Part I in a series
In the small northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, population 15,404, concerns spread among civic leaders in late May that violent activists from outside the area were coming to burn their city.
This was just days after George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police. Protests and uprisings were happening in large urban areas across the country.
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel said that his office had received information that buses “filled with protestors were headed to Bemidji,” according to the Duluth News Tribune, “… extremist organizations planned to infiltrate the peaceful protests … including starting fires.”
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht imposed evening curfews for the weekend of May 30 and 31.
Bemidji had good reason to worry — not about phantom arsonists but white supremacists escalating fear and tension.
What happened in Bemidji is the result of what’s called a false flag operation, an effort to spread lies meant both to inflame a situation and shift blame to a third party. In this case, white supremacists used social media to generate fear about extremist groups and their plans to attack small town America. This tactic would not only help discredit those involved with the George Floyd uprisings, but it would give permission to people with guns to take to the streets under the pretext of providing protection.
Bemidji is just one example. On June 3, Snopes published an article titled: “False Claims of Antifa Protesters Plague Small U.S. Cities.” It read:
In the days since President Donald Trump blamed antifa activists for an eruption of violence at protests over police killings of black people, social media has lit up with false rumors that the far-left-leaning group is transporting people to wreak havoc on small cities across America.
The speculation was being raised by conservative news outlets and pro-Trump social media accounts, as well as impostor Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Another example comes from a May 31 post in The Dakota War College, which sounded an alarm for Sioux Falls, SD which echoed the Bemidji threats:
URGENT ALERT FOR DOWNTOWN BUSINESS OWNERS:
I have been told by a city official that there are 3 buses from Fargo en route for tonight’s protest. Although this is not officially confirmed, some are very concerned that the protest may get out of hand.
The city and DTSF are encouraging owners and businesses to bring any tables, chairs, signs, or anything that could be thrown through a window inside for the evening. The protesters that are destroying properties have systematically used street furniture to break windows.
The post included an image that seemed to show the imminent threat. It’s not clear where the image came from, but it’s pretty easy to tell it’s a fake. It uses the odd phrasing: “NO AFFILIATION WITH COPS” and “PRO BLACK.”
Another social media image circulating purported to be from ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter. It said: “Tonight’s the Night, comrades…. we move into the residential areas .. the white hoods … and we take what’s ours.”
Twitter and FactCheck.org linked the image to white supremacists: “Twitter says that the account, suspended May 31, was actually connected to a white nationalist group, Identity Europa.” The group was infamous for its participation in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, according to ADL. It’s now reformed as the American Identitarian Movement.
That particular fake ANTIFA post showed up on a Facebook group for political conservatives called Minnesota Rising. It has since been removed. According to the group’s posted rules: “This page is for ALL conservatives. Racially biased comments and posts will not be allowed and will get you permanently banned from the group.”
One of the people in Bemidji who monitored the group shared a screen capture with another disturbing commentary, at right.
A number of right-wing Facebook groups are popping up, trying to discredit racial justice work, according to a July 5 CBS story:
A loose network of Facebook groups that took root across the country in April to organize protests over coronavirus stay-at-home orders has become a hub of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have pivoted to a variety of new targets. Their latest: Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests of racial injustice.
These groups, which now boast a collective audience of more than 1 million members, are still thriving after most states started lifting virus restrictions. …
An Associated Press review of the most recent posts in 40 of these Facebook groups — most of which were launched by conservative groups or pro-gun activists — found the conversations largely shifted last month [June] to attacking the nationwide protests over the killing of Black men and women after Floyd’s death.
[Update: Such social media agitation has real world consequences in places like Kenosha, Wisc., and Bemidji.
In response to reports that Facebook knowingly allowed the group Kenosha Guard to use the social media platform to encourage an armed response to protests in Kenosha, WI spurred by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson released the following statement:
“We have long warned that Facebook’s cultivation of white supremacy and hate groups on its platform is a deadly threat to Black Americans and our allies. The violent killings of two protestors, demonstrating their right to assemble freely, come at the hands of white nationalist, far-right militia and other hate groups who organize, communicate and recruit new members on Facebook.]
During Bemidji’s May 30 evening curfew, people from outside of the county showed up — uninvited — offering to help police patrol the streets. Police rejected the offer, telling one group to sit outside of town, watch for buses, and call in if it saw anything — eyes and ears only.
The group was affiliated with Off Grid Armory, a gun shop in a neighboring county. Some people saw them as concerned citizens, others saw them as vigilantes. A screen capture of a post from Off Grid Armory the first night of the curfew is at right.
There’s been confusion and uncertainty about how many volunteers/vigilantes showed up, where they were stationed, and whether or not they were armed.
About 11 percent of Bemidji’s population is Native American, and16 percent of the Bemidji school enrollment. When Bemidji residents learned about these non resident patrols, it raised alarms for Native and white people alike. They began to press public officials for answers.
This never would have happened but for an intentional effort by white supremacists to spread lies and create fear.
We will explore the specifics of the Bemidji situation in a future post.
[Update: An earlier version of this post stated an incorrect number for Bemidji’s Native American population.]