Shaky claims and shaggy lion stories: a look back at a few great smears

Experimenting with throwing cement. Credit: Sam Gehrke/Williamette Weekly

A review of a few particularly memorable inventions from the imagination of police, media, and far-right trolls.

In the aftermath of a recent clash between antifascists and the far-right in Portland, the local police made a claim, which was quickly picked up and spread around the world, about antifascists making milkshakes mixed with cement. No evidence was ever produced to support this claim, which was contradicted by everything from the huge numbers of people who drank the supposedly cement-tainted milkshakes without suffering any ill effects, to local publication the Williamette Week making and throwing test milkshakes to illustrate the story’s implausibility.

“Fake news” is often seen as a product of the internet era, but while it has certainly had a major boost in recent years, the use of lies and smears as a way to undermine social movements has a long history. It can be traced back at least as far as the “Zinoviev letter” that tried to link the British Labour Party in the 1920s to the Soviet Union, and even the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery produced in Tsarist Russia that would go on to inspire anti-Semites around the world right up to the current day.

Often these lies are just predictable, repetitive and dull – the usual mix of stock phrases about “paid protesters”, “outside agitators”, “a small minority of troublemakers bent on destruction” and so on. But sometimes, as with Portland Police’s imaginary cement milkshakes, the cops and their helpers will come up with a gloriously imaginative flight of fantasy. In recognition of the creative achievements of far-right Walter Mittys, police Don Quixotes, and media Baron Munchausens, here’s a listing of a few particularly memorable smears:

Teenage mutant ninja climate campers

In the 2000s there seems to have been something of a trend for Japanese weaponry in the minds of British and Irish police forces. In the run-up to London Mayday 2001, the police warned of rioters armed with samurai swords; prior to Dublin Mayday 2004, there was talk of sharpened CDs being thrown ninja-style; and then at Climate Camp 2008 the police claimed to have found a cache of weapons including a ninja throwing star. Needless to say, London Mayday 2001 did not witness any spectacular samurai decapitations or disembowelments, and the favoured tactics of Climate Camp included various occupations and blockades, but not much in the way of spinning blades of death.
Undeterred, the police and Home Office claimed that 70 police officers had been injured in the course of the 2008 Climate Camp, although they later had to admit that “there were no recorded injuries sustained as a result of direct contact with protesters” and they had, in fact, been counting injuries such as “stung on finger by possible wasp”, “used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back”, toothache and diarrhoea.

I’ll have a supermolli with a dash of blackcurrant

During the 1990 eviction of the Mainzer Strasse squat in Berlin, the police produced a “supermolli”, or giant Molotov cocktail, that had apparently been made as a weapon by the squatters. However, it turned out that this supposed weapon was actually full of homebrewed cider rather than petrol. During the same operation, police claimed that wires hanging from the walls of run-down buildings were actually electrical traps, and produced a cache of medieval-style weaponry that appeared to belong to LARP (Live Action Role Play) enthusiasts among the squatters; certainly, even police reports make no mention of these weapons actually being used.1

Remember remember the 4th of November

On the first anniversary of Trump’s election, leftist group Refuse Fascism put out an entirely routine call for protests. Their fairly unremarkable plans for static, placard-holding rallies were then picked up by Infowars and inflated into a plot to start an “antifa civil war”. This paranoid fantasy was then mocked by social media posters who made jokes about antifa supersoldiers plotting mass beheadings of small business owners, a joke that was then straightfacedly circulated by right-wing outlets as being a serious statement of intent. For the record, November 4th 2017 did not, in fact, see the outbreak of a civil war.

Shooting themselves in the foot

On a similar note, in the summer of 2017 a hoax story was circulated about “antifa and Black Lives Matter” planning to desecrate Confederate gravestones at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, a location where the only gravestones commemorate Union soldiers. Despite the total lack of evidence for this made-up story, a counter-mobilization was called to oppose the fictional threat to non-existent graves. This gathering then became still more memorable as one armed militiaman present discharged his weapon into his leg. Meanwhile, an alt-right/nazi/4chan-aligned attendee, carrying hand-drawn Pepe memes, appeared to openly acknowledge that the original story was a hoax, saying that he was just there to try and meet like-minded people, a plan that backfired when he alienated everyone else present and was forcefully removed, accompanied by shouts of “this ain’t comic con!2

Do bears sabotage pipelines in the woods?

In 2018, Ellen Gerhart, a retired Pennsylvania teacher who lived in the path of a proposed oil pipeline and was vocal in her opposition to the project, was arrested and jailed after allegedly breaching an injunction banning her from interfering with the pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, claimed that she had tempted lions and bears onto the pipeline route in order to endanger workers. Mountain lions are officially extinct in that region of the country, with the last recorded Pennsylvania mountain lion having been shot in the 19th century. The claim that bears were seen in the area seems more plausible, but Ms Gerhart’s daughter offered an alternative explanation for why there might have been bears in the woods, pointing out “we live in bear habitat. There are bears.”

Why are you stabbing yourself?

In 2016, a neo-nazi demonstration in Sacramento was opposed by local antifascists, leading to clashes where at least eight antifascists and one nazi were hospitalised after being stabbed or beaten. In the wake of these events, local police, the FBI, and several media commentators all seemed to agree that this incident, primarily characterised by nazis stabbing their opponents, showed how dangerously out-of-control violent antifa extremism had become.
California police notoriously worked with the nazis to identify their opponents and press charges against their victims. This was taken to impressive extremes by one police officer recommending that no charges should be pressed against any of the nazis, including one who was seen “holding what appears to be a folding blade knife” before “making some downward thrusting motions” while grappling with someone who “sustained a stab wound”, and another who “had a knife in his right hand” and “had close physical interaction with” someone who “did suffer a large gash across his upper left chest”; in contrast, the same officer recommended that charges should be brought against every one of the hundred people who were identified as having attended the antifascist counterprotest. Similarly, in the aftermath of the incident the FBI launched a “domestic terrorism – anarchist extremism” investigation into organisers who were suspected of conspiring to violate the rights of the Ku Klux Klan. The group under investigation are not anarchists, and the white nationalist event where the clashes took place had no direct connection to the KKK.
This Through the Looking Glass framing, where antifascists stabbed by their opponents become victims of antifa violence, was then enthusiastically repeated by some sections of the media, with news website Politico running a story titled “FBI, Homeland Security warn of more ‘antifa’ attacks”, writing “According to police, counter-protesters linked to antifa and affiliated groups… attacked, causing a riot after which at least 10 people were hospitalized, some with stab wounds. At the Sacramento rally, antifa protesters came looking for violence.”
Chris Hedges, a progressive lefty commentator, was happy to take up the same line, writing that “A march held in Sacramento, Calif. in June 2016 by the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party to protest attacks at Trump rallies ended with a number of people stabbed. Police accused counterprotesters of initiating the violence.”3
And so everyone from the police to self-proclaimed socialist journalists agree: if an antifascist gets stabbed, it’s their fault, not the fault of the person doing the stabbing.
As well as blaming antifascists for the actions of their opponents, another tack that can be taken is to announce that antifascists and their opponents are actually the same people, a line of argument that was most memorably expressed in a 1980s report that accused Class War of being run by the National Front. This report led to Class War being briefly suspended from Anti-Fascist Action, before being readmitted after the claim was completely debunked.

Although this article has tried to focus on the lighter side of these cases, the example of Sacramento shows how serious these smears can be. Such smears are often an attempt to justify extreme violence, and it would be easy to fill a lengthy article with a listing of less funny cases, from the BBC showing footage of Orgreave out of order to try and demonise miners for defending themselves to the Evening Standard repeating the police’s line about being attacked while trying to save Ian Tomlinson’s life. And, indeed, while this article was being written, new and extremely unfunny lies were already circulating trying to link the racist massacre in El Paso to "antifa".

With thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions on the thread on this topic.

  • 1. from a machine translation of the linked German-language article: " In contrast, the power cables, which the police interpreted as "electric traps", are already hanging out of the walls since the house was intended for demolition... In addition to slingshots and other weapons, the officers also find several self-made "morning stars". However, these medieval weapons come, according to the statements of Freke Over, then spokesman for the squatters and later politicians at PDS / The Left, by a group of squatters who are interested in role-playing games and medieval markets. The police reports confirm this indirectly: There are no reports that these or other melee weapons are used against police officers... As evidence, the police presented a "supermolli", a gallon filled with flammable liquid on the roofs of Mainzer Straße. Only later it turns out that there was no gasoline in it, but fermented apple juice." Further citations are provided in the article.
  • 2. This attendee, Colton Fears, was subsequently convicted of accessory to attempted murder after being part of a crew who tried to shoot antifascists after a Richard Spencer event.
  • 3. Hedges' article also contained the memorable assertion that defending people from nazi attacks "no more legitimizes antifa violence than the turkeys, Christmas gifts and Fourth of July fireworks that John Gotti gave to his neighbors legitimized the violence of the Gambino crime family."

Posted By

R Totale
Aug 8 2019 21:04

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  • Often these lies are just predictable, repetitive and dull... But sometimes, as with Portland Police’s imaginary cement milkshakes, the cops and their helpers will come up with a gloriously imaginative flight of fantasy.

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Fozzie
Aug 8 2019 21:15

Excellent work smile