Since starting his channel three years ago, Beau of the Fifth Column has grown his YouTube audience to more than half a million subscribers, connecting with folks from all walks of life and political identities. It isn’t surprising given that he doesn’t shy away from most any topic, whether it’s his almost hourly updates about the Ukrainian-Russian conflict to more general sociopolitical topics like political polarization, the misappropriated words of George Orwell, or gun rights and law enforcement in the United States.
When you’re watching Beau of the Fifth Column, you know you’re not just watching to hear what you already know. You’re watching to see him illuminate a topic through his variety of experiences. You’re there for his voice.
Beau of the Fifth Column was our latest guest on Everywhere Radio. For this episode, Beau spoke with Xandr Brown, multimedia producer at the Daily Yonder. A portion of the conversation first aired as part of the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual festival that took place on May 10 and 11, 2022. We are pleased to now bring you the full conversation in podcast form.
Whether you’re already familiar with Beau’s channel or this is your first time hearing about it, we hope you enjoy listening.
Everywhere Radio is available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and more. You can listen to the latest episodes here or subscribe on your podcasting service of choice.
Check out the episode excerpts below for highlights of the conversation, and continue on to the full transcript if you’d like to read it all.
Beau of the Fifth Column Interview Highlights
On How He Started His Channel
“I was an independent journalist, and we realized that there was a lot of metaphorical gate-keeping in journalism. So there’s a story that says, ‘This General’s approaching this city, and he’s got a column coming from the north, south, east, and west. And a fifth column inside the city ready to open the gates.’ And that’s where the term came from. There were a whole bunch of us that used it in, I guess, 2015, 2016, in that range. And it just stuck with me.
“And then the channel itself started as a joke gone awry. I used to hide my accent. And one day we were celebrating a little too much, and the accent slipped out. And my colleagues were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re a redneck.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I am actually.’ And they convinced me, over time, to start making videos making fun of myself. The channel started as a joke, and then it grew. And I felt like I’d been handed the platform and felt like I should probably do something worthwhile with it.
On Bridging Current Political Divides
“Right now the country is incredibly polarized. It’s red versus blue, donkey versus elephant. It’s this giant fight, and there’s become a strong authoritarian streak. Generally speaking, people who look and sound the way that I do don’t hold my views. So as far as de-radicalization, there are a whole lot of people who will click on a video, something titled, ‘Let’s Talk About Armed Black Men,’ something like that, expecting to hear one thing from somebody who looks like me, and they get something else. And they get that other viewpoint, and I’m of the opinion that once they’ve heard it, they can’t un-hear it. So hopefully it, over time, takes the edge off. Because I do, I think we’re in a really bad way when it comes to a whole lot of people willing to use violence over debate and discussion.”
On the Role of Small Towns in Our Democracy
“It’s one of the reasons that I always end up moving back to small towns. In small towns to some degree, the government’s responsive because you’re going to see them at the gas station. There is a more responsive government. So the local populace is more engaged in participation because they can see the outcome and because the elected officials tend to be willing to at least talk about an issue. And for me, especially, when you’re looking at my content, you see that I’m constantly advocating for that at the community level type thing, even in larger cities, because eventually it snowballs.
“And as far as democracy in the US, the whole idea is advanced citizenship. You have to participate if you want it to work. And even with all of the limitations that it has and all of the lack of representation that some groups get, if you build strong enough communities and strong enough voting blocks that are looking out for each other, you can get some improvement, some relief, some something.”
On Being Called a Police Accountability Activist
“That’s an accurate description. One of my big hot buttons is the inappropriate use of force, visiting violence on somebody that didn’t need it, and a lot of that actually stems from the fact that I did, I used to teach cops, and there were a lot of situations in which I’m familiar with the policies, I know what they’re supposed to do in these situations and they don’t. They disregard not just company or department policy, but they disregard best practices as far as their own safety, as far as suspect safety, all of that stuff.
“I am a very strong critic of law enforcement. I have my own ideas as far as socially where law enforcement should be headed as well, and it’s not militarized. It’s consent based policing in all of this stuff, but that’s not the world we’re in. And while we’re in the world that exists and have the system that we have, I’m somebody who… I have a better view of what it is supposed to look like when certain situations arise. I can critique the situations a lot faster than other people.”
Xandr Brown, The Daily Yonder: Hello, everyone. Hi. I am here with Beau of the Fifth Column. Beau of the Fifth Column is part of an ever-growing host of commentary analysis channels that find platform on YouTube. Since starting his channel three years ago, Beau of the Fifth Column has grown a followership of over half a million subscribers, an audience comprised of folks from all walks of life and political identities.
This isn’t surprising given that he doesn’t shy away from many topics, from his almost hourly updates about the Ukrainian and Russian conflict to more sociopolitical topics like bridging the gap between the left and the middle, the misappropriated words of George Orwell, or what it’s like to be an armed black person in the United States. When you’re watching Beau of the Fifth Column, you know you’re not just watching to hear what you are know. You’re watching to see him illuminate a topic through his variety of experiences. You’re here for his voice.
Welcome to the Rural Assembly, Beau of the Fifth Column. We’re so happy to have you.
Beau of the Fifth Column: Well, thanks for having me. Thanks for having me.
DY: So just to start, can you tell us where you wiring in from today?
BTFC: I am in the middle of nowhere in north Florida. There is a stretch of nothing that exists between Tallahassee and Pensacola, and it’s north of the coast by 40, 50 miles. It’s nothing but pine trees. You’ve driven through it, but you haven’t stopped here.
DY: Nice, nice. And how would you describe what you do? I know I’ve given my introduction, but put yourself in your own context.
BTFC: I don’t know. I liked yours, very flattering. I don’t know. I wound up with the platform, and I try to use it to get people to become a little more in informed rather than inflamed, just try to get people to think a little bit more outside of what they normally do.
DY: And how would you categorize your commentary? Because there’s all kinds of commentary on YouTube.
BTFC: I guess mostly social and philosophical commentary, I guess. Over the last month it’s been mostly defense commentary, but under normal circumstances we hit a lot more social issues.
DY: Right. And can you outline for us what led you to your space that you occupy on YouTube? And would you mind starting with the history behind in the name that you chose for your channel?
BTFC: Sure, sure. So I was an independent journalist, and we realized that there was a lot of metaphorical gate-keeping in journalism. So there’s a story that says, “This General’s approaching this city, and he’s got a column coming from the north, south, east, and west. And a fifth column inside the city ready to open the gates.” And that’s where the term came from. There were a whole bunch of us that used it in, I guess, 2015, 2016, in that range. And it just stuck with me.
And then the channel itself started as a joke gone awry. I used to hide my accent. And one day we were celebrating a little too much, and the accent slipped out. And my colleagues were like, “Oh my God, you’re a redneck.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I am actually.” And they convinced me, over time, to start making videos making fun of myself. The channel started as a joke, and then it grew. And I felt like I’d been handed the platform and felt like I should probably do something worthwhile with it.
DY: Yeah, I would say so much of your content I would take very seriously, which I have, obviously. I want to start with the video that you title Let’s Talk About Me. And in that video, you touch on topics like de-radicalization, cancel culture, very serious themes. I’m interested to know how you feel these themes relate to your content and how, if it does at all, have anything to do with American democracy right now?
BTFC: Well, right now the country is incredibly polarized. It’s red versus blue, donkey versus elephant. It’s this giant fight, and there’s become a strong authoritarian streak. Generally speaking, people who look and sound the way that I do don’t hold my views. So as far as de-radicalization, there are a whole lot of people who will click on a video, something titled, Let’s Talk About Armed Black Men, something like that, expecting to hear one thing from somebody who looks like me, and they get something else. And they get that other viewpoint, and I’m of the opinion that once they’ve heard it, they can’t un-hear it. So hopefully it, over time, takes the edge off. Because I do, I think we’re in a really bad way when it comes to a whole lot of people willing to use violence over debate and discussion.
DY: Yes. And I guess to jump over a couple questions that I had, considering that you brought up the video about what it means to be armed and black in America. In 2018, that was just one of two videos that went viral that year. And I just wanted to ask, could you share with me the prep or, and I want to say the justification that you felt that you had to make a video, like what is it like to be a black person in America that year? What was going on?
BTFC: If I’m not mistaken, it’s been a while, but I think that was actually prompted by a question. I think somebody reached out and was like, “Hey, can you talk about this aspect of it? How can we do X, Y, and Z? Because we’re getting shot,” is basically what it boiled down to. And at first, I was like, “Okay, well, it can’t be that different.” And it took forever to put that video together because, initially, my first, being a white Southern guy where guns are everywhere, was like, “Well, you just need to make sure you do X, Y, and Z, and you’ll be fine.”
And then I started thinking about it. I’m like, “No. No, you won’t be. If they did the same thing that a white Southern male did, they very well might get shot.” And walking through that process, and most of it was, I want to say, it was a guy who wanted to do a community defense group, a group within his community that just filled in because the cops didn’t show up and stuff like that. And once I got the question and once I started thinking about it, I actually reached out to other people who had security backgrounds, military backgrounds, and asked them. And it turned into a group project, in a way.
And the response I got from it was mainly… I don’t even know if the advice that I gave was really that important. I think for a lot of the people who wanted to know that, I actually think it just felt better to have somebody acknowledge, “No, it’s not actually the same. No matter what you read in the Second Amendment groups online, it isn’t the same. You’re going to run into other issues.”
DY: I think in that video, I remember you talking about, whether it was yourself or somebody else, that the small town factor was something that would protect someone of your demographic, probably more often, than it would somebody that look like me. And so I’m wondering if you can speak to that. I don’t know if your background is particularly small town, but how does that color your understanding of not just this aspect of democracy, the right to bear arms, but other aspects as well?
BTFC: Well, one of the, and it’s-
DY: But other aspects as well.
BTFC: Well, and it’s one of the reasons that I always end up moving back to small towns. In small towns to some degree, the government’s responsive because you’re going to see them at the gas station. There is a more responsive government. So the local populace is more engaged in participation because they can see the outcome and because the elected officials tend to be willing to at least talk about an issue. And for me, especially, when you’re looking at my content, you see that I’m constantly advocating for that at the community level type thing, even in larger cities, because eventually it snowballs.
And as far as democracy in the US, the whole idea is advanced citizenship. You have to participate if you want it to work. And even with all of the limitations that it has and all of the lack of representation that some groups get, if you build strong enough communities and strong enough voting blocks that are looking out for each other, you can get some improvement, some relief, some something.
DY: Well, sure. So with this understanding of democracy, and I remember you mentioning that when you’re working as a independent and journalist you’re ultimately kind of raising a fist against the gate keeping, and I’m wondering like how these things tie into this foray into YouTube, which just seems like this whole expansive possibility. You’re dealing with all kinds of people, maybe people who toe the line with like what rules were before in terms of content and commentary and then you have people knocking those walls down. And I just wanted to know where you see yourself fitting in because you cover so much and you lend so many thoughts.
What is your code?
BTFC: Well, my goal when I actually started taking the channels seriously after I stopped just joking around was to create a channel that was something that anybody could watch. I didn’t want them to have to turn it off if their kids walked in the room. I wanted it to be very inclusive, so the ideas, theoretically, would get into different demographics and help establish a baseline for conversation. And then different demographics could discuss rather than meet each other in the streets. And that was the general idea.
So, it kind of shaped the way the channel’s structured, very short videos, one little issue at a time, but a whole bunch of them so there’s always something to talk about. It’s also generally very open ended. I’m open my biases and where I stand and it ends with it’s just a thought. This is something for y’all to discuss. And generally speaking, you see that discussion in the comments section and it’s civil, which is I don’t know how much time you spend on YouTube, but a civil comment section is kind of a rarity.
DY: Yeah. So in terms of your content being more of a nice corner for conversation starting, would you say in your opinion that the sustaining of democracy has a lot to do with discussion rather than, I don’t know, carrying the same sticks and beating the same thing with the same stick? Is it more of the discussion and the coming together? Or is it the dream? Is it the idea?
BTFC: Well, when you look at the founding documents of this country, it had all of these promises and none of them were fulfilled in the beginning. Like none of what they said, this is who we are as a country, none of that was actually true. So I’ve always looked at it as that’s the goal that this institution is trying to get to. The only way you get to that is through participating in that system while advocating to actually reach the promises rather than reach the status quo, which is if you sum up the differences in the political stances in the US, you have those who to move forward and you have those who want to stay where we’re at.
That’s really what it boils down to. There are some, there are people like me, I want to charge way forward, really fast. And I know that there are people who are adamantly opposed to that. For this system to work, there has to be the discussion and that somebody has to grab me by the back of the shirt and say slow down and somebody has to drag whoever is kicking and screaming on the ground saying they don’t want to move forward, they have to drag them along. That’s the idea of it. The problem is we’ve become so entrenched that discussion isn’t happening and the American system, it’s not perfect in any way.
But the overall theme is that it gets better over time and more and more people get included in that promise that was initially laid out. If we stop, America fails. That promise, that dream, if we stop moving forward, it ends.
DY: And I think in line with what you’re talking about is that it’s this give and take, it’s kind of this slow shuttling forward and the conversation at large, I would say in my perspective, you do a great job on facilitating the conversation through your own videos. Like it doesn’t ever end at just one video. If you gain new information or you get new feedback or perhaps you get a very thought provoking comment, you are willing to speak on that or expand on that. Is there an engagement that you recall most recently or in the history of your channel that kind of illustrates that most vividly for you?
BTFC: Wow. There’s actually been a bunch. It’s actually, I mean, it’s kind of turned into a joke. When the channel started, it was one video a day and now it’s three videos a day because I would say a third of the videos begin with, and I got a message that and then we’re discussing that message. I think one of the more important ones was one recently where it was talking about there were people who were looking at the situation in Ukraine and just out of a habit of being opposed to US imperialism, they were trying their best to find a way for this situation to be the US’ fault.
And we kind of went through it and then questions came back. And by the end of it, as the videos progressed, the comment section started asking more and more questions about, well, how did we get from point A to point B? What about this idea that the US helped with the revolution in 2014? What about 2004? And it led to a series of videos that I feel that the people who watched them walked away from with a whole lot more information about a conflict or they’re seeing the coverage on the news, but they don’t have the backstory. They don’t know how they got from one point to the next.
And it also demonstrated how people approach a subject with their own bias. The idea that, hey, something happened. This has to be US empire at work. When in this case, the US was kind of a minor player in all of this, and certainly isn’t responsible for the conflict.
I think it’s situations like that where not just does the feedback go back and forth, but it’s also something that sparks more discussion in the comments, because at that point, I know that these videos are helping to widen the discussion.
DY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). On your point about that person has seen coverage, but they don’t know how they got from point A to point B, do you have guidelines or tips for people that might be feeling that way, that they feel like they’re consuming news, but they’re not understanding, or they’re not being able to triangulate.
BTFC: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I actually-
DY: Did you ever suffer from that yourself? How did you transition?
BTFC: I grew up with a family that was very much fact-check everything, don’t trust any news outlet, anything ever. I mean, it turned me into a professional paranoid, but I mean, it’s come in handy the last few years. I have a whole playlist on YouTube called Let’s Talk About Information Consumption, and it goes through guidelines on how to make sure you’re not being manipulated by an article or a headline, how to fact-check sources, how to not fall for the social media hoaxes, and stuff like that. Because again, advanced citizenship, you’ve got to be informed. You have to be able to understand the topics and have an informed opinion in order for that opinion to matter. People say, “Well, you respect everybody’s opinion.” I mean, “Yeah, sure.” But not really, because some of them aren’t based in fact or in reality. You have to have that information, that background, so your voice actually matters, and if you don’t, you may be voicing your support for something that you would oppose if you knew the whole story.
DY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). And thinking of journalism as this pinnacle of democracy, right, and it’s interesting to speak with you because you’ve kind of played it from very different angles, right. From being what you would consider an independent journalist, and now you’re a commentator. I guess, how do you still see it aligning still with democracy at the forefront, and the truth of the press, and voice of the people, all those kinds of things.
BTFC: I love the ethical ideals of journalism. The thing is they’re ideals and they’re not met most times. One of the hard and fast rules is that if you have one person that tells you it’s raining and one person that tells you it’s sunny, you don’t quote both of them, you do the work, you look out the window, and find out which is true. That right there is something that is just lost in modern network coverage. It just doesn’t exist. In fact, even in print coverage now you’re starting to see more and more headlines that will say… It’ll have a politician’s name followed by a colon and then whatever their quote was, and then that’s the headline. Now, the article itself may go through, and say, “Hey, this isn’t exactly true,” but it doesn’t matter because the headline is what people see. It already starts to influence their emotions, they may not even read the article, and it shapes narratives that may not be true.
I think for some outlets it’s a matter of economics. This is how they’re trying to stay profitable. And for some it’s a conscious choice. But all of the ideals about the free press being out there to uphold democracy and to inform the populace, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But it’s a lot like those promises in the founding documents, that’s the ideal. We certainly aren’t there. In fact, I think in a lot of ways over the last 10 years, we’ve slid from where we were at one time.
DY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Obviously, speaking to you, you have… I mean, you like the ethics of it, you have a strong code. I’m wondering, within this and your lived experience, what is one topic or video that you found the hardest to produce, or the most challenging to produce, or maybe you’ve questioned whether you should be the one producing it at all?
BTFC: There have definitely been some like that. There are some topics that I do not cover because I see them as me being too biased. I cover topics where I certainly have my opinion, but if it’s something that I feel like I can’t objectively at least try to set that aside, I won’t cover it. I have a lot of Kurdish friends, so I don’t cover those events, or if I have to talk about it for whatever reason, I make it very apparent that I am not an objective source. I normally wear one of those brightly colored Kurdish scarfs in the videos, so people are like, “Well, this guy obviously has an agenda,” and yeah, I do and you should know that.
The problem is a lot of media doesn’t do that. They’ll report on companies they’re invested in and not disclose the fact that they’re going to make money if people feel a certain way about their coverage. So, there are definitely topics that I try to avoid, there are topics that I limit my coverage on, and then there are some that I very openly, “This is why you probably shouldn’t take what I’m saying at face value.” You know? It would be nice if the standard disclosure notice that, again, journalist ethics, if that was a part of things, if people actually did that today on a widespread basis.
DY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Subjectivity and objectivity in journalism is a delicate dance-
DY: But in your case, with your content, I think I have to keep mulling over it, but the armed while black video, I think that was an example I felt like you used your subjectivity to further illuminate something.
DY: And yeah, in the case, I think there was a phrase floating around or I saw something around the lines of like you being associated with the phrase police accountability activist, and I wanted to ask you how comfortable are you with that label and how accurate is it given your previous occupations? And you don’t have to go too deep.
BTFC: Oh, no. That’s an accurate description. One of my big hot buttons is the inappropriate use of force, visiting violence on somebody that didn’t need it, and a lot of that actually stems from the fact that I did, I used to teach cops, and there were a lot of situations in which I’m familiar with the policies, I know what they’re supposed to do in these situations and they don’t. They disregard not just company or department policy, but they disregard best practices as far as their own safety, as far as suspect safety, all of that stuff. I am a very strong critic of law enforcement. I have my own ideas as far as socially where law enforcement should be headed as well, and it’s not militarized. It’s consent based policing in all of this stuff, but that’s not the world we’re in. And while we’re in the world that exists and have the system that we have, I’m somebody who… I have a better view of what it is supposed to look like when certain situations arise. I can critique the situations a lot faster than other people.
DY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). And what you’re – what you’re saying, unfortunately in the times that we’re in it doesn’t sound the most patriotic, right? It doesn’t sound like one person investing in and protecting one’s country. How do you cut through that cloud of trigger words and buzz words and easy kind of associations? How does one do that? How does one bridge the gap?
BTFC: Well, it’s funny, there’s a list of words that I don’t use on the channel because it elicits a strong response. During… In fact I almost said it then. During the pandemic I never used the word pandemic. I used public health issue, because it became so divided and the people who needed to hear the public health information the most, if you said pandemic it would immediately shut them down and they would go into conspiracy theories about it, so I just completely avoided that term.
A lot of times there are… It’s exactly that. It’s trigger words, and if you can identify what they are you can avoid them. YouTube actually gives a great tool for this, because in the analytics it has this little graph that shows you when people click out of the video, and if you ever see a giant drop you can go that point in the video, that timestamp, and you’ll be able to see what was said at that time.
Then you can kind of go back through and avoid using those terms. Switch pandemic to global public health issue is what I wound up saying for a year straight. There are a lot of terms like that that shock people. When somebody says police accountability activist, their impression of that… I need to be honest there. In that case the perception they have of that term is probably less radical than I really am on that topic, so that one’s okay.
But it does leave people with the idea that somebody with that title is against the law and order society or whatever term. But for me a term like law and order, that society, this terminology evokes the same thing in me. When I hear that, I hear the people who were okay with the status quo under segregation and they used that argument when people spoke about against it. They’re disrupting the law and order society. So those terms go both ways, and it’s hard to find terms that you can use that will bridge the gap.
DY: Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah. I’m wondering also your thoughts on people who may be watching this who might feel like their type of democracy is getting a little fragile considering the times that we’re living in, maybe their understanding of it is becoming convoluted, or they lose faith or whatever. What advice would you give them with your experience as anchoring their understanding of these times?
BTFC: People who are looking and seeing democracy fading? Is that-
DY: Yeah. They might feel like, you know, we’re living at a time of a lot of suspicion, a lot of fear, a lot of divisiveness, believe only half of what you hear and half of what you see and half of what you read, that kind of thing. How do you get anchored? Where do you anchor in? How do you anchor yourself in these times?
BTFC: I think for most the most helpful thing would be to look to their immediate community, those people who are physically present in their everyday life. Because we spend so much time online, we spend so much time looking at coverage that is intentionally divisive, it might be helpful to realize that the donkey or the elephant three doors down is somebody you’ve known all of your life and are not out to ruin whatever… Whatever society you want, they’re not out there to destroy it.
They have their own views and there are certainly a lot right now that I view as extreme and as dangerous, but overall I believe that generally people are good.
DY: We’re coming to our closing questions. What I wanted to know is what are your hopes for your channel? Are you going to keep doing this for… Am I going to look here in another five years and find you uploading three or four times a day?
BTFC: Oh, yeah. For something that started as a complete accident, yeah, I’m never stopping. I love this. There’s never a day that goes by that I wake up and I’m like oh, I have to go to work today. Oh, no. I enjoy what I do.
We launched a second channel that’s going to be more long format coverage on the road, where we go and meet people and help them build community networks. Then eventually I’d like to get to the point where we can develop a school, a physical institution that people can travel to to help make them better activists, to help make them better at establishing those community networks that are the building blocks to real change.
DY: What are you reading, listening to, getting into right now, that is making you happy, making you laugh, making you think, making you cry?
BTFC: I spend most of my time reading and listening to stuff for work, and lately it’s been a bunch of technical manuals and Russian text stuff that I’m trying to translate and stuff like that. My down time I spend with my kids, my horses and my dogs. That’s what I do, especially over the last month or so, because I’ve been existing on Ukrainian time.
DY: Yeah, you have. You did mention that. Yeah. And I think you did mention that where you live it’s not uncommon to see an animal chasing across the road?
BTFC: Right. Right. Of any sort. We’ve had random… Not, random, they’re from ranches next door, but we’ve had horses, pigs show up that aren’t ours. They just hang out until we can find out where we’re supposed to take them to if it’s a horse. If it’s a pig they’re coming to get it themselves.
DY: Right. Right. Right. They’re responsible for the pigs. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Beau of the Fifth Column, and I look forward to seeing more of your content. Yeah, we’ll be in touch.
BTFC: All right. Sounds good.