It was a breathtaking moment, the kind of standoff you might expect to have seen 150 years ago in this dusty corner of West Texas.

On one side was a confrontational gang of fearsome-looking vigilantes, their faces concealed by masks, their bodies wrapped in bulky, military-style body armor. On the other side: members of the Ector County Sheriff’s Office, wearing cowboy hats and protective vests with rifles and pistols at the ready.

For a few fleeting seconds, as the two groups drew closer, a terrifying question hung in the air: Was Big Daddy Zane’s—a windowless dive bar beside a trailer park in west Odessa—about to become the scene of the first anti-lockdown protest to erupt in violence?

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Watching from a few feet away, Philip Archibald couldn’t help but wonder what he’d gotten himself into. Only two weeks earlier, the 29-year-old was a little-known fitness trainer in Dallas who’d never dabbled in politics or activism, his Instagram account devoted to images of shredded abs and weight-loss transformations. Now, almost overnight, the hulking bodybuilder who favors pink shirts and black baseball caps—a man who looks like he could’ve starred on MTV’s Jersey Shore—was the chief organizer of the Freedom Initiative Texas (FIT), a newly formed group that has spent much of the last month helping businesses reopen during the coronavirus pandemic in flagrant defiance of government restrictions intended to slow the spread of the deadly contagion.

Like many opponents of restrictions on business openings, Archibald believes the coronavirus is a nefarious government hoax, an overblown threat designed to cause paralyzing fear among the public. Maskless and free from health concerns, Archibald’s troupe has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks in the trainer’s Nissan pickup truck, his friendly Australian shepherd Zeus riding shotgun. Their heavily armed protest tour took them to the Salon à la Mode in Dallas to support Shelley Luther, to the Capitol building in Austin, and to Shepherd in San Jacinto County, where they established a perimeter outside Crash-N-Burn Tattoo, and later to Odessa. After protesting recently in Southern California, they vow to travel to any state where shuttered businesses are clamoring to reopen, including as far north as New York and New Jersey. Riding a wave of public discontent, they’ve become cult heroes among a certain anti-government fringe that is amassing an online following during the pandemic—outlaws who are as adept at creating shareable memes as they are at field-stripping and cleaning an AR-15 rifle. As their marketing-infused manifesto plainly notes: “Guys with guns are a hot American topic.”

As far as FIT’s members are concerned, there’s no more egregious example of government overreach than the curtailing of citizens’ ability to operate businesses. By “illegally” taking away citizens’ right to make a living, they argue, the government is effectively prohibiting them from being able to feed their families and forcing them to rely on charity.

But critics have accused the protests of being part of a well-financed conservative plan to reopen the nation prematurely, sacrificing lives to restart the economy and bolster President Trump’s faltering reelection hopes. Some, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, say groups like FIT are cynical extremists exploiting deeply felt public frustration with the stay-at-home orders to advance a radical agenda that aims to foment a civil war known as the “boogaloo.” Though he strongly denies being funded by any outside sources and says his movement is apolitical and discrimination-free, Archibald doesn’t conceal the fact that his goal was always to provoke a response.

Public health officials have pointed out that government restrictions have been instrumental in slowing the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 100,000 Americans, including about 1,600 Texans. Last week the Guardian reported that cellphone data suggests that anti-lockdown protesters traveling the country may be responsible for spreading the outbreak across state lines. Texas health officials reported a large spike in coronavirus cases as recently as this week.

Several weeks after FIT’s demonstrations began, they wound up on law enforcement’s radar as well. Though police had largely ignored Archibald and his band of rebels, that changed in Odessa when authorities appeared in a 38,000-pound armored fighting vehicle and began screaming at the men to put their “hands up!” The vigilantes blinked and bloodshed was avoided. Within minutes, six group members were under arrest and accused of possessing firearms at a bar, a felony in Texas.

The incident quickly went viral, offering Archibald more opportunities to recruit sympathetic viewers to his cause with a potent new message aimed at open-carry activists: even local governments in small-town Texas, he argued, were willing to carry out unconstitutional orders from Austin. Life as we’ve always known it, he told adherents, was suddenly under threat.

Philip Archibald and group

Courtesy of Philip Archibald

A home-schooled history buff and the oldest of eight siblings, Archibald said he never planned to live anything other than a quiet, law-abiding existence. After dropping out of Texas A&M, he started his own business as a certified personal trainer in 2013. Over the past seven years, he said, he’s trained hundreds of clients, using newsletters, email campaigns, video demonstrations, and social media to build an online community. To hook people online, he’s learned that vivid imagery and raw appeals to emotion work best. After two months of government restrictions, all those skills came in handy when Archibald decided he was tired of people complaining about sheltering in place without taking action. Archibald doesn’t wear a mask (“It’s a way to quiet free speech,” he says) and thinks the threat represented by the virus is exaggerated for most people (“minus the elderly”). The best way to defeat it, he maintains, is to strengthen one’s immune system through old-fashioned exercise, vitamin supplements, and getting outside.

“Basically, everything they’re telling us not to do,” he said, ignoring numerous documented cases of the virus killing otherwise healthy young people.

At first, he considered going outside on his own with a gun to protest the shuttering of businesses. Then, he said, he came up with a better idea. Used to connecting with strangers online, he started a Facebook group and began pushing out anti-government memes and photos of him holding an AR-15 and wearing a ghoulish mask. On social media, the carefully curated imagery struck a chord, and other opponents of COVID-inspired restrictions started responding. FIT’s private Facebook page has about 200 members, but Archibald’s Instagram following has swelled to around 70,000.

“One thing that I’ve realized is that if you draw attention to something, then you can get things done,” he said. “Without the attention, nothing changes.”

Archibald and a handful of activists made one of their first public appearances with weapons at a rally in Frisco alongside Shelley Luther, the now famous Dallas salon owner. Archibald was convinced that nobody would take them seriously if they didn’t show up with guns. And yet, he admits, he was initially anxious about appearing with his AR-15 in public, something he’d never done before. Archibald worried that weapons would scare demonstrators or, worse, get FIT members killed by police. Instead, police largely ignored the men, and many citizens thanked the group, asked to snap selfies with them, and referred to the tattooed gunmen as “heroes.” The guns—especially when paired with body armor and Archibald’s NFL linebacker physique—seemed to make the men larger than life, bringing them a level of respect that Archibald hadn’t felt in months. After being “robbed of purpose” during the lockdown, his business shut down and his days unstructured, Archibald was hooked.

But the Odessa incident rattled him. Days after members of his group were taken into custody by law enforcement, a frustrated Archibald, who’d avoided arrest, was struggling to make sense of what had just occurred.

“It reminded me of Tiananmen Square in China,” he said later, referring to the 1989 student protests that authorities suppressed using brute, military force. “We were standing there doing nothing and the police just rolled up on us like that.”

“My first thought was, ‘America is screwed!’” he added.

Philip Archibald

Courtesy of Philip Archibald

Though anti-lockdown activists like Archibald have portrayed the Odessa incident as evidence that the Ector County Sheriff’s Office had resorted to Gestapo-like tactics, they failed to mention that there may have been another reason for local law enforcement to be on edge: in August, a gunman driving a hijacked U.S. Postal Service vehicle went on an indiscriminate shooting spree in Odessa using an assault-style weapon, killing seven and wounding 22 others. The rampage occurred less than a month after a gunman with a high-powered rifle slaughtered 23 shoppers in a crowded El Paso Walmart.

Three weeks later, Archibald was back home in Dallas and his mood had greatly improved. Though the state continues to see more than a thousand new coronavirus cases most days, Texas has largely reopened—a development that Archibald attributes to the pressure exerted on state officials by protesters who fought government restrictions. As far as he’s concerned, the good guys won and the government is in retreat. After returning from similar protests in California, he’s been invited to join demonstrators in New York and New Jersey, though he hasn’t yet accepted. Instead, he’s thinking about taking the momentum from the movement to reopen Texas and use it to run for office at some point as a third-party candidate. Until then, he’ll lie in wait, ready to activate his newly formed army of militia-style protesters should a second wave of coronavirus emerge and state officials try to enact new stay-at-home orders his summer.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s next and how we can make permanent change without running around with big guns,” he said. “That’s not a good long-term solution.”

That sentiment may come as a surprise to many of the open-carry enthusiasts Archibald recruited to his cause in recent weeks. During interviews, Archibald presents himself as a regular guy who felt called to action when the plight of hard-working small-business owners became too much to bear. In these moments, he is calm, compassionate, and compromising. But on social media, Archibald can seem anything but. In recent weeks, he’s adopted the belligerent language of the so-called boogaloo boys, who refer to police as “redcoats” and appear to salivate over the prospect of widespread armed rebellion against the government. Steeped in the irony and dark humor of meme culture, the movement’s rhetoric typically falls somewhere between inside jokes and thinly veiled threats, making it difficult for outsiders to distinguish one from the other.

Archibald says he’s not a “gun fanatic,” but his social media profiles are littered with images of him holding an AR-15 and flexing his own veiny cannons. On Instagram, Archibald recently showed off his newest tattoo, a black tree growing above the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” a shortened version of a Latin phrase that means “Thus always I bring death to tyrants.” When a woman on Facebook pointed out that John Wilkes Booth shouted those same words after assassinating President Lincoln, Archibald seemed to endorse Lincoln’s death: “A tyrant is a tyrant and he dissolved state’s rights.”

The phrase has cropped up elsewhere in recent weeks. In Kentucky, for example, protesters fighting government restrictions hung an effigy of Governor Andy Beshear from a tree with the same Latin phrase that adorns Archibald’s hand.

Though he claims not to align himself with the boogaloo movement, Archibald follows multiple Instagram accounts devoted to boogaloo rhetoric, and many of the protesters he surrounds himself with are frequently photographed wearing the movement’s trademark uniform: a Hawaiian-style shirt. In at least one recent photo, Archibald can be seen wearing one as well. In a recent Facebook post about police officers following lockdown orders, Archibald said anyone who sides against business owners and their customers is committing treason and deserves the “appropriate punishment.”

“It’s time for us to make examples out of these redcoat scum instead of letting them do the same to us,” he added.

Archibald claims he has no ties to the alt-right and no tolerance for racism or vigilante violence. Asked how that assertion squares with his embrace of boogaloo culture, Archibald doesn’t let me finish my question before replying.

“I don’t support the boogaloo,”  he said. “But I understand the need for that kind of uprising if things really really go to shit. … I’m talking like martial law—like if we have a second lockdown, that might be an appropriate time for it.”

While Howard Graves, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, can’t discern whether Archibald is a harmless constitutionalist or an extremist with more sinister motives, he argues that the movement to reopen businesses has allowed far-right groups to camouflage their ideology.

“Social media has enabled these groups to come together in private online spaces and build these connections that happen out of sight and in the real world,” Graves said. “These groups are really having a moment because COVID-19 offers them a megaphone to claim the spotlight.”

The larger goal, Graves suspects, is to draw support for radical causes like the boogaloo.

At a press conference following the FIT members’ arrests, Ector County sheriff Mike Griffis appeared to echo that idea, suggesting that the men were acting in bad faith.

“This was not a protest of their Second Amendment rights,” he said, noting that nobody was holding signs and chanting. “This is an issue with carrying firearms and trying to intimidate people and provoke a response.”

It’s too early to say whether Texas will experience a second wave of coronavirus infections, as many health experts have warned. Archibald plans to watch the numbers closely, looking for any sign that the government will implement another round of government restrictions.

If that happens, he’s ready to take up arms again.