An intelligence officer in Wyoming’s Division of Criminal Investigation warned other law enforcement that Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters were traveling through Wyoming on their way to Sturgis, South Dakota, according to an email obtained by WyoFile.
“We have received credible information from a South Dakota Agent and South Dakota ATF Analyst that BLM & ANTIFA members are currently staying in Cheyenne enroute to Sturgis, South Dakota,” DCI Intelligence Analyst Lanae Fry wrote in an Aug. 6 email.
“We’re awaiting further detail. We do not know what Motels/Hotels or mode of transportation they may be in yet,” Fry continued.
Both Fry and DCI acting Director Forrest Williams declined to discuss where the information came from, or whether activists had in fact passed through the state on the way to South Dakota. Both officials said the information in the email is sensitive and should not be public.
“We look at that as intelligence, law enforcement intelligence information which is not information we share with the public,” Williams told WyoFile last week. “Unless there’s a need to,” he added.
“As far as whether we were ever able to verify the validity of it, that’s the kind of thing I’m not going to talk about,” he said.
WyoFile has filed a public records request for further DCI communications related to Black Lives Matter or antifa that has not yet been completed.
Rumors and doctored posts
Unsubstantiated rumors of mobilized rioters have plagued the rural West in the wake of George Floyd protests, prompting ramped-up police responses and the formation of armed citizen groups, according to widespread reporting.
As early as June, news outlets and Facebook had labeled as false doctored social media posts suggesting protesters would travel to Sturgis to cause trouble at the rally.
An interview with Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater suggests there was little validity to the concerns. He contacted Wyoming law enforcement after fielding phone calls about threats he’s since judged to be rumor mongering, he said.
Throughout the protests that have swept the nation in the last few months, even at those that turned violent, there has been little evidence of organized antifa — short for anti-fascist — protesters, according to analyses of arrests at the riots by the Washington Post and other news organizations. Linking the antifa organization to the Black Lives Matter protests is a way to discredit that movement, experts say.
Though the DCI email suggests South Dakota agents were passing information on to Wyoming law enforcement, Williams said the reverse was also true. “It was information requested by South Dakota folks,” he said, without specifying the agencies.
Sturgis hosted a gathering of hundreds of thousands of bikers in South Dakota this week. The event drew national media attention as rally goers largely eschewed COVID-19 precautions.
The Sturgis Police Department received warnings from people who identified themselves as ex-law enforcement officers or ex-correctional officers, VanDewater told WyoFile on Aug. 13.
The callers reported they had traveled through Wyoming and seen Black Lives Matter or antifa flags flying at crowded campgrounds, VanDewater said. But Wyoming officers have been unable to substantiate those reports, he said.
“We’ve had partners in Wyoming trying to verify it and no one has seen it,” VanDewater said.
The callers, “just want to stir up the dish with drama,” he said.
In June and July, Facebook and news outlets labeled as false several social media posts suggesting antifa protesters were targeting the Sturgis rally. The posts used a 2015 photograph of demonstrators in Denmark, with a banner that had been digitally doctored to read “ANTIFA against bikers,” according to the news agency Reuters.
To see the photographs on Facebook, one first has to click through a warning from the social media platform that it is “false information.”
The Associated Press reported Sunday that there was a small protest in Sturgis over the weekend. Protesters demonstrated against the rally taking place during a pandemic and against Gov. Kristi Noem’s response to COVID-19, which has been looser than in other states.
Sturgis police arrested one protester following an altercation, and then shut the protest down, VanDewater wrote in a statement Monday afternoon.
“There was approximately 7 [protesters] who as far as we know were just local citizens from Rapid City [South Dakota] and NOT affiliated with ANTIFA,” VanDewater wrote. The one man arrested was from Rapid City — less than 30 miles from Sturgis.
The DCI’s warning came out of the agency’s Fusion Center, Williams told WyoFile. During public remarks on Thursday, Williams described the Fusion Center as an operation that “provides assistance and intelligence to all local, state and federal law enforcement in Wyoming.”
Fry, the DCI agent who sent the email, also appeared in a batch of 2016 communications published by the nonprofit journalism website MuckRock. In those emails, focused on protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Fry and another DCI agent sent out reports about possible Wyoming-based civil action.
In a Nov. 8, 2016 email, Fry warned that “it appears NoDAPL protests may be staged on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 at the US Army Corp of Engineers, Wyoming Regulatory Office.” Fry cited a call to action from a group called “Wyoming Supports Standing Rock ‐ Day of Action at Army Corps of Engineers Action Network.”
The post Fry cited called for national protests at an Army Corps of Engineers office “near you.”
WyoFile spoke with three people involved in Wyoming-based activism during the Standing Rock protests. None could recall a protest ever occurring at the Army Corps of Engineers office in Cheyenne.
In another email, a different DCI agent wrote that Wyoming residents were traveling to North Dakota to join the protests against DAPL.
“We just received information that members of the Wind River Reservation and others are being bussed [sic] from Wyoming to protest in North Dakota,” DCI Criminal Intelligence Analyst Sandra Erickson wrote in that Oct. 28, 2016 email.
“The numbers, times, etc. are not known at this time,” Erickson wrote.
One organizer for Standing Rock activism in Wyoming said he didn’t find it strange DCI would have tracked such organizing.
“It doesn’t seem inappropriate to me,” Rodger McDaniel, pastor for the Highlands Presbyterian Church, told WyoFile. “These law enforcement agencies exchange a lot of information. A lot of it’s not true, but they share it anyway.”
As for the latest intelligence from the agency, caravans of protesters camping in Wyoming on their way to confront a giant crowd of motorcyclists was “hard to imagine,” McDaniel said.
Tying Black Lives Matter, a political protest movement, to antifa, a catch-all term for far-left militant-style groups, is a scare tactic used by the president and Department of Justice officials, McDaniel said. “You can’t make Black Lives Matter look bad enough without tying them to antifa,” he said. “Lump them together and then you can really scare people.”
Fear strikes rural areas
President Donald Trump and members of his administration have linked violence at protests over police brutality and racism to antifa. In early June, Trump described a nation “gripped by professional anarchists,” and named antifa. The statements drew a rebuke from prominent Democratic senators.
“These claims are highly inflammatory,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein (California), Charles Schumer (New York) and Mark Warner (Virginia) wrote in a letter to intelligence agency chiefs. “They also appear intended to frame the legitimate peaceful protests taking place around the country as terrorist threats in order to justify unnecessary federal, even military, intervention and the excessive use of force. Worse still, the President and others have made these assertions without any factual support or evidence.”
As the protests spread through the country, so did rumors of antifa and BLM protesters being bused into rural areas. Those rumors have in some cases driven people to take action to “protect” their towns from threats that don’t materialize, according to widespread reporting from around the country.
Wyoming isn’t free of reactions to such bogeymen. In Cody, for example, a group formed to “protect Park County citizens from outside rioters and looters,” according to reporting in the Cody Enterprise. The group began in response to a rally against racism in that city.
A founder of the group, Boone Tidwell, told the newspaper that “many of the members had heard reports of outside forces planning to come to Cody to cause havoc at the rally.”
No havoc unfolded at the peaceful event.
Tidwell is a retired police officer from California, according to the newspaper. The group was made up of retired law enforcement officers, military members and “security staff,” Tidwell told the newspaper.
“Tidwell said members of the quickly-organized 60-person membership set up intelligence gathering efforts and surveillance outside town for buses coming in and monitored downtown Cody and the courthouse,” the newspaper reported.
“Social media is plum full of rumors,” Williams, the DCI director said. As for the protest movements, Williams said there are “certainly great people in both those organizations,” but “unfortunately those organizations themselves have been linked to a lot of violent protests and rallies.”