After a night of destructive protests in Richmond involving a torched dump truck, shattered windows, chemical agents and several arrests, Mayor Levar Stoney made a surprising claim.
White supremacists “marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter,” he said Sunday, had “spearheaded” the violence.
“Last night shows that the real hate comes from the racism that is still very much alive in our commonwealth,” Stoney said. “And some have used this moment to still express that hate.”
When asked to elaborate, Stoney deferred to Police Chief Gerald Smith, lingering at the lectern to say it was “certainly spoken of on social media outlets,” an apparent reference to the fact that a few armed white men in Hawaiian shirts — the outfit of the far-right, anti-government boogaloo movement — were spotted in the crowd and denounced by other marchers.
When Smith came up to speak, he said police had identified “some individuals that have been with the boogaloo boys,” as well as others involved in or influenced by the antifa movement, a loosely organized group of far-left activists.
The claim that racists had orchestrated what was ostensibly a pro-Black Lives Matter event quickly drew national attention, fueled partly by a headline posted by a Roanoke-area TV station that paraphrased the officials’ comments as: “Police: Richmond riots instigated by white supremacists disguised as Black Lives Matter.”
Some saw it as confirmation that far-right infiltrators are trying to spark riots and racial unrest amid nationwide outrage over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Qasim Rashid, a Democratic candidate for Congress challenging U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, tweeted the headline and said: “I won’t hold my breath for Trump or the GOP to call out these white supremacist terrorists & apologize to BLM.”
But Richmond officials have presented no direct evidence showing white supremacists organized the protest, encouraged violence or participated in any property damage.
Early Tuesday afternoon, The Virginia Mercury asked officials to clarify the basis for the mayor’s comments. As of Wednesday evening, neither the Richmond Police Department nor the mayor’s office had provided additional evidence of white supremacist influence.
The confusion in Richmond appeared to arise from an unlikely alliance between members of Black Lives Matter 757, an independent, Hampton Roads-area group that has clashed with other Black Lives Matter leaders and progressive organizers, and a boogaloo supporter named Mike Dunn, who appeared with the BLM757 group in Richmond. Dunn insists he is not a white supremacist and both he and BLM757 say Dunn’s group had left the protest before it turned raucous.
In a statement, Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said the city has information that supports “the conclusion of alt-right involvement” but did not specify what that information is. Police are still investigating, Nolan said, and more arrests are expected.
“Based on police intelligence, the mayor believes the boogaloos and the alt-right played a role in influencing and inciting the events that unfolded Saturday night,” Nolan said. “This does not preclude the known involvement of antifa and other protesters from inside and outside of the city whom police and the mayor believe also played a role.”
Saturday’s event was promoted in an online flier of unknown origin that billed the evening as a show of solidarity with Portland, where protesters have clashed with federal agents dispatched to protect a federal courthouse. A portion of the flier, which police said originated outside Richmond, read: “NO PEACE POLICE. DO WHAT YOU WANT. F**K S**T UP.”
“By sharing, attending and leading the march, the Mayor and Chief believe the boogaloos share responsibility for the violence that took place that evening,” Nolan said.
Of the nearly two dozen people arrested in the weekend unrest, police have not said that any of them are connected to white supremacist groups.
The episode highlights the often chaotic and seemingly contradictory mix of groups and ideologies mingling at protests throughout the country, and how complicated it can be to determine who’s leading or speaking for a movement.
Some activists involved in the Richmond protests have also cast doubt on Stoney’s narrative, portraying it as an effort to delegitimize a homegrown uprising against aggressive police tactics.
“I have difficulty believing Richmond Police when they say that white supremacists started violence disguised as Black Lives Matter protesters,” said Goad Gatsby, who documents local protest marches and white supremacist activity on his widely followed Twitter account. “The police don’t have much credibility, and have instigated violence in the past two months.”
Extremism experts note that though there’s some overlap between the boogaloo movement and racist groups, some boogaloo adherents do not consider themselves white supremacists and reject those who do.
J.J. MacNab, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who studies right-wing extremist groups, said it’s incorrect to assume anyone in boogaloo garb holds white supremacist beliefs.
“Anybody can be a boogaloo just by wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a gun,” MacNab said, adding that she too didn’t fully understand the basis for the claim of white supremacist involvement in Richmond.
MacNab said there have been examples of boogaloo boys marching with Black Lives Matter protesters in about a dozen states, largely because they see police as a “shared enemy.”
“Whether or not they have ulterior motives, which is possible, we don’t know,” MacNab said.
The mission of the boogaloo movement, MacNab said, is “accelerationism,” a general push toward civil war or an armed uprising against the government, though not necessarily race-based.
In Las Vegas, three self-identified members of the boogaloo movement were arrested on terrorism charges after prosecutors say they were found with Molotov cocktails on their way to a protest. Authorities in California recently charged another alleged boogaloo follower with the murders of a federal law enforcement officer and a sheriff’s deputy.
To many Richmond activists, BLM757 and Dunn’s group are attention seekers distorting the true aims of Black Lives Matter and muddying the waters of the social justice movement. Those involved in the unconventional partnership say they’re being demonized for crossing ideological lines.
On social media, BLM757 has accused Stoney of spreading “misinformation.”
In an interview, JaPharii Jones, the leader of BLM757, said he does not believe Dunn is a white supremacist and insisted Dunn’s group left “before any of the mayhem even started.”
Asked about the mayor’s comments at Sunday’s news conference, Jones said Stoney was looking for someone to blame.
“It’s him trying to say ‘Oh no I’m a great mayor I stood up to white supremacy,’” Jones said. “It’s all politics. He had to have somebody to put the blame on for that.”
Other Richmond-area activists have also said the boogaloo group left the protest quickly after other protesters identified them.
A Facebook Live stream posted on the BLM757 page shows Dunn telling the BLM757 group he had to leave.
“It ain’t safe for us here,” one person says on the video, though it’s not clear if it was Dunn or someone with him.
Jones said he first met Dunn at a mostly right-wing gun rally outside the state Capitol on July 4 that featured a similarly muddled mix of ideologies as well as an appearance by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a GOP candidate for governor.
However, some in the crowd were open white supremacists. But Dunn welcomed BLM757 members and participated in a “white supremacy sucks” chant, according to news coverage and video from the event.
In an interview, Dunn said he identifies as a centrist libertarian. He also acknowledged he was kicked off of Facebook for a video in which he demanded Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation while racking an AR-15 rifle.
He said he and a colleague were marching in solidarity with BLM757 and stood at the front “showing force saying we would not tolerate the police hurting peaceful protesters.”
“If there had been white supremacists there we would’ve fought ’em,” Dunn said. “We fought ’em on July 4 when three of them ‘Heil Hitler’ed’ in our crowd.”
Dunn added that he’s considering suing the mayor over the white supremacist comment.
The two groups returned to Richmond Wednesday evening to explain themselves at a press conference that was streamed on Facebook at the Robert E. Lee statue, but several people there told them their actions were unwelcome and unhelpful.
Art Burton, a longtime Richmond community activist, said talk of gun rights is not among the “real issues that are relative to Black people.”
“Nobody’s going to stand with the boogaloo boys. That’s just the bottom line,” Burton told the BLM757 group. “We don’t want to be in partnership with them.”
Regardless of the level of boogaloo involvement in the protests Saturday night, many in the city were disturbed by a video of an incident that occurred around the same time in which an armed white man can be seen exiting his truck and firing a handgun at the ground during a confrontation with a protester. As the vehicle pulled away, someone inside the vehicle shouted a racial slur.
And other information has come to light suggesting far-right agitators may have played a role in unrest elsewhere.
Police in Minneapolis recently announced that a man seen smashing windows at an auto parts store early in the protests over Floyd’s death has suspected ties to a white supremacist group, though he has not yet been charged with a crime.
Jones said his BLM757 group is planning another pro-gun rally outside the Capitol on Aug. 15 that will feature guest keynote speaker from Black Guns Matter. He said he also plans to give attendees a chance to explain whether they are or aren’t a hate group to “end all the separation.”
Asked what would happen if he encounters outright racists at future events, Jones seemed unconcerned.
“If you outright tell me to my face that you don’t rock with my skin color, that’s the end of that conversation,” Jones said. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”