JFK Jr. has stubbornly refused to appear in Dallas, despite messianic predictions that the late scion of the Kennedy clan would return to the land of the living. But the members of QAnon—the Trump-era political conspiracy-theory-cum-cult—who gathered weeks ago in Dallas to await him did not go home. Many of them stayed at Dealey Plaza, one day making the shape of a giant Q, another day lining up to have Michael Brian Protzman, known as Negative48 on Telegram and other right-wing sites, with a bird on his shoulder, show them a nonexistent Illuminati pyramid on top of the Book Depository. The QAnoners attended a Rolling Stones concert and claimed that a number of dead famous people were in fact alive and there in disguise. And one of their followers reportedly offered them property nearby so that they can stay, permanently.
Protzman, who claims to base his predictions on gematria, a form of Jewish numerology, is not alone in prodding the Dallas QAnoners. Yesterday, a Twitter account named for—or pretending to be—John F. Kennedy Sr. asked for a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of his assassination:
Can we do candlelight.
Tonite @ Dealey Plaza from 21:11 9:11pm to 23:11 11:11 pm?
Can we make that happen?
— John F. Kennedy SR (@418Jah) November 22, 2021
They obliged, gathering at Dealey Plaza last night to sing the 1985 anti-famine anthem “We Are the World”—an incongruous choice of songs, perhaps, but one that certainly highlights the average age of the participants:
— 2021 Karma (@2021_Karma) November 23, 2021
It’s a nightmarish fever dream. A hilarious hot mess with hints of cringe. Certainly the sort of thing that observers abroad would look at, laugh at, scratch their heads, and move on with their day.
But we should resist the urge to treat this as a joke, because it’s not. It’s not funny, even though it is weird. It’s a murder in waiting.
As a historian with a background in religious studies, there are any number of precedents I could point to—although they offer little hope that QAnon might just fade away peacefully. Strangely, what this new iteration of QAnon reminds me of more than anything else is the early phase of the First Crusade, the so-called “People’s Crusade”: weird, uncouth, seemingly funny at times, an incredibly murderous, violent collection of groups with an apocalyptic agenda.
When the First Crusade was summoned by Pope Urban II in November 1095, his intended audience was bishops, abbots, and lay lords—people who could summon and lead organized forces of armed pilgrims to conquer Jerusalem. The power of the message rapidly spread beyond papal edicts and letters, however, being taken up by roving preachers and the laity.
As Jay Rubenstein described it in his 2011 book Armies of Heaven, there developed in Northern Europe “a violent, apocalyptic, somewhat acephalous movement rooted in an expectation of the end times and of an imminent battle with Antichrist.” From there, “other preachers, pilgrims, prophets, zealots, and crackpots delivered sermons infused with their own particular apocalyptic and feral sensibilities.” To spread their message, those varied preachers and crackpots drew on signs that may or may not have existed—there are records in the chronicle of Ekkehard of Aura of “a priest of honorable life named Siggerius [who] witnessed two horsemen charging through the skies and for a long time doing battle against one another,” and another who “saw a sword of wondrous length that a whirlwind seemed to be waving about” that flew into the heavens. He goes on to write about stigmata of crosses stamped on people’s brows, a list of bizarre births, and other signs that led “every creature [to join] his Creator’s army, but the enemy—ever alert while others sleep—lost no time in raising up pseudo-prophets.”
And this bit is where the links between QAnon and the People’s Crusade become clear. It is not that QAnon is alone in its murderous ideology—indeed, most of QAnon’s ideas are recycled from a range of other conspiracies and Christian apocalyptic narrative. Some of its goals and parts of its worldview are the warped and bizarre internet versions of pre-existing ideas, such as anti-government armed militia movements, white supremacist ideas drawn from the Turner Diaries, and of course the Trump plot to overturn the election. QAnon has not only become “a violent, apocalyptic, somewhat acephalous movement rooted in an expectation of the end times”—and even a cursory reading of QAnon sites and reports shows how deeply rooted those ideas are—but has given other zealots and crackpots a forum for disseminating their ideas, with results that range in scope.
Some of the more laughable images from the QAnon presence in Dallas have been of Protzman with a bird on his shoulder, showing the long single file of Q adherents a nonexistent Illuminati (an organization that doesn’t exist) pyramid on the Book Depository. False prophets with bizarre birds are not new. In the People’s Crusade, one of the episodes that monastic chroniclers repeatedly mock were preachers following animals. Albert of Aachen wrote of a “gathering of people on foot, who were stupid and insanely irresponsible,” who claimed “that a certain goose was inspired by the Holy Ghost, and a she-goat filled no less with the same, and they had made these their leaders for this holy journey to Jerusalem.” Ekkehard of Aura wrote it as “the silly tale about the goose who is supposed to have led her mistress and many others of that sort.” It was very easy for Christian monastic authors to make fun of it, safe in their monasteries and not dealing with the consequences. Another version of the tale, though, starts similarly but ends in tragedy. In the chronicle of Solomon bar Simson, a twelfth-century edited collection of Jewish historical accounts, we find that that, “One day a Gentile woman came, bringing a goose which she had raised since it was a newborn. The goose would accompany her wherever she went. The Gentile woman now called out to all the passersby: ‘Look, the goose understands my intention to go straying and desires to accompany me.’” Despite this, groups gathered and used this so-called “wonder” to threaten the Jewish community of Mainz, that the magic goose was a “signal that they should exact vengeance from their enemies.” The crusaders and the townsfolk fought, until a crusader was slain, at which point the group called out, “The Jews have caused this,” and both groups joined forces to attack the Jewish community.
Protzman has some 97,000 followers on Telegram, and while the number of Q types gathered in Dallas has dropped from 350-500 in the first few days to perhaps 75-100 now, more than a week after the original promised deadline for JFK’s reappearance, they are still there with him. Protzman seems to believe that JFK and Jackie Kennedy were the second physical incarnations of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and direct descendants in a genealogy so bizarre not even Dan Brown would touch it, with JFK Jr. as the Archangel Michael and Donald Trump as the Holy Spirit. And while all of this is outrageous and unhinged, he is apparently pushing anti-Semitic films and ideas—Europa: The Last Battle and Adolf Hitler: The Greatest Story Never Told—and leading his followers into ideologies ever more divorced from reality. QAnon is already based in part on medieval blood libel myths, used by Christians to justify massacres of Jewish communities. Protzman’s group is spreading even more direct versions while waiting for the sign for their own crusade, bolstered by apocalyptic visions, the reemergence of dead celebrities to cheer them on, and inevitably the violence and massacres that must follow to create their Promised Land over the bodies of their enemies.
The longer they stay, though, the worse it gets. According to a new report in Vice, the people remaining with Protzman have handed over money, are having their communications monitored, and, according to family members, are “being forced to drink a hydrogen peroxide solution and take ‘bio pellets’ to ward off COVID-19 and stay healthy.” And the fear now is less that this particular band will turn to external violence—though that should never be underestimated—so much as they will end up a Heaven’s Gate or, worse, a Jonestown. On Saturday in a live chat, a follower suggested that they would have to die in order to “witness the truth.” Some of them may have gone to visit the site of the Mount Carmel compound of the Branch Davidians that afternoon. On Sunday, the Negative48 channel on Telegram was saying,
Tomorrow is a day that we are reversing the curse the CABAL tried to destroy us with and here we are…..turning the tables on them! THE BEST IS YET TO COME!
The Dallas QAnon crowd that follows Protzman may be just a small splinter sect of a large cult—but their activities continue, their followers get more radicalized, and most of a month later, they are still in Dallas.
So as the rest of us prepare to share Thanksgiving meals with family and friends, at home, spare a moment for the families whose loved ones have been subsumed by this cult, creating misery that will end no one knows how.