Section of the right-wing reaction Saturday into a rumored flag burning should be performed at Gettysburg National Military Park by antifa leftists. Equipped right-wing groups proven to defend the flag. Photo by Andrew Mangum for The Washington Post
GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK, PA. – For weeks, a mysterious figure on societal networking spoke up plans to get antifa protesters to converge on this historical site on Independence Day to burn American flags, an event that seemed occasionally to border on the farcical.
“Let us get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and critters in blue,” the anonymous individual supporting a Facebook page called Left Behind USA composed in mid-June. There could be antifa face paint, the man wrote, and organizers could”be giving away free tiny flags to kids to safely throw in the fire.”
As word spread, self-proclaimed militias, bikers, skinheads and far-right groups from outside the state issued a call to action, pledging in online movies and articles to come to Gettysburg to protect the Civil War monuments along with the nation’s flag from desecration. Some use force if needed and said they would bring firearms.
On Saturday afternoon, in the hours prior to the flag burning was supposed to begin, they flooded in by the hundreds – heavily armed and unaware, it seemed, the mysterious Internet poster was not that the person promised to be.
Biographical details – some from the individual’s Facebook webpage and others provided to The Washington Post in a set of messages – didn’t match official records. An image was a picture of a guy taken by a German photographer to get a stock photo service.
The episode at Gettysburg is a stark illustration of how shadowy figures on social media have stoked fears about the protests against racial injustice and excess police force which have swept throughout the nation because the passing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.
Armed vigilantes lined the streets of little Idaho cities a month following false claims circulated online about antifa, a loose collection of activists who oppose fascism and have occasionally embraced property damage and violent protest in recent decades. Hoaxes have befallen cities in New Jersey, South Dakota and Michigan .
it’s not always clear who has made these false claims and why, whether they attempt to advance a political agenda, antagonize people with whom they disagree or achieve some other goal.
Social media companies have in recent weeks closed down a handful of bogus accounts created by white supremacist groups posing as antifa operatives in an attempt to undermine peaceful protests.
In reaction to messages in The Article, the person managing the Left Behind USA account identified himself 39-year-old Alan Jeffs, a lifelong Democrat-turned-anarchist from Pittsburgh who currently lives in Des Moines.
The Article examined real estate, courtroom and voter documents, as well as other public documents, but could find no such person.
Officials at Facebook and Twitter shut down the Left Behind USA pages a week after The Post inquired about the accounts, stating the person behind them had manipulated the platform by creating multiple accounts together with overlapping content in an effort to enhance their messaging. The officials declined to identify the other accounts.
An official at Facebook said the person appeared to be operating the accounts from within the United States. The Post was able to get in touch with the individual who claimed to be Jeffs after the reports were shut down.
But fears of the antifa-sponsored demonstration had already taken root.
Macky Marker, a part of a Delaware militia called First State Pathfinders, posted a YouTube video calling militiamen to visit Gettysburg. “If you plan on coming, I would plan on coming full battle-rattle… to be fully, )% prepared to guard yourself and whomever you come with,” Marker said from the video.
Left Behind USA popped up on Twitter in February, advancing far-left thoughts in a torrent of crude memes and graphics that decried capitalism, called for an end to police and advocated a moratorium on rent. The accounts attacked Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden as a”rapist” and accused him of supporting racist criminal justice legislation.
The anonymous individual controlling the accounts described himself in a variety of articles as a laid-off graphic designer, a former Uber driver and a disc jockey. He wrote he sleeping on a friend’s sofa and was living off food stamps.
In May, the individual sent out an urgent petition for petrol cash on left-wing USA’s Twitter account. He had been stranded, the person wrote, with his roommate’s car while returning from a trip to Ohio to attend his grandfather’s funeral. He said his grandfather, a part of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers who had worked in Youngstown, died on May 28 at age 96.
Jim Burgham, the business manager of the IBEW Local 64 of Youngstown, told The Post that the marriage, which monitors deaths of current and former members, knew of no such individual.
“That manhood you described doesn’t exist,” Burgham explained.
In early April, a person with the title Alan Jeffs produced a request on the site Change.org. It included a video \posted on a Twitter accounts controlled. The request called for the governor of Wisconsin to postpone the Democratic primary because of the health risks of this novel coronavirus.
It contained a photograph of a smiling, bearded man, allegedly Jeffs, also stated that he was in Beaver Falls, Pa.. Using a reverse image lookup, The Post discovered that the photograph came from the stock photo site depositphotos.com.
The Left Behind USA Facebook page was made June 2. After the Post originally sought an interview at mid-June, the individual controlling the Facebook page reacted in a message:”I don’t like to talk to conservative media sources.”
The individual later identified himself as 39-year-old Jeffs and supplied several details about his background. “I’ve been active since I was old enough to vote and have voted Democratic in every presidential and midterm election that I’ve been able to,” the man wrote in a personal Facebook message to the Article.
Election officials at Iowa’s Polk County told The Post that nobody by the name Alan Jeffs has been registered to vote at the nation, according to a database search. Officials in Pennsylvania stated there was no one by that name on that nation’s active or inactive voter rolls.
Two media books quoted Alan Jeffs this spring, mentioning the following of his Twitter accounts that encouraged former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The Christian Science Monitor discovered in an investigation of social media data that the Twitter account, @Bernieorelse of Jeffs, stood out \against former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg because of its frequent and aggressive articles.
“Twitter is the real world today, more than it had been four years ago,” the Christian Science Monitor quoted Jeffs as saying in March.
In April, a student-run news website at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism quoted Jeffs at a story about the Democratic presidential nomination. Jeffs said he lived just outside Pittsburgh.
“I am fed up with all the Democrats forcing centrist candidates ,” he said.
That same month, his social networking accounts @Bernieorelse was suspended by Twitter. A spokesman told The Post the system’s rules were violated by that the account but declined to elaborate.
On June 11, Left Behind USA published an image on its Facebook page that seemed designed to agitate.
About an example of a U.S. flag aflame, it declared:”Antifa presents: 4th of July Flag Burning To Peacefully Protest For Abolishing Police Nationwide.”
“No Bikers, Militias Or Other So-Called Patriots,” it said. “Children Welcome – Antifa Face-Painting”
A Facebook webpage called Central PA Antifa quickly denounced the event as imitation, likening it to a hoax in Gettysburg three years back.
In 2017, rumors of an antifa event in the national park prompted a large group of armed militia members to show up. They struck no one but one of the armed militia members accidentally shot himself in the leg\.
However, news of this year’s supposed event spread quickly in conservative circles.
About June 22, the far-right website Gateway Pundit published a story claiming that”Antifa national terrorists are planning to desecrate the Gettysburg National Cemetery and set the American Flag ablaze on Independence Day.”
Local papers also picked up the narrative.
This town of over 8,000 people grew alarmed. Authorities flooded . Local officials vowed to mobilize the town’s entire 20-person police department and also bring in other people from bordering towns to protect homes, businesses and statues.
Shortly, militia bands were vowing to guard the town as well.
“Multiple local residents in Gettysburg PA have contacted us with HEAVY concerns about the terrorist organization ANTIFA holding a flag burning occasion in their town,” a band that calls itself the Pennsylvania State Militia submitted on its FB webpage June 23. The team said it would mobilize its”county reaction staff” as”a deterrent against the enemy forces.”
Other Facebook groups called Patriots Against Treason, Defend Our Flag and Nation, Protect Our Flag and Battlefield from Being Destroyed quickly formed and declared that they also would mobilize people to Gettysburg.
Bill Wolfe, a Gettysburg resident and associate of a personal Facebook group called IIIpercent United Patriots of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that the flag-burning event represented an”ongoing attack on American culture and heritage.”
Antifa’s activities, he explained, were a part of a decades-long campaign by the Communist Party to take across the country.
weekly, the person who identified himself as Jeffs told The Post at a personal message delivered through Twitter he expected”500 to 600″ people to attend to the flag-burning occasion. “We have mobilized groups from all over the area,” he wrote.
“We believe in open transport and intend to do so at this event,” he added, a reference to the practice of publicly carrying firearms in public.
Twitter suspended the accounts two days after.
But even more outlandish rumors about the protest were circulating.
A different Facebook post that circulated widely warned that antifa protesters were planning on”MURDERING White individuals and BURNING DOWN Suburbs” following the Gettysburg flag burning event. It cited a”controlled unclassified law enforcement bulletin.”
At the final days of June, neighborhood police openly said that the post was untrue.
On Saturday, hours before the planned flag-burning protest, hundreds of bikers, militia members and self-described patriots began gathering outside the Gettysburg Cemetery and at nearby sites using Confederate memorials. Flags were waved by some. Many gripped assault rifles slung from their shoulders\. One carried a baseball bat.
Steve Eicholtz, a 59-year-old from Biglerville, Pa., said he’d seen enough of pictures of looting and rioting. It was not likely to occur here, he explained.
“These people are acting like savages,” he had been telling his fellow patriots, while holding an AR-15 rifle.
“We are letting them get by using it for long, but that changes now,” said Don Kretzer, 52, of Chambersburg, Pa.
Less than a mile off, at the Virginia Monument, hundreds of cyclists and armed men gathered around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Christopher Blakeman, 45, of Falling Waters, W.Va. , said he felt forced to join with a group of approximately 50 bikers, largely by Maryland, to protect the monument from supposed antifa protesters.
“It isn’t important if it’s a hoax or not,” he explained. “They left a risk, and if we do not make our voices heard, it’ll make it seem like it is OK.”
As the 3 p.m. start time for the planned flag burning approached, there was no sign of Alan Jeffs or even of busloads of antifa members.
Unexpectedly, from the statue of Lee, a biker shouted that he had gotten an alarming call. Someone prepared to burn a flag he said. Scores of folks jumped on their bikes and roared toward the cemetery.
There, they learned it was not the threat they imagined.
A man had entered the Peninsula sporting a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. Trent Somes, the guy , afterwards told The Post that he visited the grave of an ancestor, not protesting. A seminarian and associate pastor at First United Methodist Church at Hanover, Pa., Somes said a bunch of roughly 50 individuals surrounded him and aggressively questioned him regarding his top.
“I did not do anything to them,” he said.
Police arrived and invited Somes to depart.
“For his own safety, federal law enforcement made the decision to remove him, and he had been escorted from the town,” Jason Martz, acting public affairs officer for Gettysburg National Military Park, afterwards said.
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.