Armed militant activists with the group Antifa have seized a sizable section of Seattle and are plotting to expand their territory — all as the local police surrender to them and evacuate a local precinct.
Or so the story goes if you’ve relied on right-wing media for your news this week.
“You have now talk about armed volunteers of Antifa to guard their cop-free zone and taken over precincts,” Fox News host Sean Hannity told viewers Wednesday night on his television show, the highest-rated program on cable news.
It is true that demonstrators have occupied a small, six-square block section of Seattle and designated it an “autonomous zone.” And it is true that, after clashes with police, a precinct was boarded up and evacuated in an attempt to deescalate the situation.
But claims that bands of militant Antifa members are roving the Seattle streets appear to be grossly exaggerated in right-wing media. In fact, according to the Seattle mayor’s office, city officials haven’t seen any evidence to indicate armed members of Antifa are even on the ground.
“City officials have not interacted with ‘armed antifa militants’ at this site, but will continue to be on site to monitor the situation closely,” Lori Patrick, a spokesperson for the Seattle mayor, told CNN Wednesday night.
Patrick said that police had heard reports of “armed individuals at demonstrations” on Monday night. But it was unclear what their affiliation was. In Washington state, it is legal to openly carry a gun.
“In the days since,” Patrick said, “city employees, including representatives from the mayor’s office, the Seattle fire chief, and our first responders have been on site continuously with unimpeded access working with organizers to ensure the area is safe for peaceful demonstrations, and that those who gathered have access to hygiene and sanitation services.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene on Thursday as “unpermitted,” but “largely peaceful.”
Local news channel KOMO-TV, a CNN affiliate, reported that demonstrations remained peaceful on Wednesday, and featured music, dancing, and a movie screening.
The New York Times, which had a reporter on the ground, described the occupied area as “part street festival, part commune.”
“Hundreds have gathered to hear speeches, poetry and music,” Mike Baker, a Pacific Northwest correspondent for The Times, reported. “On Tuesday night, dozens of people sat in the middle of an intersection to watch ’13th,’ the Ava DuVernay film about the criminal justice system’s impact on African-Americans. On Wednesday, children made chalk drawings in the middle of the street.”
The scene has been portrayed dramatically differently in right-wing media.
Online, right-wing websites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit have also pushed the narrative that armed Antifa members have begun seizing land.
“Antifa is reportedly seeking armed volunteers to take turns manning barricades and holding ground that protesters have seized within Seattle city limits,” a Wednesday Breitbart article said.
That report relied on a post from the far-right blog The Gateway Pundit, a website known for peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories.
As evidence, The Gateway Pundit cited a tweet from a less-than-reliable right-wing media personality Andy Ngo, in which he claimed Antifa militants “have taken over & created an ‘autonomous zone’ in city w/their own rules.” Ngo, who did not respond to a request for comment, often does not cite strong supporting evidence to back up the claims he makes about Antifa on Twitter.
Fox News personalities, like right-wing pundit Dan Bongino and former “60 Minutes” correspondent-turned-conservative media celebrity Lara Logan, have shared a similar narrative about Antifa’s supposed invasion of Seattle.
Representatives for Fox News did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
A spokesperson for Breitbart accused CNN of “blatantly misrepresenting” the website’s story, saying the website never specifically used the word “militants” in its piece. In an email after this story was first published, Jim Hoft, the founder and publisher of The Gateway Pundit, stood by his website’s article.
The right-wing media reports appeared to make their way up to President Trump. On Wednesday night, he tweeted that “domestic terrorists” have taken hold of Seattle and suggested he would use federal force to reclaim the territory. Earlier this month, Trump said he wanted to designate Antifa a domestic terrorist organization.
The sinister portrait of the situation in Seattle is part of a much larger account that has taken hold in right-wing media.
Antifa is a hard-to-define, loosely affiliated network of groups that have a history of using violence during counter protests of demonstrations put on by right-wing groups across the country.
But, while Antifa certainly exists, the threat it poses to society at large has been significantly exaggerated by right-wing media, eager to use it as an all-purpose boogeyman.
Trump and his media machine have blamed Antifa for the violence and destruction that occurred in major cities earlier this month.
Yet, Trump and his media allies have offered little evidence to support their assertions. News organizations, such as the Associated Press and National Public Radio, that have tried to substantiate the claims have not turned much up.
Trump, seemingly relying on a report from One America News Network, a little-watched far-right cable network, did share a fringe conspiracy theory aimed at supporting his flimsy Antifa hypothesis earlier this week.
The President suggested that a 75-year-old man, who was hospitalized with a head injury after being pushed by cops at a New York demonstration, was a member of the group and was “scanning” police equipment when shoved to the ground.
Trump’s floating of the conspiracy theory was widely criticized, even in conservative media circles.