Kyle Chapman expected he might find a fight. And he did – with a teenage girl.
The girl was waving an anti-fascist placard last week at a protest against Shariah law in midtown Manhattan when a scuffle broke out and she knocked an older woman to the ground.
“Assaulting our people?” Chapman shouted as he reached across the barricades and ripped her sign apart. “Your days are numbered, commie!” he called after her as police escorted her away. “The American people are rising up against you!”
As the founder of a group of right-wing vigilantes called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Chapman, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound commercial diver, is part of a growing movement that experts on political extremism say has injected a new element of violence into street demonstrations across the country.
Part fight club, part Western-pride fraternity, the Alt-Knights and similar groups recruit battalions of mainly young white men for one-off confrontations with their ideological enemies – the black-clad left-wing militants who disrupted President Donald Trump’s inauguration and have protested against the appearances of conservative speakers on college campuses.
Along with like-minded groups like the Proud Boys, a clan of young conservative nationalists, and the Oath Keepers, an organization of current and former law-enforcement officers and military veterans, they mobilized on social media to fight in New Orleans over the removal of Confederate monuments; on the streets of Berkeley, Calif., where clashes between the left and right have increasingly become a threat for law enforcement; and at a raucous May Day rally in Los Angeles.
Both sides have issued a call to arms this weekend for an event being billed as a “Trump Free Speech Rally” in Portland, Ore., which is already on edge after a man was charged in the killing of two people who tried to intercede last week as he hurled anti-Islamic insults at two women on a train.
“This is a war,” declared the Proud Boys’ founder, Gavin McInnes, in a column this week.
Law enforcement has taken notice. At the protest last week at the City University of New York, which had been heavily promoted on social media, throngs of police officers lined the sidewalk before it began. In Portland, the police said they were mobilizing a robust presence because of what they have seen online.
“It’s almost like a street fight, like a rumble, the way it’s being advertised,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a spokesman.
Many in the movement, like Chapman and McInnes, say they are supporters of Trump’s agenda to tighten immigration and fight political correctness. While Trump has recently taken steps to denounce hate speech and violence, the proliferation of militant groups on both the left and the right is part of the new reality of political expression. Advocates who track extremism say the president, who egged on violent supporters during his campaign, has played a role in emboldening the groups.
To Chapman, 41, who on social media goes by the nom de guerre Based Stickman – “based” is slang for not caring what others think, and “stickman” refers to the closet dowel he wielded this spring at his first political skirmish – the Alt-Knights are a frustrated brotherhood of right-leaning soldiers conscripted to do battle with the left and devoted, as he put it in a Facebook post in April, to “defense and confrontation.”
“There’s been a lot of organized violence on the part of the left against the right, so we have to organize,” Chapman said. “The purpose is to have a peaceful event. But if people are attacked, you have to be ready and willing to defend yourself and your right-wing brothers and sisters.”
This form of aggression is something researchers say they have not seen on such a scale before on the far right, where the chosen method of provocation for groups like neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan is to demand the use of public space for rallies where they can spew racist and offensive language that is nonetheless protected as free speech.
“These are new people to us,” said Heidi Beirich, the Intelligence Project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist movements.
Typically, the far-right groups they study will demonstrate but avoid confrontation, acting in a “defensive crouch,” she added.
“But saying, ‘We’re going to show up and we’re intending to get in fights,’ that’s a new thing,” Beirich said.
Some groups like the Proud Boys have initiation rituals that include violent hazing and require an oath of fealty to Western culture. Their followers thrive on hyper-masculinity and celebrate when one of their brethren hits a leftist agitator. They mock Islam and purport to be soldiers against a “war on whites,” while being mindful not to embrace overt white supremacism. Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime associate of Trump’s, has taken the Proud Boy oath.
The Alt-Knights were initially conceived as a paramilitary wing of the Proud Boys, designed to provide protection for audiences listening to conservative speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, whose public events have been canceled because of threats of violence.
The groups openly post on Facebook and Twitter to spout Islamophobic and anti-immigrant speech, recruit members and mobilize followers to demonstrations where violence might erupt, taking advantage of the porous standards that social media companies set for offensive and violent speech.
Internet commerce businesses PayPal and GoFundMe recently blocked Chapman from accepting money from supporters. He also said he had been barred twice from Facebook, although only temporarily. But his Facebook account, which has about 33,000 followers, remains a source of Islamophobic posts and calls for others to join him at events where clashes are likely.