In June, hundreds of heavily armed, suited-up men appeared in Houston’s Hermann Park. They arrived from across the state, lugging their AR-15s and Dixie insignia, ready to shut down a planned protest aimed at toppling the park’s statue of the city’s namesake, Sam Houston. Wrote longtime Texas journalist John Nova Lomax, “I have never seen so many pro-Confederate bumper stickers on as many cars as I did in the parking lot, nor as much Texas secessionist sentiment.”
Yet no anti-statue protesters ever showed, because the anti-Sam Houston protest was, in reality, organized by a fake group calling itself Texas Antifa. But nearly six months later, we still have little idea who tricked hundreds of Texans into turning out in camouflage and Army uniforms, waving their rifles and shotguns and Confederate and Gonzalez flags for all to see.
At the time, the lack of actual antifa – the fact that these anti-antifa men all gathered, riled and raucous, to push back against a phantom protest – was good for laughs across the country. “I don’t really get in general the fake antifa accounts – what the hell? They’re making their own look like idiots?”, said far-right researcher JJ MacNab.
But in the wake of recent revelations about Russian organizers secretly cajoling white supremacists into armed protest in the city, the continued inability to identify those who convinced hundreds of armed men to group together, one of the most notable shows of force the U.S. has seen in years, has taken a darker hue – all the more after the events in Charlottesville showed just how quickly white nationalist protests can turn violent in the age of Donald Trump.
To be sure, there’s little indication that the Hermann Park protest was organized by any of the trolls run out of St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that the Russian operatives targeted both sides of Houston’s May 2016 protest – which saw armed white supremacists square off with dozens of counter-protesters – and even created the most popular Texas secession page on Facebook, ThinkProgress was unable to uncover any evidence linking Russians to the fake antifa account behind the June protest.
However, the tactics employed by the fake organizers behind the Texas Antifa page shared many of the same characteristics as those employed by the Russian troll operations that also turned out hundreds of duped Americans. And the tactics may help explain why Russian operatives found such success in the Lone Star State.
With their Facebook posts beginning sometime in May, the Texas Antifa page announced to its “Comrades” that “we need to fight to remove the disgusting statues of ALL war criminals and slave owners.” Shortly thereafter, a group calling itself This Is Texas – and later, realizing the unfortunate acronym of its original title, changing its name to the unwieldy This Is Texas Freedom Force (TITFF) – announced its presence, and its response to the supposed rally aiming at Sam Houston. Wrote TITFF, “Many of these communist punks are embolden [sic] after they lay claim to a win in New Orleans by bringing down the Confederate monuments.”
Even after it became clear that TITFF, and the hundreds of armed men pooling in Hermann Park, were conned, supporters were adamant the protest was a success. In a follow-up video, TITFF spokesperson Brandon Burkhart remained convinced that antifa agitators had planned some kind of protest, saying that “antifa put up all of the dadgum posters” near the park. Added Jeremy Alcede, another higher-up with TITFF, “I don’t think they made us look bad. We mobilized under 1,000 people in a matter of weeks. And mission accomplished – we got our point across. … Call it duped, call it tricked, call it screwed – I call it a success.”
And Alcede’s correct, in a sense. Not only did TITFF turn out hundreds, but the group has continued touring the state, leading armed protests against Confederate takedowns in San Antonio, brandishing their rifles against protesters in Austin. And the group’s anti-minority rhetoric has only accelerated. Alcede, for instance, has posted anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh material on Facebook, including posting a gun aimed at a turbaned head. TITFF’s Robert Beverly recently told the San Antonio Current that most black Americans – who he refers to as “the blacks” – are “too damn lazy.”
But the question remains: Who cajoled and convinced hundreds of angry, heavily armed men to gather in Houston? And what does that say about the state, and safety, of public protest in the U.S.?
TITFF offered a few clues about the actual organizers. According to Burkhart, a trio of others helped him found his group – but they apparently left for reasons that remain unclear. TITFF refused to answer questions about the three, with Burkhart adding in a TITFF video that one, named “Dave,” did “something negative toward us, and not positive toward us.”
Others believe the unnamed three promptly founded the Texas Antifa page. The Texas Nationalist Movement, a group of Texas secessionists who have made multiple trips to Russia since 2015, noted that someone named “Eric” was behind the Texas Antifa page. For what it’s worth, the Texas Nationalist Movement, which didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’s questions, appears to believe the entire exercise was all a scam to generate funds for TITFF. The Facebook page of Texas Antifa, which also didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’s questions, now claims they are manned by Anonymous members concerned about the removal of Confederate statues, a claim that remains unlikely.
The lack of clarity about those who started Texas Antifa and TITFF, and who convinced hundreds of weapon-clad men into a public gathering, is perhaps as concerning as anything within the broader lurch toward armed protest in the U.S. – especially in a state that recently saw the worst mass shooting it’s ever known.
Of course, fake antifa accounts have duped others beyond TITFF. But, thus far, TITFF supporters are the only ones who’ve massed in public with their heavy arms on display – a paramilitary group, however disheveled, scouring for an opponent, not minding that they were gulled by online trolls.
And the recent revelations about Russian operations in the U.S. only make the lack of identification that much more worrying. “I’m going back, looking at stuff from the past 3-4 years, to figure out what didn’t make sense at the time,” MacNab said. She pointed to the Hermann Park protest, as well as the sudden burst of concern about supposedly missing black girls in Washington earlier this year, as conspiratorial moments that “had this really unnatural flow.”
The fact that we still don’t know who tricked hundreds of heavily armed men in Texas is concerning in its own right, regardless of foreign involvement. But TITFF, which has continued its armed tour of the state, doesn’t seem to mind. Said TITFF’s David Amad, “I want the bad guys to understand that we’re not the bad guys. We’re the good guys.” The only problem is that we have no idea who the “good guys” were founded by – or who the “bad guys” they believe they’re targeting actually are.