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Extremists tried to crash Arizona abortion rights rally, got arrested instead

A group of far-right extremists with ties to white nationalists tried to counter-protest an abortion rights rally held at the Arizona Capitol Tuesday night, where they were vastly outnumbered and one was arrested for violently attacking a demonstrator. 

Michael Merritt Graham, 34, was arrested by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and booked for suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct after state troopers witnessed him punch another person at the rally. 

Graham, who was wearing a shirt with the slogan “Baby Lives Matter” from the disinformation website InfoWars, was carrying a .45 caliber Glock 36 pistol when he was arrested, according to a police report obtained by the Arizona Mirror. Graham was not the only counter-protester who was armed: The Mirror observed other counter-protesters openly carrying firearms. Graham had his handgun tucked into his waistband out of view, according to the police report.

Graham was among roughly 20 counter-protesters who showed up to the event where over one thousand protesters marched in support of abortion rights in the wake of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark court decision of Roe v. Wade and strip the right of women to seek an abortion that was established nearly 50 years ago.

Graham was joined by Ethan Schmidt, an anti-LGBTQ extremist and provocateur, known mostly for stunts challenging mask mandates and for “hunting” what he deems “LGBT pedophiles.” Hours before Graham was arrested, Schmidt walked straight into the crowd of protesters as he was recording video in an apparent attempt to spark a confrontation. 

Near the end of the evening, Schmidt and Graham confronted protesters with bullhorns. 

According to the police report, Graham got into a physical altercation with a protester. The incident began when Graham ripped the protester’s sign out of his hands and threw it to the ground. The victim then stepped in front of his girlfriend and grabbed Graham’s bullhorn before leaning down to pick up the sign. 

Graham responded by hitting the man in his face, bloodying him.

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Graham then started to leave the crowd and encountered Jace Robert Denis, 20, another protester. Troopers wrote that they saw Graham hit Denis, who described it as a “sucker punch.” 

Denis began running after Graham “in an aggressive manner” and DPS arrested him, booking him for suspicion of disorderly conduct. 

Denis told troopers that Graham had punched “another male” twice and “started walking towards a black female.” Denis ran towards Graham to get in between him and the woman yelling “don’t” before Graham threw the punch, Denis told troopers.

But DPS didn’t just put Graham and Denis in cuffs that night. 

Schmidt was also detained by state troopers; he was later released without being charged. 

Schmidt, who is currently awaiting sentencing on an extreme DUI in Chandler, was far from the only far-right extremist present among the counter-protesters. 

In attendance were also members of the group American Populist Union, which is closely aligned with groypers, a group of white nationalists who strive for their ideas to become a part of the Republican mainstream and are largely followers of 23-year-old white nationalist Nick Fuentes

And Kyle Clifton, a Fuentes acolyte with ties to APU, was also among the counter-protesters. 

Clifton was behind an account on Instagram called “afu.arizona” which posted white nationalist messaging, touted the “great replacement” theory and antisemitic images.  

Antisemitism was present among the counterprotesters with some spewing rants about “freemasonry” when debating with abortion rights activists. Many of the Freemason conspiracy theories are rooted in antisemitism and can be traced back to an antisemitic hoax from more than a century ago

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Clifton arrived with a group of Kari Lake campaign staff members who were part of the counter-protest, where they also handed out Kari Lake campaign signs. Among them was Matthew Martinez, Lake’s field manager, who was said to have been disciplined by the campaign for infiltrating leftist ASU groups

“The Lake campaign did not organize the counter-protest,” Sam Stone, the policy director for Lake’s campaign, told the Mirror. “Everyone was kind of showing up at the same time.”

Stone said that no one associated with the campaign was aware of who Clifton was. He added that the counter-protest falls within the realm of “field activity,” and that many conservatives consider Lake to be the “candidate for them” when asked about the signs at the event. 

DPS may also be getting a call from the Lake campaign, Stone said: One of the Lake staffers allegedly was spit on by an abortion rights activist. 

“I tend to believe that you settle these things at the ballot box, but I tend to believe that fits the description of assault,” Stone said, adding that they may send the video they have to DPS.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy/Arizona Mirror

Anti-LGBTQ extremist Ethan Schmidt (left) and Michael Meritt Graham (right) use bullhorns to shout at abortion rights protesters at a rally at the state Capitol on May 3, 2022. Graham was arrested after punching abortion rights protesters; Schmidt was detained by state troopers but was later released without being charged.

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