CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA — One Thursday night in late August, two men with ties to the website Big League Politics made their way through a crowd of anti-racist activists who gathered around Silent Sam, the University of North Carolina’s Confederate monument that protesters had toppled several nights earlier.
“Hey, we’ve got some Charlottesville antifas here,” Noel Fritsch, a political consultant who occasionally appears in Big League Politics’ videos, told his Facebook Live audience as he shined a bright light in anti-racist demonstrators’ faces.
Together with Big League Politics reporter Peter D’Abrosca, Fritsch alternately probed and mocked the protesters. “What’s your name?” he asked someone in the crowd. “Are you OK with property crime?” he asked another. The angry demonstrators soon began shouting at the two men to leave. Scuffles broke out, and police intervened, taking D’Abrosca into custody for his own protection.
Patrick Howley, D’Abrosca’s editor at Big League Politics, jumped on the incident.
“My reporter @pdabrosca was beaten by Antifa tonight while covering them,” Howley tweeted at 1:19 a.m. on Aug. 31. Hours later, Big League Politics published a story with video from the scene: “WATCH: BLP reporter assaulted, detained by police at UNC antifa riot.” It was tagged “violent left.”
It would be a stretch to call the incident a “riot.” Despite Big League Politics’ claims about the presence of “antifa” — a catchall term that right-wingers use to refer to everyone from militant, masked black bloc activists to run-of-the-mill peaceful protesters — the scene had been tense but not chaotic. The anti-racist camp had been furious with police for their heavy-handed approach that night. “Cops and the Klan go hand in hand,” the protesters had shouted. Until D’Abrosca and Fritsch’s altercation with the demonstrators, there had been no arrests.
But the episode was representative of Big League Politics’ M.O.
Founded in 2017, the site is part of a cottage industry of websites with social media personalities that promote themes and conspiracy theories popular among white supremacists — all while ardently backing President Donald Trump, his populist-nationalist agenda and the right-wing political candidates who are following his lead.
The site, which now has nearly 80,000 Twitter followers, is owned by Reilly O’Neal, a North Carolina political operative whose clients include failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, as well as Virginia Republican and Confederate monument defender Corey Stewart. Fritsch, a campaign consultant who has worked for many of the same candidates as O’Neal, doesn’t work for the site but appears in some of its biggest videos.
But the website’s lodestar is Howley, a 28-year-old former Breitbart News and Daily Caller reporter.
Howley, a professed admirer of conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, has a long record of stunt journalism. As an assistant editor at The American Spectator, he infiltrated an Occupy Wall Street-linked group in Washington, D.C., during a 2011 protest and (unsuccessfully) led a charge of Occupy protesters into the National Air and Space Museum to protest a drone exhibit. In addition to promoting political candidates O’Neal champions, like Stewart or Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist Republican candidate for Congress in Wisconsin, Big League Politics embraces the kind of coverage that made Howley notorious.
The site neatly cleaves articles into subject categories like “Deplorables” (considered friends) and “Snowflakes” (considered enemies). It promotes conspiracy theories like the unfounded allegation that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he leaked damaging emails. It assails anti-fascist groups. It praises the QAnon movement.
That’s all run-of-the-mill stuff in the conservative fever swamps. What sets Howley and his crew apart is that they don’t stop at posting about conspiracy theories. They go out with their cameras and audio recorders and try to prove that they’re true.
The Charlottesville Conspiracy
Perhaps Big League Politics’ biggest reporting commitment is towards letting white supremacists off the hook for the deadly violence that broke out during the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Two days after Neo-Nazi sympathizer James A. Fields Jr. drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racist marchers, killing activist Heather Heyer, Howley wrote on BLP that an unnamed “eyewitness” had told him that Fields was “attacked” before the incident — implying that Fields had somehow been provoked or frightened into driving his car into people. The coalition of white supremacist groups at the center of Unite the Right readily embraced that narrative.
““Are you responsible for the death of Heather Heyer? Are you responsible for the death of Heather Heyer?””
In February 2018, the site doubled down on the story, and Howley went a step further, identifying a scapegoat. He pointed to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who had provided armed security with the anti-racist militia Redneck Revolt during the Charlottesville protests.
Howley based his claims on a Facebook post that Dixon wrote five months after the violence in Charlottesville, in which Dixon said he had “chased off James Fields” from the block he was patrolling with a rifle before Fields “attacked the marchers to the south.”
But the circumstances of James Fields’ car-ramming attack undermine any argument for Dixon’s “responsibility. The two men encountered each other three blocks away from the site where Heyer was struck. Video evidence prosecutors showed in court indicates that Fields initially drove up to the crowd, backed up more than a block, and then accelerated into the crowd.
Those facts didn’t seem to matter to Howley, who soon decided to confront Dixon. On Feb. 7, Howley and Fritsch ambushed Dixon with a video camera in the hallway of a Chapel Hill academic building, repeatedly asking the professor if he had attacked Fields.
“Did you chase James Fields with a rifle? Do you think that contributed perhaps to his mental state?... Did you chase James Fields with a rifle?” Howley asked. “This man admitted to chasing James Fields with a rifle right before the incident in Charlottesville in which a person was killed.”
Fritsch followed up with a loaded question that clearly conveyed BLP’s narrative: “Are you responsible for the death of Heather Heyer? Are you responsible for the death of Heather Heyer?”
Dixon demanded that the two men leave and sought staff support to call campus police. The video suggests Dixon may have pushed Fritsch, but it’s far from clear. BLP titled its video of the incident “Professor who chased Charlottesville driver with gun attacks cameraman.”
Howley told HuffPost he tried to interview Dixon for months.
“I want to sit down at a roundtable; I want to talk to people,” he insisted.
Dixon declined to comment for this story, but HuffPost asked Howley why Dixon would want to answer questions that suggest, falsely, that the professor was somehow responsible for Fields’ murder of Heyer.
“I ask questions,” he said.
In the months since Howley and Fritsch first confronted Dixon, they haven’t dropped the idea that he’s responsible for Heyer’s death.
But they have added a new conspiracy theory to their repertoire. Big League Politics’ dedication to covering the fight over Silent Sam, a monument at UNC-Chapel Hill that depicted an unnamed Confederate soldier, is part of its commitment to covering a pattern of “violent events occurring all over this country,” Howley told HuffPost. The monument itself, which the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected on campus in 1913, is a memorial to white supremacist violence: When it was unveiled, industrialist Julian Carr bragged of whipping a “negro wench” because she “maligned a Southern lady.”
Students had opposed the statue’s presence on campus for years; when they returned to campus this August, they finally tore it down, triggering days of tense standoffs between anti-racist and pro-Confederate demonstrators where the statue once stood.
Howley blames “antifa,” not the fact that a statue commemorating a fight to defend slavery stood for decades on a campus packed with the descendants of enslaved people, for the problems surrounding his staff’s visit to campus. “Why are there tense confrontational things happening? It’s because antifa is going on to campuses and creating violence,” he said.
But in Chapel Hill, D’Abrosca, Fritsch and Howley often seemed more committed to creating tension than reporting on it. In one encounter, D’Abrosca egged on a group of students by arguing their anti-racist stance was hypocritical if they weren’t also speaking out about the “black people enslaved by Islam” and telling them that Silent Sam represented not white supremacy, but volunteer soldiers who stood up to Union Army depredations.
The night that protesters toppled Silent Sam, Howley and Fritsch again pursued Dixon, haranguing him to admit responsibility for Heyer’s death.
“Dwayne, why did you chase James Fields with a rifle, right ... Why did you do that, dude?... Are you gonna hit me?... ”
It’s hard to tell from the video what happened next, but Howley claims Dixon hit him. (Dixon has declined to comment.)
“We weren’t having a conversation,” Howley said. “You assaulted me, dude…. You just assaulted me, brother…. Yes, we do. We’re human beings. We’re people of God. And you chased James Fields with a rifle right before he killed someone.”
Howley and Fritsch filed a criminal complaint against Dixon, resulting in a misdemeanor simple assault charge. Dixon’s next court date is in November.
D’Ambrosca, the BLP reporter, even gloated that one of his reports had led to vandalism and public disturbance charges against Margarita Sitterson, a UNC student who had participated in the toppling of the statue.
“I’m the ‘unsavory big league politics guy’ who made sure that Margarita Sitterson was charged for her crimes./ Suck it, commies,” D’Abrosca tweeted.
“It’s definitely had an effect on our relationship with journalists. Not just Big League Politics, but there are a number of fascists who come to rallies and pose as journalists.”
Sitterson wasn’t the only person to suffer the consequences of BLP’s results-based journalism.
As tensions rose near Silent Sam on the night of Aug. 30, Fritsch and D’Abrosca debated with a protester named Dorothy, who asked HuffPost to withhold her last name because she fears white-supremacist harassment. When Dorothy put up her hand to block Fritsch’s camera, he shoved it at her, she told HuffPost. Fritsch claims that Dorothy assaulted him, and he plans to go to the magistrate’s office and swear out a warrant against her.
BLP published a video suggesting that Dorothy was a violent antifa activist, leaving her incensed — and frightened, especially after a white supremacist posted a photo of her on Gab, a social networking site popular with the alt-right and white nationalists.
“I am not a member of antifa,” she said. “I don’t know how to respond. If this were the [Durham] Herald-Sun I could write to the editor and request a retraction. If I write Peter D’Abrosca, what’s going to happen? They’re gonna friggin’ dox me.”
Experiences like Dorothy’s have left Chapel Hill activists more cautious about talking to any reporters, said Lindsay Ayling, a Ph.D. candidate in history who has been active in the Silent Sam protests.
“It’s definitely had an effect on our relationship with journalists,” Ayling said. “Not just Big League Politics, but there are a number of fascists who come to rallies and pose as journalists. Big League Politics is similar, but a little more sophisticated.”