- Authorities have identified the gunman of the Allen, Texas, mass shooting as Mauricio Garcia, 33.
- Law enforcement sources told AP that the man wore a patch that said “RWDS.”
- The acronym, for Right Wing Death Squad, is more a meme than a formal group, experts told Insider.
The gunman who killed at least eight people in a mass shooting at an Allen, Texas, shopping center on Saturday wore a patch on his chest with a phrase frequently thrown around in far-right circles and extremist groups, a law enforcement source told the Associated Press.
On Sunday, the Texas Department of Public Safety identified the shooter as 33-year-old Mauricio Garcia, CNN reported.
A law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the AP that Garcia, after being fatally shot by a police officer, was found wearing a patch that read “RWDS” — an acronym that stands for “Right-Wing Death Squad.”
Despite what the name suggests, several extremism experts told Insider that RWDS is not a formal group or organization.
“It’s essentially a call-to-arms for would-be fascists, neo-fascists, and anyone who believes in a hard-right authoritarian state,” Micheal Edison Hayden, a spokesperson and senior investigative reporter for Southern Poverty Law Center, said.
Origins of the acronym
Hayden told Insider he first encountered the phrase in the early days of the Trump era and that it appeared as a “kind of insidious meme.” But the acronym referenced in alt-right social spheres has evolved from being a simple online meme to appearing in real-world extremist crime scenes.
The attacker who killed 11 people in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018 frequently shared RWDS memes online before carrying out the attack, Meghan Conroy, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and a former investigator for the Subcommittee on January 6, told Insider.
Similarly, an active duty Marine, who was investigated under suspicion of plotting to murder minorities and DNC employees, among others, was part of a Facebook messenger chat group called Right Wing Death Squad, Conroy noted. The Marine, Travis Owens, was released from the military over the incident but was not charged with a crime, Insider previously reported.
“And obviously these people are not necessarily Proud Boys, right? They’re not even necessarily part of a specific group,” Conroy told Insider. But embracing the online culture surrounding the RWDS memes “enables them to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and they’re part of this internet culture that is cool and trendy and is doing something — because if you have death in the title of your chat group, or meme or whatever it may be, that’s a not-so-subtle hint that this is going to manifest in some kind of offline action.”
While it is unclear if the Texas shooter was associated with an extremist group, members of the Proud Boys have been seen wearing references to RWDS.
Proud Boy member Jeremy Bertino, who pleaded guilty in October to seditious conspiracy charges in connection to the January 6 riot, can be seen wearing an RWDS patch, as well as a Fred Perry brand logo and an American flag, at a protest near the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh shortly after the 2020 election.
Lawyers for Bertino and representatives for the Fred Perry brand did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
At another event in Pittsboro, North Carolina, Bertino added an RWDS patch to his t-shirt that read, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.”
—Anthony Crider (@acrider) September 30, 2020
The memes reference former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and his real-life right-wing death squad, Hayden and Conroy noted.
Pinochet ruthlessly sought out his opposition after his 1973 coup d’etat — and one way he executed his enemies was by throwing people off a helicopter mid-flight.
“Action is absolutely imbued into the very name of RWDS, especially because Pinochet was a real person, the right-wing death squads were real and they actually did the thing that a lot of these folks want to do, which is murdering political enemies, and also staging a coup against the democratically elected president,” Conroy told Insider. “The through lines are so there and the precedent exists — because they have this tangible thing that happened in history that they can point to and be like, ‘Oh, look, we can do it too.'”
Hayden said a meme about helicopter rides circulated on Twitter before the 2016 election, sending the message that when Donald Trump is elected, his critics will be thrown out of a helicopter.
Proud Boys members also sold RWDS and Pinochet T-shirts for $40 at rallies and online beginning in 2018, according to SPLC.
Mixing the message, “Pinochet did nothing wrong” and “Right-wing death squad,” the overall point is straightforward, Hayden said. “It is for people who desire a hard-right authoritarian state — a brutal fascist takeover of the United States,” he said. “And it is a way to signal interest in extrajudicial violence.”
How extremists use humor
Extremists have long used memes, jokes, and irony to advance their ideology while maintaining an air of plausible deniability. Viveca Greene, a professor at Hampshire College who researches the use of satire across extreme ideologies, told Insider it’s an approach that modern alt-right activists have embraced.
“A lot of the memes function by appealing to people who like having the insider knowledge to be able to get the joke,” Greene told Insider. “A lot of them perform what humor scholars called boundary maintenance: there’s an ‘us’ and there’s a ‘them.’ I mean, racist jokes and humor have done that forever.”
By using memes and jokes to signal you’re part of the in-group, people who share them can feel a sense of belonging and continue perpetuating the sense of the difference between those who understand and agree with the meme versus those who don’t.
“Admittedly, it can be difficult when you’re trying to determine whether someone is shitposting on the internet because they’re angry or they’re sad or they feel they want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” Conroy told Insider. “Or if you’re going to have a situation where someone is going to mobilize offline.”
Authorities are still investigating a motive for the attack by the Texas shooter. However, a source told AP that federal agents who reviewed his social media accounts found posts expressing neo-Nazi and white supremacist views.
Conroy noted that the continued circulation of the memes, especially after mass violence, can recruit more extremists, glorifying the perpetrator and urging like-minded followers to stop posting and take action.
Hayden said the RWDS meme was circulated “heavily” in fringe Telegram channels following the Texas shooting.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, well this is just a joke’ and stuff like that,” Hayden added: “Very clearly, if Garcia was wearing it, he did not take it as a joke.”