In a video posted on Facebook on March 27 by Kyle Chapman, the camera pans across what can only be described as a DIY armory: Baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, face mask, wooden shield, flag pole. “The benefit of the baseball helmet is that you have holes where the ears are,” Chapman tells his viewers. “This allows you to hear what’s going on around you.” The helmet is emblazoned with a decal reading molon labe (“come and take them”), the Second Amendment rallying cry borrowed from ancient Sparta. Chapman also recommends going to Home Depot, where one can find a wooden table top for just $25 to fashion into a homemade buckler.
Chapman made the video in response to a barrage of inquiries into his riot gear, which was on full display when he fought anti-fascist protesters (sometimes collectively referred to as Antifa) at the University of California, Berkeley, in early March. Before then, he had been a relative unknown. A 41-year-old commercial diver living in the Bay Area, Chapman told the New Republic that he “doesn’t really care for social media or the internet.” But on March 4, a video of Chapman breaking a wooden sign post over the head of an Antifa activist went viral, quickly launching him to fame as the subject of a new alt-right meme: “Based Stickman.”
“Based” is slang for not caring what other people think of you. “Stickman” is, well, a man with a stick. While it’s difficult to track down the moniker’s exact origin, it seems to have started, along with other nicknames like the “Alt-Knight,” in the place where many alt-right memes are born: 4chan’s “politically incorrect” board /pol/.
The video was taken at a “March 4 Trump” rally near UC Berkeley. Chapman wore a gas mask, helmet, and shin guards. He carried a shield decorated with an American flag and a “V” in one hand and a long stick in the other. (The spread he showed off this week on Facebook is new—the police confiscated the equipment he wore at the event.) Since then, the video of Chapman has been remixed and set to Imogen Heap and Hulk Hogan’s theme song. Images of Based Stickman have been photoshopped into a number of familiar settings, including the movies Captain America and 300, the new Zelda game, Game of Thrones, and the Civil War (with Based Stickman on the side of Confederate army, of course). “He truly is our hero,” one poster wrote on 4chan.
Chapman was not the only person to engage in violence during the march. An estimated 70 people showed up to support Trump, while almost three times as many counter-protesters organized to oppose them. According to a police report, people on either side were “armed with weapons, shields, pepper spray, portable radios, smoke canisters, etc., wearing protective padding and helmets, and in at least one confirmed case, ballistic armor.” Videos show that the event intermittently broke out into outright melees, featuring an abundance of punches, pepper spray, blood, and, of course, Chapman’s infamous stick-beating.
It’s not hard to see why Chapman was singled out by the alt-right. The photo of him is extremely meme-able; he looks like a medieval cosplay fantasy come to life. It also projects a flattering image. Based Stickman signals that the movement is composed of tough warriors, rather than what Elspeth Reeve succinctly describes at Vice News as “a mix of ironic teenage racists, sincere teenage racists, some populists, uptown Klan types, a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them, and a tiny number of actually dangerous people who read the stuff written by the other guys and act on it.”
Chapman could be slotted in the last category. But perhaps Chapman is best described as a run-of-the-mill Donald Trump supporter. Chapman told me that his ideology is “pretty much in line with what you see coming from the Trump administration.” He watches Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity and was rooting for Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Before this month, Chapman described his social media habits as “going on Facebook once a month.”
Chapman was completely unprepared for the virality of the Based Stickman meme. (He pronounces it “mem.”) “I’ve been on 4chan, like, once,” he told me. Chapman had previously quit smoking for three years, but since Based Stickman went viral, he’s up to a pack a day.
Still, Chapman is embracing—and benefiting from—his newfound fame. At the March 4 Trump rally, he was arrested on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon, carrying a concealed dirk or dagger, assault with a taser, and assault with pepper spray. But within 72 hours of his arrest, WeSearchr, the crowdfunding site started by the far-right internet troll Chuck Johnson, raised almost $50,000 for Chapman’s legal defense. (WeSearchr is also responsible for raising a $5,500 bounty for whoever unmasks the Antifa protester who punched white nationalist Richard Spencer at Trump’s inauguration, a popular meme on the left.) As of today, the campaign has raised a total of $83,985 from 1,467 contributors. Pro-Trump internet gremlin Mike Cernovich, who the New Yorker has described as “the meme mastermind of the alt-right,” personally contributed $2,500. Five-thousand dollars from that fund have already been used to bail Chapman out of jail.
Donald Trump’s ascent has been mirrored by a documented rise in organized hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual hate group report, the number of hate groups in the country grew from 784 to 917 between 2014 and 2016. SPLC also recorded over 1,000 bias-related incidents, the largest share being anti-immigrant incidents, in the month after Trump’s election. But the report notes that there was a visible drop in extremist-led rallies, wryly stating that “there hardly seemed a reason to organize their own rallies when extremists could attend a Trump event filled with just as much anti-establishment vitriol as any extremist rally.”
Trump has given cover for people who may have felt hesitant about acting out beforehand. “For politically marginal groups you need an opening and a space of tolerance if you’re going to start protesting,” David S. Meyer, sociology professor at UC Irvine, told the New Republic. “What we’re seeing now is a different contingent of the right-wing that has been legitimated and encouraged by the Trump administration.” While Chapman has always considered himself a political person, the March 4 Trump rally was the first time he had ever gotten into a fight for political reasons.
Yvette Felarca, a founding member of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), the militant anti-fascist group that organized the counter-protest at the March 4 Trump rally, told me, “I think the danger of the Trump movement is that it isn’t just your classic electoral movement that’s getting behind a candidate. It’s people who see through Trump and his campaign an opportunity to take dangerous and violent action against immigrant, women, Muslim, and LGBT people. That’s the particular danger behind this movement.” BAMN’s goals are to defend against such attacks and push for equality for these groups.
Militant left-wing Antifa activity has also grown in response to the threat of the Trump administration. An Antifa protester was shot by a Trump supporter at a protest against the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannapolous in Seattle. Antifa activists employed “black bloc” tactics to protest Trump’s inauguration, which gave us the meme of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched in the face. In Sacramento, ten people were injured at a clash between white nationalists and Antifa activists, and Antifa protesters were responsible for shutting down Yiannopoulos’s planned speech at UC Berkeley in early February.
The March 4 Trump rally in Berkeley was organized, in part, as a response to the Yiannopoulos Berkeley protests. Rich Black, the event’s organizer, told ABC News, “Funny enough, I’m not actually a Trump supporter.” He then asserted that he was motivated by enmity towards the anti-Milo protesters. “They believe it’s okay to shut down those aiming to express themselves.”
In other words, Trump may embolden these groups, but he himself was an afterthought for the organizer of the March 4 Trump rally. Instead, the right seems to be using Trump as cover to provoke the left. “If you’re doing it in Berkeley you’re doing it to generate provocation, to get a reaction,” Meyer said. “It’s like when the Nazis marched in Skokie.” They are “seeking to benefit from these instances where anti-fascists have chosen to be violent to get their point across,” Ryan Lenz, senior writer for SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told me. “It bolsters their own sense of war.”
Chapman is certainly buying into the warrior schtick. In an interview with right-wing Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes (who left Vice in 2008), Chapman talks about the March 4 Trump rally—which he calls the “Battle of Berkeley”—like someone who owns the extended Lord of the Rings DVD box set. He recounts how he was able to “extract” an old man from a bad situation and “get him to a safe spot.” The overall strategy, according to Chapman, was to “get our men up to the front and to shore up our flanks” so that Antifa counter-protesters “didn’t bust through us and get back to the rear where our women, and elderly, and peaceful protesters were.”
But, according to Felarca of BAMN, Chapman was much less heroic than he claimed to be: “[He] was pretty pathetic. In the end, he just got dragged away.”
Each side, of course, has an incentive to spin the post-event narrative in their own favor. In crowded settings like the March 4 Trump rally, it is often hard to identify who threw the first punch or who pepper-sprayed whom. In the confusion, memes like Based Stickman are dangerous in that they help to spread a clear, consistent narrative promoting far-right propaganda. One person posted on the Based Stickman 4chan thread, “This guy just laid the smack down on your commie brethren.”
As Meyer noted, the idea that Based Stickman is a hero “can only work in a context where they’re supporting this master narrative of the left being intolerant and threatening.” One downside to militant leftist tactics is that they make it easier for someone like Chapman to justify smashing people in the head. In the far-right echochamber, at least, it looks like it might be working. The Based Stickman videos have been viewed on YouTube hundreds of thousands of times. On his Facebook, Chapman posted a photo this week of three copycats dressed up as Based Stickman with the caption, “We are all Based Stickman.”
But according to Lenz of the SPLC, the “intolerant left” narrative is simply not backed up by the facts. “It’s very much a redirection of reality. The left has not been historically nearly as violent as the right, at least not in the last eight years,” he asserted. “The right says the left is violent and they need to be prepared for it, but when they turn their head they’re wishing for nothing but violence, death, and destruction, on anyone and anything that’s not white.”
In a (now-hidden) post on Facebook, Chapman himself was uncomfortable with how far white nationalists were taking the meme. He asked his followers to tone down the violence and racism, stating, “I’m all about preparation and aggressive defense, not violence. We have to maintain the high ground. That’s how we win the long game.” When I asked about the reception to the post, Chapman told me that he received “tons” of backlash. “A lot of these young kids they seem to be sitting in front of their computers too much, they’re angry about things.”
But when I asked Chapman if he was concerned that someone inspired by the Based Stickman meme might act in a way he wouldn’t condone, he brushed it off. “You always have that possibility. That’s one of the reasons I put that post on my Facebook.” I pointed out that he had taken the post down. “I got tired of it being there and all the comments popping up. I just removed it,” he said.
On April 15, under the banner of a “Freedom Rally,” Kyle Chapman and Rich Black are organizing another march at the same park as the March 4 Trump rally. They are raising funds on WeSearchr. The event has been described as a “return to Berkeley,” and Based Stickman is being used as a recruiting tool.
Felarca says that BAMN will try to be at the event, as well. When I asked about violent tactics on the left being used to justify violence on the right, she told me that she wasn’t worried because “abusers always try to paint themselves as victims.” As for the idolization of Based Stickman, she scoffed. “If that’s who they’ve got to rally behind, they don’t have much.”