About 200 protesters came to Sugarman’s Corner, the local hotspot in downtown Klamath Falls, Oregon, last Sunday night to protest the killing of George Floyd.
Like in many of the protests that have recently sprung up in cities across the United States, the group was made up of white, black and Latino people, members of the Native American Klamath Tribes and people in the LGBTQ communities: a diverse coalition in a county of 68,000 where 9 out of every 10 residents are white, according to Census estimates. They held signs, many of which have become common during recent protests: "Black Lives Matter" and "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Though it was a small gathering, they had company.
Just across the street, hundreds of their mostly white neighbors were there for decidedly different reasons. They leaned in front of local businesses The Daily Bagel and Rick's Smoke Shop wearing military fatigues and bulletproof vests, with blue bands tied around their arms. Most everyone seemed to be carrying something: flags, baseball bats, hammers and axes. But mostly, they carried guns.
They said they came with shotguns, rifles and pistols to protect their downtown businesses from outsiders. They had heard that antifa, paid by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, were being bused in from neighboring cities, hellbent on razing their idyllic town.
Frederick Brigham, 31, Klamath Falls resident and musician who goes by "Wreck the Rebel," said he never thought Black Lives Matter protests would come to his town. As one of the few black men who lives there, he felt compelled to attend.
But the presence of armed people who clearly did not support their group was chilling.
"It felt like walking through an enemy war camp," he said.
While large rallies in major cities have been the most visible part of recent social efforts to change how police treat black people, hundreds more have popped up in small, rural towns, where residents have marched and kneeled to protest police brutality.
Those protests — and some of the violence and looting that have accompanied them — have become the source of growing skepticism and paranoia in conservative circles. The most persistent rumors center on groups of antifa members being put on buses and sent to small towns to wreak havoc.
The rumors are unfounded. But that hasn't stopped people in some communities, like Klamath Falls, from preparing for the worst. Towns from Washington state to Indiana have seen armed groups begin patrolling the streets after receiving warnings about an antifa invasion, often spurred by social media or passed along from friends. Those actions have yet to erupt in major violence but often bring heavily armed people in close contact with protesters, as it did in Klamath Falls.
Tensions were already high in Klamath Falls. Peaceful protests 150 miles north in Eugene, Oregon, had been followed by a fire in the street and looting. On local social media, rumors were swirling that buses filled with outsiders were planning to infiltrate Klamath Falls to wreak similar havoc.
So some Klamath Falls residents armed themselves and hit the streets. Those that had children to look after watched the downtown protests from Facebook, according to comments left on the stream.
"As you can tell, we are ready," one armed man said in a Facebook Live stream with 124,000 views. "Antifa members have threatened our town and said that they're going to burn everything and to kill white people, basically."
Beyond protecting the businesses on Main Street, the armed group asked: "Why would Black Lives Matter need to protest in Klamath Falls?"
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The rally lasted about four hours with Klamath Falls Police Department officers standing between the two sets of protesters. On the north side of the street, protesters chanted "George Floyd." On the south side of the street, chants of "USA" and "go home" erupted throughout the night.
"A lot of these people came out because they swore that antifa buses were in town," Brigham said. "They couldn't believe that I was from here. They thought I must be a black man that came from somewhere else."
Like nearly every other county in the U.S., Klamath County and the county seat of Klamath Falls have private Facebook groups dedicated to local news, mostly filled with postings about lost dogs, local announcements and constant chatter about what’s heard over the police scanner. It was on Klamath County’s local Facebook news group that some 4,800 members came to talk about the potential threat of antifa, according to posts reviewed by NBC News.
Since nationwide protests began, President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have without evidence blamed the antifa movement — a loose network of groups made up of radicals who rely on direct action, and sometimes violence, to fight the far right and fascism — for the looting and property damage seen during some of the otherwise peaceful rallies. Last week, Trump announced that he planned to designate antifa as a terrorist organization.
That unsubstantiated finger-pointing has coincided with viral rumors on social media — posts on Facebook and Nextdoor that buses filled with thousands of antifa members and anarchists were on their way to loot suburban neighborhoods. Some seen by NBC News featured a screenshot of a tweet by a fake antifa Twitter account that Twitter said was created by a white nationalist group.
The first mention of the buses coming to Klamath Falls came on Facebook.
"I am not one to spread false information," one of the earliest posts stated. "There are two buses heading this way from Portland, full of ANTIFA members and loaded with bricks. Their intentions are to come to Klamath Falls, destroy it, and murder police officers. There have been rumors of the antifa going into residential areas to ‘fuck up the white hoods.’"
Some responding to the posts were incredulous, but few could argue when a screenshot of a direct message from Col. Jeff Edwards, the commander of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing, was posted in one of the groups.
"Team Kingsley, for your safety I ask you to please avoid the downtown area this evening. We received an alert that there may be 2 busloads of ANTIFA protesters en route to Klamath Falls and arriving in downtown around 2030 tonight," the post stated.
Maj. Nikki Jackson, a spokeswoman for the 173rd Fighter Wing, confirmed in an email that the message had come from Edwards.
"This was an internal message sent by Col Edwards to the Citizen-Airmen of the 173d Fighter Wing for their situational awareness and safety," Jackson said. "The alert was received from local law enforcement agencies here in Klamath Falls."
As the day went on, the town buzzed with talk of the incoming rioters, and residents swarmed to Facebook to report what they were seeing.
"I saw some scattered SJWs and some in black at Albertsons," one woman posted. "SJW" is a derogatory reference to social justice warriors.
The antifa buses became a kind of local scavenger hunt. Someone spotted an empty green bus at Klamath Community College. A white bus with "Black Lives Matter" and peace signs painted in green and blue was spotted in the Walmart parking lot. A local recognized that bus as belonging to a local musician, but others didn’t buy it. Someone reported a U-Haul in front of T.J. Maxx, or maybe it was the House of Shoes.
Same rumor, different states
Rumors of marauding antifa buses have popped up on local social media networks all across the country, sometimes leading to direct, dangerous action by locals and police departments.
In Forks, Washington, locals felled trees with chainsaws to block a road, fearing that a bus filled with antifa was headed to town. According to the Peninsula Daily News, the bus was occupied by a multi-racial family of four heading home from a campsite. It was eventually surrounded "by seven or eight carloads of people in the grocery store parking lot."
Forks residents were warned of the antifa invaders by a local gun dealer’s viral video on Facebook.
Police and 911 dispatchers in South Bend, Indiana, were inundated with calls warning of "busloads of people coming in from the toll road." One tweet, posted by several different, brand-new accounts using identical language, warned South Bend residents to "be in by 9 and lock all of your doors."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot decried a "concerted effort out there to misinform" after the city’s police scanner repeatedly warned of antifa buses on their way into town amid protests Saturday night.
NBC News reviewed similar warnings and posts of panic in local apps like Nextdoor and Facebook groups from all throughout the country this week. "Friends in the NYPD" warned of antifa "being sent to the suburbs" in one post. A post in a Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Facebook group implored residents to "protect yourselves, your family and your businesses" from a "serious rumor" about a group "organizing to riot and loot."
Similar warnings were posted in Nextdoor groups everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida, to Danville, California. Some local police departments and sheriff’s offices in Idaho and South Dakota posted to social media to assuage residents of the false antifa bus rumors that had gripped local social media.
Four hours away from Klamath Falls, in Coquille, Oregon, Curry County Sheriff John Ward warned residents on Tuesday in a Facebook post that "3 buss loads of ANTIFA protestors are making their way from Douglas County headed for Coquille then to Coos Bay."
That night, hundreds gathered at the Coos County Courthouse with guns, awaiting arrival of the antifa buses, the Bandon Western World reported.
The morning after the non-riot, a local couple, Douglas and Debra Bankler, published an op-ed in the Western World, saying "there's not a whole lot worth ‘looting,’ and ‘burning down’ in Coquille — and we mean that in a good way!"
The op-ed was titled "Taking on an imaginary enemy."
Douglas Bankler told NBC News the antifa bus rumor may have started on Facebook, but it spread through the town like a real-life game of telephone.
"We live in a tiny, podunk, little Oregon beach town. Five square miles," he said. "God, please don't tell us this is going on all over the place."
In the end, Klamath Falls’ largest Black Lives Matter protest saw no looting, no fires and little violence, apart from a few thrown punches, instigated by the armed side of the street, several of the Black Lives Matter protesters told NBC News.
"There was never the feel of a large contingent of a lot of out-of-town folks," Klamath Falls Police Department Capt. Ryan Brosterhous told local newspaper Herald and News.
One person was cited for disorderly conduct and several were detained and released. "Mostly intoxication," Brosterhous told the newspaper. The Klamath Falls Police Department did not return emails and phone messages from NBC News.
The armed man who livestreamed the protest, who was worried about antifa coming to murder white people, posted an update to his Facebook page acknowledging the risks had been overblown. "I know your hearts and minds were in the right place," he wrote, "but a lot of the info was bad."
Still others remain convinced that antifa had been there that night, run off by the sight of hundreds of armed patriots.
And that’s the story spreading online.
"Antifa RETREATS From Suburb After Business Owner and Neighborhood Show Up With Guns," stated the headline on the website NewsPunch, one of the internet’s most notorious fake news destinations. The article quotes a Facebook post by Dan Kline, the owner of a local billiards bar.
"I have never felt a threat to my business as I did last night," Kline wrote in his post. "Antifa didn’t make it to the courthouse and my bar had no incidents. Antifa walked into a hornet’s nest. It was like a sixth grade football team walking into the Oakland Coliseum to take on the Raiders."
Kline’s post received thousands of likes and shares and was posted in other local Facebook groups from Macomb County in Michigan to Sandpoint, Idaho, according to Facebook’s social media analysis tool, CrowdTangle.
Reached by phone, Kline said he was proud of the way the counterprotest took a stand against antifa and showed the world what would happen should any outside group try and bring a fight to Klamath Falls. But he also described a different scene than in his Facebook post: a peaceful protest from a "small group of kids."
"I can see why they felt threatened somewhat, because they actually were," Kline said of the Black Lives Matter protesters who faced the militia on Sunday. "We didn't know what we were up against, you know?"
"They were just trying to make a peaceful demonstration, and they ran into a fight."
Free from the threat of antifa, the armed residents of Klamath County have mostly stayed home in recent days. But Brigham and dozens of other protesters have continued to gather nightly at Sugarman’s Corner.
"It’s been a long time since I felt this much love," Brigham said in a livestream from Thursday night’s protest, as a large van drove by.
"They got the big guy RV," Brigham said to an audience of 14 viewers. "That's not antifa. It’s just somebody in an RV trying to go on vacation."
"A lot of people still think buses with antifa are coming," he said. "Don’t believe in the fear. Believe in this love."