factions all claim that’s a cop-out—and that it might be used as grounds to crack down on protesters.
“There were white supremacists marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, attempting to undermine an otherwise overwhelmingly peaceful movement towards social justice,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said during a Sunday press conference about the protests. The city’s police chief reiterated the claims, and also said anti-fascists and Boogaloo participants were at the rally, appearing to call the Boogaloo crowd white supremacists (a label that applies to some but not all Boogaloo adherents).
Stoney showed a picture of one such Black Lives Matter sign, but did not cite more evidence. He and the city’s police force, both of which cited white supremacist infiltrators, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. During the press conference, police said the incident was under investigation.
Since racial justice protests swept the country in May, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, elected officials and law enforcement have blamed “outside agitators” for property damage and other chaotic events. Some of those claims may have merit. One of the first prominent instances of property damage, in which a masked man smashed windows in Minneapolis, appears to have been the work of a white supremacist disguised as an anti-fascist, investigators claimed in an affidavit this week, first reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Police claim the Minneapolis man was attempting to turn the protests violent so as to discredit them.
Nevertheless, many claims that “outside agitators” orchestrated the protests have fallen flat. Despite initial reports that most or all arrests at the Minneapolis protests were from out of state, nearly all of those people were later revealed to be locals. Still, the trope of the outside agitator has been used to portray protests as inauthentic. (President Donald Trump blamed anti-fascists and the “radical left” for Minneapolis unrest, at one point citing a faulty statistic to claim that "80% of the RIOTERS in Minneapolis last night were from OUT OF STATE.")
Activists from various factions of the Richmond protests said a similar dynamic was at play in their city.
“They're using Boogaloo people to discredit the movement and go after other protesters,” Kristopher Goad, an anti-racist activist who was briefly arrested and released without charges on Sunday night, told The Daily Beast.
Goad was among activists who showed up on Saturday after the flyer of unknown origins circulated online, advertising the event. Most major groups that came out—including a local anti-fascist group, a Boogaloo group, and a Black Lives Matter group—have publicly stated that they did not organize the event.
But the protesters who showed up on Saturday had ideological rifts, formed over years of rallies for and against white supremacy in Virginia, including the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Most controversial was the presence of the “Boogaloo” group. Though new, nebulous, and actively evolving, the Boogaloo movement is broadly right-wing or libertarian, with a strong emphasis on gun ownership, aesthetics cribbed from the forum 4chan, and calls for a new civil war. Although many Boogaloo adherents publicly denounce white supremacy, the movement has shared overlap with overt white supremacist scenes, with its name originating from a racist joke. The local Boogaloo group’s organizer, Mike Dunn, previously organized a gun rally attended by open neo-Nazis and a state senator who recently shared a hoax about Black Lives Matter activists plotting to murder white families.
Also putting Dunn in apparent conflict with Black Lives Matter organizers was a recent video he uploaded stating that he didn’t agree with the movement, his work as a corrections officer until his recent firing, and a Confederate flag he wore on his belt at a July 4 rally.
Dunn told The Daily Beast he didn’t invite the neo-Nazis, and that his crowd had denounced the neo-Nazi faction on the spot at their earlier event. Those disavowals were enough to win him the camaraderie of BLM757, an activist group from the Norfolk, Virginia, area.
Japharii Jones, leader of BLM757, told The Daily Beast that he was less interested in Dunn’s videos and more interested in his IRL actions.
“They literally denounced white supremacy to our faces, so we’re going off actual actions in person,” Jones said.
Further complicating matters was BLM757’s and Jones’ relationship with the broader Black Lives Matter community. Over several years of protests in Virginia, Jones has made overtures to right-wing groups, including collaborating with a “Three-Percenter” militia. He has previously shared mashups of the Three-Percenter and BLM757 logos, posted that he “declares war” on “antifa,” and tweeted against Planned Parenthood and “feminists,” earning him criticism from other Black activists online. Although Black Lives Matter groups are often unaffiliated with the official organization, the verified Black Lives Matter chapter in Washington, D.C. denounced BLM757 in 2017, accusing Jones of unjustly reporting a Black woman to the police. The D.C. chapter claimed BLM757 had never been part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Those tensions led to dueling chants at the Saturday protest when some marchers realized Dunn’s group and BLM757 were leading the march together.
"People realized, ‘That's not good, that's not who we want, that isn't a good march,’” Goad said. “I think that caused a lot of fighting between groups, between ideologies.”
Dunn blamed the chants against him on the group Antifa Seven Hills, which did not return a request for comment. With the march dissolving under internal strife, the Boogaloo group left before 11 p.m., he said.
A man in a black Chevy pickup truck was involved in at least one violent incident, where he was filmed shouting at men on the street and firing a gun into the ground multiple times. When he returned to the truck and drove away, he or a passenger appeared to shout “fuck n----rs” and fire more shots.
The Daily Beast was able to locate the truck by its model and license plate on Facebook. Its apparent owner as of mid-May, when he most recently posted pictures, could not be reached for comment. The then-owner of the vehicle appears to be of a similar age and build to the man filmed firing the shots; the man in the film also waves a dog tag and indicates that he was a veteran, and the truck’s owner as of May also appeared to be a veteran. Although the man’s political affiliations were unclear, one of the apparent owner’s liked Facebook pages was that of Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Neither Richmond’s mayor nor the city’s police force made clear who they were accusing of white supremacy at the event, but the following day, Stoney announced that white supremacists (implicitly Dunn’s crew) had been involved in the damage. Dunn and Goad—who by mutual admission do not like each other—both doubt that narrative.
Stoney’s “statement was ‘white supremacists and Boogaloo boys,’” Dunn said, “but he made them sound synonymous. I don’t really know what to think, but I went on Twitter and called him a hoe.”
Goad, meanwhile, said he suspected the white supremacist allegations were an excuse to crack down on future protests after the fires.
Goad, who has live-tweeted his observations from two months of peaceful Richmond protests, was briefly arrested alongside other activists when they arrived at a protest on Sunday. Although he (and some others, like a local journalist) were released without charges, others spent a night in jail on trespassing charges. Goad said police accused him of planning to participate in a riot (an unlikely charge, he said, given that he was live-tweeting from the protest).
The Richmond arrests come as allegations of “outside agitators” are used as justification for force nationwide. On Saturday, after mothers in Portland, Oregon, formed a bloc at a protest, Trump implied that the women were actually infiltrators. “The ‘protesters’ are actually anarchists who hate our Country,” he tweeted. “The line of innocent ‘mothers’ were a scam that Lamestream refuses to acknowledge, just like they don’t report the violence of these demonstrations!”
But evidence for claims like Trump’s is scant and, and as actual anarchists have noted, anarchists have the constitutional right to protest, too.
In Richmond, some activists say it’s too convenient an excuse.
“Richmond Police are using the fact that a group that's not from here tried to usurp what was going on for one night to discredit the entire movement by pointing to isolated incidences of property damage,” Goad said.
-- Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting