How conservative figures turned a flimsy rumor about “concrete milkshakes” in Portland into a meme

Nobody is doubting that there was a physical confrontation. The details, however, remain murky.

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters 

Over the weekend, far-right and anti-fascist protesters clashed in downtown Portland, OR. Among the controversies was an attack carried out against Quillette editor Andy Ngo, caught on film by Oregonian reporter Jim Ryan. The June 29 footage shows black bloc demonstrators punching and kicking Ngo while others throw milkshakes at him. 

The trend of throwing milkshakes at far-right politicians and activists originated earlier this year in the United Kingdom, but has more recently made its way over to the United States. Supporters of the practice see it as a way to humiliate political opponents and make them fear public organizing. Critics correctly note that this is a form of battery but have also warned that this tactic could quickly escalate into more damaging, permanent attacks involving acid or other corrosive chemicals.

According to some on the far-right, their worst fears of such an escalation were realized during the attack on Ngo. In reality, there’s not any actual evidence of that -- and that’s a big problem.

A rumor takes off thanks to a vaguely worded tweet the Portland Police Bureau seemingly sent out of an abundance of caution.

One rumor coming out of the face-off was that some vegan milkshakes being handed out by antifa demonstrators contained cement or other harmful chemical substances. This rumor took on a sense of legitimacy when the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) tweeted that it had “received information that some of the milkshakes thrown today during the demonstration contained quick-drying cement.”

While there is plenty of video evidence of people throwing milkshakes, and members of the left-wing contingent were handing them out, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that the “quick-drying cement” rumor is anything more than that -- an unsubstantiated rumor.

Willamette Week writer Katie Shepherd reached out to the PPB for any additional information it had regarding “cement.” In response, the department again said that it “received information during the event that some people were mixing a concrete like substance into the milkshakes” and cited a police lieutenant’s on-site observation of a cup that “appeared to have material on it consistent with quick drying cement.”

As it turns out, this substance was likely just a coconut milkshake. At the Portland Mercury, Alex Zielinski wrote that the police had offered no proof that there was cement in the shakes and noted, “Several people ended up throwing their 12-ounce milkshakes at people associated with the alt-right and at PPB officers -- but most people consumed the coconut milk-based treats.” Zielinski went on to link to several Twitter posts of people who drank the shakes without their internal organs turning to stone.

Conservative journalists and commentators began running with the PPB’s tweet as confirmation that there was concrete mixed into the shakes when, of course, this was far from a statement of certainty.

Jack Posobiec, a One America News Network host and right-wing conspiracy theorist with links to white supremacist activists, was one of the most vocal proponents of this narrative. On Twitter, Posobiec mischaracterized the PPB’s alert, which only echoed its earlier claim that it had received an unconfirmed report that there could be substances in shakes. He described it as “Portland PD report on Antifa mixing concrete into milkshakes,” claiming that “this creates an acid-like chemical weapon.” He did the same regarding the information obtained from the PPB by Shepherd, framing it as “Portland PD share additional details about concrete chemical-laced milkshakes used by Antifa.”

Posobiec also used a photo to further the rumor, and photographer Shane Burley called him out for the misleading and unauthorized use.

Ian Miles Cheong, managing editor of conservative site Human Events, tweeted matter-of-factly, “Antifa mixed quick-drying concrete into the shakes. Called it the ‘Stonewall Shake’—a clever pun referencing both the ingredients of the secret recipe as well as the LGBT riots in 1969, NYC.” While Popular Mobilization, the group distributing the shakes, had indeed named the drink the Stonewall Shake “in honor of the 50th anniversary” of the LGBTQ protests, Cheong omitted the group’s tweet containing the actual recipe: coconut-based ice cream and cashew milk (plus rainbow sprinkles). In a separate tweet, Cheong elaborated, “The milkshakes were lined with quicklime/quick dry concrete mix and produce chemical burns, in addition to being heavy.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, and anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller similarly amplified this narrative. Right-wing commentator Matt Walsh took the “milkshake laced with cement mix” line at face value, distorting what the PPB said while also using the occasion to get in a dig at trans people. 

Fox News published a story to its website headlined “Antifa, conservative protests turn violent as demonstrators throw milkshakes of quick-dry cement at police and onlookers.” Mother Jones reporter Ali Breland noted that Fox later quietly edited its headline to remove the reference to the milkshakes without issuing a correction.

It should be easy for media figures to denounce exaggerations and the spread of flimsy rumors.

Early in the day, Ngo posted a tweet showing a white liquid splattered across his bag, and like many, I made a joke about it, saying that it looked like he’d been attacked by a small family of pigeons. Once the video of him being physically assaulted was posted later, I apologized for the joke, which by then seemed to be in poor taste, and unequivocally condemned the violence he faced -- which appeared to involve kicking, punching, and yes, throwing milkshakes. Condemning violence against journalists should be easy enough.

As the unsupported rumors about anti-fascist protesters weaponizing milkshakes with cement were increasingly presented as facts, even Ngo’s biggest fans and defenders should have been willing to come forward and call this out as irresponsible. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

Political violence is wrong, and so is the spread of unconfirmed or exaggerated accounts for the purpose of advancing a political cause. Doing so is not only intellectually dishonest, but it is sure to increase tensions at a time that demands de-escalation -- or we can all expect further clashes like those we just saw in Portland.