Million MAGA March: Unravelling a Violent Viral Video
On November 14, 2020, thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered in Washington D.C. to protest Joe Biden’s presumptive victory in the US Presidential election. The event was branded the Million MAGA March, with the bulk of attendees being fairly mainstream conservative Trump supporters, as noted by reporters on the ground. But more extreme elements were also present.
White nationalist Nick Fuentes, who previously appeared to question the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, gave a well-attended speech. Brien James the current leader of the white supremacist gang, American Guard, and founder of the extremist Vinlanders Social Club group, was also photographed wearing Proud Boys colors and marching with the group.
While the daytime rally included several skirmishes, the number of violent incidents escalated significantly after sunset. There is ample evidence of violence from pro-Trump demonstrators. One assaulted freelance journalist Talia Jane, while a Proud Boy was filmed punching a French photographer in the face. At one point, a large group of Proud Boys and Trump supporters charged at counter-protesters en masse. To be clear, there was also evidence of assaults by left-wing demonstrators, as later highlighted by Trump. But the President’s framing of events erased the violence of his own supporters and painted a misleading, one-sided account.
Trump was aided in making this case online by a network of far-right agitators with popular Twitter accounts. These men and women posted selectively edited segments of video with provocative descriptions that appeared to have the express purpose of selling a narrative of persistent, unprovoked left-wing violence. This has become a familiar theme in recent months, with videos of a number of incidents at Black Lives Matter protests being edited to exaggerate and distort the circumstances around which they were taken. While there have been incidents of violence featuring left-wing activists, including at the Million MAGA March, the videos spread by right-wing accounts after such events often do not tell anywhere near the whole story. When they attract the attention of mainstream media personalities and politicians such as President Trump, they also spread far and wide.
To break down an example of how this process can occur, we’ll be analyzing footage from a single altercation at the Million MAGA March. While the footage does not absolve left-wing protesters — some of whom were clearly involved in a violent incident and later appeared to have been arrested — it does show how right-wing influencers can seek to manipulate the surrounding context of such events while minimizing right-wing violence to further embellish their own agenda.
The specific incident in question happened at a little before 2pm local time (EST) and appeared to begin shortly after a chaotic street melee (as detailed in the embedded video below, captured and posted to YouTube by the Daily Caller) when two Trump supporters approached and shoved a counter-protester who was holding a bullhorn.
The footage shows the pair approach the man with the bullhorn from opposite sides, one in front and one from behind. The man in the Arizona hoodie looks like he is preparing to swing…
…before forcefully grabbing the man with the bullhorn.
The man with the bullhorn turns to face his accoster in the Arizona hoodie and is then shoved from behind by a second man who is wearing a jacket with the letters RO MA emblazoned on it (presumably for Rome, or possibly the AS Roma soccer team). We will refer to him as Rome Man for the remainder of this article. [Note: In the first publication of this article, we misidentified the letter as “B”, not “R”]
Rome Man proceeds to shove the individual with the bullhorn twice more. The first shove knocks off the victim’s glasses. When he bends down to pick them up, his assailant shoves him to the ground. All this happens while someone nearby shouts “KILL THEM.”
Once his victim is on the ground, Rome Man appears to try and stand on his head, although (given this video from a different angle) he could also be off balance and trying to step around the man he has just violently shoved to the floor.
Immediately after this, Rome Man is pushed away by a bystander. This appears to be the first use of force from any counter-demonstrator against this individual.
Rome Man then turns to face the man who shoved him and threatens him with a closed fist. Another counter-protester comes up from behind and shoves him.
This person quickly backs away, as Rome Man spins around again and lunges at a pair of young women, one of whom was filming him and neither of whom had struck him previously. He shoves both women.
The woman in the green coat flees, and the woman in black who had been filming him is knocked to the ground.
Rome Man is then kicked from behind as he aggressively approaches a second person filming him.
He appears more startled than injured by this, and briefly shouts at a counter-demonstrator who seems keen to de-escalate the situation.
While this is going on, a woman in a grey hoodie approaches Rome Man and appears to slap him.
Rome Man then charges and shoves the woman in the hoodie as well as the woman in the green coat. While he rushes after them, members of the crowd follow. He is grabbed on the shoulder by one man and appears to respond by striking out.
He then rushes back into the crowd of counter-demonstrators and forcefully shoves another woman who is yelling at him but had not previously touched him.
He next shoves a man holding a sign, tearing it in the process. This man also had not struck him.
One counter-demonstrator lunges towards Rome Man at this point and punches him at least twice. The counter-demonstrator is shoved away and does not re-engage.
Another counter-demonstrator then attempts to de-escalate the situation, holding out his arms to the rest of the crowd so that they would give space to Rome Man. But he decides to shove this person forcefully from behind.
After this, Rome Man begins to walk away from the crowd, either in an attempt to leave the area or heading towards two other counter-demonstrators. At this point, another person holding a sign runs up behind Rome Man and punches him in the head, knocking him to the ground and leaving him bloodied and unconscious. Someone then appears to kick him in the head. It’s a brutal end to the altercation which had lasted a number of minutes.
What happened in the video seems clear.
Rome Man appeared to shove, strike and threaten a number of people before being brutally assaulted himself. Neither set of demonstrators comes across well in the footage. Clearly, the slaps, kicks and punches, particularly the final punch and kick, aimed at Rome Man can not be not be condoned in any way. It does seem clear, however, that the incident was initially instigated by Rome Man, as well as another individual wearing an Arizona hoodie. The final punch, however indefensible, was also not a spontaneous attack out of the blue. Yet, as we will see, this is not quite how a number of influential right-wing figures with large social media followings would go on to describe the incident.
Selectively Edited Video
The footage we’ve been analyzing was shot by Jorge Ventura, a field reporter for right-wing news website The Daily Caller. However, the first post of footage from the altercation to go viral was a reposting of Ventura’s video by right-wing activist Andy Ngo.
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) November 14, 2020
It must be noted that the footage in Ventura’s two-minute-long video leading up to the incident provides good context and shows what seems to be a roving street-fight, starting a block or so away from the episode with Rome Man.
In the film, we can see the woman in the green jacket slap a man holding a flag, as well as a fight breaking out between a person in a motorcycle helmet and someone else.
The crowd also seems to contain both right and left-wing demonstrators.
Despite protesters from both sides being there, and the fact that the video appears to show violent actions by Trump supporters as well as their opponents, Ngo characterized this clip on Twitter as video of “BLM-antifa thugs” who are “running around and beating people on the streets in DC.”
While Ngo’s description of the video appears inaccurate, the video itself at least provides a fuller accounting of events for the viewer.
About three hours after this video was first posted, however, far-right commentator Dinish D’Souza tweeted a highly selective 18-second segment that showed showed just the final punch and kicks while Rome Man was on the ground. This seems to give the impression that Rome Man was assaulted out of the blue by left-wing protesters, without any reference to the preceding incidents. President Donald Trump subsequently retweeted this same 18-second clip, which had garnered 28,000 retweets and 62,000 likes at time of publication. While this violence can not be condoned, it is also important to point out that this is far from the full story.
— Dinesh D'Souza (@DineshDSouza) November 15, 2020
Separately, video footage from another right-wing videographer, Kalen D’Almeida, captured the same incident from a slightly different angle to Ventura.
D’Almeida first posted the full video of events before clipping up the short incident at the end where Rome Man is struck from behind. The second video provides a similar offering to the 18-second video in D’Souza’s tweet. Again, this second clip, which was posted roughly 20 minutes after the original, shows none of the context, earlier incidents or aggressions that preceded the final punches.
At time of writing the full video clip posted by D’Almeida had received just over 400 retweets, 500 quote tweets and 900 likes (despite being pinned to the top of his timeline). D’Almeida’s shortened clip of Rome Man being struck, however, had received 7,000 likes and a similar number of retweets. Furthermore, the shortened clip had been viewed more than 5.6 million times, considerably more than the 225,000 views racked up by the full clip. This discrepancy can likely be explained by Ngo, who has a far larger following, embedding the clip in another of his own tweets a short while later.
Ngo describes the video as “BLM rioters” knocking out a man “who was leaving the #MillionMAGAMarch.” He also accuses them of stealing the man’s phone when he is on the ground. This is not clear in the D’Almeida video, but two women do appear to pick up a phone before running away in the earlier video from Ventura.
When he posted this tweet, Ngo must have known his summary and the video were not offering the full context around the events. He had posted a more detailed clip of the altercation only hours earlier. Yet the fact that Ngo’s tweet, and D’Almeida’s excerpted video, did not offer a full version of what had happened did not stop it from spreading far and wide.
Less than a half-hour later, President Donald Trump retweeted Andy Ngo, and the narrative of violent left-wing thugs attacking peaceful MAGA protesters spread further across social media. As can be seen from this analysis, however, this was far from the whole truth and context surrounding these events which saw both left and right-wing protesters confront each other and engage in violent acts.
The narrative of violent left-wing thugs also appeared to be gathering far more traction given the numbers of views and retweets afforded the shortened videos, thanks in no small part to the likes of Trump, D’Souza and Ngo.
Nothing that happened in D.C., or how events were later depicted online, was new. The cycle of right-wing social media personalities sharing decontextualized videos to spark rage against the left has gone on for years. In 2019 Ngo reported in-person on a mass brawl at a Portland area bar named Cider Riot. His tweets framed it as an unprovoked assault by anti-fascists.
Yet several weeks later, an infiltrator inside the right-wing group Patriot Prayer released hours of videos captured undercover at rallies. Video recorded before the fight at Cider Riot clearly shows members of Patriot Prayer checking their weapons and discussing their plans to assault the bar. One person standing near Ngo says clearly: “There’s going to be a huge fight,”. Ngo’s only response during all of this was to smile several times. He did not report on what he had heard while marching to Cider Riot.
Based on the strength of those leaked videos, six members of Patriot Prayer were charged with felony riot incitement. Ngo’s standing within the far-right media ecosystem was not harmed at all by this, nor by sharing deceptively edited video from the Million MAGA March in D.C. In fact, on November 16th, Donald Trump Jr. shared Ngo’s Patreon and Paypal links to his 6.3 million followers.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) November 16, 2020