The call came unexpectedly on a day in early January.
Marion Rickenbacker, a sprightly girl with skunk-striped hair, was roaming Second Life’s bustling landscape – she likes its nature, shrines and dance clubs – when her friend Kuraxgo Nedkov texted her. There was a protest underway on Porcupine Island, since December the headquarters of the French far-right anti-immigration group Front National. Nedkov, an orange-haired girl dressed in a blue t-shirt emblazoned with an anti-FN logo, was at the border peering across. FN goons, recognizing her from previous demonstrations, had barred her from entering. But the goons didn’t know Rickenbacker, Nedkov argued. She could get involved. She should get involved. To the average denizen, Second Life is supposed to be a utopia, a place where people from all over the world can come together to talk, to create, to have fun – and most of all, to get along. In the minds of many, FN’s mere presence violated that shared conviction.
Since its 2002 creation, Second Life has been a refuge, playground and economic opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. From its humble beginning – just a few hundred pioneers on a handful of islands – Second Life has grown to literally hundreds of islands teeming with as many as 30,000 people at a time. More than 4 million have registered to visit the islands, which have all the trappings of the outside world: cars choke the roads, aircraft buzz overhead and residents spend a unique currency at thousands of businesses; sex clubs, classrooms and political forums are all hot scenes. But despite sharing all the same raw material of the troubled outside world, life at Second Life had remained relatively apolitical until National Front arrived. Sure, the Democratic Party had staged several press events at the U.S. Congress’ all-but-deserted Second Life extension, most recently in January to mark the party’s takeover of Congress; and the tiny Second Life Liberation Army anarchist group had, in August, bombed a seldom-frequented clothing store. But the loud, raucous mass politics of the outside world had yet to make major inroads on the islands.
“I never expected to get involved in politics in Second Life,” Rickenbacker says later, after she has recovered from what would happen that day. But on that January day, she recalled reading about FN on one of the digital world’s news services and felt compelled to do something about the growing influence of Second Life racist groups. Lately Front National had spawned many smaller white supremacy groups – and their muscular, pale (and overwhelmingly male) skinhead representatives were cropping up everywhere, slathering buildings with racist posters and intimidating the peaceful majority population of the Second Life islands. Rickenbacker joined Nedkov at the edge of FN’s stronghold. Over the boundary she could see a flurry of distant activity: throngs of people picketing … reinforcements arriving by air while others fled … a small army of FN thugs, some of them making aggressive moves towards the protestors.
“I borrowed a placard and stepped in. [My friend] Bacon Rolls came over too, and we both went in front of the FN building with our placards.”
It was towering, bleak gray edifice, a combined headquarters and recruitment center draped with an enormous banner sporting silhouetted figures raising a flag: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” the banner read in French. For Rickenbacker, who unlike many of the protestors was new to Second Life and had had no previous encounters with FN, the sight must have been terrifying.
Then she and Rolls were noticed.
“First I was attacked by a figure in [a] Darth Vader costume wielding a rather crude light saber, then Bacon and I were both rapidly ejected and hurled up into the air!”
Suspended over FN territory, newly banned from the area, what Rickenbacker saw below was “lag and confusion,” and a utopia lost.
Front National was founded in 1972 on a platform including restrictions on abortion, stipends for stay-at-home mothers, a return to traditional values and – perhaps most importantly – opposition to African and Middle Eastern immigration, especially by Muslims. Fiery Jean-Marie Le Pen was tapped as president, a seat he still occupies. Under Le Pen’s leadership, FN grew fairly steadily, surviving internal battles in the 1990s, lawsuits and challenges by other far-right groups. FN members have managed to win and hold a number of minor elected positions and, in recent presidential elections, Le Pen has scored a steady 17 percent of the popular vote. For decades, FN has been a leading voice in French far-right politics – and in 2005, it even went international, launching a pan-European alliance of nationalists called Euronat that includes Swedish, Spanish, Italian and Dutch groups, among others. In 2007, FN expanded into Second Life. It was here that the group encountered perhaps its fiercest opposition.
It took nearly a month for demonstrators against Front National to turn violent. In reaction to the December construction of that towering HQ/recruitment center and to escalating FN activities, a number of groups specifically branding themselves “FN opposition” had begun constantly deploying fresh contingents of protestors to places where FN was active, especially Porcupine Island. Sometimes the demonstrators would be repelled. Sometimes they would succeed in tearing down the racist group’s buildings and signs. Other times the sheer confusion and crowding would overwhelm the very fabric of Second Life’s reality … and protestors and FN thugs alike would find themselves moving, in slow motion, through a surreal landscape of anger and violence where the occasional body was slowly hurled through the air.
Who drew the first weapon is hard to say. But at least one group claims responsibility for introducing bombs and machine guns to the conflict. A representative of a four-man operation calling itself “The Horrors of Second Life” showed up at Porcupine Island with a small arsenal. Ghazghkull Kulkulcan, a short, squat, hairy man wearing only a diaper, wrote in his journal that the protest was peaceful when he arrived. He called it “boring.” “[So] I began handing out mini gun and rocket launch to the crowd of protesters, and was completely unsurprised when they turned them on Le Pen headquarters.” But barriers around the facility blocked the gunfire. “This simply bunched all the bullets at the land’s border, causing anyone who went near it to be blown into space.”
“Neighboring buildings and grids were getting caught in the crossfire, unexploded bombs littered the landscape, appeals for calm went unheeded,” Kulkulcan continued. “It was awesome!”
Thanks in part to this steady supply of arms, by January 14 the major FN sites had become full-blown battlegrounds between ideologically opposed armies whose methods were, frankly, indistinguishable. There were machine-gunnings and bombings and air raids. And word of these clashes spread lightning-fast to every corner of Second Life. Hamlet Au, an embedded journalist for New World Notes, trekked across the islands to see the action himself.
“The first night I arrived at the protest against the Second Life headquarters of Front National … it was ringed on all sides by protesters with signs to wave and statements to distribute. By the second night I came … the conflict had become more literal, for many residents had armed themselves. Multi-colored explosions and constant gunfire shredded the air of Porcupine.”
I manage to wade up to TonTonCarton Yue, who is strafing the FN building with a chain-gun usually associated with an AC-130 gunship …
“Can I ask,” I begin, “why are you shooting?”
“Because I hate Front National,” Yue tells me simply.
“If you use violence, doesn’t that reduce you to their level?”
“I don’t know,” Yue answers, after awhile. “I don’t care. FN equals violence.”
And having offered that axiom, he returns his aim to the enemy, and unleashes another barrage.
A tank – allegedly designed by The Horrors – rumbled across the island. Cages appeared to imprison combatants. Then the fighting escalated sharply when an aircraft that Au describes as a “flying saucer” appeared overhead lugging a bright pink pig into which had been stuffed a bomb – a brutal tactic echoing those practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the persistent Islamic insurgency in India. (As with the guns and the tank, The Horrors claimed responsibility for supplying the pigs and bombs.) The saucer lobbed the pig onto the FN building. It exploded in a messy cloud of pig parts. Meanwhile, the noise and color of combat had begun to attract spectators, including some who had no stake in the underlying political debate. They hurled random slurs at combatants from both sides.
Au had seen enough. He fled the battlefield, leaving behind him an orgy of violence.
Soon, FN was overwhelmed. “Vastly outnumbered and under-equipped, the [supporters] of Le Pen decided to bring in the cavalry,” Kulkulcan reported. “Or to put it another way, they called the police.”
But Second Life has no official police force; the uniformed officers that rolled up in black and white squad cars were actually FN goons in disguise, according to Kulkulcan. But not everyone knew that, and the “police” presence helped quell the violence. But by then, main FN building was in shambles, the group’s defenses having been overwhelmed by the protesters’ sheer numbers.
In the wake of the fighting, FN abandoned its Porcupine island headquarters and, on Jan. 16, quietly put down roots on Axel Island. By then the anti-FN demonstrators had divided into two main groups – Second Life Left Unity and Anti-FN – and subsequent protests of FN activities remained relatively peaceful. SLLU even built an “information center” among a serene copse of trees at the site of FN’s former Porcupine Island facility. Ichi Jaehun, a Raven-haired, masked girl who had braved the gunfire in January and was even photographed and interviewed by Au at one protest, soon found herself busy designing placards and signs for Anti-FN, which was staging demonstrations to counter the Front’s activities on Pinemont Island. Today she motivates herself with memories of seeing FN’s “dull-gray recruitment center” when it was first built in December.
Racist residents staged a few particularly offensive stunts in the days following FN’s defeat on Porcupine Island. These stunts were definitely not consistent with the spirit of open debate that most Second Life residents embrace. “The Nazi who turned up at the mosque today sporting his Le Pen t-shirt did not want to debate anything,” said one witness on January 16. “He was there to provoke a reaction. And he got one.” The perpetrator was “disappeared” from the islands – and few were sad to see him go.Mosque outrages aside, in the aftermath of Porcupine Island, it was possible for Second Life’s mainstream to be optimistic that peace and tolerance had returned to the islands. And on January 16 – Martin Luther King, Jr., Day for Americans – a glowing image of the slain civil rights leader rose high in the sky over the former battlefield. Sure enough, the next major political event in Second Life, a Jan. 27 protest against the Iraq war timed to coincide with a demonstration in Washington, D.C., drew more than a hundred peaceful activists, including at least one Iraqi living in exile in Jordan. Demonstrators converged with placards and slogan t-shirts. There was music and dancing, but no pig bombs, no guns, no hate.
But in the midst of the fighting on the island, FN officers had vowed to return even stronger than before. And sure enough, in February rumors spread that FN agents had infiltrated opposition groups including SLLU. A near-panic ensued. “How in the world would I know that’s your real purpose?” Unity member Hythlodaeus Uggla demanded when this reporter called to ask about his group’s activities. Uggla later apologized. “Most people are on the brink of paranoia due to the recent infiltrations.”
Other SLLU members were unapologetically hostile to queries. “I do not wish to discuss this,” Shango Shan said.
Today harassment by FN “brutes” continues, Jaehun reports, adding that FN is now “the center spot in Second Life for people associated with ethnocentric movements.”
Groups opposed to FN are building strength, perhaps preparing for another round of combat. Cynthia Ohara, who joined SLLU in February, displays the fervor typical of these new recruits, “The existence of such a group is disgraceful to humanity,” she proclaims.
Across Second Life’s lush, busy islands, there is a perhaps deceptive calm – the kind that precedes any storm.
This story was originally published in abbreviated form in Vice Magazine.