On Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, Richard Spencer was in Washington, D.C. wearing a lapel pin of a cartoon frog called Pepe.   Spencer, a white nationalist, was explaining the significance of the frog to a group of reporters when someone punched him in the face.    The video went viral.

“I saw it and I’m like, ‘really, people are being offended over a frog?’ That is a little bit ridiculous,” said 23-year-old James Leavitt of Weymouth.   
That online moment led to a real life one last weekend when Leavitt showed up on the Boston Common – in the name of free speech.   He was wearing a Trump football jersey and, as he made his way toward a security checkpoint, a crowd of counter protestors heckled him, calling him, among other things, a Nazi.

Like many of the mostly young, mostly male protesters here for the free speech rally, Pepe the Frog is part of his online life.  

“You see a bunch of memes on Facebook and I like funny memes,” said Leavitt.  “It’s a frog.    bottom line it’s a frog.”

Pepe the frog started as a mainstream comic, but has become the mascot of an alt-right online fantasy world called Kekistan.  It exists on the fringe of the internet, but Kekistan is well known to people on all sides of the free speech debate.

“Yeah, Kekistan,” said one 32-year-old rally-goer, who asked to be identified only as ‘Frank’.   “Kids that play Dungeons and Dragons in their parent’s basement created this world.”

He said the message reflects a spectrum of alt right ideas.

“Some of them are racists, some of them are white supremacists, some of them don’t like immigration,” said Frank, “and some of them don’t like the trade policy.”   

Kekistan and Pepe the Frog gained steam in tandem with Trump’s campaign.  Pepe memes are often created to look like Trump and, during the campaign, he retweeted one of them.  Keks, as they call themselves, admire Trump and take aim at identity politics

“It is a play on Zionism and White Nationalism at the same time,” said Rob Meegan, one of the rally organizers, “because they’ve built this fantasy world where their country is in the Middle East and their flag kind of looks like the Nazi flag and it kind of doesn’t.” 

The colors are different, the Kekistan flag is green and black, but its design mimics the Nazi flag.  Protestors carried Kekistan flags to the Boston Common last May for another for a mostly under-the radar free speech rally.  Mathew Ricci of Warwick Rhode Island had one draped around his shoulders.

“It symbolizes Generation Z and disenfranchised millennials who feel they don’t have a legitimate political outlet anymore,” said Ricci.

Organizers of last weekend’s rally said, given the tension around the event, participants were told to leave their flags home.   But waving flags, or even being overwhelmed by counter protesters, may be less important than what happens online.

“For most of us adults in the room, you look at it and say this is sheer lunacy.  But there’s a method behind the madness,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who runs the digital terrorism and hate project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.  

Cooper said Kekistan may appeal to some young people who are simply curious about a cartoon frog or rebelling against the status quo.   Others, he says, will be influenced by more radical and hateful posts.

“No one’s looking here for mass movement, they’re looking to build recruits,” said Cooper,” and you now have a new generation of far-right extremists.”