In the face of powerful protests, middle America enters the Twilight Zone

Trump and Barr are at the forefront, trying to scare the citizenry with tales of anarchy and destruction.

There’s a famous episode from the very first season of the legendary “Twilight Zone” TV series. Its title: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

The tale unfolds in a small town. A mysterious blast of light and sound comes from overhead and suddenly the power goes off. At first the residents of Maple Street think it’s just an electrical outage, but they become more suspicious and nervous when a boy on the block talks about sci-fi stories he’s read, ones in which aliens send advance scouts posing as humans to set the stage for invasion.

Soon rumors fly and people start grabbing at the flimsiest shred of evidence—and their shotguns—hurling accusations at innocent neighbors. They’re convinced that the enemy is among them, just waiting to commence an attack. Mayhem ensues.

Welcome to America’s Twilight Zone 2020. As massive Black Lives Matter protests have spread worldwide, demanding an end to endemic racism and police violence, on another front, we’re seeing Rod Serling’s 1960 television scenario play out in real time. People around the country, roiled by false rumors and social media innuendo, are convinced that their villages and suburbs are about to be invaded by the dreaded “antifa”—violent far left anarchists and thugs out to vandalize, loot and desecrate middle America.

Oh no!

In a compelling investigative report, Anne Helen Petersen of Buzzfeed writes: “In Hood River, Oregon, antifa were, according to screenshot of a fake Instagram story, calling on followers to ‘root loot do anything in your power.’ In Spring Hill, Tennessee, there was a ‘busload’ staying at the Holiday Inn, prepping to loot Walgreens at noon. In Wenatchee, Washington, bands of men dressed in black were surveilling potential targets. In Payette, Idaho, a plane full of protesters was circling overhead. In Honolulu, antifa had been flown in from the mainland. In Billings, Montana, some claimed agitators had been spotted by the National Guard. In Nebraska, they were creating Craigslist ads offering to pay people $25 a day to ‘cause as much chaos and destruction as possible.’ In Sisters, Oregon, they were planning to show up at the local Bi-Mart.

“To be clear: All of these rumors were false.”

At NBC NewsBrandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins reported an incident in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest of about 200 was met by hundreds of people, some in military fatigues and vests, and many carrying weapons:

“They had heard that antifa, paid by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, were being bused in from neighboring cities, hellbent on razing their idyllic town…

“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.”

If it wasn’t so dangerous, it’s almost funny, especially when none of these purported antifa warriors show up and the militia and other right-wing types declare victory, claiming that their presence has driven the non-existent invaders away. It’s a bit like the old joke about the guy standing on a downtown corner persistently snapping his fingers. Asked why he does it, he replies, “To keep the elephants away.” When told there are no elephants anywhere nearby, he replies, “See? It’s working!”

But all of this hallucinatory, Maple Street-like panic has been cranked up to eleven by President Trump and his Roy Cohn-like sidekick Attorney General William Barr as they’ve tried to diminish and demonize the importance of all the huge genuine protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. What’s more, their crazy talk about antifa is an attempt to distract from the minute-by-minute evidence of this administration’s vast ineptitude during the pandemic, economic breakdown and calls for an end to police brutality.

“There is clearly some high degree of organization involved at some of these events and coordinated tactics that we are seeing,” Barr blustered. “Some of it relates to antifa, some of it relates to groups that act very much like antifa.” He has described antifa as “domestic terrorism.”

As for Trump, The New York Times notes that the president “has sought to expand and exploit accusations against what he has called the involvement of ‘radical leftists’  in the protests. At one point the president said that antifa would be declared a ‘terrorist organization,’ although it is not a single organization nor does any American law allow using that designation against a domestic group.”

The paper reminds us again that “the president suggested on Twitter, without providing any evidence, that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester hospitalized after being knocked down by the police could be ‘an ANTIFA provocateur.’”

It’s also an effective way to raise campaign cash.  Anne Helen Petersen points out,  “On June 2 [the day after his Bible-toting appearance in Lafayette Square], Trump sent out a blast to his email list. The subject line: ANTIFA. ‘Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem,’ the email said. ‘They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting — it’s absolute madness.’”

Actually, according to The Times, during the protests, “A review of the arrests of dozens of people on federal charges reveals no known effort by antifa to perpetrate a coordinated campaign of violence. Some criminal complaints described vague, anti-government political leanings among suspects, but a majority of the violent acts that have taken place at protests have been attributed by federal prosecutors to individuals with no affiliation to any particular group.”

Does antifa exist? Sort of, and over the years there have been some broken windows and car fires to prove it, but as FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress last summer, his agency “considers antifa more of an ideology than an organization.” (Not that this has stopped the FBI, at William Barr’s behest, from sending out its Joint Terrorism Task Force to interrogate and harass protest organizers and arrested demonstrators about antifa.)

By all reasonable measurements, we’re talking about a few hundred, perhaps a couple of thousand at most, anti-fascist activists nationwide who sometimes lash out in a destructive way. Well-organized they’re not.

In a June 10 editorialThe Washington Post said Trump and Barr were “inventing a domestic terror threat from whole cloth,” adding, “ [E]xperts point out that disrupting demonstrations in general alignment with antifa’s goal of dismantling white supremacy is hardly the group’s ideological bailiwick. They’ve also pointed out that the group isn’t much of a group at all: that antifa is too diffuse and too small to mount a coordinated co-option campaign.”

This is not news. Since the dawn of dissent, there’s one or six in every crowd. Back in the days of anti-Vietnam protests there were always a few who favored random, purposeless acts of two-bit violence over peaceful protest.

One I recall in particular was a wealthy chain-smoking guy who lived in my dorm and fancied himself a cross between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Che Guevara. When in a crowd, from time to time he smashed people and things with impunity, secure in the knowledge he’d be bought out of any mess he created.

But when it comes to antifa, we’re talking about mostly verbal agitation scattered with sporadic outbursts from a very small number. As one activist arrested in Minneapolis told the Associated Press, “Antifa isn’t even real. As an actual person who identifies with the political label of anarchist, the only thing anarchists do is have meetings where they argue for five hours and get nothing done.”

Not quite true, it seems to me, but awfully close. The current social movement in America is far bigger and more important than any antifa wannabes; it’s bigger than all of us. In fact, if there are any agitators worthy of real, Maple Street-style fear, look not to the radical left or peaceful protesters but to the far right, spreading disinformation and trying to gin up racial conflict.

Go back to the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 twenty-five years ago, mass shootings perpetrated by right-wing fanatics, the more than 1,000 groups monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center—almost all of them on the right. Look at the militias, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, the Charlottesville violence of 2017, the Boogaloo Bois seeking a new civil war and more. They really do exist.

Note, too, that since the current racial justice protests began, the most frightening arrest hasn’t been of anyone on the left. It was the apprehension of three white men, all ex-military, allegedly associated with Boogaloo. They were doing their best to provoke violence at Black Lives Matter protests in Las Vegas. As per the AP, “FBI agents found rags, gasoline, aerosol cans and weapons along with booby traps, fireworks and handwritten notes of military and survival tactics…”  When attempts to cause trouble at the actual demonstrations failed, they reportedly planned to firebomb a power station.

(And this just in, the arrest of armed militia member Stephen Ray Baca, charged with aggravated battery after the Monday shooting of a protester in Albuquerque.)

The idea—from Trump and Barr on down into the morass of hate—is to ratchet up disinformation and incite violence that can be turned into propaganda, fund appeals and re-election ads, creating boogeymen to scare Republican and swing voters, like the frightened neighbors who turn against each other on The Twilight Zone’s Maple Street.

At the end of that show it turns out that the locals had been manipulated by aliens all along. “Throw them into darkness for a while and then you just sit back and watch the pattern,” one extraterrestrial says to another. “Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves.”

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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.

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