In late September 2019, a video clip of masked people shouting at and blocking an elderly woman while she was using a walker to cross a street began to circulate on Twitter:
Antifa protesters scream at & block elderly couple outside an event featuring conservative politician @MaximeBernier & @RubinReport. Further violence broke out, leading to two arrests. Mohawk College had faced massive campaign to cancel the event. pic.twitter.com/D49dTcMi4X
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) September 30, 2019
The clip quickly gained traction and generated significant outrage, due to the fact it purportedly featured anti-fascist protesters engaging in aggressive behavior. Often, the clip spread without any indication of when, where, or why protesters had gathered:
The Tolerant Left Folks.
What kind of monster refuses to let an elderly couple cross the street…
— Kyle Kashuv (@KyleKashuv) September 30, 2019
Imagine being a member of Antifa blocking and harassing an elderly woman using a walker & actually thinking YOU are the one fighting "fascism."pic.twitter.com/jpbiV34RuI
— Jason Howerton (@jason_howerton) September 30, 2019
Antifa chanting “Nazi scum off our streets” at an elderly couple.
Next level 🤡 🌎! https://t.co/qmQ7VR5wZr
— Essential Fleccas 🇺🇸 (@fleccas) September 30, 2019
In one widely-shared tweet, a commenter lamented that “this isn’t America,” presumably decrying the actions in the clip as un-American and inviting others to do the same:
Antifa blocks, harasses, and shouts in the faces of elderly couple crossing the street..
This isn’t America..
RT if you agree and want to unmask these cowards..
— Chuck Callesto (@ChuckCallesto) September 30, 2019
Typically, the angry tweets linked only to a context-free video, not to any news articles about the events in the video.
Readers might recognize Andy Ngo (quoted above) as one of the initial sources for the claim. Ngo was largely responsible for similar claims about anti-fascist protesters in July 2019, involving nonsensical allegations about “concrete milkshakes,” and in September 2019 Rolling Stone reported on Ngo’s questionable standing as a source of credible information. In particular, the magazine’s investigation centered on a video showing that Ngo — despite his claims of being an objective, independent journalist — was not acting in an any sort of journalistic capacity:
Nowhere was [Occam’s Razor] demonstrated more quickly than in the case of the meteoric rise and equally rapid fall of Andy Ngo, the provocateur and social media personality who garnered nationwide sympathy last June , when he tweeted that he was attacked by antifascist protesters at a Proud Boys rally. [In August 2019], the local newspaper the Portland Mercury reported that a left-wing activist going undercover as a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group known for promoting and engaging in violent clashes with leftist activists, had given the publication an 18-minute video that included footage of Ngo with a group of Patriot Prayer members as the members discuss an upcoming brawl, including weaponry to be used in altercations with antifa. Ngo, who describes himself as a journalist, did not record the conversation, and does not appear to have his camera or notebook out. For part of the footage, he is seen on his phone.
…[the release of that] footage was highly embarrassing for Ngo, who has long claimed to be an independent and objective journalist, despite many left-wing activists in Portland accusing him of antagonizing them at rallies and selectively editing his footage to malign the left. Shortly after the footage was released, Quillette, a “free thought” publication with a libertarian bent, deleted Ngo’s byline from its masthead, though founder Claire Lehmann denied to the Daily Beast that it had anything to do with the recently surfaced Patriot Prayer footage.
Although Ngo’s byline was removed by Quillette, his claims about “antifa” in the tweet quoted above still gained traction. To his credit, Ngo provided the name of a politician involved with the events, but it seemed many angrily spreading it on did not look further — causing at least one to reference “America” in their disapproving tweet.
Ngo referenced Maxime Bernier, a far-right political figure in Canada perhaps best known for ousting candidates from his own party for speaking out against racism while having former leaders of neo-Nazi groups as official signatories:
The former leader of a U.S. neo-Nazi group, a former Soldiers of Odin member and a Pegida Canada official were among those whose signatures were submitted to Elections Canada last year to officially register the People’s Party of Canada, records show.
All three of their names appear on Elections Canada documents, obtained by Global News, that confirmed a minimum of 250 party members had signed membership declarations. The forms were required to obtain party status for the PPC and its leader, Maxime Bernier.
Bernier attended an event on September 29 2019 in Hamilton, Ontario, and the National Post reported on clashes outside the venue site — including one involving an “elderly woman”:
Demonstrators, some covering part of their faces with bandannas or balaclavas, hoisted signs that read “White supremacy is terrorism” and “Refugees welcome here” as they yelled chants of “Nazi scum, off our streets” at those going inside.
Some attempted to prevent people from entering the building and at one point blocked the path of an elderly woman who was using a walker, yelling at her and her companion.
Bernier was hosted by American YouTube personality Dave Rubin in an event that drew both attendees and protesters; a Facebook event titled “All Out Against Maxime Bernier” invited Hamilton-area users to demonstrate outside the event on September 29 2019. CBC’s coverage of the event and demonstrations described the circumstances of the video:
Some protesters attempted to prevent people from entering the building and one video, which is being widely shared among Bernier supporters, shows several protesters, one masked, blocking the path of an elderly woman who was using a walker, yelling at her and her companion.
Aall three of the local articles linked above mentioned anti-fascist protesters, but not in the context of the viral video. The only mention of “antifa” in any of the articles involved statements made by Rubin about the event’s cancellation due to “threats from Antifa.”
However, Rubin later admitted the event had not actually been canceled:
Rubin tweeted earlier [that] week that the event had been cancelled due to ‘threats from Antifa,’ or left-wing anti-fascist protesters, but later clarified the event was still going ahead as planned.”
“Rubin, meanwhile, tweeted earlier [that] week that the event had been cancelled due to ‘threats from Antifa,’ stirring allegations of censorship. He later clarified the talk was still taking place.
In all three articles, protesters present at the Bernier-Rubin talk were not described as being involved with or representing antifa, and no other mention appeared in any reporting on the event. How Ngo concluded the individuals seen in the video were anti-fascist demonstrators were unclear. Four people in total were arrested at the event.
On September 30 2019, a separate CBC article referenced the viral video and backlash, but did not report that “antifa” was involved. One representative for the groups organizing the demonstration indicated that the masked individuals were unknown to organizers:
Police have now said they are aware of the [elderly woman video] incident and that while officers did not witness the initial confrontation, they said once officers saw what was happening, some intervened and escorted the woman and her companion into the building.
Alice Smith, one of the organizers of the event, told CBC Hamilton that the actions by those in the video toward the elderly couple do not reflect the views held by the majority of protesters.
“I have never seen [the people blocking the woman] before last night,” she said. “If I had been there at that spot, at that moment … I would have stepped in to stop it, because that wasn’t what we were there for.”
Political science professor Peter Graefe acknowledge the video’s spread, adding that “[far-right activism has] come to Hamilton in a way it hasn’t come to other places” in Canada:
Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the photo and video of the moment was one of vulnerability and could be used to frame the situation.
“That’s a powerful image if you want to tell the story of this being some all-powerful antifa preventing the free expression of ideas and being so afraid of ideas that they wouldn’t even let an elderly woman come and hear them,” he said.
“It frames it as one of free speech and ‘who’s the problem standing in the way? These people that came to protest it.'”
Ultimately, video of clashes outside the Bernier-Rubin event included a clip wherein masked individuals appeared to shout at an elderly woman and block a crosswalk. The video spread quickly and without context on Twitter, advanced by at least one person who had previously been involved in spreading disinformation about anti-fascist demonstrators. The video does appear to be authentic and undoctored, but no information was available about the identity or affiliation of the masked protesters or the circumstances of the incident being filmed.
As the clip spread, many commenters mistook the location of the demonstration, which actually took place in Canada, not the United States. And prior to the event, Rubin falsely claimed it had been canceled due to “Antifa threats,” later admitting it was not in fact canceled or censored.