Revealed: how California police chased a nonexistent ‘antifa bus’

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On 1 June 2020, a law enforcement official in the small northern California city of Redding sent screenshots of two social media posts to her staff, asking them to investigate.

One was an Instagram story. “BE AWARE … I have heard, from a reliable source, that ANTIFA buses with close to 200 people (domestic terrorists) are planning to infiltrate Redding and possibly cause distraction and destruction,” it read.

The second, a Facebook post, warned that buses of protesters planning to “riot” had stopped in Klamath Falls in southern Oregon, “but there was no rioting or burning as they decided to move on”. The post included a grainy image of a small van with “Black Lives Matter” written on the back.

Elizabeth Barkley, then chief of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) northern division, which covers rural parts of the state just south of Oregon, asked her colleagues to look into the claims and “notify our allied agencies in town”. Ninety minutes later, another CHP official forwarded the message to officers saying, “The thought is these buses are roaming – looking for events to attend (and possibly cause problems).”

Related: California sheriff warns officers not to join far-right extremist groups, records reveal

Fifteen minutes after that, a CHP sergeant told a listserv of commanders that “possible ANTIFA buses [are] heading to Redding”, adding that the agency’s tactical alert center had been notified. The official said that CHP aircraft operations were now actively trying to locate a vehicle on the freeway. The sheriff of nearby Humboldt county, William Honsal, shared the information with his entire staff, saying, “BOL [be on the lookout] for ANTIFA buses from Oregon.”

The actions of officials in Shasta and Humboldt counties last summer were outlined in internal documents obtained through a public records request by Property of the People, a not-for-profit transparency group, and shared with the Guardian.

They show how officers in these rural counties, known for weed farms and hiking and overwhelmingly white, were swiftly duped by unfounded allegations about “Antifa buses” threatening to “infiltrate” the community as the United States wrestled with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that sprung up in the aftermath.

The records also show how the agencies’ response to those unsubstantiated allegations helped spread misinformation rooted in online conspiracy theories. The files were particularly troubling, experts said, because antifa conspiracy theories have inspired armed rightwing vigilantes to organize in response, sometimes with violent demonstrations.

‘Rightwing posts lead to aircraft surveillance’

Unverified warnings about antifa threats and buses of leftwing activists making their way to various protest sites were all over the internet on 1 June, amplified by rightwing accounts, including Donald Trump Jr’s Instagram account.

Already that day, NBC News reported that at least some of the rumors were started by a white nationalist group, posing on Twitter as “antifa” and threatening to “move into the residential areas” of “white hoods” and “take what’s ours”.

On the morning of 2 June, however, Honsal, the Humboldt county sheriff, emailed staff to say he had “confirmed with CHP that the bus is currently in Redding” and that CHP had a “surveillance team” monitoring. At the same time, journalists, disinformation experts and some law enforcement officials were debunking the antifa bus rumors across the US.

Still, at a press conference on 4 June, Honsal publicly raised concerns about antifa threats, saying his agency had “substantiated law enforcement reports” that “antifa did have people in buses” and suggesting the groups “want to disrupt things and want to cause violence”.

The sheriff, records show, soon received emails from a resident asking why he was continuing to make such claims “without a shred of evidence”, along with questions from a county supervisor about his comments.

Black Lives Matter protestors gather outside the hall of justice in Los Angeles on 24 June 2020.
Black Lives Matter protestors gather outside the hall of justice in Los Angeles on 24 June 2020. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

A week later, however, Honsal released a new statement to local media, once again repeating his warnings. “CHP confirmed the reports of an Antifa bus or buses,” he asserted, adding that he would “continue to share information on radical groups (right or left) that promote violence”.

A spokesperson for Honsal told the Guardian the sheriff had “made those statements based upon information provided to us by the California Highway Patrol”. The sheriff’s office, she said, was not involved in the antifa bus investigations and no bus was located in Humboldt county.

‘Police lacked basic social media literacy’

A CHP spokeswoman told the Guardian that the agency had received no evidence about possible buses beyond the two screenshots, and said its investigative unit reviewed the social media posts “to evaluate potential public safety issues”. She noted that Oregon police had raised similar concerns.

“A CHP air unit conducted a short search for the buses; however, they were unable to locate them,” the spokeswoman said in an email, adding that no specific individuals were surveilled, contacted or apprehended, and that no threat was identified. The full extent of the operation is unclear, though the spokesperson said the actual aerial search was brief: “The Antifa bus mission was a 12-minute event.”

It’s also unclear why Honsal said there was a “confirmed” bus in Redding. A 2 June report from the CHP northern division on “George Floyd protests” said no arrests were made, and noted that all related protests in the region were “expected to be peaceful”.

What is clear to experts, however, is that the correspondence between the agencies suggest they lacked “basic news and social media information literacy” said Ryan Shapiro, the executive director of Property of the People, who has investigated how police monitor antifascist activists.

CHP had “relied on obviously baseless rightwing social media posts to launch military-style aerial surveillance missions for nonexistent … antifa convoys”, he added.

A man holds a Black Lives Matter sign in front of a line of San Diego police officers on 31 May 2020.
A man holds a Black Lives Matter sign in front of a line of San Diego police officers on 31 May 2020. Photograph: Ariana Drehsler/AFP/Getty Images

The photo of a specific van with the “be on the lookout” warning could have “resulted in serious harm to people who are driving that kind of bus when there was no evidence that anybody has done anything wrong”, said Michael German, fellow with the Brennan Center and former FBI agent. “Based on the vagueness of the rumor, it’s hard to imagine why they would have deployed those tactical resources,” he added.

The documents also appeared to fit a pattern of police aggressively responding to “mild progressive dissent”, said Shapiro.

Other records in the data set point in a similar direction. On 1 September last year, the Humboldt undersheriff, Justin Braud, sent an email to staff, saying, “We are in trying times for sure, and we must prepare accordingly.” He encouraged officers to read an attached document, which he said contained “good material on preparedness for the unknown, mentally and physically”.

The document was a police newsletter called “Nor Cal Sheepdog” about “off-duty safety” in the “era of Anonymous, Antifa, and BLM”. Written by law enforcement consultants, the authors said these groups should not be “underestimated” and that their “tactics include attacks on officers”. The letter advised officers to “maintain vigilant watch for threats while off duty”, always be “armed and ready”, “train with your off-duty weapon”, “prepare for the possibility of being a victim” and be “paranoid”.

It warned officers that they could face attacks anywhere, including in their homes, adding, “Indecision is fatal. You must switch to the on-duty mindset.”

Vida B Johnson, Georgetown University law professor and policing expert, said the messages reflected “a pretty paranoid, self-centered worldview”, and that police seemed more concerned with their own safety, than broader public safety.

A participant raises a fist against police officers during a Black Lives Matter march in Los Angeles on 14 June 2020.
A participant raises a fist against police officers during a Black Lives Matter march in Los Angeles on 14 June 2020. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/Reuters

Asked about Braud’s email, the sheriff spokeswoman said, “During the time this particular email was sent, there was a lot of fear in law enforcement of officers and their families being targeted or attacked due to the current climate.”

But to German, they provide a window into pervasive ideologies in US police departments. Departments have repeatedly shared baseless claims about BLM endangering them, he said, but have downplayed or ignored real threats to their safety whether from Covid or far-right extremists.

“Something that really does kill police officers is treated as not a problem while imaginary threats are treated as real,” German said.

The consequences of antifa hoaxes

The rumors about antifa threats last year were not without consequences. They prompted some rightwing militias and conservatives to patrol their neighborhoods while heavily armed. In Washington state, armed residents harassed a multiracial family that was passing through on a camping trip, falsely accusing them of being “antifa protesters”. Repeated false claims about “antifa arsonists” starting wildfires led armed civilians in Oregon to set up roadblocks, .

In some cases, police have expressed tacit support for such responses.

In one of the CHP emails from June, a captain spoke positively about the militias that responded to “antifa bus” threats in Oregon, saying that locals “armed with long rifles, shotguns and pistols, wearing blue arm bands (to be recognized by police as friendly)” showed up “to deter violence in their city”.

People hold signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “End police terror” during a protest in Oakland, California, on 3 June 2020.
People hold signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “End police terror” during a protest in Oakland, California, on 3 June 2020. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Shane Burley, a researcher and expert on the far right, noted that when police describe antifa as a major domestic terror threat, “it legitimizes vigilante violence”. He cited the rise in car attacks against BLM protesters, and armed rightwing men threatening demonstrators.

At least one official in Humboldt county has expressed frustration that law enforcement seemed more concerned with BLM than with legitimate violent threats from the far right.

Two days after the 6 January insurrection, one county government leader emailed the sheriff and others expressing her dismay that officials had not condemned the “attempted coup” in DC. She noted that a local group had also protested at the Humboldt courthouse that day, but law enforcement did not communicate with government employees about it, even though “police escorts had previously been offered when there were rumors of a BLM protest”.

The sheriff responded that he had received no intelligence reports suggesting that there would be a violent local protest and said the demonstrators “were exercising their constitutional rights”. And while he called the violence at the US Capitol “horrifying and deplorable”, he also corrected her language.

According to the FBI, he said, the attack was “not considered a coup d’état”.