On Wednesday, the White House tweeted a compilation of videos purporting to document an organised “domestic terror” operation by anti-fascist (antifa) groups to put bricks in the hands of rioters during nationwide protests against police brutality that have rocked the country for the past week. Within two hours, the tweet disappeared.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to impose martial law in response to protests in dozens of cities against racist police brutality and the May 25 police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd. Tens of thousands of Americans have peacefully made use of their constitutionally backed protest rights. Others have engaged more violently, hurling objects at police who’ve responded in kind, firing projectiles and noxious chemicals. Other incidents of violence are seemingly the natural consequence of unprovoked police officers applying extreme force indiscriminately.
President Trump has repeatedly referred to antifa as “domestic terrorists,” and has even sought to designate it officially as a terrorist organisation behind coordinated violence nationwide as part of his ongoing efforts to build support for a U.S. military crackdown.
More recently, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has portrayed antifa as a group with ties to “foreign actors,” a claim that raises questions about the potential use of powerful surveillance tools authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the re-authorization of which is a matter of current debate in Congress. Just as worryingly, Trump has used the term antifa as a catch-all label for any and all leftist opposition.
In reality, antifa refers to a broad range of left-wing groups that don’t necessarily have organizational affiliations with each other, generally make no secret of their presence at protests, and don’t always support violence. Many are also anarchists who reject hierarchies — or chains of command — on an ideological level.
Leaked documents this month reveal the FBI found no evidence of coordinated antifa involvement in recent incidents of violence and vandalism across the country. However, right-wing conspiracy theorists have seized upon any ephemeral shred of evidence to reinforce their conviction that antifa puppet masters are behind incidents of looting and arson coinciding with a larger national civil rights struggle. In a Wednesday afternoon tweet that is no longer accessible, the White House made an embarrassing attempt to provide proof of its “domestic terror” claims: videos gathered from social media showing stacks of bricks that, by chance, happened to be along many protest routes.
None of the clips used in the White House video are in any way connected to antifa or show a plot to arm protesters, as research by multiple journalists shows.
The first of the clips in the video shows a pallet of bricks outside George Allen Dallas County Civil Court in Texas. A Dallas city official told Gizmodo on Wednesday that police had examined two locations where stacks of bricks were reported. “No verified security footage or other intelligence indicates bricks were deliberately placed there,” they said, adding that public works and sanitation employees had removed the bricks out of “an abundance of caution.”
Another supposedly suspicious pile of bricks in Dallas — not included in the White House video, but widely circulated on social media — was discovered in a parking lot. NBC News confirmed it had been there since at least February.
The next clip appears to show bricks used for construction in Fayetteville, North Carolina, based on other social media posts mentioned below.
The next clip in the video, one of a New York Police Department officer hoisting blue bins filled with rocks, was tweeted by department Commissioner Dermot Shea on the morning of June 3. However, Vice reported that the street corner in question in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighbourhood was miles away from any protests. Local business owners told both Vice and the Daily Beast they had no idea where the bricks came from, but that nothing indicated they were planted by anti-fascist groups.
Vice also reported that the video originated with another account that has tweeted numerous times about looting in the city and did not provide any information backing their claim the rocks were “strategically placed.” Said account also characterised the items in the bin as “bricks”; while it’s hard to tell for certain, it more closely resembles construction debris.
This is what our cops are up against: Organized looters, strategically placing caches of bricks & rocks at locations throughout NYC. pic.twitter.com/HT317TjoqH
— Commissioner Shea (@NYPDShea) June 3, 2020
the red dot is where the nypd claims it found a mysterious box of bricks. the yellow circles are today's planned actions in brooklyn, queens, & manhattan. the bricks are nowhere near any of them
— g a b y (@gabydvj) June 3, 2020
On Wednesday, District 47 Councilman Mark Treyger, whose district contains the street corner pictured, tweeted he had travelled there personally and confirmed that “construction debris was left near a construction site on Ave X in Gravesend. Could be evidence of a developer breaking law since phase 1 hasn’t begun, but there was no evidence of organised looting on X last night that I’m aware of.”
The next clip, featuring shots of bricks in heavy-duty bags, appeared to originate on Twitter from a user who claimed to have found them near a vacant wharf in San Francisco:
Can anyone explain why these bricks are in bags or if these bricks have any real value in construction?
I found them yesterday while in San Francisco, there were piles of them (without bags) near all protest areas.. and these were found at the wharf which is a ghost town now.
The bags in question appear to be bulk bags designed to be moved by forklifts — meaning anyone trying to move the bags would likely need heavy equipment. As one of countless examples of why a wharf might have bricks on hand, a major fire broke out there on May 23, destroying a warehouse. Over 130 firefighters were called to put it out. Google Street View shows the video was filmed about two blocks away from Pier 45, the one that caught fire. Labels of some kind are affixed to the bags. Why the wharf was a “ghost town” during a pandemic and a curfew order seems self-evident.
The next clip of “random-arse bricks” appears to be a second shot of the bricks in Fayetteville, North Carolina, only taken during the day. A BBC reporter confirmed the bricks had been there since May 24 as supplies for a city restoration project.
Based on the positioning of the bricks, the traffic cones, and a black object on a nearby wall, this video was taken at the exact same location as the second one in the montage.
The compilation video shared by the White House then cuts to footage of individuals actually taking bricks from a pallet in NYC. The fact that people threw bricks during the protests is not in question. It happened. But although the White House implied it, the video itself offers no proof that a “domestic terror” group deliberately placed them there. Rather, the opposite is true.
Extended footage that appeared on Twitter clearly shows that instead of finding a cleverly hidden cache of riot supplies, the men in the video are ransacking unsecured bricks at a worksite on Second Ave between St. Marks Place and Seventh Street. Scaffolding is visible on the building to the right of the pallet. Google Street View also confirms the facade on the second story of the building is made of the same red brick.
The final shot is perhaps the most embarrassing. The clip shows bricks that are stored in iron cages along a footpath outside a synagogue in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks neighbourhood, Chabad of Sherman Oaks.
The synagogue posted to Facebook saying the rocks actually from a security barrier that has “been here for almost a year.” The barrier, intended to deter vehicle attacks, was installed after the mass shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, last year. In a separate incident in Los Angeles the previous year, a Somali-born man from Seattle attempted to run down two Jewish men exiting a synagogue.
The White House, in other words, lifted video of stone structures installed in response to an actual terrorist attack to manufacture evidence of an imaginary terrorist plot.
Chabad of Sherman Oaks said in a Facebook post that it has now removed the rocks to ease concerns they could be used in street violence or vandalism.
The White House video concluded with three clips culled from social media of vandals and rioters throwing objects — none of which appear to be bricks. The first clip depicts a person throwing a stone through windows of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct. The next appears to be protesters throwing rocks at police SUVs in Minneapolis on May 27.
The third shows two young men in an apartment several stories up from the street, looking down at protesters just before both of their windows are smashed. The objects coming through the windows are grey, but otherwise too blurry to identify. It seems improbably, however, a full-sized brick could be thrown that height with such accuracy. The White House video is also the only piece of content that implies the objects thrown are antifa-supplied bricks. All news reports about the incident cite “rocks” being thrown through the glass.
There is no indication whatsoever that they obtained these materials from an anti-fascist drop site, rather than, say, literally anywhere else in urban environments where bricks, rocks, and stones are plentiful.
None of this precludes the possibility that someone, somewhere dumped a pile of bricks near a street corner with the intent of assaulting police officers or hurling them through the window of fast fashion retail store. But it does strongly indicate something that it’s hard to believe requires an explanation: There is no nationwide conspiracy by a domestic terrorist group, or any group at all, to put bricks into the hands of protesters fighting against racial injustice, nor even looters out only to help themselves.
It’s not clear whether a humiliated White House took down the video or Twitter, which has recently begun enforcing its policies against misinformation on Trump and the executive branch, did it for them. The White House did not return Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Twitter refused to say whether it took any action against the White House for spreading a patently false accusation of terrorism. “Sorry I can’t be more helpful on this one,” a Twitter spokesperson said.