he young white nationalist across the street from the drag show starts to panic. He and his friend — two white men, probably in their early twenties, with baseball hats, and faces masked by the kind of stretchy gaiters middle-aged guys wear on fishing boats — hold a big sign with bold, black letters: “Pedophiles get the rope.” But their expressions change as they’re suddenly surrounded by figures dressed in all-black with combat boots, military helmets, balaclavas, body armor, and tinted goggles, their gloved hands balled into fists.
It’s a Monday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas, and the group in all black are mostly members of the Elm Fork chapter of the John Brown Gun Club (JBGC), a left-wing anti-fascist organization created to level the playing field with right-wing militias that show up armed to protests around the country.
The black-clad figures are up in the white nationalist’s face. He shouts, they shout. Suddenly, the white nationalist’s mirrored sunglasses fly off his head in a glittering arc, landing in the middle of the street. “That’s assault!” the white nationalist shrieks, backing away. His hand fumbles under his shirt. I notice for the first time the outline of a compact pistol in a concealed holster in the front of his waistband.
“Get your hand off your gun!” someone from the Elm Fork crew shouts. I slide a few steps to my left — out of the line of fire. The white nationalist backs up as he screams slurs, hand still on his gun. The Elm Fork crew’s rifles are back in their cars.
I look around to see if anyone else from the growing crowd of protesters is reaching for weapons. In the parking lot nearby, there’s someone in black on a motorcycle wearing crisscrossed bandoliers of shotgun shells across their chest, and a gun strapped to their saddle. There’s another guy in a bucket hat with a sign that reads “Kink and kids don’t mix”; a far-right livestreamer; and about half a dozen young men from the New Columbia Movement, a far-right Christian nationalist group.
Across the street, a long line of people wait to enter the drag show inside the music venue Tulips FTW. In spite of the tension building all around them, they cheer, dance, and blow soap bubbles into the air.
The event is a weekly all-ages trivia night hosted by a drag queen named Salem Moon. It’s clear the staff has been through this chaos before. Two bouncers wearing black T-shirts that say “Welcome home” pat down each attendee and check every bag.
If you’re looking for the front line in America’s sprawling culture war, this is it. For the past year, the conservative movement has zeroed in on the LGBTQ community, specifically targeting trans people and drag queens, who they claim “groom” children into a life of abuse and sin. This accusation has no statistical basis or grounds in reality, but what it does have is the ability to make people really, really mad — and for the worst elements of the far right, that’s an opportunity.
Some white nationalists and virulent evangelicals have seized upon trans panic to mobilize new recruits, bolstered by the issue’s embrace by mainstream politicians like Ron DeSantis. And where the far right goes, so do their guns: Militias, gangs, and other groups have been open-carrying firearms at public protests, showing up to drag events and government buildings toting weapons of war. Last year, The New York Times analyzed more than 700 armed demonstrations across the country, and found that the right wing was responsible for bringing heat to 77 percent of them, protesting everything from LGBTQ rights to Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
But the far right aren’t the only ones showing up armed. Across the country, marginalized individuals are forming groups like the John Brown Gun Club and Socialist Rifle Association that claim to be devoted to the idea of community defense. Their rationale is informed by the massacres at Colorado’s Club Q and Florida’s Pulse nightclub, and tempered by a long cultural distrust of the police, who they say have repeatedly failed to protect them from — and in some cases even perpetuated — right-wing hate.
Many sources interviewed for this story — particularly those who conceal their identities at protests — asked to use pseudonyms, in fear of being targeted or doxxed by the far right. Others were happy to share their names, judging that their public presence — or concealed-carry permits — shield them from harm. All of them, however, agree on one thing: The other side has guns and is willing to use them. The only answer is to be prepared to shoot back.
“We are a response,” one JBGC member says. “We exist as a response to violence.”
ON MONDAY, JASON, the owner of Tulips FTW, met with the Elm Fork JBGC before the protesters showed up, and asked them to leave their rifles in their cars. “Weapons beget weapons,” he told them. “We do not want things to get ugly.”
The presence of guns at a protest — or counterprotest — is a clear escalation of force. “If you bring weapons, you’re gearing up for a fight,” as Jason puts it. Having armed groups on both sides raises the deadly possibility of a shootout, and puts the more-militant gun clubs in the rare position, for those on the left, of matching the violent tactics of the far right.
At the drag trivia hour, fortunately, things don’t get ugly. Various elements of the far right had mobilized on the messaging app Telegram to protest the event, the JBGC members tell me, but rainstorms and a miscommunication about the start time have kept turnout low. Inside Tulips, the event goes on to a packed house.
“It’s eye-opening to see the lengths that people are going to to shut us down,” show host Salem Moon tells me before going backstage to change into her outfit for the night. “The fact that we’re getting to a place where we’re pushed into a corner and have to defend ourselves physically … I didn’t think we’d ever get here, but here we are.”
Elm Fork, and most JBGC chapters I speak to, usually attend protests or events when they’re invited by an organizer or contact within the community, though they do sometimes show up unannounced at events where they know there will be significant right-wing presence. They’re not paid for their work, though each operation is carefully planned by a designated “anchor,” who takes responsibility for speaking to business owners and organizers as well as more detailed tactical work, like making maps of entrance and exit points of event locations and compiling detailed dossiers on expected right-wing presence and other actors. When I approach Tulips on Monday afternoon, I’m immediately recognized: “Your mustache was a bit heavier in the photo!” a person in black says — I, too, made that day’s dossier.
In my months interviewing these groups, it was sometimes surreal to hear them talk without a hint of irony about intelligence dossiers, tactical maps, and weapons load outs on a weekday afternoon in a major American city. How we got here is a complicated story. Marginalized groups in the United States have turned to firearms in order to defend their own communities from hostile actors for decades. In the mid-1960s, the Black Panther Party practiced “cop watching,” or sending armed members to tail the police and stand by with weapons drawn when they made an arrest. But as the Democratic Party and liberal-leaning politics coalesced around gun control, the right built up the image that they had a cultural monopoly on violence. That didn’t mean left-wing gun groups or apolitical community defense initiatives ceased to exist, but they were shuffled even further outside the bounds of acceptable politics for progressive-leaning Americans, who have for decades emphasized research showing that guns in homes drastically increases the rate of suicides, deaths of minors, and even the likelihood of being fatally assaulted. For the people in these groups, however, the risks are worth it to defend themselves.
The John Brown Gun Clubs operate independently but share a similar ethos: Direct action to counter the threat of the far right, and their members are dedicated to anti-fascism, anti-racism, and anti-bigotry. Most groups I spoke to emphasize that showing up armed is only part of their work, mentioning supply drives for unhoused people during Texas’ deep freezes and other mutual-aid events. “The gun stuff doesn’t exist without all this other stuff,” says one JBGC member who goes by the name Accountant. “If we’re going to be carrying guns, there has to be a community reason for it.”
Openly leftist, pro-gun organizations like Redneck Revolt, Socialist Rifle Association, and the John Brown Gun Clubs have existed in various forms for close to two decades. The first JBGC was founded in the early aughts, in Lawrence, Kansas, where members advocated for community defense and firearm knowledge, naming their group after the infamous abolitionist John Brown, who led an 1859 revolt against slavery that targeted the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the intent of arming escaped and rebelling enslaved people with guns to fight for their own freedom.
In 2019, the JBGC made headlines when 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, a senior member of the Puget Sound chapter, attacked an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Tacoma, Washington. Van Spronsen infiltrated the property with a semiautomatic rifle and several Molotov cocktails, before being shot and killed by police. Van Spronsen’s premeditated attack is a notable exception in the group’s history, in which they’ve rarely participated in violence. But his attack and his farewell letter to another member, in which he wrote, “I am antifa” — a reference to anti-fascist activism — gained attention, in particular, from the right.
Since Van Spronsen’s death, the number of active JBGC chapters around the country has increased dramatically, based on dozens of new JBGC Twitter accounts popping up. JBGCs have no central leadership or formal organization, instead operating as a loosely connected network of independent cells. Many members wear a patch with a stylized cartoon of their group’s namesake, bordered by the words “I don’t argue with people John Brown would have shot.” Chapters often range in size from around half a dozen members to more than 20, who are usually vetted through personal connections and in-person meetings before being welcomed in. Still, there are sometimes counterprotesters who show up to public events who aren’t members of the clubs — which can lead to confusion.
In fact, a few weeks after I left Texas, the discipline and coordination I saw at Tulips broke down in a dramatic faceoff that was all over the local news. At a drag event outside of a Fort Worth brewery on April 23, three counterprotesters in a group of armed individuals that included JBGC members were arrested. CCTV footage released by the Fort Worth Police Department shows one masked counterprotester approaching a group of unarmed right-wing protesters and pepper-spraying them in their faces. Police, in body armor and carrying rifles of their own, moved to arrest the person, who was charged with multiple accounts of assault, including one on a peace officer. Two other counterprotesters were then arrested.
“I was very disappointed,” a member of the LGBTQ community who was there tells me. “If you’re going to come fully armed, you have to be security. You can’t get in fights. Your duty is to make sure the patrons are safe.”
THE DAY AFTER the “Drag Defense” at Tulips, I drive to a gun range about an hour south of Dallas to meet with a group that had contacted me on the encrypted messaging app Signal at Elm Fork’s recommendation. My GPS leads me through miles of green, rolling hills, past scattered ranches and into a shallow valley, where my cell service cuts out. The range is a sprawling expanse of pistol and rifle bays cut into the hillside, with huge dirt berms on either side to catch stray fire.
I meet El Gato and Azad, who introduce themselves as the co-founders of Black Cat Rifle Group, a volunteer organization based in Dallas that provides free firearm instruction to anyone who wants it, particularly focusing on marginalized groups. Gato and Azad met through the Socialist Rifle Association, but branched out on their own last year to focus on instruction, around the time Texas’ John Brown Gun Clubs started to organize.
Today, they’re teaching two young guys — novice shooters looking to dip their toes in. We pile into Gato’s hatchback, which is stuffed with paper targets, crates of ammunition, and gun cases, and drive out to a rifle bay, where Gato pulls on army fatigues and a plate carrier. Azad, a tall, bearded South Asian man, dons a chest rig stuffed with AR magazines.
“I wasn’t really into guns until Trump got elected,” Azad says on the ride over. “But we all know there’s Nazis on the streets now. That’s why we’re here.”
Spent shell casings crunch under our feet as we walk over to set up targets. “My community, the South Asian community, has been dealing with this shit for 30 years,” Azad says. “Every year, some dude throws a Molotov into a temple, or spray-paints swastikas on our houses.”
Gato chimes in. “I don’t want to own guns and do this,” he says. “But I also don’t want someone coming after my wife because she’s a person of color.”
But in Texas, Azad and Gato say, guns are a necessity — the right wing has them, the law allows them, and being armed is the only way to stay safe.
“This is the Wild fuckin’ West, man,” Azad says. “We kinda do what we gotta do.”
As Black Cat sets up, unloading well over a dozen ARs, AKs, pistols, and antique rifles from several cars, Gato goes over the basic rules of firearm safety with the students: Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded, never point a weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot, keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire, and always be aware of your target and what’s beyond it.
After some basic lessons in handling a weapon, Gato passes out “ears and eyes”: noise-canceling headsets that amplify voices but not gunshots, and safety glasses. He and Azad then run the two students — and me — through basic shooting drills on torso-shaped cardboard targets, working our way up from handguns to modern assault rifles. The range is reserved for the whole day, so other Black Cat members pop in and out throughout the training.
As the afternoon stretches on, it’s just Azad, Gato, myself, and a third Black Cat member, who asks to go by the name of Tony. Black Cat puts me through a drill that combines running and shooting with an assault rifle — designed to simulate the experience of shooting in a combat situation when you’re out of breath with a racing heart. I’ve shot before, but never to this degree, and the drills impress upon me both the level of effort involved in safely handling a weapon and the relative ease of pulling the trigger. Shooting is a skill, but the basics are not complicated, which is why Black Cat aims to pass that knowledge on to those who feel they need to defend themselves with a gun.
“Our work is inherently political,” Gato says. “But we try to keep politics out of it. If you go into communities of color and start mentioning the word “socialist,” it tends to shut everything down. Poor communities don’t need any more flak.… A lot of these people already wear a lot of targets on their back. Why give them another?”
The longer I spend with these gun groups, the less consistent their politics seem. They are communists, Marxist-Leninists, socialists, and even a few plain liberals. Some groups, like the Austin-based Veterans for Equality, are largely nonpartisan, counting both leftists and conservatives in their ranks. Some people I speak to think an ideal society would have limitations on personal weapons; others are more strident believers in an armed populace. What unites them, however, is a philosophy that may be difficult to understand for people who are insulated from direct contact with the far right.
“To do this, you don’t have to have some specific political end game,” Michel, a member of the Austin chapter of the John Brown Gun Club, tells me at a cafe in North Austin one afternoon. Michel is something of an anomaly in the JBGCs — a middle-aged college professor, relatively inexperienced with firearms, and very much not a radical. But he decided armed self-defense was the answer to far-right demonstrations like Charlottesville. “You just have to recognize that there are people who are vulnerable and targeted, and that the state is not going to protect them. You just need to agree on the short term.… Somebody needs to be protecting people.”
Though you’ll sometimes find these groups working together, there are clear differences of opinion. Veterans for Equality, which formed last year and participates in armed demonstrations in support of sexual-, gender-, and racial-equality causes, does not conceal their faces at protests, unlike most JBGC members.
“I feel like putting on a mask puts some distance between you and the people you’re trying to defend and support,” Benjamin, a former Army forward observer, tells me in Austin. “It’s so much easier to demonize a faceless bad guy, if you’re just an antifa supersoldier in black bloc.” He’s referring to the tactic used for decades by anti-fascist demonstrators in which they wear similar masks and clothing to protect their identity.
Unlike the JBGCs, Veterans for Equality often coordinate with police at demonstrations, hoping to use that relationship to keep things calm. This is not a view shared by most members of the John Brown Gun Clubs, several of whom tell me that police actions often play into the far right’s hands. “We wouldn’t exist if the police were the organization that people think they are,” Han, another member of the Austin JBGC, says.
I meet Han and five others from the Austin chapter in a park in North Austin on a weekday afternoon, just after working hours. Everyone is in their street clothes; a sharp contrast to my first meeting with the Elm Fork members, whose faces I’ve never, at this point, seen. Like the Elm Fork crew, many of the Austin members say their first experiences of direct action and radical organizing came during the 2020 George Floyd protests. A young, Black -bisexual man who goes by the name Accountant describes sneaking out of his parents’ house to go to protests and coming back reeking of tear gas; Deviant, a trans woman, describes several personal -experiences of abuse by the police and the far right.
“I’m a trans girl in Texas,” Deviant says. “I was dealing with ABT [the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas], traffickers, and white-supremacist gangs for years now, and I’ve been doing it on my own.” Before joining the JBGC, Deviant says, she escaped an abusive relationship that exposed her to violence from ABT members and other white nationalists. Now, she says, she’s part of a group of people who are “serious and organized and able to stand up for themselves.”
The members say the JBGC gives them a sense of security both from the state and from the far right. “If I’m going to be facing a white man who’s angry, calling me a n—-r, carrying a gun … it makes no difference if they’re wearing a Proud Boy shirt or a badge,” says Accountant, who joined the Austin chapter in late 2021. “I like that I’m organizing in a way that probably prevents that risk for someone more marginalized.”
After about an hour, Squid, who is tall and slim with long, dirty-blond hair, joins us at the picnic table as the sun starts to set. With some exceptions, the JBGC members I’ve met are young — early to mid-twenties — and have often already experienced trauma, discrimination, or marginalization.
“Lots of things in society revolve around power,” Squid says when I ask what prompted them to join the Austin JBGC. “I’m in one of the groups that does not have a lot of power right now — so everything we can do to defend ourselves, to even that power gap, is important. If somebody [who means me harm] has a gun, I don’t want to have a knife.”
ON MY LAST NIGHT in Texas, I drive up to Denton, a college town in the northern part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, to attend a “Trans Joy Celebration” that the Elm Fork JBGC has been asked to provide security for. It’s warm and breezy, perfect for an outdoor event. When I arrive, Artemis, a tall, slender trans woman who led the counterprotest at Tulips, and two of her teammates, Moth and Crow, stand to the side of a gaggle of rainbow-clad organizers. They aren’t carrying rifles, but wear armor and conceal their faces. The rest of the crowd is in tank tops, dresses, short-shorts. Attendees wave flags as they congregate in a courtyard outside of the Denton City Hall.
As more members arrive, Artemis assigns two-person teams to the courtyard entrances, where they conduct bag checks and scan nearby parking lots with a spotting scope for people loitering in cars or trucks. “I didn’t know people would be in bloc here,” I hear one attendee say to a friend as they walk in. “I think they’re here to do security,” the friend replies. “That makes sense.”
A few blocks away, an evangelical Christian group hosts a picnic in Denton’s central town square. The event looks peaceful and family-friendly, but Artemis has a small team in plain clothes watching it just in case. Despite the lack of obvious threats, Artemis and the group stay vigilant. At one point, during an emotional set of speeches from local trans activists and LGBTQ organizers, two men in short-sleeve collared shirts, cargo shorts, and trucker caps walk up, stand with their arms crossed, and silently observe the celebration. I raise an eyebrow at Artemis. She nods and shrugs, but watches them until they leave a few minutes later.
“I feel safer knowing that they’re there, because their interests are my interests,” James Jackson, one of the event’s organizers, says of the JBGC. “They care about the community as much as I do, if they’re willing to carry weapons and protect us. Otherwise we’re relying on [the police] — some of whom want us dead.”
As dusk falls, the celebration moves from city hall to a patio at a nearby bar. Artemis’ team leads the parade of attendees across the street and then secures the area. Everyone else settles in to party. I ask Artemis what it’s like sometimes showing up at events where, for the most part, nothing happens. Fully-armed face-offs between the left and right are still relatively rare.
“It’s important to show up and be public about the fact that these communities aren’t vulnerable,” Artemis says. “If the queer community is viewed as an armed community, they’ll be safer.”
As the night stretches on with no appearances by hostile actors, the JBGC members relax. Two by two, Artemis gives her people the all clear to change into casual clothes and stand down. It’s the first time I’ve seen any of the Elm Fork members’ faces, and I’m struck by how young many of them are. Artemis changes last. Even in street clothes, she checks both entrances to the patio, which she’d visited earlier in the week to speak to the owners of adjacent bars and make a detailed map of entrance and egress points for the public spaces the community had reserved.
“I have become someone who is always looking for threats,” Artemis says. “Even when I’m not
on the clock, per se, it’s very hard to turn off.”
For that night, at least, everyone is safe.