The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. political divide becomes increasingly violent, rattling activists and police

Paul Benson, attending a rally for Democratic candidate Hank Gilbert in Tyler, Tex., is attacked by Blue Lives Matter protesters on July 26. Benson says he was trying to keep counter-protesters back from the speakers when he was attacked. "I didn't expect this," Benson said, "I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect this." (Sarah A. Miller/AP)

TYLER, Tex. — The goal of the rally was to oppose the deployment of federal agents to quell protests in American cities — and to register new Democratic voters here in the heart of conservative East Texas.

But it had hardly begun when hundreds of conservative counterprotesters and supporters of President Trump, many with military-style rifles slung over their shoulders, swarmed the town square and began pushing and shoving and yelling obscenities.

One man punched Democrat Nancy Nichols in the chest, she said, and three others pinned her husband against Tyler's war memorial. Other armed men were positioned around the edges of the square in military-style defensive formation, their hands clutching their rifles.

"They were yelling Democrats are f---ing idiots and Democrats are demons," recalled Nichols, 65. "It makes me feel angry that this is allowed and that our police are allowing this kind of hate-filled atmosphere to take over."

The scuffling, which injured a top aide for Democratic congressional candidate Hank Gilbert, is part of a wave of politically tinged violence across the nation in recent weeks after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, rattling communities facing a toxic mix of partisanship and guns ahead of the 2020 election.

In a spate of exchanges that have spanned from Kalamazoo, Mich., and Bloomington, Ind., to Chicago and Portland, Ore., people on both sides of the United States’ political and cultural divide have been filmed exchanging punches, beating one another with sticks and flagpoles, or standing face-to-face with weapons, often with police appearing to be little more than observers.

On Tuesday night, the violence took an even more ominous turn when a 17-year-old whose Facebook account showed support for the pro-police “Back the Blue” countermovement allegedly shot and killed two people during the unrest in Kenosha, Wis., after police shot a Black man.

Washington Post reporter Whitney Leaming described how the night of Aug. 25 unfolded in Kenosha, Wis., and her close encounter with Kyle Rittenhouse. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

“We are sort of at the stage of polarization where there are more and more people who are seeking confrontation, where they are not simply satisfied with disagreeing with the other side or yelling at the other side, but they want to confront,” said Mark Pitcavage, a historian and senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “We are not just a polarized society — we are increasingly a confrontational society now.”

Some of the violence has been linked to pro-gun groups and far-right extremist organizations, though even some previously staid political activists have embraced weapons and face-to-face encounters as they navigate this year’s bitter political divisions.

On Monday in central Pennsylvania, a man marching from Wisconsin to D.C. for this week’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was shot and wounded. Protesters have also been shot, in some cases fatally, in Austin, Portland, Louisville and Albuquerque in recent weeks.

The aggressive actions of some protest groups, including weeks of fires and vandalism in Portland and elsewhere, have led to a pushback. A group of people berated customers at D.C. restaurants this week who refused to raise their fist in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, though the confrontations were nonviolent. But conflicts occasionally have become physical, including a driver beaten unconscious after encountering a protest in Portland earlier this month. He survived with serious injuries.

In some places, police have been on the defensive as left-leaning activists, politicians and faith leaders have accused them of not protecting them, while cozying up to conservatives. Some police leaders say they are struggling to stay ahead of the country’s coarsening divide, which they say is being fueled by rampant misinformation on social media designed to stoke tension.

“It seems like we as a country have moved right past the discussion phase of things and now we just are at the stage of conflict, being at odds, distrust and disbelief,” said Lance Arnold, the police chief in Weatherford, Tex. “This is not who we are, and it’s almost like we are living in a different time and a different place.”

Few of the deaths linked to recent protests are known to have been caused by demonstrators

A series of disturbances in northeastern Texas began on July 25 in the western Dallas-Fort Worth exurb of Weatherford, when heavily armed counterprotesters, including members of several far-right Texas-based groups, clashed with demonstrators seeking removal of a Confederate statue from the grounds of the Parker County Courthouse.

The next day, brawls erupted at Gilbert’s campaign event in Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas. A week later, police were called to break up a gathering of hundreds of motorists, many flying Trump and Confederate flags, who descended on a historical Black church in Dallas that displays a two-story Black Lives Matter sign.

In all three events, participants on all sides said the chaos has left them concerned that America’s democracy is teetering uncomfortably, rattling their confidence that either the law or neighborly goodwill can prevent even worse confrontations in the weeks ahead.

“This isn’t a politician’s fight — this is a people’s fight,” said Martin Holsome, who sits on the Rusk, Tex., town council and is aligned with several armed Texas groups. “What we have seen over the past six months to a year has conditioned us for what is going to happen, and you can either condition yourself to be prepared for it or you can condition yourself to be subject to it.”

One new group, Take America Back Texas, has been at the center of efforts to challenge left-wing protesters in Tyler and Weatherford. Leader Brian Phebus, 38, said its membership has surged to 10,000 over the past 2½ months, and he vowed that members will keep showing up at protests and other events where they fear there could be violence.

Group member Wendi Rees, a conservative, White suburban mother in Tyler, said: “We believe our country is being taken from us. Our constitutional rights, our Second Amendment rights, our First Amendment are all being threatened. So people like me, we have had enough, and we are not going to sit back it let it happen anymore.”

The country’s hostile political climate has challenged local police departments, especially in small towns unaccustomed to dealing with protests and large crowds of people who hold opposing political views. Police agencies face accusations that they are not doing enough to protect social-justice and anti-brutality protesters.

Tony Crawford, a leader of the Parker County Progressives, said he frequently communicated with the police chief in the days leading up to the July 25 protest in Weatherford, trying to ensure police would protect demonstrators. But when rumors spread on social media that “busloads” of residents from Dallas and Fort Worth would be descending on the town to tear down the Confederate monument, hundreds of predominantly White conservative counterprotesters and members of armed conservative groups descended on the site, many heavily armed.

Clashes erupted, with videos showing counterprotesters charging into Crawford’s group. Crawford, who is Black, began frantically texting Arnold asking why more police were not on hand to keep the two sides separated.

“We are surrounded by guns and people talking about shooting us loudly,” Crawford wrote to Arnold, the police chief, according to a log of his text messages.

“We are briefing now,” Arnold wrote back. “We’ll have units up there in a few.”

But Crawford and other anti-Confederate demonstrators said police protection never arrived, even as counterprotesters threw water bottles, spit on them and chased protesters back to their vehicles.

“Y’all abandoned us chief,” Crawford texted a few hours later. “You let us get dragged and attacked while you did nothing.”

In an interview, Arnold said that city and county law enforcement agencies did not have enough manpower to properly police the event. He attributed that to poor communication among police agencies that day as well as limited intelligence on how many counterprotesters were planning to show up.

Arnold said the event also highlights the struggle that police departments throughout the country now face amid the supercharged emotions surrounding political and cultural debates. He has identified several heavily armed counterprotesters and far-right groups that he believes had members involved in recent conflicts in Weatherford, including the Oath Keepers and the Texas Freedom Fighters.

After online warnings, armed civilians bring threat of violence to protests in Kenosha and elsewhere

Arnold said the numbers of counterprotesters are being swelled by “a bunch of ordinary individuals” who are now physically engaging protesters and activists whose politics they do not agree with. Large crowds are being mobilized online after inflammatory and often false information is posted online by what Arnold described as “fake social media accounts.”

“They are accounts that have been created within the last month or so, do not have a picture or other identifiers that you could use to believe they are more legitimate accounts,” Arnold.

The social media posts are quickly spread, including by self-described militias and more-mainstream conservative groups, and they often give the impression that a specific community faces imminent danger or the potential for violence, Arnold said.

They often use images from past protests or riots in other cities combined with phrases such as, “This is happening in Weatherford right now,” he said. Other social memes falsely claimed that police were asking residents to “come assist us,” Arnold added.

“It’s extremely worrisome, because it creates a level of fear,” Arnold said, adding that he is working with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the FBI to identify who is creating the misinformation. “And it creates an environment that is rife for violence between various groups.”

For some conservatives, the images of looting and violence in American cities after Floyd’s death have became a rallying cry. Those scenes prompted Phebus, an Air Force veteran, to help start Take America Back Texas in June, because he believes armed civilians are needed to back law enforcement and protect local property owners from civil disturbances. Phebus said the group now has members in most of Texas’s 254 counties, all of whom stand ready to deploy.

“If anything goes on, anywhere in Texas we can pop up,” said Phebus, adding, “When we show up, [violence] usually doesn’t happen, because of the presence of guns.”

Rees, 50, serves as the group’s leader in Smith County, which includes Tyler, a city named after the only U.S. president to have served in the Confederacy.

A Christian missionary and longtime antiabortion activist, Rees said she became involved in Take America Back Texas after seeing viral videos of the protests that erupted nationwide this summer. She said she believes groups such as Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters plan to one day take over cities such as Tyler, undermining the conservative values that she home-schooled to her four children.

In particular, Rees seethed with fear and anger after she saw a video clip of protesters in Seattle suggesting that homeowners should give up their properties. She also accuses the news media of having a double standard by mentioning the race of police officers involved in deadly shootings, while appearing to downplay it in other crimes, including the death of Cannon Hinnant, a White 5-year-old boy in North Carolina who was allegedly killed by his Black neighbor.

So when Rees heard about Gilbert’s rally in Tyler, she mobilized Take America Back Texas members to show up wearing patriotic clothing, or blue shirts in support of law enforcement. She also wrapped orange tape around their arms and torsos, thinking that would make it easier for police to identify the “patriots,” as Rees and Phebus refer to themselves and others in their groups.

But Rees said more than 100 other counterprotesters not affiliated with her group also showed up, including supporters of Gilbert’s opponent, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). Others have self-identified as members of Texas militia groups. Jimmy Toler, the chief of the Tyler Police Department, also suspects some members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-supremacist group, took part.

As the counterprotesters swarmed the square, some local Democratic leaders who showed up to support Gilbert said they were scared to get out of their vehicles. Others said the sight of so many armed people gave them flashbacks to a war zone or the square’s dark history of racial injustice, including public lynchings that persisted here into the 1900s.

“There were these guys with long-arm weapons that were standing up on top of things, guarding things, much like when we had guard duty overseas,” said Shirley McKeller, a Black retired Army nurse who served in Iraq. “I had to sit there and collect myself. . . . I am accustomed of seeing lots and lots of weapons, but to see them on the square in downtown Tyler, it was devastating to me.”

As Gilbert tried to begin his campaign remarks, counterprotesters blew air horns while shouting and jeering over him, he said. Another counterprotester then pulled the plug on Gilbert’s sound system mid-speech.

Then the shoving and punching began.

“I was circled by five different people, and they were telling me, ‘You need to get out of here,’ ” said Ryan Miller, 21, who works for Gilbert’s campaign. “I looked over at one of my friends and said, ‘Help.’ As soon as I did that, I was immediately punched in the face several times. . . . And then I turned around and saw someone take a swing at my mom.”

Another man, wearing a Trump hat, was filmed with his hands around the neck of a Democratic supporter.

Rees said her group’s members were not responsible for the violence, but she conceded that more needs to be done to keep opposing sides separated at political rallies and protests.

“I think what is happening at these rallies is you have people that are so angry . . . because of what is shown on the news,” Rees said, referring to images of unrest across the country. “So they think they can show up, get their violence out and knock the crap out of somebody and not have accountability.”

Toler said officers initially held back from the town square because they did not want to “escalate the situation,” a tactic that he said they began utilizing when Black Lives Matter protests first erupted in the town in late May.

“We want to give people a little room to breathe so we don’t become the target and we don’t escalate the situation,” said Toler, adding that Tyler police moved to break up the rally once the violence began.

Tyler police have since filed assault charges against three individuals who showed up to protest Gilbert, including a prominent local businessman and his daughter.

But increasingly, both Arnold and Toler said, police are having a difficult time determining whether individuals who show up at counterprotests are there to peacefully assemble or to cause problems. And with so many people showing up armed, including growing numbers of left-wing ­social-justice activists, police are warning people that they need to understand the risks associated with modern-day protests and political activity.

“We want everyone to exercise their right to express themselves,” Toler said. “But you have got to understand there are other individuals out there that have other interests and have other motives.”

Holsome, the town councilman who is aligned with the Texas Freedom Fighters and the Oath Keepers, showed up at Gilbert’s Tyler event armed with his AR-15 and .45-caliber pistol, with six or so other guns stored away in his logging truck that he parked nearby.

Holsome, who is biracial and identifies as White and Black, said he believes Black Lives Matter protesters have been infiltrated by anarchists who are a determined to destabilize small towns in Texas. He also worries that liberals are planning to unfairly steal the election away from Trump.

When Holsome shows up at events, he said, he is continually on guard for any potential hazard that could require him to use his weapons.

“A frozen water bottle will bust your head wide open. A brick will kill you. A two-by-four that is being thrown 20 yards away can kill you,” said Holsome, 41, who has been attending up to six protest events a month this summer. “If I feel like my life is in imminent danger, I am going to use force.”

Pitcavage, from the Anti-Defamation League, said that sentiment is why he fears that the coming months could prove to be especially dangerous as the stress of the pandemic collides with an acrimonious presidential election.

“The fields are fertile for people to come out of the woodwork and show up to these sorts of things,” Pitcavage said.

Despite that danger, Nichols, the Democrat who said she was punched at the Gilbert rally, vows she will keep showing up at events — with her voting registration forms.

“But when I go to rallies now,” she said, “if I see the presence of these goons, I will immediately call the police, the constables, the sheriff, the county judge and anyone else I can think of to make sure there is protection there for everyone,” Nichols said.