Another Fourth of July, another anti-fascist rumor. In late June 2020, as protests continued across the United States in response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody after a white police officer kneeled on his neck, a Facebook post and far-right media outlet alleged that anti-fascist groups (antifa) were planning a series of violent actions against white communities in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, over July Fourth weekend.
Snopes readers inquired about a Facebook post from late June that claimed antifa — purportedly trained by radical Muslims — planned to burn flags at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on July 4, 2020. They would allegedly use the cover of holiday fireworks to murder white people and burn down white suburbs. These plans were supposedly confirmed by the Gettysburg Police Department.
This was not the first time that antifa, a loosely organized coalition of far-left groups, was accused of making similar plans in Gettysburg around the national holiday.
Gettysburg, the 1863 site of a decisive battle in the American Civil War that led to the eventual victory of Union forces over the Confederacy, has been the location of anticipated protests and confrontations in recent years between right-wing groups who support the continued display of Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag — historically tied to racism and slavery — and far-left, anti-fascist, anti-racist activists.
Although much about the sources and veracity of the 2020 rumors remains unknown, the rumors were also peppered with falsehoods. Over the course of our investigation, we learned that similar rumors cropped up in July 2017. We begin our analysis there.
2017’s False Flag
In mid-June 2017, rumors spread online that antifa groups planned to burn a Confederate flag and desecrate Confederate gravestones in Gettysburg by urinating on them on July 1, the date the three-day battle began. In response, far-right groups mobilized, secured permits from the park service, and showed up on the battlefield site expecting a confrontation with the far-left groups.
But Central PA Antifa, a regional group, told newspapers that they had no plans to gather at Gettysburg, and that online alt-right trolls attempting to “discredit” them and stir up violence were responsible for the rumors. News reports also pointed out that desecrating Confederate gravestones would be impossible because the graves of Confederate soldiers there are largely unidentified. The group took particular issue with this allegation because of the role the battle played in ending slavery:
That battle was a turning point in the war that eventually led to the freeing of millions of slaves … The Confederacy and their ideology were dealt a resounding defeat at that battle, as fascism itself will one day be defeated by the will of all people…
This did not stop a few hundred heavily armed far-right individuals, including Ku Klux Klan members, from descending on the site on July 1, 2017, ostensibly to face far-left groups that never showed up. No violence occurred, other than an attendee who accidentally shot himself in the leg when a flag pole bumped into his gun holster.
What About 2020 Rumors?
Recent rumors pushed antifa conspiracy theories even further. On June 23, 2020, the far-right Hal Turner Radio Show published an incendiary “news desk” article, accusing antifa of plotting to burn flags at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on the Fourth of July and using fireworks to mask gunfire when antifa would attack and “murder” in white, suburban neighborhoods. A Facebook post shared this theory on the same day.
The source of such stories, as confirmed by the Gettysburg National Military Park, was an event page, since taken down by Facebook, posted by a group called Left Behind USA. That posting said that on the Fourth of July there would be a “PEACEFUL flag burning ceremony” where they would burn the U.S. flag, Confederate flag, and Blue Lives Matter flags at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
We were unable to determine this group’s background, as both Twitter and Facebook removed their accounts and all details about the proposed event. A Twitter representative told Snopes that the account was permanently suspended for violating its platform manipulation and spam policy by operating multiple, overlapping accounts. A Facebook representative told us the administrator for the event page also broke its rules “against maintaining more than one Facebook account,” and as a result the platform disabled the administrator’s account and the associated event.
We reached out to Central PA Antifa who argued that these rumors were another “right wing hoax,” and they were not even “remotely involved.”
Gettysburg police and park officials did not confirm or deny that these events would take place, instead stating they were aware of the online posts and were taking security precautions. The police denied the claim that they had confirmed an antifa “plan.” A notice on the Gettysburg National Military Park website referred to a potential demonstration coinciding with July Fourth fireworks in the area, while noting the similarity to the events of 2017.
In order to carry out a flag-burning demonstration — an activity protected by the First Amendment right of free speech in the U.S. Constitution — on national park property, groups must register for a First Amendment activity permit and state their plans. No such event had been registered at the National Military Park for the Fourth of July. Jason Martz, the acting public affairs officer for the park, confirmed to Snopes that two groups of five to six people each had requested permits for different activities: One would be handing out information on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the other would be providing information to visitors on the history of slavery.
Martz emphasized that they were taking the online rumors very seriously, and were “planning [for July Fourth] as if something will happen,” while hoping for the best.
We also reached out to the police and will update this post with any new information.
The Hal Turner post also connected upticks in fireworks activity across major cities as part of a broader antifa and Black Lives Matter conspiracy. We found no evidence that this was the case, with most reports arguing that during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, people were setting off fireworks because they were bored and unemployed. Even in Gettysburg, the police said they got fewer fireworks complaints this year than in prior years.
As the site of a decisive victory against the Confederacy in 1863, Gettysburg has been at the heart of debates over removing monuments and flags of the Confederacy. Commemorations there also prompted a rally in March 2016 by pro-Confederate protesters and counter-protesters.
Supporters of the Confederate flag say it represents freedom and liberty, while opponents say the Confederacy was built on slave labor, an issue at the heart of the Civil War. As such, it is not surprising that this region has been home to multiple hoaxes surrounding racism-related conflicts.
We continue to follow antifa-related online rumors closely. This year’s rumor of violence around the Fourth of July was no doubt playing off of the current reckoning in the U.S. over racism, while feeding on longstanding fears about backlash against white people within right-wing movements. Based on precedent, there was little evidence to support the notion that such events could actually take place, but they certainly put everyone on their guard once again.