Why far-right groups are disrupting US campus protests: ‘When there’s so much attention, they show up’

<span>A counter-protester throws a crate at a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on 1 May.</span><span>Photograph: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images</span>
A counter-protester throws a crate at a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on 1 May.Photograph: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As the University of California, Los Angeles is reeling from a late-night attack on a student protest encampment for Gaza last week, attention is turning to the disparate group of counter-protesters who had rallied against the encampment in the lead-up to the violence, including during chaotic dueling rallies two days before.

Many witnesses to the 30 April melee observed that the small group of assailants – many of them masked – did not appear to be students. More than 30 people were injured, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair). Authorities are still working to identify the perpetrators, and have not made any arrests.

But researchers studying hate and anti-government groups have confirmed the presence at the counter-demonstrations of several far-right activists who have been involved in anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-vaccine protests across southern California over the past three years.

Narek Palyan, an Armenian-American from Los Angeles’ Van Nuys neighborhood, was photographed on UCLA’s campus on 26 April amid a group of counter-protesters, and again on the evening of 30 April, hours before the assault on the protest camp.

Palyan took part in several “Leave Our Kids Alone” demonstrations at school board meetings in southern California over the past year, where he was at times photographed making Nazi salutes. His social media history is rife with antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ posts. The Leave Our Kids Alone protests have cropped up at school board demonstrations, book readings and Pride celebrations throughout southern California, focusing anger from conservative parents on the recognition of LGBTQ+ identity and students in both curriculums and classrooms.

The demonstrations, part of a broader rightwing effort to sow unrest and undermine an alleged “liberal agenda” at US schools, have at times been marked by violence and drawn far-right participants from around the region, including people associated with local Proud Boy and Three Percenter militia chapters and fundamentalist Christian churches.

Manuk Grigorian, one of the organizers of some of the southern California “Leave Our Kids Alone” protests, was also present at the counter-protests at UCLA on 30 April. Grigorian frequently appeared on Fox News to discuss the school board demonstrations last summer, where he leveled false claims that certain public education districts were “grooming” children to develop LGBTQ+ identities.

Michael Ancheta, a former mixed martial arts fighter who in the past associated with southern California Proud Boys and assaulted a journalist at a 2021 anti-vaccine protest in West Hollywood, was spotted among the pro-Israel crowd at UCLA on on 28 April, when pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protesters staged dueling rallies near the encampment, and again on 30 April. Ancheta, who until recently ran an Instagram account under the handle “Antifahunter”, has been a frequent participant in the Leave Our Kids Alone demonstrations.

The Guardian repeatedly reached out to Grigorian, Palyan and Ancheta to learn more about why they joined the counter-protests. They did not respond.

RG Cravens, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has tracked the Leave Our Kids Alone protests since they began disrupting school board meetings last summer and threw their weight behind a controversial anti-trans statewide ballot measure.

The reason these counter-demonstrators are drawn to protests over the war in the Middle East, he said, was that they see them through the prism of a broader rightwing view that “traditional” societies and families are under threat. “Their animosity towards the campus demonstrations are part of this Christian far-right perspective that LGBTQ folks are threats to Christianity, and so are Palestinians or Muslims,” Cravens said.

The campus demonstrations at one of California’s flagship public education institutions, Cravens said, fed into a ready-made narrative from the extremist group about the fundamental corruption of modern schooling. “Their presence at UCLA is consistent with their anti-inclusive education ideology – they argue that public education institutions are failing and are sources of terror for the Jewish community the same way that trans folks are terrors to schools and children alike.”

The school protests, where several demonstrators have been photographed making Nazi salutes, have served as focal points for disparate elements of the southern California far right, a number of whom have sought out violent confrontations. The attempts to bar districts from teaching LGBTQ+ topics have largely been unsuccessful, but a number of school board candidates running for office around the region have aligned themselves with the movement. Similar tensions in public education are playing out in New York City, Toronto and elsewhere.

Beyond UCLA, a number of far-right actors, including a violent white supremacist charged in connection with January 6, the founder of the Proud Boys, and a former member of the streetfighting Neo-Fascist Rise Above Movement have stood alongside pro-Israel demonstrators confronting Gaza solidarity encampments at universities across the country.

Lindsay Schubiner, the program director at the Western States Center, has been tracking this trend. To her, the activist presence is part of a broader rightwing effort to sow chaos and undermine democratic institutions. “These white nationalists, religious extremists and anti-democracy actors are political actors who are opportunistic and strategic – they have a goal of ratcheting up the temperature and escalating tensions between groups, and when there’s so much attention on a situation like the current crisis in Gaza, they show up,” Schubiner said. “We’ve seen attempts to co-opt and reframe the debate about the current war by characterizing pro-Palestinian students and faculty as un-American, which is incredibly troubling.”

Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, has condemned the attack by “instigators” on 30 April, and Karen Bass, the Los Angeles mayor, has called the assault “abhorrent and inexcusable”. Bass likened the 30 April assault to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The assault came after days of tension between camped-out students and counter-protesters at the Westwood campus. For days, counter-protesters turned up to the campus to confront the student demonstrators, with shouting matches occasionally erupting into scuffles.

Aside from the rightwing school protesters, other extremist elements were documented on UCLA’s campus. On the weekend before the raid, photos emerged of a flag featuring the symbol the Jewish Defense League, a virulent Jewish supremacist organization founded by Meir Kahane that has committed “countless terrorist attacks in the US and abroad”, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The JDL was formally delisted as a terrorist organization by Joe Biden in 2022, over protests from Palestinian groups.

Block has asked the Los Angeles police department, the district attorney, George Gascon, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a case into the 30 April melee and hold the perpetrators to account. UCLA’s own small police force is overwhelmed by the scope of the investigation and faces questions about why it did not intervene in the attack, which went on for several hours before the LAPD finally stepped in.

Authorities so far have not made any arrests. Meanwhile, southern California’s far right has continued to mobilize alongside pro-Israel demonstrators, with the Christian nationalist Sean Fucht leading a march on 8 May through Los Angeles’s West Adams neighborhood near the University of Southern California’s campus.

Schubiner of the Western States Center expects further clashes like the one at UCLA as the year rolls on, unless there is a concerted effort by law enforcement to hold people accountable for assaults such as the one on 30 April. “The rise of political violence has been part of an effort by the rightwing to shift the window to what is acceptable, and what we saw at UCLA can be attributed to those efforts,” Schubiner said. “When there aren’t legal consequences for known, violent perpetrators involved in bigoted movements, it leads to an atmosphere of impunity, which is incredibly dangerous.”