News & Politics

Activist Group: Stink-Bomb Plot Was Meant to Fool James O’Keefe

Video appears to show DC Antifascist Coalition plotting smelly attack.

James O'Keefe. Screenshot via YouTube.

A DC activist group targeted in a new video by the right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe says it fed one of O’Keefe’s associates deliberately false information about its plans to protest an inauguration ball this week. In O’Keefe’s video, members of the DC Antifascist Coalition are seen talking about releasing stink bombs and tinkering with the sprinkler system at the National Press Club on Thursday during the “Deploraball,” which is being organized by some of Donald Trump‘s most outspoken online fans.

But the Antifascist Coalition says it knew the cameraman in the video was an actor in O’Keefe’s Project Veritas group, and concocted a phony plan in order to throw him off. It may have worked more effectively than the Antifascist Coalition anticipated, as O’Keefe’s video is being reported by Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and other Trump-friendly outlets as proof that left-wing protesters plan to engage in “criminal activities” to disrupt the inauguration and its associated events.

The protest group insists there is no actual plot to disrupt the Deploraball with stink bombs or wayward sprinklers, and that the conversation featured in O’Keefe’s video was designed as a mole hunt.

The video shows three members of the Antifascist Coalition discussing butyric acid, an active ingredient in stink bombs, and tampering with the fire-suppression system at the National Press Club, over dinner at Comet Ping Pong, the Northwest DC pizza restaurant that has been the target of a smear campaign by the white-nationalist “alt-right” movement. According to the protest group, the dinner was designed to out the cameraman—a person calling himself “Tyler”—as someone trying to infiltrate their organization. Lacy MacAuley, another member of the Antifascist Coalition, says “Tyler” and a woman calling herself “Tarah” aroused activists’ suspicions when they showed up at organizing meetings with unclear motives.

The people who were in touch with this person ‘Tyler’ said we’re going to deal with this shady person and figure out who he is,” MacAuley tells Washingtonian. “They met and decided to give him a false plot to see what that would lead to. The false plot was the kind of things high-school students would want to plan involving stink bombs and sprinkler systems.”

If the DC Antifascist Coalition was, in fact, pulling a fast one on “Tyler,” it would be the second time in as many weeks that O’Keefe’s Project Veritas has been played by one of its marks. On January 9, the left-wing group Americans Take Action released video of one of O’Keefe’s actors offering as much as $100,000 for its activists to “shut down a bridge, incite a riot and make sure we hack the media narrative on the inauguration,” the Huffington Post reported.

The DC Antifascist Coalition does plan to protest the Deploraball, but MacAuley says the demonstration is more likely to be stink-bomb-free picketing outside the National Press Club’s building and will be aimed more at catching ball-goers making Nazi salutes or similar gestures, as attendees of an alt-right convention in DC last November were recorded doing.

The action is part of a larger umbrella effort of anti-Trump protests this week that organizers are calling DisruptJ20, about which O’Keefe says he has more videos planned. DisruptJ20 lists a full schedule of events on its website, including a dance party outside the house Vice President-elect Mike Pence has been renting during the transition, the Deploraball protest, and rallies and marches during the actual inauguration ceremony on Friday.

In total, MacAuley says DisruptJ20 organizers have caught at least five attempted infiltrators in the past two weeks, although the methods by which the anti-Trump demonstrators are sussing out these alleged moles are a bit murky. Another organizer, Legba Carrefour, says DisruptJ20’s planners are on guard for “weird backstories” and “made-up names.”

MacAuley also says her group chose to bring “Tyler” to Comet Ping Pong because they thought it would be “funny” to bring one of O’Keefe’s operatives to the restaurant that has been the target of right-wing online mobs whipped up by a phony conspiracy theory. But in doing so, the DC Antifascist Coalition might have given the trolls more ammunition. A thread for the O’Keefe video in Reddit’s section for the most devoted Trump supporters is full of references to “Pizzagate,” and users referring to themselves as “Right Wing Safety Squads” who want to shut down DC houses that sometimes host live music.

And just as message-board chatter about their homes prompted residents of Washington’s DIY venues to go more analog in announcing their shows, encounters with the likes of O’Keefe and his actors have put the protest set on edge. “There are newbies who are honest and genuine, too, and nobody wants to exclude them,” MacAuley says.

O’Keefe closes his narration by saying that his organization contacted the FBI, the DC Police Department, and other law enforcement involved with inauguration-week security. An FBI spokeswoman confirms the bureau met with Project Veritas, but says DisruptJ20’s planned action “does not have a federal nexus.” DC Police did not respond to requests for confirmation that O’Keefe approached the department with his video.

Peter Newsham, DC’s interim police chief, told NPR last week that “our No. 1 goal is to facilitate these First Amendment assemblies.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.