March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments
Nathan Damigo moves through rioting crowds like a soldier, and for good reason. Before he founded white nationalist group Identity Evropa, before serving four years in prison for robbing a cab driver at gunpoint, he did two tours in Iraq as a Marine. But when a conservative free speech rally in Berkeley last weekend devolved into an all-out brawl between far-right groups and far-left ones, Damigo got to play war games again.
I was there covering the demonstration, which early on spilled out of a park and onto the streets of downtown Berkeley. Somehow, I ended up next to Damigo as the riot raged, running under the thudding whump-whump of police helicopters, flinching at every pop of an M-80 or crash of a glass bottle. Damigo moved through the sidelines comforting wounded troops. Most had the bright-red faces and streaming eyes that point to a run-in with pepper spray, though some had been tased, and others bloodied from fistfights. He paused at a group pouring Pepto-Bismol over the face of a pepper-sprayed comrade and immediately took the posture of an officer. "You go take it easy," he said, clapping the sputtering man on the shoulder. "We've got people back there who will take care of you."
At no point was I thinking that this man would become a dank meme.
Yet, minutes before assuming the role of lieutenant, Damigo had punched an antifascist protestor named Louise Rosealma. (Antifascists, or antifa, are an anarchist group that believes in stopping far-right extremism at any cost, including violence and doxxing.) Within hours, video of the altercation would sweep across social media, and extreme-right corners of the internet would hail Damigo as a folk hero. It was just the most recent example of a drastic shift. As political discourse in the US has become more polarized and contentious, so too has its symbology. Pepe the Frog and Expendables posters have given way to images of actual violence that political extremists spread and celebrate—4chan, trading on a popular videogame meme, refers to Damigo as "The Falcon Punch at Berkeley." Much of it resembles military propaganda. The meme warriors, it seems, have become a militia.
Memes have always been fodder for in-group jokes, but the inside joke tended to draw on internet creations: Keyboard Cat; Socially Awkward Penguin; image macros of Fry from Futurama. But over the last few years, sharing a meme has become as much about defining your in-group as it is about amusing it. "Even the 'Bidenbro' memes where people imagine a connection of love and respect between Biden and Obama often direct very pointed barbs at Trump," says Michele Knobel, who teaches courses on new media at Montclair State University. And with the rise of the so-called "alt-right" and white supremacist groups, Knobel says, what defines that group becomes less about LOL: "Far-right memes are no longer about humor or cultural critique, but a celebration of out-and-out violence."
To be fair, both poles of the political continuum are guilty of this. When a black bloc participant sucker-punched white nationalist Richard Spencer on camera, the clip became a meme in short order—overlaid with musical punchlines like Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" and Wu-Tang Clan's "Bring da Ruckus." But while the internet's reaction to the punch spawned a deluge of "Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?" think pieces, it also highlights a fundamental difference between the way the far-right and far-left turn violence into memes. Antifa memes tend toward honoring the punch rather than the puncher. Some of that, of course, is because black bloc tactics prize anonymity, but the focal point is the act of resistance, rather than the agent of it.
Meanwhile, on the far-right side, emergent memes have instead enshrined the movement's folk heroes. Before Damigo, there was "Based Stick Man," aka "The Alt-Knight," aka Bay Area commercial diver Kyle Chapman, who rose to far-right internet acclaim after beating up antifascist protestors at the last Berkeley melee.
If you're new to far-right subreddits, "based" loosely translates to honorable or righteous. (Ironically enough, the term's provenance traces back to Berkeley rapper Lil B, aka "Based God.") And that's certainly how Chapman, feels about himself. "I put a V on the shield because warriors of old always had Vs on their shields," says Chapman, who identifies as "alt-lite," an alt-right offshoot that shies away from overt assertions of white supremacy. "I'm a very good fighter. I've been studying martial arts for two decades. I grew up in a very violent environment. We beat the shit out of each other and that was fun." Yet, Chapman thinks of Based Stickman not as an aggressor, but as a defender of patriotism and free speech. "The actions that led to my celebrity were all defensive actions," he says. "Antifa are a domestic terrorist organization. We're going to continue exercising our First Amendment rights and match their level of force."
That sentiment underscores the other major shift in the far-right's visual language. "When used by far right "patriot" groups, these memes act a lot like military propaganda," says Adam Klein, who teaches courses on propaganda and online extremism at Pace University. These memes flatten American politics to a good-versus-evil binary; their subjects are the righteous and honorable. Think Uncle Sam with an undercut or a gas mask.
To Chapman, this militarism is no surprise. "Conservative men hit the gym harder," he says. "They tend to be ex-military or ex-law enforcement. At Berkeley last weekend we had the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters there." Both of those groups, which boast many current and ex-law enforcement, perceive the government as threats to American freedom. It's easy to see why memes like Based Stickman and the Damigo Falcon Punch take root: both depict acts that are heroic in the eye of the beholder. And for Chapman, that heroism eclipses even Damigo's white supremacist ties. "I honestly just don't care," he says. "If people want to share that meme, maybe these women on the side of antifa will think twice about coming out to assault people."
Early far-right memes like Pepe the Frog harnessed the energy of 4chan, where sowing discord was the name of the game. This new wave of memes functions more like a call to action—and arms. "Identity Evropa's plan has been to rally support on college campuses," says Phyllis Gerstenfeld, who teaches courses on online hate crimes and criminology at Cal State Stanislaus, where Damigo is a student. "You can't really plan a meme like this one. But I do think they may take advantage of it as a recruitment strategy." To Gerstenfeld, this is just the contemporary version of neo-Nazis' strategy in the '80s, when they would pick fights on talk shows.
While their newfound notoriety may have made them heroes on Far-Right Twitter, though, Chapman's and Damigo's celebrity doesn't necessarily extend to real life. Based Stickman has been arrested multiple times, and a concerted effort exists to get Damigo expelled from CSU Stanislaus, where he's been known to put up white supremacist fliers. But given the evolution of the far-right meme machine, such difficulties may not matter. "This has a normalizing effect," says Tim Highfield, a digital media researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, about the new trend. "It transforms these actions into a media object, and cartoonifies it." The problem isn't that these memes are out there, in other words—it's that the internet is getting used to them.CULTURE