Nathan Damigo moves through rioting crowds like a soldier, and for good reason. Before he founded white nationalist group Identity Evropa, before serving four years in prison for robbing a cab driver at gunpoint, he did two tours in Iraq as a Marine. But when a conservative free speech rally in Berkeley last weekend devolved into an all-out brawl between far-right groups and far-left ones, Damigo got to play war games again.
I was there covering the demonstration, which early on spilled out of a park and onto the streets of downtown Berkeley. Somehow, I ended up next to Damigo as the riot raged, running under the thudding whump-whump of police helicopters, flinching at every pop of an M-80 or crash of a glass bottle. Damigo moved through the sidelines comforting wounded troops. Most had the bright-red faces and streaming eyes that point to a run-in with pepper spray, though some had been tased, and others bloodied from fistfights. He paused at a group pouring Pepto-Bismol over the face of a pepper-sprayed comrade and immediately took the posture of an officer. “You go take it easy,” he said, clapping the sputtering man on the shoulder. “We’ve got people back there who will take care of you.”
At no point was I thinking that this man would become a dank meme.
Yet, minutes before assuming the role of lieutenant, Damigo had punched an antifascist protestor named Louise Rosealma. (Antifascists, or antifa, are an anarchist group that believes in stopping far-right extremism at any cost, including violence and doxxing.) Within hours, video of the altercation would sweep across social media, and extreme-right corners of the internet would hail Damigo as a folk hero. It was just the most recent example of a drastic shift. As political discourse in the US has become more polarized and contentious, so too has its symbology. Pepe the Frog and Expendables posters have given way to images of actual violence that political extremists spread and celebrate—4chan, trading on a popular videogame meme, refers to Damigo as “The Falcon Punch at Berkeley.” Much of it resembles military propaganda. The meme warriors, it seems, have become a militia.