Extremist groups descending on Virginia are using Facebook to promote violence
This is a special joint investigation by Popular Information and Jonathan Myerson Katz's newsletter, The Long Version. You can sign up for The Long Version at katz.substack.com.
For years, supporters and opponents of gun control have squared off in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, on the third Monday in January. With Democrats in charge of the state legislature for the first time in decades — elected in part on promises to enact gun-control measures in response to a mass shooting — a call went out over national pro-gun and right-wing networks to converge today.
This increased attention has brought threats from white supremacist and anti-government extremists. Federal agents say at least one white supremacist group was caught planning a massacre with hopes of provoking a civil war. Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency.
Many of the pro-gun groups are trying to distance themselves from the white nationalists in advance, stressing their intention for a peaceful demonstration. But other groups have been using Facebook to broadcast couched threats and promote violence.
On December 13, the leader of American Warrior Revolution, a paramilitary organization allied with the militia movement, posted a video to its Facebook page, which has more than 540,000 followers. Joshua Shoaff, a popular right-wing personality who goes by the pseudonym Ace Baker, went on an extended rant threatening Congressman Donald McEachin (D-VA).
Shoaff was incensed by a quote, published by the Washington Examiner, in which McEachin suggested that Virgina could mobilize the National Guard to enforce new gun laws if local law enforcement refused to do so. McEachin’s comments came in response to a Republican-backed “sanctuary counties” movement, in which sheriffs have pledged not to enforce new laws such as expanded background checks.
Shoaff declared that McEachin's statement amounted to treason and McEachin, who is African American, should be lynched:
This message is directly to you. We're coming to your state. I live in Tennessee. My name is Ace Baker. I'm coming to the state of Virginia on January 20th and I hope to see you personally on Lobby Day. Because I would love nothing more than to tell you to your face, you are a coward. You are a tyrant, committing treason. And as a good friend of mine said a few minutes ago, treason is punishable by death. I'm not telling you that I'm going to kill you. I'm telling you that your acts constitute treason and the punishment for treason is hanging in the middle of the street ... You should be pulled out of office by the hair on your head, walked down the streets of the capital, walked up to the steps of a swinging rope that's placed around your neck.
Popular Information contacted Facebook on Friday and asked whether this video violated their rules. Facebook responded by taking down the video and removing Shoaff's personal profile.
"We have removed this individual and these videos from Facebook. We are monitoring the rally and actively reviewing content against our Community Standards so that we can take action accordingly," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.
But Facebook did not take any action against the American Warrior Revolution page itself. Shoaff used the page on Friday to post another video, in which he said he stood by his previous video, and reiterated his belief “that tyrants should be hung in the streets to be made an example of.”
In the shadow of ‘Unite the Right’
How is an organization with a track record of violent rhetoric able to maintain a large presence on Facebook? It seems AWR has fooled a number of prominent institutions.
The tension surrounding today’s rally in Richmond can only be understood in light of what happened, seventy miles west and two and a half years ago, in Charlottesville. After a daylong Nazi rampage in which dozens were injured, a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of people on the town’s pedestrian mall, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
According to a lawsuit filed by the City of Charlottesville, "Thirty-seven AWR members, many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons,” attended the rally. They were among several armed paramilitary groups who portrayed themselves as neutral peacekeepers, not formally aligned with the violent white supremacists holding the rally, but supporting their right to free speech — many of whom will also be in Richmond.
Even then, Shoaff contradicted his peaceful claims by leaping into violent rhetoric. In a video posted to Facebook, Shoaff said members of AWR would have had legal justification if they decided to murder people. AWR "could have fucking used deadly force… We had the justification to use deadly force that day, and mow people fucking down!" Shoaff said in the video, which is no longer online. In another Facebook video, Shoaff vowed to return to Charlottesville.
On August 15, 2017, Trump famously declared that there were "very fine people" who participated in the Unite The Right rally. The next day, the New York Times quoted a member of American Warrior Revolution as an example of some of the people he might have been referring to:
“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”
The "conservative group" that Piercy was affiliated with, according to an interview Piercy gave to the pro-Trump website Media Equalizer, was American Warrior Revolution. The New York Times report was the basis for a fallacious viral video by PragerU defending Trump. It has been viewed over 6 million times.
Shoaff repeats his threats
As a result of the lawsuit, AWR was banned from Charlottesville “as a part of a unit of two or more persons acting in concert when armed.” Several other groups expected in Richmond were banned as well.
In the most recent video, which was also flagged to Facebook by Popular Information on Friday, Shoaff defends and amplifies his December 13 threats against McEachin.
I did make the statement that legislators, representatives, who have been elected to represent the people, when they go from representing their constituents to advocating to use the military arm of the government, the national guard, to go in and take people's rights away by force that person is a tyrant. And our founders would shoot tyrants in the face. Our founders would hang tyrants in the public square for other tyrants to see. To set an example. I did say that. I did say that tyrants should be hung in the streets to be made an example of. And I stand by that. I believe that...If someone were to ask me today if I were to retract my statement, fuck no.
Shoaff went on to explain while he believed people should lynch McEachin, that was not what he was personally coming to Richmond on Monday to do.
But that does not mean that on January 20, we are coming into the city of Richmond to storm the capitol building. Or to hang that legislator in the middle of the street. It's what our founders would do. It's what our founders told us that we should do. And if these things continue to happen it's probably what people will do. But it's not what we are doing on the 20th.
The second video by Shoaff was not only posted to the main AWR page, but to the many of the 50 AWR state-affiliates, which each have their own Facebook groups. (Some of the state AWR pages are private.)
A Facebook spokesperson said the second video had been removed on Friday but, as of Sunday morning, it was still available. After a second inquiry by Popular Information, the video was finally removed on Sunday evening.
Facebook says it has a team of people monitoring activity around the rally and removing content that violates its rules. But Facebook’s haphazard response shows that the company continues to be unable or unwilling to enforce its community standards, which prohibit both “statements advocating for high-severity violence” and “aspirational or conditional statements to commit high-severity violence.”
American Warrior Revolution did not respond to an inquiry from Popular Information.
Pro-lynching Facebook ads
AWR is not the only group using Facebook in advance of today’s rally to promote violence. The "Virginia Militia" has encouraged its 12,000 Facebook followers to attend Monday's protest in Richmond. From December 22 to January 1, the page ran a paid advertisement on Facebook encouraging people to lynch public officials.
The page also claimed to intimidate a member of the Virginia legislature proposing an assault weapons ban by posting his home address.
Popular Information flagged this page for Facebook. The company said it was looking into it but, at the time of publishing, has taken no action.
White supremacists and other extremists online have embraced the term "boogaloo" to refer to a future civil war. The term, a joke on the title of a notoriously silly eighties sequel, "started with gun rights activists intimating or promising violence if the government were to 'come for their guns.'" The Anti-Defamation League notes that "an increasing number of people employ it with serious intent."
A Facebook page called Boogaloo Crüe was launched on December 16 but already has over 5,000 members. It frequently posts violent memes relating to Monday's event, including this one suggesting that armed gun-rights extremists ("Boog Boiz") could overwhelm the Virginia National Guard.
Facebook, in response to an inquiry from Popular Information, said it was investigating the page but, at the time of publishing, has taken no action.
Officials are under pressure to show that they are taking the threats seriously. Northam has declared a state of emergency, banning all weapons, including firearms, from the capitol grounds.
Trump, on the other hand, has fanned the flames.
Jonathan Myerson Katz, who co-wrote this piece, is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
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Thank you for teaming up with @KatzOnEarth for this joint report. I’d been receiving his free versions but this put me over the top & I’ve now subscribed to his Long Version. Great reporting & excellent collaboration. Keep up the great work!
For years I wondered why grown men would become so enraged over laughably reasonable regulation—background checks? Assault weapons ban? Those wouldn’t limit anyone’s pursuit of happiness. But it’s not about gun rights. For the NRA it’s about gun sales and membership revenue. For the average gun owner, it’s about meaning—the prospect of someone diddling with their identity, the font of their value in this vale of tears—some false threat to some threadbare meaning in life is what troubles the men who have no serious threats, or serious meaning. They certainly don’t face famine, war, pestilence, religious persecution or prison without trial, like our progenitors faced. Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Hamilton, Franklin and Washington would be rolling their eyes at these “patriots,” who inherited a nation fashioned by the Enlightenment, not the NRA. Get a life with purpose, guys. A purpose that actually means something.