I’ve been photographing the far right’s insignia since 2017’s Unite the Right rally. It’s not surprising that the latest neo-Nazi mass shooter wore a common symbol of rightwing hate.
Since the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017, I’ve been making a specific effort to document the patches and insignias worn by activists on the far right. Proud Boys, OathKeepers, militia members, and especially the Boogaloo Boys—they all love their patches.
Many of these velcro and iron-ons depict images like a cartoon of a bullet with a smiley face that says “I want to be in you,” or esoteric references to a hijacked plane in Seattle that ended in suicide. Some have meaning; others are just references to inside jokes that they share with their friends.
As the rightwing meme-sphere expanded throughout the Trump years thanks to image-sharing message boards like 4Chan and 8Kun, the jokes became more insular and extreme. Soon, I saw more versions of the patches that the May 6 shooter in Allen, Texas wore. Going through my hard drives, I came across the RWDS patch at multiple events in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
When news of the mass shooting in Allen, Texas started coming in, I immediately recognized the “RWDS” patch that the shooter wore while firing an assault rifle into a crowd in front of a shopping mall. RWDS stands for “Right Wing Death Squad,” and it’s a favorite of the Proud Boys, militia groups, and other extremists. It overlaps with the far right’s love of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The Proud Boys, early in their existence, embraced the CIA-backed Pinochet who overthrew the government helmed by Salvador Allende, a democratically-elected socialist, in 1973. They wore T-shirts that said “PINOCHET DID NOTHING WRONG.” The messages on those shirts would eventually shift to “ROGER STONE DID NOTHING WRONG” and finally, in reference to the now-convicted former Proud Boys leader, “ENRIQUE TARRIO DID NOTHING WRONG.” Despite the interchangeability of the shirt’s subject, the outline stayed the same: Simple white text on a black background.
That template also had spinoffs that referenced the murder campaign led by Pinochet that involved interrogating and torturing anyone perceived as a leftist; some were placed in military helicopters and dropped into the sea to their deaths. The right wing meme’d this onto shirts, patches, and stickers that advertised “FREE HELICOPTER RIDES.” The version popular among Proud Boys often featured stick figures falling out of helicopters.
The Allen, Texas shooter who killed eight people, ranging in age from three to thirty-seven, including four people of Asian descent—identified as thirty-three-year-old Mauricio Garcia—spent his time in spaces on the Internet like 4Chan. He was a fan of white supremacist anti-semite Nick Fuentes and rightwing YouTuber Tim Pool. Both of these people feed into the edgy online culture by saying bigoted things that are supposed to be “just jokes.”
The patch that the shooter wore on his Kevlar vest, seen above, was sold by Anime Tobacco Firearms—a play on ATF, the acronym for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, an agency that has long served as a foil for many in the world of rightwing gun ownership. The Proud Boys wore different patches—a red RWDS on a black background—mostly sold by Tarrio, in his online store.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Garcia also visited more standard rightwing sites like the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer and white nationalist VDare. He also watched videos of other mass shooters.
Patches and T-shirts aren’t always a reliable sign of what a person believes, but in the case of alt-right adherents, meme patches like Garcia’s are a well-established form of cultural currency. People like Pool, Fuentes, and now the owner of Twitter Elon Musk, use dark edgy “humor” to blur the lines of what they believe, allowing them to platform and spread messages of hate. As I write this, Musk is currently “just asking questions” about the shooting—pondering whether the whole thing was a psyop.
Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He co-produced Greg Palast's films The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman. Roberts is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow and Puffin artist grant recipient.