As Joe Flood tells it, he didn’t plan to heckle a group of white nationalists when he hopped on a bike and rode to the National Mall on Saturday.
He expected to find what normally exists at these types of demonstrations: a hate group spewing hate, and counterprotesters, well, countering it.
But that day was different, Flood said. The hate group Patriot Front had come to the city without much warning, so when Flood rolled onto the grass near where they stood holding upside-down U.S. flags and a large sign that read “Reclaim America,” he saw no organized group ready to push against what they were saying.
“I went down there just to see what was going on, but when I saw there were no counterprotesters, I felt like it was my duty to say something to them,” Flood told me Wednesday. “They should know that D.C. don’t like fascists and that their hate wasn’t welcome here.”
A video that has since gone viral shows the moment Flood went from a silent observer to a skilled heckler. In it, he stands with his bike in front of a large crowd of mask-wearing marchers. He doesn’t lob obscenities or cliches. Instead, he shouts biting insults at them:
“You wear Walmart khakis.”
“No one likes you. Your mom hates you.”
“You were the losers of your high school class.”
“You’re not even matching. You all have different types of pants on. Cargo pants are out.”
“You look like General Custer's illegitimate son.”
I didn’t even know I was being filmed. Blew up on TikTok on Saturday night and then Twitter, Reddit and Instagram on Sunday. And then Monday night on the Rachel Maddow Show https://t.co/xhFamWVZcy— Joe Flood (@joeflood) May 16, 2023
Maybe you’ve seen that video. In recent days, it has spread across the social-media-sphere, bringing attention, praise and even offers of free beer to Flood from strangers across the nation.
“You are a national treasure,” one person wrote online about Flood. “Thank you for standing up to the bullies. On behalf of a grateful nation, I solute you.”
“You give me hope,” wrote another person. “Thank you for saying exactly what we are thinking!”
“You are the brightest light in the dark!” wrote yet another. “I laughed the hardest I have laughed in the last 7 years! Thank you for your genius and courage!”
Even Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame commented on Flood’s actions. He tweeted simply: “Thank you for your service.”
Flood said he didn’t know his words were caught on video until friends started telling him he was on TikTok. He explained that he didn’t have a TikTok account. That’s when he learned that a video on the site that identified him as the “Red Bike Guy,” a nod to the Capital Bikeshare bike he rode that day, was drawing many clicks and comments.
Flood said he was trying to figure out what he should do, including whether he should identify himself as the “Red Bike Guy,” when he started getting tagged on Twitter by people who recognized him.
“It’s been like being thrown into a tornado, but in a good way,” Flood said of the response. He said he has heard from old friends and received too many messages from strangers to reply to everyone. Some of those strangers have offered to buy him drinks or send him money, and at least one person made a cake in his honor. “I don’t think I did anything that great. I just yelled insults. But on the other hand, it’s been really gratifying. And overwhelming. And weird, too.”
When I first saw the video, like many people, I was struck by how Flood didn’t hesitate to do something when so many other people would have done nothing.
But watching what has happened in the days since has proven even more powerful. On that day, Flood stood alone and countered hate. But the swell of support that has followed shows that, in reality, he stands far from alone in believing that white nationalists should never go unchallenged.
It also shows that there is power in humor.
“I think the good thing about humor is that it says: ‘We’re not taking you seriously. You’re a joke,” Flood said. “I didn’t want to just yell at them. I thought it would be better to make fun of them. … I thought they looked like a joke because they were wearing mismatched khakis and mismatched boots and shoes. They are supposed to be an army, but they didn’t have a uniform. They looked like they were with the Best Buy Geek Squad.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Patriot Front as “a white nationalist hate group that formed in the aftermath of the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
I asked Flood if he thought any of its members heard his heckling that day. He said he knows they did. He said a man who was giving a speech kept having to look at his notes, and Flood made fun of him for that. “I kept shouting at him, ‘Why haven’t you memorized your speech?’” Flood said. “At one point I yelled at him, ‘How long is this speech?’ He said, ‘You should get comfortable.’”
The video shows the speaker grow quiet for a few moments after Flood shouts that General Custer comment.
Flood said he has lived in D.C. for 30 years and has felt more protective of the city since the Jan. 6 insurrection.
‘Do not go in to DC’: After a mom’s warning on Jan. 6 came a haunting choice blocks from the Capitol
“I love living in D.C. because it’s walkable and interesting and diverse,” he said. He noted how many of the hate groups that have marched through the city in recent years claim to hate it, but they keep coming back. “Even though they say they want to destroy D.C., they can’t get enough of it.”
An op-ed Flood once wrote for The Washington Post was titled “There are no superheroes in D.C.” But some people might now disagree with that.
“Not all heroes wear capes,” reads one of the online comments about his actions, “some wear backpacks and ride red bicycles.”