UPDATE: 8/22/17, 6:51pm
From The Boston Globe: “Clarification: Over the weekend, Bostonglobe.com published the names of people listed on the “Free Speech” rally organizers’ Facebook page as speakers for the Saturday event. Among those listed was Rob Webber. He did not speak, and maintains that his name was listed in error.”
Last Thursday, I tested my threshold for self-punishment when I met with one of the organizers of the Boston “Free Speech” rally, John Medlar. Medlar double-booked the interview for 3 pm, and since I arrived there second, I was forced to sit through the first interview conducted by Shihab Rattansi from Al Jazeera.
Rather than committing any background information to memory, Rattansi read from cue cards and frequently stopped for staging. It’s not the end of the world. I have worked in films and video, and I understand the desire to get the the lighting just right and to make sure the makeup is caked on. Rattansi’s editor likely had a preconceived narrative about Medlar, so the interviewer’s job was simply to ask questions that filled in the gaps. Having watched the final product, it was actually more cookie-cutter than I even suspected: video of all the ponies pumping up and down on the carousel, children splashing in the pond, and a group of outraged locals fighting the alt-right!
Don’t get me wrong, Bostonians were justified in their outrage. But that’s just about as deep as most coverage got.
After enduring Al Jazeera for about 40 minutes, I got to take a stab at it. I told Medlar that I wasn’t interested in the mainstream media’s interview approach and said that we should sit back, relax, and just talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. And so began the discussion of memes and Pepe the Frog.
You see, Medlar is a “super senior” (as he told me) in college, and he’s used what he has learned in his filmmaking classes to mock “cucks.” He has actually made some mightily impressive memes of Donald Trump as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. Too bad James Cameron did all the heavy lifting, but at least we have a mutual dislike of CNN.
Medlar is also a self-described “shitlord.” It turns out, he and his fellow organizers met mostly on the message board 4Chan and are “shit-posters.” What this means, according to Medlar, is they “talk shit on the internet.” In reality, they are a subculture of liars and trolls who spend their days trying to provoke outrage. This, after all, is protected free speech, and their birthright.
Among other topics, in our chat we got to talk about Heather Heyer, the young woman who died in Charlottesville, Virginia, after being hit by a car targeting protesters of hate speech. Heyer will no longer be able to practice her right to free speech, something to be outraged about, and Medlar feigned sympathy, called the driver who killed Heyer a terrorist, and put out the idea that he is a generally decent person. So during the course of the 2.5-hour livestream, I posed the theoretical question of whether BLM could speak at his rally, or for that matter, if I could speak. He said that he would have to vet the Black Lives Matter speaker, but for me he gave a “yes.” Needless to say, I didn’t take the shitlord seriously.
Lizard people, and squid-men, and goddamn racist frogs. I spent a year and a half on the campaign trail with bundles of flowers trying to bridge the gap between the left and the right, and I encountered these phenomena from Medlar’s world quite frequently, largely online of course, since until recently that is where they mostly toiled. In any case, as a documentarian, my objective is to dig a little deeper and perhaps bring some civility into political discourse by taking a different approach. Hence the flowers I would give to candidates in public, often at their town hall events in New Hampshire and elsewhere.
In the process, I became a frequent guest of Jeb Bush, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, praying for peace on stage with them. It made me nuts to do so—even feel used—like the time that I shook Ron Jeremy’s hand at a party. You immediately feel the urge for wipes. Because, as you might have guessed, I stand about as far from their political positions as you can imagine. That said, I became John Kasich’s “troubadour” for a while, and on the flip side, Donald Trump’s goons roughed me up on more occasions than I can recall.
Still, I always went back for more, probably because I am a masochistic bastard with an interest in getting the story that no one else will get.
The panicked calls came from my friends and family—including my poor old mother, who was afraid I would be shot—right around the time that I arrived on Boston Common on Saturday. Everyone freaked out more than a year ago, when I started wearing flowers in my beard at Donald Trump rallies. Some of my closer friends would call to say that mutual acquaintances had thought I lost my marbles. But this was something else entirely.
My close friends always knew that I was making films and doing performance art on the campaign trail. Still, not even that prepared them for the news that I was allegedly speaking at the goddamn “Free Speech” rally! That’s right. Medlar had messaged me the night before to ask if I really wanted to speak and said that I needed to reply by 9 pm if I did. But I didn’t actually want to speak, so I didn’t get back to him. It didn’t matter, though—it turns out he had put me on the bill already earlier in the day.
I arrived at the rally to discover friends asking whether I was speaking. They said that I was listed on the official event page and that my name was published in the Boston Globe alongside those of such unsavory characters as a Holocaust denier, an outspoken homophobe, the creator of “Ten Things I Hate About the Jews,” and a dude who is notorious—or famous, depending on whom you are asking—for attacking demonstrators with a bat.
In 2016, I got pretty freaked out the first time that I appeared in a Jeb Bush campaign ad. But that was nothing compared to being named among the headliners with this crew. I immediately took to social media to announce that I had nothing to do with the event, and to instruct people to watch my interview so they know where I stand. By that point, it didn’t matter.
For the shitlords, I became immediate proof that they were not racists, because they booked a progressive. For the other tens of thousands of people, I was the flower guy who suddenly turned white supremacist and was about to get up on the stage. Even though it wasn’t true. Among the love notes sent my way, one Facebook message simply read, “Rod Webber, you must be a Nazi too…”
I wrote an email to the Globe, which had produced the story without contacting me for confirmation or a comment, asking them to print a statement retracting the inclusion of my name as one of the speakers. Instead, I received a response that deflected blame to the shitposters:
The article reported that you were one of the speakers listed to start shortly after noon, and as we reported, the information came from the rally organizers’ facebook page.The was shared on the event page as well. As such, there’s no need for a retraction, but, I do think you should take your issue up with the organizers as they promoted the list of speakers with your name on it.
I followed up: “The fact that you reported that it is what they reported does not absolve you from your moral and potential legal obligation. If someone falsely published your name as part of such an event, wouldn’t you ask the same?”
After 24 hours with no response, I wrote back. They replied:
I can understand why you’re distraught. When I shared your story with my editor on Sunday, I was told what I told you, that you need to take it up with the group since they were the ones that listed you on a speaker on the list that they then promoted … We can offer to take your name out, but there’s no correction or retraction to be done. As I explained before, we reported on what the group said they had planned and explained as it as such.
I wrote back for clarification, but have still heard no response. I also asked Medlar to remove my name from the rally’s Facebook page, which at the time of this writing on Monday was still not done.
The continued trolling and harassment in the days since Saturday has conjured rotten memories of all the bigoted frog memes and lizard people, and reminded me that mainstream journalists are oftentimes a lot like web trolls. The latter may use juvenile cartoons to politicize otherwise apolitical gamers, but in both cases, it’s all a game—or, if you prefer, political theater.
At the end of the day, they’re all in it for clicks and eyeballs.
In this case, the Globe increased its traffic on my back and forced me to confront an angry mob. As for the shitlords, they just threw a turd into the matrix, and it worked. In the time since, innumerable message boards and chat rooms have dreamt up some truly insane theories about me being an FBI informant, while a few have even threatened my life.
Whatever they say or tweet, here’s what I know—I didn’t speak on Saturday, and I never planned to. On the contrary, I’m proud to have stood against racism and to have done the most revealing interview with Medlar of all. Even if he mocked the shit out of this fucking cuck in the aftermath.