“Antifa invaders are headed to River Ranch in Lafayette, La. this Saturday July 11th,” a New Orleans man named James warned people on Facebook on Monday afternoon. “Everyone living there keep your heads on a swivel and protect yourselves.”
“Lock and load, patriots!!” a friend replied. A woman named Melanie said she’d been thinking about taking a travel assignment in Lafayette. “I spoke with a friend who lives in New Iberia and asked about the political climate there,” Melanie wrote. “She said at the moment that there was only peaceful protesting, but given your post, I’m not going. (Your post) has solidified my decision to stay put here.”
The next day, July 7, the rumors about antifa coming to town caught the attention of KPEL, the local talk radio station, and Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory, the 37-year-old lawyer and Alexandria native who was elected last year after reinventing himself as a diehard Trump supporter.
“Surprised would not be a word I’d use to describe anything I experienced in this entire debacle,” John Merrifield tells me. It’s been a strange few weeks for the 28-year-old comedian.
An FBI agent from back home in Lafayette had called him— “They were aware of it before anyone complained,” Merrifield says— and even though he was 1,400 miles away in his apartment in Brooklyn, reporters were calling as well. The agent just had to double-check, for the record, that there was not, in fact, an elusive group of uniformed, “card-carrying ANTIFA members” and “large dogs” who intended on gathering in the parking lot of Ruffino’s on the River, an Italian restaurant, at 4:20PM on 7/11 “to begin our complete takeover of the elite neighborhood known as River Ranch.” (KADN would later helpfully inform viewers that “4:20 is internet shorthand for marijuana.”)
Merrifield promoted the phony antifa event on his popular Facebook page, cajUUUn Memes. The page offers an endless stream of slapstick and snark, told in the distinct vernacular of Cajun Country. You’d have to be completely clueless to not recognize the event was obvious satire.
But Mayor-President Guillory sensed a political opportunity. Yes, he understood it was satire, but nonetheless, he wanted residents to know that their local government intended on remaining vigilant.
“Promoting a riot or any disorderly conduct, whether joking or a hoax, is irresponsible and reckless,” Guillory said in a statement released on July 7. “Here in Lafayette Parish, we have absolutely zero tolerance for threats made against our citizens or their property, and we will act accordingly to prevent these situations from happening.”
The next day, the city police issued a separate statement, reading in part (emphasis added):
With the assistance of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, investigators have been diligently working and monitoring this event. Through our investigation up to this point, there seems to be no credible evidence that suggests that this event will take place. There is believed to be no organization in the Acadiana area affiliated with this event.
The Lafayette Police Department and Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office are well prepared with a contingency plan in place should this event develop in the upcoming days. Law enforcement takes all threats against citizens and property very seriously, and the safety of the community is our top priority.
According to Merrifield, not a single person from Guillory’s office or from any local or state law enforcement agency ever reached out to him, which make their claims of an investigation seem pretty dubious. But the free publicity they gave the event did result in more than a few threats that should have deserved their attention.
A few hours after Guillory claimed “Lafayette Parish (would) have zero tolerance for threats made against our citizens,” a man named Brandon from Youngsville sent Merrifield a private message.
“It will be a big mistake for antifa to try and rally here because I was destroy all of y’all,” he wrote.
“You found all the infinity stones?” Merrifield joked.
Brandon sent back a black and white cartoon of a Hummer plowing into a crowd, with the caption, “All Lives Splatter. Nobody Cares About Your Protest.”
Merrifield took screenshots of the messages and shared them online, tagging Guillory’s office in his post. He never heard back.
During the past two months, similar stories about antifa invasions have captured the imaginations of a sizable number of the MAGA diehards, particularly those living in ruby red parts of the country where rightwing news goes unchallenged. “In Hood River, Oregon, antifa were, according to screenshot of a fake Instagram story, calling on followers to ‘root loot do anything in your power.’ In Spring Hill, Tennessee, there was a ‘busload’ staying at the Holiday Inn, prepping to loot Walgreens at noon,” Buzzfeed News reported last month. “In Wenatchee, Washington, bands of men dressed in black were surveilling potential targets. In Payette, Idaho, a plane full of protesters was circling overhead.” And the list goes on.
President Trump has not only encouraged these conspiracies, he’s invented many of his own. Following the mayhem that erupted in Washington D.C. on May 31, the culmination of a weekend of violent confrontations between police and protestors, Trump claimed the national guard had “shut down” the “ANTIFA led anarchists.” The FBI said otherwise. That day, on his Twitter account, Trump announced, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” somehow managing to both misunderstand the definition of the word “organization” (antifa is used to describe a political movement, not an organization) and the concept of designations (which are used against foreign entities, not domestic political movements). Five days later, after a 75-year-old man was hospitalized with a brain injury after being violently shoved by police at a protest in Buffalo, New York, Trump speculated that the man “could be an ANTIFA.” For the record, Martin Gugino is not “an ANTIFA,” but Robert McCabe and Aaron Torgalski of the Buffalo Police Department are being charged with second-degree assault.
While it is undeniable that adherents of antifa have been involved in isolated incidents of violence and property damage in a small handful of the countless protests that have erupted since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, it’s also abundantly clear that the motivation for inflating its numbers (likely to be only in the hundreds) and exaggerating its role and influence in motivating social unrest is to deflect valid criticisms about systemic racism and delegitimize efforts to remove public monuments glorifying white supremacy. Trump first laid the groundwork in 2017, when, following the murder of Heather Heyer at the white supremacist and neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, he argued that there were “very fine people on both sides” and blamed those on the “far-left” for inciting violence. “I watched (it) very closely, much more closely than you people watched it,” Trump said to a reporter, only a minute after claiming he hadn’t known David Duke was at the event. “And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in, without a permit, and they were very, very violent,” referring to counter-protestors. The overwhelming evidence, however, suggested the exact opposite.
Lafayette may not be the first place in America to fall for the “Antifa Fantasy,” to borrow a term coined by Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network, but the responses by its top elected official and its police department were unlike anywhere else.
According to a source familiar with the Lafayette Police Department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Guillory directed law enforcement to work the case, a claim supported by video footage of around a dozen police SUVs parked outside of Ruffino’s on the River on the day of the “takeover.”
“Guillory paid five officers and one supervisor overtime. That had the effect of diverting patrol units to River Ranch and leaving the rest of the city without manpower,” the source said.
“The marching orders were to arrest ‘antifas’ on sight.”
While he may have not been surprised by anything he personally experienced, John Merrifield was outraged when told about the alleged “marching orders.”
Merrifield made his debut as a local activist ten years ago when, as a high school senior, he spoke out against the Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision to outlaw students from bringing cell phones onto school property and to prohibit them from wearing hoodies. To him, both policies were unfair to students from poor and working class families (the cell phone ban, since rescinded, didn’t apply to kids who drove a car, and the hoodie ban was enacted shortly after most families had already bought costly hoodies from school booster clubs). His advocacy led to two front-page news stories and attracted more than 1,000 people to join a Facebook group he set up. Four years later, he’d launch another Facebook group, cajUUUn Memes, which boasts more than 73,000 members and more than 10,000 followers.
He decided to announce the satirical antifa “takeover” not because he wanted to create mass hysteria or panic, he says, but because he thought it would prove a point about how differently both the police and the press respond to a phony event in River Ranch, the city’s wealthiest and whitest enclave, than they treat the everyday realities of those in marginalized or economically disadvantaged communities.
“Instructing officers to arrest antifascist demonstrators ‘on sight’ is textbook fascism. Josh Guillory is a fascist,” argues Merrifield.
Only days after ordering the show of force in River Ranch, Mayor-President Guillory announced the closure of four recreation centers, all of which are in majority Black neighborhoods.
The Bayou Brief reached out to Guillory for comment, and thus far, he has not yet responded.
It’s worth noting that after officers left the parking lot of Ruffino’s on the River that day, at least one of the “antifas” showed up, as Jacob White reported in this segment for AOC (Acadiana Open Channel) Community Media.