Analysis: Did domestic terrorism groups target a North Carolina drag show?

The rumor started swift and unrelenting Saturday night when domestic terrorists shot out two electrical substations in Moore County, North Carolina, some 90 miles outside Charlotte. Had the power outage been fueled by white nationalists determined to stop a drag show in the area?

Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields has said a motive for the attack remains unknown as local authorities and the FBI investigate. But he has not ruled out a possible connection. “We are looking at everything right now,” Fields said. “There’s absolutely nothing off the table. We’re investigating all leads.” 

Whether this was the impetus or not — law enforcement has not established a connection — the drag show organizers in Southern Pines  had been under threat from the school district and others and had been forced to contact police and bring in extra security for the event

The outages in Moore County have been a lead story on local and national news media. Domestic terrorists have long threatened targeting critical infrastructure like electricity and water, and CNN reported Wednesday that more than two dozen shell casings were found at the substation. No group has claimed responsibility for the actions. Sheriff Ronnie Fields said Monday that the attack “was targeted,” but that authorities have not determined a motive

The rumors about the link between the drag show and the assault on the electrical grid began Saturday night on social media from various sources, beginning with an anti-LGBTQ activist later questioned by police. 

Emily Rainey, an anti-LGBTQ activist and former Army psychological operations officer, spurred the rumors on Saturday night when she tweeted, “The power is out in Moore County, and I know why.”

Well-known trans activist and writer Charlotte Clymer posted a tweet thread addressing it to her nearly 400,000 followers. The thread included statements from police as well as from Rainey. 

Clymer’s original post garnered 49,000 likes. Other sources, including local area news media, added to the assertion of a link to the drag show. Performers and organizers from the drag show itself were contacted by  local North Carolina TV and print media. 

WRAL TV in Raleigh, stated in a story Dec. 5, “The power is still out at the Sunrise Theater in downtown, where the Downtown Divas sign is still on the marquee.” 

WRAL explained, “The power went out in Moore County less than an hour into a drag show that drew heated protests. But the show’s headliner describes how the audience used cell phones to light the theater and continue the show.”

The Fayetteville Observer also reported Dec. 5 on the drag show link, noting that organizers of the show had said far-right activists had tried to shut down the event for weeks. Private security and the Southern Pines Police Department had been brought in to monitor the event. 

The Observer stated, “Southern Pines Christian school leaders had claimed that the drag performances target children. In a letter dated Nov. 21, Calvary Christian School administrators urged parents to contact the town council, the theater and show sponsors to ask for the event to be canceled.” 

The Observer quotes the letter in part: “The LGBTQ forces are coming to Southern Pines and they are after our children. This is their target audience to peddle their abomination.” 

Rainey, who has maintained that there is a link between the attack and the drag show, posted on Facebook that police had interviewed her about the attack. “Sorry they wasted their time. I told them that God works in mysterious ways and is responsible for the outage. I used the opportunity to tell them about the immoral drag show and the blasphemies screamed by its supporters,” she wrote. 

Fields said in the December 5 press conference that Rainey’s posts were “false.” He added,  “We had to go and interview this young lady and have a word of prayer with her… but it turned out to be nothing.”

Rainey, who was forced to resign from the Army over her involvement in the January 6 insurrection, went viral in a video about the drag show and the power outages on Twitter Monday, keeping the rumors alive.

On Wednesday morning, WRAL reported, “The country was warned about terror attacks which could target U.S. infrastructure and certain groups days before shootings that knocked out Moore County’s power grid, leaving tens of thousands without heat or electricity.” 

Gov. Roy Cooper said at a news conference that the attack was intentional and damaged the entire community, which has been without electricity and water for many since Saturday night. A curfew was established Sunday. Responding to the drag show rumors, Cooper said, “Regardless of motive, violence and sabotage will not be tolerated.”

State Senator Tom McInnis called the incident a “terrible act” that appeared to be “intentional, willful and malicious.”

Despite the rumors swirling online and throughout North Carolina communities, there are still no suspects in the case. The FBI and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation have been brought in by local law enforcement.

A new report from LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD shows 124 anti-drag incidents have happened nationwide so far this year. N.C. and Texas have seen the largest number of threats at 10 each, but Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey have reported three each and all but two states have at least one such report on file. 

On Saturday, the white nationalist group the Proud Boys, who have targeted drag shows throughout the country, shut down a Christmas drag show at a local church in Ohio.

Newsweek reported Dec. 5 that “The Red Oak Community School, which caters for children in the kindergarten to the fifth grade, was due to host a ‘Holi-Drag Storytime’ event at the First Unitarian Universalist Church for its pupils on Saturday morning.”

But organizers at the school in Columbus, Ohio canceled the event at the last-minute due to safety fears.

Over 70 Proud Boys donned camouflage gear and armed themselves with rifles to protest outside the church Saturday where the show was to be held. Another alt-right group, Patriot Front, joined the protest. 

The school reportedly sold about 1,000 tickets for the $10 event and raised more than $6,000 in donations, which it said would be given to local LGBTQ charities. 

GLAAD linked right wing media to the increase in attacks on drag shows and noted that Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson falsely claimed that drag queens ‘want to sexualize children,’ and the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh called on police to ‘break down the doors’ of LGBTQ clubs and arrest drag queens.” 

GLAAD cited several recent instances of violence, including a Molotov cocktail and firebombing in Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as a drag bingo event at a library in Downers Grove, Illinois receiving a threatening letter that included a bullet and the phrase “more to come.” 

GLAAD noted that there were numerous instances of groups like the Proud Boys and National Front turning up with guns and camo gear to threaten drag shows and gay groups.

Club Q in Colorado Springs was debuting a new drag show when a lone gunman shot and killed five people and wounded two dozen others. The shooter was known to express anti-LGBTQ sentiments, and his father said he was glad to know his son wasn’t gay as he first feared when he heard the shooting was at a gay club. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.