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Alt-right hopes to organize street-fighting goon squad: Is it more than macho posturing?

Kyle Chapman, known to his fans on the alt-right as “Based Stickman” for beating a leftist protester with a wooden stick at an early March pro-Trump protest in Berkeley, California, wants people to think he’s tough. In late April, Chapman went on Facebook to announce his creation of a new group of right-wing street fighters, called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), dedicated to “defense and confrontation” in the streets. You could almost hear and chest-thumping right through the computer screen.

“This organization is for those that possess the Warrior Spirit,” Chapman wrote. “The weak or timid need not apply.”

A few days after that, the Proud Boys network, a group that Vice co-founder and former Fox News contributor Gavin McInnes calls a “pro-West fraternal organization,” posted a notice about the formation of FOAK and a call for “strong minded men” who are “comfortable in fisticuffs” to join, I reached out to Chapman in hopes of seeing his “warrior spirit” for myself. Alas, I came away disappointed.

Initially, Chapman seemed interested in talking and gave me his phone number. But when I called him, he refused to speak to me, insisting that I email my questions instead. Since then, nearly a week has gone by, and Chapman has not answered my emailed questions or any of my follow-up nudges on Facebook. (He has read them, though.) The “warrior spirit” is apparently not enough to help him tough out a conversation with a journalist about why he believes the world needs the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.

The public claim is that this organization is needed for self-defense.

“The Proud Boys are already known to escort woman and targeted speakers to events for protection against violent anti-speech protesters,” a blogger named PawL BaZile writes at the Proud Boys website. “FOAK will now take the next logical step in organizing the Proud Boy watchdogs into a force to protect and serve when the police are told to stand down.”

Investigative journalist and Southern Poverty Law Center contributor David Neiwert is skeptical of these claims.

“These guys are there looking for a fight,” Neiwert, who has won a National Press Club award for his investigations into hate groups, said in a phone conversation. “I think these guys are clearly quasi-fascist, classic proto-fascists, and they’re on the track to full-fledged fascism. All we need to do is look at history and see how it happened.”

Neiwert said he looks to historian Robert Paxton’s theory, published in 1998 in the Journal of Modern History, that delineates the five stages of fascism. Right now, Neiwert argued, these far-right elements are looking to consolidate power, and that requires getting mainstream conservatives on their side. By going out into the street and picking fights with leftists, under the guise of free speech and self-defense, groups like the Proud Boys and FOAK can play the martyrs and give ordinary conservatives an excuse to rally around them.

My Salon colleague Matthew Sheffield offered a similar analysis in a Salon article last week, arguing that the “alt-right” is now angling for more mainstream support, and the quickest way to do that is by portraying themselves as front line defense against a supposedly violent leftist uprising. As evidence, Sheffield points out that propaganda portraying these far-right racist and neo-Nazi groups as free-speech martyrs “quickly migrated to more mainstream conservative sites that also cater to alt-right audiences.”

The claim of Chapman and his fellows to be gentle lambs merely provoked by violent leftists is hard to swallow on its surface, because they just so happen to hold their rallies in places they know have a large antifa presence. “Antifa” is the label adopted by a subculture that advocates “a set of tactics and practices that have developed since the early 20th century (and the rise of fascism in Italy) as a confrontational response to fascist groups, rooted in militant left-wing and anarchist politics,” according to Natasha Lennard of the Nation.

But that’s not the only reason it’s hard to buy the claim that Chapman’s hard-right acolytes are going into this fight reluctantly.

“We don’t fear the fight. We are the fight,” BaZile crowed in his post announcing the formation of FOAK.

Especially illuminating was the response that Chapman got when he put out a call on Facebook, both under his own profile and the Based Stickman fan page, for “a symbol/crest to represent the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights.” The self-seriousness of the responses was only matched by the near-pornographic enthusiasm for violence.

Here’s a sampling of some of the popular submissions:

(This is a reference to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s purported habit of disappearing leftists by throwing them out of helicopters.)

Soon there will be a court test for the theory that these far-right forces are deliberately starting fights so they can play the victim afterwards.

Last week, prosecutors in Seattle filed charges against Elizabeth and Marc Hokoana, a married couple behind the shooting of a man who came out to an Inauguration Day protest at a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of Washington.

The Hokoanas have tried to depict the shooting as self-defense, but prosecutors have argued that the couple “created a situation designed to allow Elizabeth Hokoana to shoot the victim in the middle of an extremely crowded event under the guise of defending herself or her husband.”

Prosecutors have gathered evidence of premeditation, including Marc Hokoana saying he wanted to “crack skulls” and coaching his wife, who was carrying the gun, by saying, “They have to start this. They have to start it,” during the fight.

Neiwert, who was at the event and captured video of the events preceding the shooting, told me on the phone that the victim, Joshua Dukes, was trying to break up fights. The Seattle prosecutors agree, arguing that Dukes got shot when he confronted Marc Hokoana for pepper-spraying the crowd.

Neiwert doesn’t want to let leftist protesters off the hook entirely, however.

“For the most part, the antifa people are peaceful,” he said, but he also reports seeing antifa protesters throwing rocks and punches. He himself got banged around a few times at the Seattle protests by antifa radicals trying to knock the camera out of his hands.

“Right now, the left is being outsmarted by these guys,” Neiwert said. Antifa protesters are “playing into the hands” of the proto-fascists by giving them the fight they want, he argued.

Even though the SPLC officially discourages efforts to confront right-wing protesters, Neiwert thinks there’s value in “firm opposition, [being] out there saying no, you don’t speak for us, you don’t speak for America.”

But you can’t do it, he argues, “by fighting them physically. All you do is prove their point, or seemingly prove their point. Certainly you give the media the opportunity to say, ‘See, both sides are equally bad.’”

Instead, Neiwert argues that the left should confront proto-fascists with mockery. He sent me a post he wrote in February at his personal blog where he recounted a 2005 neo-Nazi rally in Olympia, Washington, where progressive protesters showed up in clown costumes and performed dances to mock goose-stepping. This whimsical display reduced the neo-Nazis to sputtering but impotent rage, he wrote.

In 1993, Molly Ivins reported on a similar counter-demonstration in Austin, Texas, where 5,000 anti-racist protesters met a Ku Klux Klan rally by mooning the Klansmen.

“Citizens dropped trou both singly and in groups, occasionally producing a splendid wave effect,” Ivins said. “It was a swell do.”

Considering the utter self-seriousness of the proto-fascists, this could well be an effective response. It’s certainly better than giving them a fight, which allows the far-right forces to portray themselves as martyrs and victims, and may even aid them in rallying more mainstream conservatives to their side. Meet their macho bravado with clown noses and fart noises. It’s tough to play brave soldiers facing down violent leftists in the face of that.