A group of hippie circus performers on a converted bus named Buttercup were briefly detained by a SWAT team at a Downtown protest. The next day, Columbus police stoked fears over rioting in social media posts about the bus that went viral, eventually reaching Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

+Several years ago, Stephen Palmer went to see Ohio jam band the Werks with a friend who liked to spin mini hula hoops. While hanging out after the concert, his friend taught him a few things with the hoops, and ever since, Palmer has been hooked on the Flow Arts.

Think of a circus act without the aerobatics or the animals, and you’re pretty close to Flow Arts, an umbrella term for a type of street performance that usually involves juggling and spinning flaming objects. “I like juggling rings, juggling balls, spinning plates. I like the more whimsical stuff that not a lot of people like to play with. It makes you more unique,” said Palmer, who moved to Columbus from Richmond, Indiana, in 2017. “All of those props you can make yourself or buy online, and you use a little fuel and some Kevlar wicking to make the wicks. Then you can light your props on fire and it looks really cool.”

In 2012, Palmer attended a Flow Arts retreat called Kinetic Fire, which used to be held in southwest Ohio. At these events, he didn’t just learn how to juggle. He found a community.

One year at Kinetic Fire he met Marisa “Reese” Digati and her partner, Jonathan “Bearpaw” Crane. The couple has a school bus they converted into their home, like a DIY RV. These modified buses are known as “skoolies,” and there are forum-filled websites devoted to bus conversion plans. Skoolies are often registered with license plates from Vermont, since it’s the easiest state in which to title a converted bus. Pinterest is full of skoolies. Digati and Crane named theirs Buttercup.   

It’s a crazy-looking bus, with drawings of trees and animals and fantastical creatures in an acid-trip color scheme of green, blue and pink. An exhaust pipe from a wood-burning stove pokes out from one of the front windows. Words written next to the bus door express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement: “Stop ‘legal’ Murder”; “#BLM #ACAB”; “All we want is peace.”

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According to Palmer and another friend, Maggie Dean, Buttercup has made its home in Columbus for the last year or so. (Digati declined to be interviewed for this story citing legal concerns.) In late May, during the first weekend of Columbus protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Palmer and his friends made Buttercup their Downtown home base.

“There’s a whole subculture of safety [in the Flow Arts],” Palmer said. “People at these events sometimes will do what's called fire eating, and they can get some respiratory issues, so we have inhalers and some simple first aid stuff for people that might injure themselves. At one point I had a first aid certification.”

That first weekend, Palmer, Dean and others said Buttercup served as a makeshift resource center and medic station. Amid the demonstrations, the group of friends picked up trash and broken glass and offered food, water and basic first aid to protesters. In one brief video from the Downtown protests that weekend, a man standing outside Buttercup calls out to passersby: “Hey, if anyone gets pepper sprayed or anything, find the bus!”

On Sunday, May 31, Palmer put some food, water and first aid supplies in a backpack and headed down to the protests in his Honda CRV, parking near Buttercup. “All day people were checking in, getting hydrated, having conversations and generally participating in the protest. Not a single officer gave us a second glance,” he said. It was a peaceful day of protests until later in the evening, when police began clearing protesters out of the area with tear gas and rubber and wooden projectiles. The scene became chaotic.

As everyone dispersed, Palmer moved his car and began looking for his friend Cody Coggins, a local bartender and Flow Arts event organizer. Coggins needed a ride home from Palmer, and the two agreed to meet up back at the bus, which was parked in a small, open-air lot on Broad Street across from the Statehouse, between High and Third streets. It was after 8 p.m. but well before the 10 p.m. curfew.

According to Palmer and Coggins, the small group of friends, plus an extra protester they picked up along the way, waited for the crowd to disperse and then began to pull the bus out of the parking lot. A nearby police officer stopped them briefly and told them to head to Third Street and leave Downtown. But as Buttercup approached the intersection of Broad and Third streets, police cruisers pulled up with flashing lights and sirens, along with a black SWAT vehicle carrying officers in camouflage and riot gear.

Robert Crane, who was attending the protests as part of Food Not Bombs, happened to be across the street watching the scene with police play out, and his description of the events corroborates the matching stories of Palmer and Coggins. “[The bus] didn't storm out. Other vehicles had actually passed before them and, with the police direction, they proceeded south down Third. They were trying to immediately follow the couple other cars that had done so,” Crane said. “However, this bus, as soon as it left that parking lot, two Columbus police cruisers sped up to it, forcing it to stop in the middle of the road.”

Kaylee Oiler, one of Palmer’s friends on the bus, got out her phone and filmed the next eight minutes with a Facebook Live video. “Oh, my God. Don’t hurt us,” Oiler says from the back of the bus while looking out the window at police surrounding the vehicle (Oiler declined to be interviewed, citing threats she has received since the incident). Digati can be heard asking the police how to comply: “Should I back up? What should I do here? … I’m just trying to leave." 

“We were terrified and confused, because we were literally just complying with the orders [to leave Downtown],” Palmer said.

While the group of friends stood in the bus with their hands up, police had each person leave the bus one at a time with their hands up, then sit on the sidewalk with their hands behind their back. “The [officer] who took my name, I didn’t want to give him my Social Security number, because he’s writing it down in a notepad,” Palmer said. “I was like, ‘What are you gonna do with that notepad?’ He goes, ‘It’s OK, I tear it up every time.’ So I was like, ‘Will you tell me your name?’ He said, ‘No.’ … He had a yellow piece of tape over his badge. All of them covered up their badges and none of them would give us their names.”

Police checked the bus occupants’ IDs and detained them without handcuffs or zip ties for about 45 minutes, then let them go. “They said, ‘Nothing's going to happen to you guys. You guys are fine. You just have to leave Downtown,’” Palmer said. “And then they gave Reese a citation for blocking the road.”

“The biggest falsehood of it all is that they were being charged with obstruction of traffic,” Robert Crane said. “You cannot be obstructing traffic if it's the police that asked you to stop.”

Alive's Columbus Division of Police public records request regarding the incident was denied, citing ongoing investigatory work. On Friday, a division spokesperson refrained from answering a list of questions and referred requests for comment to the FBI, which she said is now investigating the case.

The bus was searched and impounded, but the next day Crane and Digati retrieved Buttercup from the impound lot. The whole situation had been scary and bewildering, but they had their home back. It seemed to be over.

Then Columbus police posted about the bus on social media.

***

As demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement gained nationwide momentum in late May, rumors began circulating about busloads of militant antifa fighters supposedly infiltrating towns across America. The same weekend Buttercup was impounded, the rumor spread to Upper Arlington. People believed it, and the rumor had staying power. Last weekend, in Washington state, a multi-racial family in a school bus was reportedly followed and harassed by multiple vehicles; community members even trapped the family by cutting down trees to block the road. A similar version of the rumor, this time focusing on Chillicothe, recently showed up on Facebook:

“Warning to those in Chillicothe, Ohio. Antifa has brought 2 busloads of protestors to Chillicothe. They are already here staying at a local hotel. ... Businesses have already begun boarding up their businesses. We have word that people are already spreading bricks around town for the mayheim [sic]. It's also being reported that they are planning on hitting more rural areas and will kill farmers and livestock along the way." 

The rumor was a baseless hoax, part of a since-debunked misinformation campaign that can be traced, at least in part, to a tweet by a fake antifa Twitter account that Twitter has said was created by white nationalist group Identity Evropa. Still, localized versions of the rumor have persisted, and each time, the gossip involves antifa fighters coming to town by the busload.

On Monday, June 1, the day after police stopped Buttercup, Columbus police posted a photo of the bus on social media and gave its own account of the incident: “This bus was stopped yesterday at Broad St. & 3rd due for obstruction of traffic. There was a suspicion of supplying riot equipment to rioters. Detectives followed up with a vehicle search today and found numerous items: bats, rocks, meat cleavers, axes, clubs and other projectiles. Charges are pending as the investigation continues.”

Word spread quickly. Angry commenters railed against antifa rioters funded by George Soros. They zoomed in on the word "murder" painted on the bus (conveniently overlooking the words "stop 'legal'" that precede it). As of today, the post has nearly 4,000 comments and has been shared more than 18,000 times. On Twitter, CPD’s tweet has been retweeted nearly 14,000 times. “Here ya go doubters...this bus was bringing riot tools to protests in Columbus. Columbus police caught them. Good,” reads one response tweet. “Militant marxist antifa members must be arrested and punished wherever they are,” reads another.

Even Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther got in on the action, tweeting, “The limited arrests to this point do not reflect the significant safety concerns we have for the city. I would point to the recovery of a bus registered in Vermont filled with bats, rocks, meat cleavers and axes on Sunday night.”

Eventually, the tweet made its way to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who tweeted, “Police in Ohio found a bus near protests filled with bats, rocks & other weapons. But I guess still ‘no evidence’ of an organized effort to inject violence & anarchy into the protests right?”

Making matters worse, ABC-6 ran a story with the headline “City attorney details arrests during protests in Columbus” and paired it with a photo of Palmer, Coggins and their friends being detained in front of the bus, leading some to believe the occupants were arrested for rioting. (ABC has since switched the photo.)

Digati and Oiler tried to set the record straight in the comment section of CPD’s Facebook post, letting people know they weren’t rioting, weren’t supplying rioters, and were there simply to lend aid at the protest. “Hey everyone! This is my bus,” Digati posted. "We were at the protest handing out water and washing mace off of people's faces. If you have any questions, please feel free to talk to me. This bus is my home and I often use it as a supply vehicle. We were peaceful the entire time. The ‘weapons’ that were found are tools. Axes for my wood stove, knives for cooking, etc. … The ‘riot gear’ was literally a child's shoulder pads, elbow, and knee pads for sports.”

Some commenters tried to come to their defense. “There's people that don't even know us that are like, ‘This is obviously dumb, guys. These are some hippies on a bus,’” Palmer said. “And that's 100 percent what we are.”

“Yeah, there's a hatchet on the bus — with a bunch of wood sitting next to a wood-burning stove. Well, duh. The rocks were crystals and fossils. They emptied out a knife block [from the kitchen area] and said they found a meat cleaver,” Coggins said.

And the clubs? Juggling clubs.

Palmer and Coggins said their friends have been repeatedly harassed in the aftermath of CPD’s post, but Palmer said the worst part of the entire ordeal has been the way in which the event has been twisted to distract from the entire reason the Buttercup crew was at the protest in the first place.

“[The police] want to use our participation — which was only out of love, only out of wanting to help the movement — and use it to hurt the movement. That's what hurts us the most,” Palmer said. “You can detain me. It's fine. I'm not hurt or anything. But it really does a disservice to say that there are people [rioting] like this when you have no proof. It's discrediting an entire movement for no reason.”