First as Tragedy, then as Farce
This is another unedited piece, originally commissioned for publication but ultimately unfinished due to my lack of interest in the editing process. This was written over 6 months ago and a number of things have happened in the intervening time period. If I were to rewrite this piece, it would explore more fully the Trump phenomenon, delve deeper into the different factions of the Right, and flesh out both a need for antifascist work and also its limitations. For now, the essay exists as it is, below:
The death of LaVoy Finicum is just the latest entry in a series of escalating tactics from militia members and armed right-wingers. What differentiates this moment from others is that it is the first violent clash between the state and the militia movement of this period. How this will play out within the Right is anyone’s guess. But what this moment illustrates clearly is how unoriginal this situation is. What we are seeing is a resurgence of the same violent, armed right-wing forces as we saw in the 1980s and 90s. While the circumstances between these two periods have many important differences, this right-wing resurgence needs to be properly situated in the antecedent period. By understanding what came before, we can understand what has happened so far, and what could happen soon.
What is very apparent in the relations between the state and militia groups is that when the militia groups have had standoffs with the state, the state has not sought to intervene violently. This is in stark contrast to armed and unarmed black people who are shot by the police whether or not they are committing an offense. What many people have called “white privilege” is actually a history of blunders and retributory violence that has made the state choose nonviolent containment rather than all-out assaults. It was in response to these blunders that Timothy McVeigh committed the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Patriot Movement that we know today, consisting primarily of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, among other militia groupings, was not the first of its kind. The first militia movement started in the 80s. Then, the militias were a mixture of white supremacists and patriot-types that we would recognize today. The commonality between these groupings was conspiracy theories about the government. Many of these groups were inspired by The Turner Diaries, a right-wing survivalist novel published in 1978 about the outbreak of a revolutionary race war. Among the early groups inspired by this novel was The Order, a white nationalist group founded by Robert Jay Matthews operating in the Pacific Northwest. This group committed a number of armored truck robberies and murders before being tracked and besieged by the FBI. One of these murders was of Denver disc jockey, Alan Berg who was shot in his driveway by an Order member. On December 7, 1984, in the first of many standoffs with right-wing groups and individuals, the FBI surrounded Matthews’ hideout and fired flares into the home. The house caught fire and Matthews burned to death inside of it. His death is observed by some in the white nationalist scene as a martyr’s death, and some make a yearly pilgrimage to the site of his death.
The next two big standoffs occurred not with terrorist groups or militias, but with people inspired by right-wing religious ideology. Branch Davidians. Ruby Ridge.
Both of these standoffs and the failure of the federal government to intervene successfully during them, fueled a rise of militias. They also inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. This is not to mention the right-wing violence occurring outside of the militia movement. There were numerous black church burnings, abortion clinic attacks, shootings and bombings, and killings carried out by white supremacists, among the more infamous murders being the one of James Byrd Jr. This violence was occurring at the same time as the shift to neoliberalism happening. They were also happening in the absence of a social movement. The WTO protests was a brief blip that didn’t carry on into movement that would have forced a confrontation with these right-wing forces. In addition, by the time the WTO protests happened, the crest of the militia movement was waning, dropping off into negligible numbers after the election of George W. Bush.
With this backdrop, the Left should have expected the militias’ resurgence to be accompanied by increasing violence. But for whatever reason, while the reality of militias existed, the Left recognized only that existence, not the potentiality for violence that existence foretold. For the past near-decade, militias and armed right-wingers have existed with little resistance from the Left or from the state, sometimes even in service of the state, similar to their earlier existence. What has changed is that there is the unfolding of the Black Lives Matter movement. These two movements existing in tandem with each other provoked a clash that at this point, the Right has managed to outmaneuver and contain. Without an appreciation for the danger and the possibilities, the Left risks being absolutely overpowered by the Right.
These groups, both out-and-out white supremacists and right-wing populist militias, pose significant threats to the Left and to the communities that we organize in. Over the past decade and most visibly over the past year, we have witnessed an escalation in tactics from the Right and this escalation has targeted the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though this violence has more and more encroached on the movement, activists and organizers have yet to fully comprehend the danger these groups pose.
The earliest resurgence of the militias could be seen in the right-wing backlash to immigration. The Minute Men militia has been terrorizing immigrant communities and providing “border patrols” for a while now. More border patrol militias have sprung up since the Minute Men and many of the members are current or former official border patrol agents. Just recently, former Texas Governor Rick Perry went on patrol with some of these groups, showing that there is at least some official sanction to their actions. In 2009, a member of the Minutemen militia murdered a immigrant man and his nine year old daughter in their home.
As the right-wing resurgence continued, there were a number of attacks on Muslims and people stereotyped as Muslims. In August 2012, a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six people and wounding four. In addition, there have been a number of mosque burnings. There was also an armed protest outside of a mosque in Irving, Texas. White supremacists and militia groups have latched onto the Islamaphobia as a rallying ideology.
When things in Ferguson popped off, the Oath Keepers came to the city armed to protect local businesses. Eleven months after the shooting of Michael Brown, which propelled what is now referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement, Dylan Roof entered a Black church and opened fire on the churchgoers, killing nine people. What should have tipped the Left off, underlining the danger lurking on the Right, was instead reduced to a number of memes lamenting Roof’s bulletproof vest and trip to Burger King. Roof’s manifesto was a call to action, a call to violence that many took up, setting fire to Black churches around the country. It wasn’t until four months later that violence would strike the movement itself.
After the shooting of a young black man, Jamal Clark, by cops in Minneapolis, leftists came together with members of the community to occupy a police station and agitate for recognition of the murder. During the vigils and occupation at the police station continued a number of days, the protestors there were threatened on video by those they described as white supremacists. A few days later, white supremacist showed up to the occupation where they were confronted. While some of the protestors escorted the men away from the site, the men opened fire and shot five of the protestors. When the shooters were apprehended, they received what amounted to a slap on the wrist.
What was obvious to those who had recognized the patterns of the earlier period, still hasn’t been fully understood by the Left. White supremacists and militias are not just nutjobs who protest the government. They’re nutjobs with guns who are willing to use them against those they perceive as the enemy. Even after the shooting of the Minneapolis protestors, the representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement requested protesters and community members to disarm. This is an absurd conclusion. The shooters came into the space armed and left having shot people. This wasn’t a problem of the community inviting the danger by being armed.
There are two misconceptions that need to be addressed about these groupings on the right. The first is that they are merely acting in accordance with the state’s agenda. Paramilitary terror against black and brown communities and violence against leftist do work in the favor of the state, these forces do are not one-for-one analogues of the state. What should be recognized in the recent standoffs at the Bundy Ranch and in Oregon is that these groups also want a destruction of the state. The state plays a dangerous game in allowing right-wing terror to flourish, because the Far Right’s growth also means a potential threat to state power.
The second misconception is that groupings on the left should attempt to dialogue with these groups as there are some overlaps that we can exploit. This is a dangerous folly that we cannot support. While the poor white working class is a group that has been abandoned by the Left in recent years, working with reactionary organizations emerging from this demographic serves only to increase those organizations’ stature not our own. We need to seek organic relationships with the white working class and present an alternative to the Right, rather than mixing the two.
What happened in the 80s and 90s have lessons that we can learn from today, but we have not sought to learn those lessons. We need to recognize and appreciate the danger that the right poses. This does not mean that we need to be afraid of the right, but that we need to be prepared for the violence that they have promised. It shouldn’t take another Minneapolis to make us take steps to protect ourselves.