What can we possibly make of the crisis that unfolded in the remote Oregon seaside town of Coquille?
Coquille is a sleepy logging community of 3,800 people, almost all of them white. It is miles and miles from nowhere. Portland is 250 miles to the north. San Francisco is 500 miles to the south.
But Fox News is in a frenzy about rioters and looters, and President Donald Trump warns about the anti-fascist movement known as antifa. So early this month as a small group of local residents planned a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protest in Coquille, word raced around that three busloads of antifa activists were headed to Coquille to bust up the town.
The sheriff and his deputies donned bulletproof vests, prepared their mine-resistant ambush protected armored vehicle and took up positions to fight off the invasion. Almost 200 local people, some shouldering rifles and others holding flags, gathered to protect their town (overshadowing the handful of people who had come to wave Black Lives Matter signs).
“I feel defensive and want to protect my home,” one man, Timothy Robinette, told the local newspaper, The World.
A sheriff from a nearby county, John Ward, warned citizens in a public Facebook post of rumors that the anti-fascists could rampage into his area as well.
“I was told they are looking for a fight,” he explained. Ward added that he had no problem with peaceful protests — a Black Lives Matter protest had been held peacefully in the local town of Brookings — but he hinted that citizens might want to help police fend off any antifa attack.
“Without asking,” he said, “I am sure we have a lot of local boys, too, with guns that will protect our citizens.”
Of course, no rampaging anarchists ever showed up. The Battle of Coquille ended without beginning.
Similar hysteria about antifa invasions has erupted across the country. I asked my followers on Facebook how earnest citizens could fall prey to such panics, and I was stunned by how many reported similar anxieties in their own towns — sometimes creating dangerous situations.
In Forks, Washington, which is overwhelmingly white, a mixed-race family from Spokane that was camping in the area was assumed to be part of a rumored antifa protest. The local newspaper, The Peninsula Daily News, reported that local people aggressively confronted the family — a mom, dad, 16-year-old daughter and grandmother — and accused the visitors of being part of antifa.
The family’s vehicle was tailed by four cars of vigilantes, some armed, and then trees were felled across the road to keep the visitors from leaving their campsite. (Four high school students rescued them by cutting the logs with a chain saw, and sheriff’s deputies escorted them to safety.)
Folks, this is insane. It’s a measure of how deluded public discourse has become, how untethered from reality, that a mob of gunmen can terrify campers apparently because of the color of their skin — and think themselves heroes who are defending their communities.
All this ugliness may also be a window into the unrest that could unfold this winter if Trump is defeated but claims that the election was stolen from him by immigrants who voted illegally.
I’ve occasionally encountered mass hysteria in other countries. In rural Indonesia, I once reported on a mob that was beheading people believed to be sorcerers, then carrying their heads on pikes. But I never imagined that the United States could plunge into such delirium.
Antifa, short for anti-fascists, hasn’t killed anyone and appears to have been only a marginal presence in Black Lives Matter protests. None of those arrested on serious federal charges related to the unrest have been linked to antifa.
Still, the movement has a mythic status in some right-wing narratives, and Trump and Fox News have hyped the threat. (The Seattle Times caught Fox faking photos to exaggerate unrest in Seattle.)
Race-baiting extremists have also tried to manipulate public fears. One Twitter account purportedly run by an antifa group, @Antifa_US, announced May 31 that “tonight’s the night … we move into the residential areas … the white hoods … and we take what’s ours.” But Twitter said that the account was actually run by white supremacists posing as antifa.
These antifa panics are where racism and hysteria intersect, in a nation that has more guns than people. They arise when a lying president takes every opportunity not to heal our national divisions but to stoke them, when people live in a news ecosystem that provides no reality check but inflames prejudices and feeds fears.
You might think that this kind of hysteria would be self-correcting: Citizens would see that no antifa people show up and then realize that they had been manipulated by people who treat them as dummies. But the narrative actually gaining traction in some quarters is that guns forced the antifa to back off.
NBC News, which has published excellent accounts of this hysteria, quoted one armed “defender” of the remote town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, as initially saying that antifa warriors were on the way “to burn everything and to kill white people.”
After none showed up, a local bar owner said on Facebook that he was proud of the armed turnout and boasted that antifa activists had been repelled because they “walked into a hornet’s nest.”