They joked and cheered as they boarded the darkened bus in Newton. Some lugged coolers, others snapped selfies.
As the bus eased onto the highway toward Washington, D.C., a man with a thick red beard greeted the giddy passengers. “Say it with me,” he bellowed into a microphone, like a tour guide rallying new customers. “Super Happy Fun America!”
In a day’s time, some on board would decide to join a throng surging toward the Capitol and the violent insurrection erupting there. At least two would be arrested and charged with breaching the building. But all that was still to come. For now, the riders were calm. Cynthia Maloney, a doula from Watertown who was on the bus, described “people talking, singing ... it was super happy fun people on the bus.”
That is how the group likes to present itself.
Super Happy Fun America, a Massachusetts organization that has staged protests at the State House, hosted the so-called Straight Pride Parade in Boston, and then, as Congress prepared to certify the election of Joe Biden, chartered five buses to ferry anyone with $75 to Washington, had long painted itself as an advocacy organization with a whimsical side — and a yellow smiley face as its logo. But researchers who study the far right and have tracked Super Happy Fun America’s rise say the group’s jocular exterior hides a disturbing truth: For some, it serves as a gateway into the far right, offering people a socially acceptable entry point into extremism.
The group’s lionization of traditional gender roles and its stream of jokey press releases with made-up claims — announcing, for example, that Brad Pitt would be a mascot of its Straight Pride Parade or that a new SHFA orchestra would celebrate straight contributions to music — have helped normalize radical ideas, these experts say.
“There are mainstream Trump supporters on one side of the far right, and there are explicit Neo-Nazis and white nationalists on the other side,” said Ben Lorber, a research analyst with the progressive think tank Political Research Associates. “Super Happy Fun America is one of these groups that’s perfectly built to allow those two sides to come together.”
The group’s leaders said that the group is conservative but has nothing to do with the far right, and denied that it provides an entry into extremism.
“We fight to preserve our Constitution. We’re opposed to the gender madness movement. And we defend our country against the cultural marxist movement,” said John Hugo, Super Happy Fun America’s president, in an interview with the Globe. He added that it was “super anti-Nazi.”
Shelby Lum and Anush Elbakyan/Globe Staff
The organization is a registered nonprofit with a meme-packed website, which as of this week was not functioning. But aside from three leadership positions listed on state paperwork, its internal workings seem to operate loosely.
“It started off very informal, but we started creating formal memberships. We ask that people make a donation to our nonprofit civil rights organization,” said Brandon Navom of Lowell, the bearded man on the bus, in an interview.
Still, Super Happy Fun America was sufficiently organized to make a name staging flashy events that drew media attention. At actions like the Straight Pride Parade in 2019 and a series of rallies against coronavirus restrictions last year, organizers portrayed themselves as the oppressed victims of an unfair system dominated by the left.
The goal was never to raise money or achieve specific policy changes, experts said. It was instead to garner publicity — which makes it difficult to gauge the organization’s actual influence.
“Part of the point is to generate media attention, create a media spectacle, piss off all of the liberals to protest,” said Lorber. “Even if there’s only a small number of folks who actually come out ... there’s potentially a larger number of folks who hear about it on the media and are supportive without coming.”
Super Happy Fun America was the latest in a series of groups led by the same circle of people; their earlier groupings seemed to disband when media coverage became too negative or revealed links to white supremacists. Starting in 2017 with the Boston Free Speech rally and extending through the bus ride to the Capitol, a few active participants stand out.
They include Mark Sahady, 46, a Malden Army veteran who was arrested after the riot and served as the group’s vice president; Samson Racioppi, 39, a Salisbury law student who is listed as the group’s treasurer and was also in D.C. on the day of the insurrection; and Brandon Navom, 40.
Others became core organizers later, like Hugo, 57, a former taxi dispatcher from Woburn who is Super Happy Fun America’s president, and Suzanne Ianni, 59, a Natick Town Meeting member who was among those arrested for allegedly breaching the Capitol but appears to have become involved in Super Happy Fun America only last year.
Sahady and Racioppi declined to comment for this article. In a statement to the Globe, Ianni defended Super Happy Fun America but did not address her arrest.
The seeds of what would become Super Happy Fun America began germinating on the Boston Common in August 2017.
The nation was on edge. Just a week earlier, hundreds of white people wielding torches and Confederate flags had marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va. The terrifying images were compounded by President Trump’s claim afterward that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
As the country reeled over Charlottesville and Trump’s response, a small group in Boston was planning a “free speech rally” for the very next weekend. An organizer later explained he had postponed it “in order to not conflict with the Unite the Right Rally that was going to happen in Charlottesville.”
City officials and observers were alarmed: They feared another Charlottesville and resolved that there would be no such violence in Boston. And so on a humid Saturday, tens of thousands of counterprotesters mobilized to confront the rally’s participants, and denounce white supremacy and Nazism.
Separated from the masses by metal barricades, the few who came to support the rally huddled in the Parkman Bandstand. There were bullhorns but no amplifiers, so their words didn’t carry. And some elements of the program seemed like pure theater, such as when a pair of invited preachers dressed in long white robes sang “Cannabis is good for us and God wants us to have it” to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” — the Mary Poppins song.
Though counterprotesters deemed the event a failure, some attendees saw it differently. They glimpsed how a spectacle, scorned by thousands of people and covered hungrily by the media, could give a small group of far-right activists momentum.
Michael Lindskog, an organizer from Norton, said in a recorded panel discussion about the rally that “it was the most exciting day of my life.”
By the fall of 2017, the Boston Free Speech coalition joined a new, bigger group: Resist Marxism.
The August rally had furnished the fuel. Now organizers had fresh grievances, among them that the city had walled them off from the press and the counterprotesters. Navom, a software engineer and failed candidate for the Lowell City Council, filed a libel suit against Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Sahady, too, was galvanized.
“The free speech rally was my personal introduction to how the fake news media, politicians, and far-left activists slander patriotic Americans,” he wrote on his blog afterward. “I became an activist in order to join the fight to stop them.”
Resist Marxism was a loose coalition of groups, founded by a notorious right-wing agitator named Kyle Chapman. Chapman had gained infamy after he was filmed smashing a wooden post over the head of an antifascist protester in California in 2017.
They followed the playbook of the so-called alt-lite, a label given to a loosely connected movement that publicly disavows white supremacy while embracing xenophobia and misogyny. Some of Resist Marxism’s terms were dog whistles, said Christopher Magyarics of the Anti-Defamation League, including “cultural marxism,” a longstanding trope that casts Jews as shadowy enemies conniving to uproot society. At the group’s first event, a rally on Boston Common in November 2017, Chapman wore an “It’s OK to be white” T-shirt. The group also promoted “the right of Americans to enforce our borders.”
But its participants claimed they had nothing to do with hate.
“Those accusing us of spreading hate do so because they want us to hate each other,” Resist Marxism said in a November 2017 press release in advance of the rally. “The accusation that we give a platform to hate is equally baseless.”
“Essentially, they troll, they play coy with what they’re really after,” said Christian Exoo, an antifascist researcher who has investigated and infiltrated far-right groups in the Northeast online since 2016. “That’s exactly why we infiltrate these groups, to catch them when no one’s watching.”
Symbols of extremism and hate at Super Happy Fun America events
Members of the group Super Happy Fun America claim they want nothing to do with the far right or fascist hate groups. But at numerous events organized by the Boston-based group, protesters can be seen displaying symbols and logos associated with groups that promote extremism, violence, intolerance, and hate, sometimes alongside prominent members of Super Happy Fun America.
Milo Yiannopoulos, grand marshal of Super Happy Fun America’s Straight Pride Parade in Boston, made the OK hand gesture from a float in 2019. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
OK hand gesture
The OK hand gesture dates back to the 17th century as a common signal for well-being. In 2017, members of the 4chan message board began to falsely promote the gesture as a hate symbol, claiming it represented the letters “wp” for “white power.” It’s popularity grew to the point that by 2019, some people began using the symbol as a sincere far-right expression. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
A man identified as Anthony Petruccelli of Lynn, a member of the Nationalist Social Club, displayed a Nazi War Eagle tattoo on his calf at a pro-police and Trump rally organized by Super Happy Fun America in June 2020 outside the State House in Boston. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)
The Nazi Eagle, or Nazi War Eagle, is a symbol originally created by the Nazi Party in 1920s Germany. After World War II, the symbol was appropriated by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
A man wearing a Pepe the Frog mask held up a Resist Marxism banner at a rally hosted by the group outside the Massachusetts State House in 2018. (Johnathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Pepe the Frog
Pepe the Frog is an Internet meme frequently appropriated into racist memes and imagery on online message boards such as 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. While the character’s origins are not rooted in racist or anti-Semitic messaging, a growing alt-right movement has adopted the character as a central figure in racist and anti-Semitic memes. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
Protestors wearing Nationalist Social Club shirts held a Black Sun flag at the Restore Sanity rally hosted by Super Happy Fun America in June 2020 in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)
Black Sun and Nationalist Social Club
The Black Sun, or sonnenrad, is an ancient European symbol appropriated by Nazi Germany. The symbol, which has numerous variations, has been adopted by neo-Nazis and other modern white supremacists. The National Social Club is a neo-Nazi group comprised of regional chapters across the United States and abroad. The group was originally formed as the New England Nationalists Club in 2019 in Eastern Massachusetts. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
At the Peaceful Protest Against Democrat Violence in October 2020, an individual wearing a hat with the American Guard logo was photographed next to Super Happy Fun America member Brandon Navom. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
The American Guard was formed in Indiana in 2016 and became a national organization in 2017. The group’s stated goal is “voluntary community protection, activism and service based around the ideals of American Constitutional Nationalism and the preservation of western culture.” Members of the group have connections to anti-immigrant extremism, hatred, violence. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
A member of the Super Happy Fun America Protest Against Democrat Violence in October 2020 waved a flag with a Three Percenters logo. Super Happy Fun America president John Hugo can be seen behind him wearing a tricorn hat. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)
Three Percenters is an anti-government militia movement dedicated to the idea of a small number of “patriots” protecting Americans from government tyranny. The group was part of a resurgence of the militia movement that began in 2008. During the Trump presidency, the group’s focus turned to opposing “antifa”, Muslims and immigrants. (Source: Anti-Defamation League)
In 2018, the progressive news outlet ThinkProgress published screenshots of what it said was a Resist Marxism group chat in which one participant envisioned Resist Marxism becoming a “true non optics Nazi organization,” apparently meaning it would be an out-in-the-open Nazi group. The conversation was littered with slurs against Jews. ThinkProgress also linked Resist Marxism to white supremacist groups in New England. Resist Marxism told reporters at the time that ThinkProgress’s assertions were “riddled with lies, mistakes, and spurious allegations of connections to the alt-right.”
A year later, someone leaked to the Huffington Post private chat logs in which people purporting to be Proud Boys discussed plans to attack leftist counterprotesters at an upcoming Resist Marxism rally in Providence. “The cops aren’t going to let us fight long,” one person wrote. “We need to inflict as much damage as possible in the time we have.”
Facing a trail of bad publicity, Resist Marxism could no longer fly under the radar as a traditional conservative group. At this point, the group disappeared, and a new group appeared, with many of the same organizers. It was called Super Happy Fun America.
“It’s a big Boggle game,” said Exoo. “Every once in a while, you shake up the pieces and they land differently and create new formations. But it’s mostly the same core organizers.”
Super Happy Fun America was led by Sahady and Racioppi, who were active with Resist Marxism, and Hugo, a Republican who had recently been backed by the organization in a losing campaign to represent the Fifth Congressional District.
The new group relied more strongly on the claim that they were just kidding, Exoo said. By mixing irony and parody with authentic transphobia and antigay fervor, the group created a protective chaos around their communications.
“There is such a mixture of ... outrageous claims that are clearly trolling and some that might actually be true or serious, it is difficult to distinguish,” said Gianluca Stringhini, a professor at Boston University who studies malicious activity on the internet.
The joking surface nature of the group’s outreach made it seem nonthreatening while attracting a broad range of supporters, according to Lorber, from those frustrated by “political correctness” to straight-up white supremacists.
Having successfully used perceived grievances to attract attention and broaden its audience in the past, the group now actively sought out rejection and capitalized on it. The group submitted an application to fly a straight pride flag at Boston City Hall and then filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination when the city declined. Super Happy Fun America’s organizers soon announced plans for a Straight Pride Parade in a manifesto that cited the city’s rejection. The parade plans went viral and generated intense controversy and, ultimately, international media attention.
With a spotlight on, the group painted its opponents as people who couldn’t take a joke.
“These extremely grumpy bigots collectively call themselves Antifa, which stands for Anti-fun, as they despise all fun and happiness,” Super Happy Fun America wrote on its website. “This serves as further proof of our sincerely held belief that Straight people are an oppressed majority.”
Once again, organizers got the spectacle they craved. At the August 2019 parade that wound from the Back Bay to downtown, thousands of protesters turned out in opposition.
If the notion of straight pride served as an effective way to hook the media and alienate outsiders at the same time, Super Happy Fun America organizers stumbled across a potentially even more potent lightning rod in the spring of 2020: coronavirus restrictions.
Such restrictions had struck a nerve with Ianni, a Natick Town Meeting member who occasionally wrote an opinion column in her local newspaper. She had been agitated for years about hot-button issues that also motivated Super Happy Fun America, writing in a 2019 letter to the editor that those who would benefit from gender-neutral driver’s licenses are “a subset of mentally ill people.”
But last spring, Ianni’s focus shifted to coronavirus restrictions. She wanted Governor Charlie Baker to let dog groomers resume work, she wrote in a letter, and she demonstrated in favor of churches continuing to gather large crowds.
As tensions over the pandemic restrictions grew, Super Happy Fun America offered an outlet for the grievances of Ianni and others like her. In May, a large crowd gathered outside the State House for a rally against such restrictions that featured Hugo. Ianni filmed the scene on her cellphone as Sahady, Racioppi, and Navom stood nearby.
“My fellow Americans, it is time to rise up. It is time for insurrection,” Hugo, wearing his signature tricorn hat, told the crowd. “All around our country we’ve seen governors ignoring legislatures, and even the Constitution of the United States, and ruling by decree.”
Minutes later, a man in the crowd yelled, “Storm the State House!”
Nothing like that happened, but the rhetoric was a harbinger of the unrest to come.
Despite leaders’ repeated claims that they had nothing to do with the far right, local neo-Nazis kept showing up to the group’s events. Neo-Nazis have been photographed at Super Happy Fun America events in 2019 and 2020, though the group’s leaders said they are not welcome.
“We get held responsible for every single person who we’ve ever taken a picture with, who’s ever come to our event,” said Navom in an interview. “We don’t ask that every person submit a full resume or bio before they come to our rally ... if anyone displays any hate symbols at our rally, they will be kicked out and forever banned.”
The Globe reported in July that Anthony Petruccelli, a Lynn man with a swastika tattooed on his calf, was at a June Super Happy Fun America rally at the State House, where a small group of men wore “Nationalist Social Club” T-shirts representing a neo-Nazi group. (Petruccelli now denies that he is the man photographed at that rally and says he does not remember if he attended.) Some flew a flag with a Nazi symbol; one wore a Confederate flag T-shirt. Super Happy Fun America called the event a “Restore Sanity” rally to support law enforcement and criticize Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
At that rally, organizers publicly denounced the white supremacists. It remains an uneasy relationship.
“They don’t want that negative attention that’s going to be associated with white supremacists,” said Magyarics of the ADL.
But all along, the group had offered a big tent, allowing far-right white supremacists and more mainstream conservatives to mingle at large public rallies. The Trump rally in Washington held a similar promise.
On Jan. 4, Sahady posted a tweet: “Jan 6- Washington DC- it begins.”
Two days later, Sahady and Ianni joined hundreds of others who broke into the Capitol building. The Super Happy Fun America buses returned to Newton that night. Both Sahady and Ianni are facing federal trespassing and disorderly conduct charges stemming from the Capitol riot.
Even with two prominent figures being prosecuted, Super Happy Fun America seems unlikely to disappear. The group never measured its success by the crowd size of its supporters; any audience, even an unfriendly one, could keep it going.
“It changes nothing. We move forward as an organization,” Super Happy Fun America tweeted on Inauguration Day. “You don’t get rid of us that easily. Have a nice day.”
- Reporters: Zoe Greenberg and Laura Crimaldi
- Editor: Steven Wilmsen
- Digital storytelling, design, and development: John Hancock
- Photo editing: Leanne Burden Seidel
- Video: Shelby Lum
- Video Director: Anush Elbakyan
- Copy editor: Mary Creane
- Quality assurance: Maureen Champagne
© Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC