AUGUSTA — Competing rallies to denounce violence and hatred scheduled for Saturday in Augusta are instead highlighting the distrust and animosity dominating the national political debate.

Days after a “Rally to Denounce Political Violence” was announced for the Maine State House grounds, a coalition of socialist and left-leaning activist groups suspicious of the intentions of the event’s organizers drew up plans for a counter-rally to “Oppose Alt-Right in Maine.” Counter-rally organizers are portraying the “Rally to Denounce Political Violence” as part of a national campaign by the “alt-right” – a loosely defined subset of conservatives often associated with white nationalism and populism – to promote their ideologies from behind benign-sounding events.

“We view it as a deliberate provocation by ultra-conservatives and conspiracy theorists in order to promote their hateful agenda and their conflation of fascist violence with the right of a community to self-defense,” reads a statement announcing the “Oppose Alt-Right in Maine” rally. Groups involved in the counter-rally include the Socialist Party of Maine, Portland Confront, Bangor Racial and Economic Justice Coalition, the Southern Maine IWW and the Maine John Brown Gun Club.

Yet organizers of the Rally to Denounce Political Violence said they have no connection with the alt-right, white supremacists or other extreme groups. Instead, they portrayed the counterprotest organizers as the conspiracy theorists employing the very tactics, rhetoric and labeling that the original rally aimed to refute.

“They want to turn me into a bogeyman to make it OK to use violence against a rally that is organized to denounce political violence,” said John Rasmussen, a former activist with the Occupy movement who has been personally targeted by the counter-rally groups. “They are so intimidated by our message against violence.”

POLICE HOPE TO KEEP GROUPS SEPARATED

The dueling Augusta rallies are part of the political and social upheaval nationwide, particularly since the 2016 elections. Debates over race, immigration and starkly different political ideologies are spilling onto the streets, fueled by social media and an energized activist base on all sides. And as events in Boston, Charlottesville and other cities have shown, counter-rallies that spring up are often larger than the original event itself.

“In times of heightened protests, the act of counterprotesting is quite common, but what may be different nowadays is the heightened media attention and for counter-rallies to mobilize fairly quickly,” said Lee Ann Banaszak, a professor of political science at Penn State University who studies protests, social behavior and political behavior.

The two rallies will occur simultaneously on opposite sides of the State House complex grounds. While organizers of both events insist their gatherings will be peaceful, Capitol Police hope to keep the two groups separated.

Fewer than 100 people had committed on Facebook to attending either rally as of Wednesday.

Organizers of both rallies have referred to the violent clashes between white supremacists and neo-Nazis against anti-fascist (or Antifa) activists and other protesters in Charlottesville in August. One woman died and more than a dozen were injured when a man plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville.

But the robust online debate over the Augusta rallies also has mirrored the national debate as participants argue over the definition of “political violence” and whether it is appropriate to compare the violent history of Nazis and the KKK with the militant activists involved with Antifa.

None of the speakers announced so far for the Rally to Denounce Political Violence appear to have any overt connections to white supremacist, Nazi or other hate groups. Instead, the majority of speakers are Libertarian political candidates – including gubernatorial candidate Richard Light and 1st Congressional District candidate Jim Bouchard – along with activists and a medical marijuana advocate.

But the counter-rally organizers are seizing on imagery posted on individuals’ social media pages or previous connections between rally organizers and alt-right, nationalist or racist groups.

“Friends, there is a rally happening Saturday in Augusta that is being organized by folks who not only have ties to white supremacy and the organizing of alt-right rallies in other states, but who’ve also publicly defended the actions of the person who is responsible for the death of Heather Heyer (woman killed in Charlottesville),” Sass Linnekin, one of the organizers of the counter-rally, wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “We need to show up in NUMBERS to let it be known that Maine does not support white supremacy.”

QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGANIZERS’ TACTICS

Rasmussen is at the center of that controversy in large part because of his involvement in organizing a May “free speech” rally in Boston. The May rally drew libertarians, die-hard Trump supporters, alt-right activists and some groups affiliated with the white nationalist movement, along with an even larger number of counterprotesters and Antifa members. Rasmussen was not involved in Boston’s much larger August “free speech” rally that drew tens of thousands of counterprotesters as tensions soared over the events in Charlottesville.

Asked whether the Rally to Denounce Political Violence has any connection to the alt-right or white supremacists, Rasmussen responded, “Absolutely none … but it is a useful narrative for those opposed.

“Anybody advocating violence is not welcome at our rally on all sides of these extremist groups, left and right,” he said.

But Tom MacMillan, a former chairman of the Portland Green Party, accused Rasmussen and other organizers of “lying” about their political ties. MacMillan compared the rally to other “free speech” events, such as the University of California at Berkeley speech by controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos in February that led to violent clashes with police.

“This is a clear organizational tactic to try to rally around a universal value and then hide the hate behind that value,” MacMillan said.

He and others also have pointed to other organizers’ online use of images such as Pepe the Frog and the flag of Kekistan (a fictional land) that have been adopted by some alt-right and white nationalist groups.

‘THIS WAS STARTING TO LOOK LIKE A SETUP’

The social media campaign and online dialogue have prompted several planned speakers at the Rally to Denounce Political Violence to withdraw.

Holly Seeliger, a Green Independent Party member who serves on the Portland School Board, had planned to speak against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the rally, but dropped out after reportedly receiving threatening messages. Seeliger declined an interview request with the Portland Press Herald, but expressed fear and frustration on her YouTube show, Zoon Politikon, that “people who are on the left” would threaten and pressure her against speaking.

Pete “The Carpenter” Harring, a Libertarian activist, also withdrew as a speaker, but for different reasons.

Harring said he personally knows some of the other speakers and can vouch that they “are not racist in any shape or form.” But Harring became more concerned about information he found – or in some cases couldn’t find – about organizers or other participants. With the entrance of the Antifa and socialist groups organizing a counter-rally, Harring decided that “something does not smell right.”

“I just felt this was starting to look like a setup,” said Harring, who was a member of Maine’s pro-Ron Paul delegation at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “With the environment we have today, this is not necessarily the stage I want to use to address the issue. We need unity, we need to get together and start working on some of the goals that we agree on.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH