The White Privilege of Guns

In the ongoing protest movement against racist police brutality, there have been white right-wing individuals and groups showing up with guns, often military-style guns that are designed to kill humans. Many of these people don’t have ill intent and certainly perceive themselves as the good guys. When asked, more than a few of them would say they are there to protect peaceful protesters, as they will protect all members and businesses of their community, and there isn’t necessarily any reason to doubt them. Still, some of the gun-toting vigilantes are crazed Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists listening to Alex Jones, and general right-wingers riled up by Fox News while others have been identified as members of white supremacist groups, militias, gangs, etc. One can’t assume peaceful results from armed groups of people seeking to violently stop the violence they fear in their over-active imaginations. Bringing a gun to a protest you disagree with is sending a clear message.

It’s true there hasn’t been many confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, in that the protests nationwide have remained largely peaceful. But the mere presence of guns as a potential threat of violence — similar to when police show up in riot gear ready to rumble — understandably makes many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, including some local business owners and local officials (Kip Hill & Chad Sokol, Armed presence in North Idaho towns questioned by some politicians, business owners; Adam Shanks, Elected officials condemn ‘armed vigilantes’ attending Spokane protests). Certainly, it hasn’t always been peaceful. “People wielding everything from bats to firearms have appeared at protests in Philadelphia, San Antonio and other cities. At times, their presence has led to confrontations with protesters. Sometimes there has been gunfire: In Boise, an 18-year-old white man was arrested after allegedly firing his rifle into the ground during a protest outside the capitol” (Isaac Stanley-Becker & Tony Romm; Armed white residents lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth.). It’s hard to see how mobs of intimidating whites bringing heavy-duty weapons to largely black protests against racism promotes a shared and communal experience of peace and safety, free speech and democratic engagement.

Look at the news reporting on various protest events over recent years and these kinds of white right-wingers are what one finds, but it rarely gets the same kind of attention or framed in the same way. It’s racist bias that is regularly seen in the news, such as how studies show black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown on tv than white criminals, even as most crime is committed by whites. When there is a black gang violence in Chicago, it’s national news as part of an ongoing narrative of those kind of people in Chicago, despite violence in Chicago actually being low compared to other large cities — Chicago is far down on the list of violent cities with Beaumont and Houston in Texas having higher violent crime rates than Chicago (Andrew Schiller, NeighborhoodScout’s Most Dangerous Cities – 2020). Yet white biker gangs in Waco, Texas had a shoot out where 9 died, all charges were dropped against those involved, and it disappeared from national news and public memory as if it never happened. Then the next event in Chicago is obsessed over in the news cycle. Everyone knows that an equal number of weaponized blacks in similar military-style gear or gangster-like outfits as seen with these right-wing ‘concerned citizens’ would not get the same treatment by the media or by the police. Everyone knows this is true and it is the precise issue of racism motivating the protests that we can’t publicly, honestly, and fairly talk about as a society.

This is not anything new (Anti-Defamation League, Small But Vocal Array of Right Wing Extremists Appearing at Protests). Armed whites is pretty much the totality of American history going back long before the Klan, whether violence by militant groups, lone actors, or the police. There has been generations of homegrown terrorism from white right-wingers — besides the Klan and similar groups: kidnapping, attacks, and murder of family planning nurses and doctors, not to mention bombings and arson of clinics; Oklahoma City bombing, Charleston church shooting, Charlottesville car attack, and on and on. Even during the Bush administration when Republicans gained support for their War on Terror, two FBI reports specifically warned that terrorism was likely to come from U.S. citizens who were right-wing militants and veterans, as that has been the demographic of most terrorism in this country. In terms of numbers of groups and their membership, there is no equivalent history of violently radicalized left-wing groups. Even the Black Panthers, the most famous left-wing group, never came anywhere close to being as large, powerful, and violent as the Klan. And the most notorious left-wing terrorist group in the United States was the Weather Underground whose members strove to avoid harming life. Left-wing activists when violent have tended to target property, not lives. Right-wingers, on the other hand, haven’t always made a distinction between lives and property, sometimes going out of their way to intentionally target people so as to enact punishment, create terror, and set examples.

In general, white militant groups on the political right when not committing violence are often threatening it or implying such threat. Think of the Bundy gang and religious death cult that committed armed protest and revolt over many years, in having repeatedly challenged the Federal government in the hopes of forcing a firefight and becoming martyrs. This included the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada where supporters pointed guns at federal agents, the 2015 armed conflict with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration in Priest River, Idaho, and the 2016 armed armed seizure of the federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These altercations ended peacefully, but only because the police and federal agents treated these dangerous white people with kids’ gloves, in a way they never would have done for Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Arabs. Also, these aren’t minor events for major figures were involved such as the veteran and Republican D.C. politician Matt Shea who was charged with domestic terrorism in his direct involvement through militarily training some of the individuals for what he said was a Holy War, and yet Representative Shea remains in power.

This same pattern of white right-wing violence has been seen during the coronavirus pandemic, such as the terrorist plot by Timothy Wilson (Anti-Defamation League, White Supremacists Respond to Coronavirus With Violent Plots and Online Hate). The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 was more likely to infect and kill poor minorities and poor people in general, but it was whites, largely middle class, who protested the shutdowns (Coronavirus Protest Rallies Draw Extremists, Conservative Activists and Guns; & Boogaloo Supporters Animated By Lockdown Protests, Recent Incidents). Consider the white gunmen in bulletproof vests who occupied state capitols to demand the end of lockdowns. These were white people complaining about tyranny while, in one case, being given full cooperation from the government in their armed takeover of a government building. They acted tyranically in refusing to tolerate other viewpoints and, given the long and bloody history of right-wing terrorism, their actions of aggressive intimidation pose a real threat to democracy. They are demonstrating that, in being armed to the teeth, they are able and willing to fight against democratically-elected governments representing the people in order to get their way as a vocal and privileged group, even though the government is simply doing what most Americans want them to do as the shutdowns have been widely supported by the majority.

The white privilege flaunted on the public stage is mind-boggling. “This is the great irony, of course—that these men are enjoying a surfeit of justice, though they refuse to recognize it. It is impossible to imagine people of a different skin color angrily marching with military-style weapons and being treated with similar generosity by law enforcement. As Representative Rashida Tlaib noted on Twitter, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff” “ (Firmin DeBrabander, The Great Irony of America’s Armed Anti-Lockdown Protesters). “Unfortunately, while these armed protesters benefited from the rule of law, they unwittingly undermined it. For their demonstration certainly looked lawless—or made the rule of law seem absent, or tenuous at best. […] Whether they admit it or not, when these men carry military-style guns in protest, they send the message that they have occupied the public sphere, and that others are not really welcome. The public sphere is less public in that regard—and these protesters are fed up with a diversity of viewpoints. Armed protesters don’t want to deliberate or debate, or even tolerate the opposition. When they appear, democracy ends.”

Now the right-wing display of weaponry has increasingly shown up at the George Floyd protests against racist police brutality. As a counter-protest, one suspects that some of them are advocating racist police brutality and a more than a few have made their racism blunt. For certain, there is a movement of far right extremists hoping for race war, as they openly admit, and a number of them have been arrested for causing destruction and committing violence in the protests, including attempts to incite riots — for example, there are those loosely organized around the ‘Boogaloo’ meme (Jason Wilson, Protesters across US attacked by cars driven into crowds and men with guns; editorial staff, Right-wing extremist group ‘Boogaloo boys’ poses real threat during protests; Mehdi Hasan, How the Far-Right Boogaloo Movement Is Trying to Hijack Anti-Racist Protests for a Race War; & Clarence Page, While Trump blames antifa, a menacing far-right ‘boogaloo’ movement rises). There are also violent actors from more well organized groups such as the neo-Confederate bikers gang that is variously referred to as the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ (SCV), Mechanized Cavalry, or Mech Cav (SPLC, North Carolina Protest Shooting Suspect Appears To Have Ties to Organized Neo-Confederacy, Hate Groups). Claiming to be a Klan leader, Harry Rogers drove into a crowd of protesters. There are many other militant and militia groups with white membership that promote such right-wing extremism and violence.

In cities across the country, armed right-wingers showed up at protests in response to fake news created by fake social media accounts, including the right-wing group Evropa posing as antifa (Aaron Holmes, An ‘ANTIFA’ Twitter account that called for looting ‘white hoods’ was actually run by white nationalist group Identity Evropa). False rumors of “ANTIFA agitators” being bused in were spread on social media, including in the social media accounts of some Republican politicians, such as Senator Jennifer Fielder, along with President Donald Trump trying to get antifa officially listed as a terrorist group (Could you imagine the right-wing outrage if President Barack Obama had Tweeted that white militias were taking over the Tea Party protest movement and that they should be designated as a terrorist group?). Who believes this obvious bullshit, such blatant tactics of cynical divisiveness and attacks on democracy? It’s not clear who actually believes it, but it is known who is promoting it and it comes from respected officials. “QAnon theory builds on this, suggesting that all of it — the protests, the police reaction, the presence of antifa — has been preordained as part of a coming mass destruction. And QAnon isn’t just a niche conspiracy theory. Tweets from its proponents are regularly retweeted by the president. At least 50 current or former candidates for Congress, plus the Republican nominee for the US Senate in Oregon, are public QAnon supporters. And that doesn’t even include candidates running on the state or local level. As Adrienne LaFrance argued in the Atlantic, QAnon has become a religion, with clearly defined sides of good and evil, hungry for converts. The antifa fantasy functions similarly. Whether you’re in Lewiston, Idaho, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, it’s so, so easy to believe” (Anne Helen Petersen, How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US).

The reports of antifa as a terrorist group have, of course, been greatly exaggerated. “The most important thing to understand about antifa is that there are very, very few of them: According to the Washington Post, when the group tried to gather nationally, they topped out at a few hundred” (Petersen). All that antifa means is anti-fascist and the boring reality is most people opposed to fascism aren’t seeking to provoke mass violence and revolution. If asked, the vast majority of Americans surely would agree that fascism is bad and should be opposed. “Anarchists and others accuse officials of trying to assign blame to extremists rather than accept the idea that millions of Americans from a variety of political backgrounds have been on the streets demanding change. Numerous experts also called the participation of extremist organizations overstated” (Neil MacFarquhar, Alan Feuer & Adam Goldman, Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests). So, it’s not clear why the vague label of ‘antifa’ been turned into a boogeyman. There aren’t likely many people who identify as antifa in any of the protests. “The Daily Beast also combed through the first 22 criminal complaints federal agents filed since May 31 that were related to the protests. None of them list antifa or anti-fascist ideology as being a motivating factor for the alleged crimes” (Sonam Sheth, The GOP’s claim that antifa is infiltrating George Floyd protests is a right-wing ‘bogeyman’ that bears all the hallmarks of a domestic disinformation campaign). Of these complaints, only 3 listed a specific political ideology claimed by the guilty party — one was anti-Trump, another anarchist, and a third involving several Boogalooers.

“Indeed, local officials in the state confirmed to the Post that not a single participant in the rallies was known to have defaced homes or storefronts in the name of antifa. […] Meanwhile, the FBI’s internal situation report which found “no intelligence” indicating antifa’s involvement in the May 31 protest violence did warn that people associated with a right-wing social media group had “called for far-right provocateurs to attack federal agents” and “use automatic weapons against protesters.” […] Politico also reported earlier this month that a Department of Homeland Security intelligence note warned law-enforcement officials that a white supremacist channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram encouraged its followers to incite violence to start a race war during the protests” (Sheth). “Actual cases of Antifa violence, however, have been few and in nearly all instances in response to violence or threats of violence from their opposition. Most accusations of its involvement in violence at protests around the country have proven unfounded. The FBI, for example, looked into Washington, D.C.-area violence last week and found “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.” “ (Randy Stapilus, The Antifa is coming! The Antifa is coming!).

As far as that goes, unlike some of these right-wing groups, antifa is not the name of a specific group, much less a national organization with fees and a membership roll. Research indicates that antifa, in intentionally being unorganized, mostly takes form as small groups in response to local events. There is no national system by which to organize, much less leaders to bus antifa around the country. “Antifa operates as a designation similar to the way someone might describe themselves as a punk rocker,” says Joan Donovan, a Harvard media expert (Nate Hegyi, Spurred By Debunked Antifa Rumors, Armed Men And Women Stand Watch Over Protests). It’s not clear who is antifa, since anyone can claim it; and those genuinely anti-authoritarian aren’t necessarilly attracted to clearly-defined group identities and organized movements. Heck, numerous fake antifa accounts were created by right-wing hate groups, specifically to promote conflict and create the false perception of a dangerous and well-organized antifa movement. “Twitter determined that a tweet promising antifa would “move into residential areas” and “white” neighborhoods was sent by the white supremacy group Identity Evropa. The tweet was shared hundreds of times and cited in online news articles before Twitter removed it, a company spokesperson said. Facebook, using information shared by Twitter, announced it also took down a handful of accounts on its platform that were created by white supremacy groups like Identity Evropa and American Guard, some of them posing as part of the antifa movement” (Associated Press, False Claims of Antifa Protesters Plague Small U.S. Cities). It turns out the only active antifa groups promoting riots, destruction, and violence are in actuality right-wing groups. If we eliminated all the right-wingers posing as antifa, there might not be much of an antifa left remaining.

“[T]he group the Trump administration has labeled a menace has mostly been nonexistent, experts and law enforcement officials say, and certainly has not been orchestrating what have been largely peaceful protests. Despite warnings of antifa incursions in scores of cities, there is no evidence linking outbursts of violence to an organized left-wing effort. And those associated with the autonomous groups that went up against far-right figureheads four years ago — and whose roots go back to earlier left-wing causes — say there is no such centralized organization. Federal and local arrest records in dozens of cities make virtually no mention of antifa. Law enforcement officials who had braced for the purported invasion of antifa militants in cities large and small now mostly acknowledge the threat has not appeared. […] The absence of antifa from protests roiling Berkeley — a crucible of left-wing activism — is a sign, Arreguín said, of the scale and possible significance of the protests. They are not driven by left-wing zealots, he said, but by multiracial and multigenerational crowds seeking a reckoning with systemic problems of racism and policing. […] The difference was expressed another way by Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher charged in 2017 with felony assault for allegedly punching a man with a neo-Nazi flag. (The assault charge was later dropped.) “Trump has turned everybody into antifascists,” Felarca said. “There’s no organization called ‘antifa.’ It was always just people prepared to take action against fascism. It turns out, that’s a lot of people.” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become).

It’s really bizarre. The paranoid mind will believe almost anything. If President Trump had told these white right-wingers that elephant agitators were going to invade from Mexico or be bused in by George Soros in order to take over the protests and trample their towns, he could make a small wealth from selling elephant repellent. The consequences of these conspiracy theories, however, are not a joke. The rumors of armies of antifa planning to destroy cities all over the United States were taken seriously, including by some rural Sheriffs (Ryan Burns, Sheriff Honsal Stands By ‘Antifa Bus’ Reports Despite Evidence That It Was All a Hoax). “The Associated Press has catalogued at least five separate rural counties where locals have warned of imminent attacks, although none of the rumors have been substantiated” (Russell Brandom, ‘Antifa bus’ hoaxes are spreading panic through small-town America). Sheriff of Curry County, Oregon called on local vigilantes to take action: “Without asking I am sure we have a lot of local boys too with guns that will protect our citizens and their property.”

That irresponsible fear-mongering online instantly elicited comments threatening violence (Nicole Blanchard & Ruth Brown, Police: No, antifa not sending ‘a plane load of their people’ to Idaho to incite riots) — one man was arrested because he made his intentions too clear when he stated on Twitter that he would “personally kill” any “antifa soldiers” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become). Later at the protests, in several cases, it did lead to serious altercations. Some of the armed white right-wingers haven’t merely threatened but acted out with violence. Roving gangs of armed white men have already started fights and attacked people in various protests. With fears of antifa, many protests have had a large influx of well-armed white people showing up to violently stop the left-wing violence that social media has told them is coming. Innocent people were caught in the crossfire, such as a mixed-race family traveling in a converted bus who were accused of being antifa and harassed to the point they feared for their lives (Peter Aitken, Washington family accused of being Antifa members, followed by armed citizens; & Deborah Hastings, Fake ‘Antifa’ Social Media Posts Incite Fear and Anger Across the Country). As in many other states, cities in Montana have had masses of white people with guns looking for trouble. In Missoula, this led to one black teen being chased down an alley where he was attacked by right-wing goons carrying AR-15s. They thought a young black kid riding a bicycle was suspicious and believed he was ‘antifa’ apparently because he was black.

It turns out this young black had lived most of his life in that town, but it makes no difference where he lived. Black people should be free to travel in the United States without fear of being attacked by the equivalent of the Klan. The sad irony of attacking an innocent black kid at a protest against racial violence was lost on these right-wing terrorists. “I feared for my life,” he told a reporter (Seaborn Larson, UPDATE: Teen: Armed group wanted ‘reason to hunt me down’), “I could have been killed or could have been taken out.” This self-appointed militia handed the boy over to the police and, after brief questioning, they released him as obviously not being a threat. He immediately called Quentin Robinson, an adult he trusted. “Robinson was not at the protest last week, but said the dynamic of armed white men surrounding an anti-racism protest reinforces the system in which white people are the de facto authority. […] The problem is on display when police do not pursue the men who conducted a citizens arrest of the teen for seemingly no reason.” Imagine if men who looked like black gangsters or a Black Panther militia attacked a white boy at a Tea Party protest and tried to hand him over to the same group of white policemen. One suspects it would have ended quite differently.

The greatest privilege of all is being oblivious to one’s privilege, to have one’s privilege taken for granted by you and everyone around you, including authority figures like the police. There have been some arrests when right-wing extremists undeniably go over the legal boundary, but otherwise they are allowed to menace citizens freely. The police have, in some instances, attacked peaceful protesters with no apparent reason or provocation or sometimes have beat on innocent bystanders such as old man who couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough. Such attacks don’t seem to happen to armed right-wingers. Why not? Is it that police only attack innocent citizens when they are unarmed? Or is the main factor the color of one’s skin? Maybe it’s the combination of the two, some magical power that is formed from white skin touching the metal on a gun. In that case, could we stop police brutality by carefully placing in key locations white people with guns who are allies with minorities? If that is all it takes, we should have taken this simple step years ago.

The beauty of paranoid fantasies is that they are non-falsifiable because they create reality and enforce their own truth. The fantasy of violence works if violence does erupt as a self-fulfilling prophecy or if it doesn’t in that one becomes a hero in claiming to have prevented it. But that they are fantasies is the main point, fantasies as melodramatic spectacles on the public stage (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals; & The Fantasy of Creative Destruction). They create a narrative of self-importance with little personal cost or consequence. That no buses full of antifa is likely to show up is the whole point. Most of these right-wingers want to keep it a fantasy that can be repeated. “The Idaho Public Television journalist Melissa Davlin tweeted on Tuesday: “After searching, I saw a number of bots posting about Antifa heading to (Coeur d’Alene), which spurred the armed people to ‘protect’ downtown. Antifa never showed, and now the armed people are claiming victory. Meanwhile, a few bots are still posting that CdA is under siege from Antifa.” “ (Stapilus). So, even in self-perceived right-wing victory, the bots of the social media machine go pumping along, mindlessly spewing their hateful conspiracy theories and fearful visions of destruction.

“Militia members get to plan, anticipate, and enact the idea at the foundation of their existence. And they get to do it in a way that positions them as “the good guys,” fighting a cowardly bogeyman easily vanquished by show of force alone. As a popular meme circulating in North Idaho put it, “Remember that time when Antifa said they were coming to Coeur d’Alene / And everyone grabbed their guns and they didn’t come? That was awesome!” It doesn’t matter if antifa was never coming in the first place. They didn’t come, and that’s evidence of victory. And that victory can then be leveraged into further action — and a means to extend the fantasy. On the Montana Militia page, a man named Tom Allen, whose home is listed on Facebook as Wibaux, Montana, posted that he’d spent the night in Dickenson, North Dakota, “protecting” the veterans monument during a planned protest. A group of bikers showed up to guard the nearby mall, protecting “all of Antifa’s usual targets.” There was no incident” (Petersen).

These are staged events orchestrated by whichever puppet masters are writing the scripts and programming the bots. These ordinary white right-wingers are willing puppets, as long as they get to be in the leading role. The protests that were in response to the racist maltreatment of blacks can be reframed once again about the heroic victimhood of whites. And like some of the white police officers who brutally kill blacks, these self-styled white vigilantes get to feel powerful in carrying their guns and demonstrating their racial privilege. Meanwhile, the police go on shooting black men and boys for carrying cellphones, candy, or nothing at all — in the racist suspicion that they might be carrying a gun and so must be put down for the good of the community or simply because the officer felt ‘threatened’. Even a black person running away in terror for their life is considered by some cops as justifiable cause for being gunned down. One of the other white privileges is getting to choose your own narrative, rather than having someone with power impose their narrative upon you.

“Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘‘No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don’t even want to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing. You know, we’re in a bizarre time of quarantine. White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building with rifles, shouting: ‘‘Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I’m not going to wear a mask, because that’s tyranny!’’ That’s six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people. The policing is an issue, but it’s the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them.”
~Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, from Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda

“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art

Divide and conquer begins in the psyche, the soul. Before authoritarianism is a system of power, it is a memetic virus that slips into the public mind where it grows and spreads. That is how we have come to find ourselves in this moment of a conflict we don’t understand because the first divide is within awareness. Such is our schizoid identity. As with any protest movement, there are criticisms and complaints, often unfair and dismissive. Those people are destroying their own communities, burning down their own neighborhoods. These are nothing but violent and destructive riots. They are bringing police violence down on themselves; they’re asking for trouble and get what they deserve. The protests are infiltrated or taken over by ‘antifa’ who are a terrorist group. On and on goes the idiocy, quite demoralizing but also quite effective.

First off, most of the protesters and protests are nonviolent. Few Americans, protesters and police alike, want to commit violence against their fellow Americans, against their own neighbors. Amidst the violence and destruction, there are many involved, including some police attacking those peaceful crowds often times for no apparent reason. There is sad irony when some authoritarian-minded police use brutality to punish supposedly free citizens in a democracy who dare to protest police brutality. But it’s the nature of the narratives we get caught up in that tell us conflict and confrontation can only end in violence. And for anyone drawn to that narrative, it’s easy to find someone on the other side who will join you in playing it out to its inevitable conclusion. This narrative pull of conflict and division overpowers any natural empathy that might otherwise inspire the better angels of our nature.

That isn’t to say there aren’t people committing crimes that the police are well within the the purview of their official mandate and public duty to pursue in enforcing the law. But the police can arrest those few people without wantonly attacking large crowds of innocent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, sometimes with real bullets as well, including innocent bystanders such as a businessman who was shot to death by police while standing in front of his business (Aída Chávez, Louisville Police Left the Body of David McAtee on the Street for 12 Hours) and the medical staff beat up by roving gangs of police (Olivia Messer, Medical Workers Fighting COVID Say Cops Are Attacking Them). The police showing up to peaceful protests in riot gear ready to rumble, now that is asking for trouble. The police, in being drawn into a narrative of fighting mob violence, end up acting like a violent mob and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are other ways of dealing with crowd control in maintaining peace and by directing police force only against serious lawbreakers, not the general public who are practicing their democratic rights. Some of the government officials have stated that most of the lawbreakers arrested were from outside the cities and states in which they were protesting. No doubt there are plenty of outsiders of one kind or another. Protests attract a diversity of individuals and groups and no one knows who they all are. Of course, there are the opportunistic looters, arsonists, criminals, gangsters, and troublemakers who join in and cause havoc without any greater purpose. Also, throw in some people who simply have serious psychiatric disorders, including some of the police as far as that goes.

Then there are the agitators and provocateurs of various sorts, specifically those who oppose the ideals and message of the protest movement, from white nationalists to undercover cops and maybe some FBI agents. This latter set of people, in some cases, would even be seeking to incite violence and destruction, looting and rioting, while hoping for police backlash and authoritarian measures. This is a much more difficult problem to deal with in our society. In some of the cities, the police have welcomed and cooperated with white thugs walking around with bats and other weapons to take care of the protesters which has led to violent altercations. This same kind of police-thug alliance has happened in past protest movements as well.

Some of these dangerous individuals and groups have clear agendas, often an attempt to alter the media narrative and public perception in order to undermine support for the protest movement and to isolate protesters. Think of COINTELPRO agent provocateurs of the past and the more recent entrapment practices during the War On Terror. Protesters have noticed older white guys dressed all in black with faces covered who were working alone or in teams to cause damage, such as the now infamous umbrella man. Most of these covert actors and malcontented troublemakers remain unidentified.

There are many games going on. Even outside of the protests themselves, social media has been a hotbed of influences. One Twitter account was portrayed as ‘antifa’ and was promoting violence, until those behind it were outed as white nationalists and the account was shut down. Imagine all of the state and non-state actors, including foreign actors, who might want to not only influence the protest movement but meddle in American society and politics, maybe simply to promote strife and conflict before the election. I could imagine fake accounts and trolls even infiltrating and targeting police in online groups to further rile them up.

There are many competing narratives out there. And those pushing those narratives in many cases aren’t doing so for ideological reasons. One doesn’t have to believe a narrative to want to use it to promote whatever one does believe in, from authoritarianism to chaos. The sad truth is that the average person never gives much thought to the narratives that are fed to them and that infect their minds. Many of these narratives are carefully crafted to get past our defenses, to tell us what we want to hear, confirm our biases and prejudices, fit into our stereotyped interpretations of others.

One of these narratives has fallen into the category of white identity politics. Many otherwise libertarian-minded whites who would criticize abusive authority find themselves pulled into a racialized narrative promoting the rationalization of authoritarian oppression toward those ‘others’. They are allowing themselves to be cynically manipulated because these narratives make them feel good about themselves while so many others suffer. But the reality is poor whites also suffer police abuse and so, even if only for selfish reasons of believing all lives matter, they should be joining these protesters demanding police reform and justice.

Even though blacks are disproportionately harmed, the fact of the matter is most police brutality as with most imprisonment falls upon whites, mostly poor whites, for the simple reason that whites remain the majority on both sides of the authoritarian equation. The racialized narrative of oppressive authoritarianism gives these poor whites a sense of pride in that, no matter how bad their lives are, at least they can think of themselves as being better than those poor blacks. Why do whites so mindlessly accept this false narrative that harms themselves personally, harms their families and neighbors, harms their entire communities? Why can’t they see they are being used as tools of authoritarian power? Why can’t they muster basic human empathy for others who are oppressed in this same system of injustice?

How would conservative and right-wing whites respond if during Barack Obama’s administration black police officers were wantonly killing poor whites, typically without legal repercussion or sometimes even losing their jobs, and then when Tea Party activists formed a mostly peaceful protest movement, they met with further police violence intended to silence them? Now imagine that this followed centuries of continued personal, systemic, and institutionalized racism against whites that kept them trapped in impoverished neighborhoods where there children were literally being poisoned from urban pollution and heavy metal toxins and targeted by a school-to-prison pipeline.

The response by most on the political right to this radical thought experiment would be typical. The narrative of white identity politics says this would never happen to whites because somehow whites, even the poorest whites, aren’t of lowly character like blacks. But this is total bullshit, if we are to define character by the conditions of oppression. Some of the most desperately impoverished and criminal-ridden places in the United State are these poor white communities such as in Appalachia where such racist rhetoric most strongly takes hold (Are White Appalachians A Special Case?). This racialized story comforts the traumatized, rather than resolving the trauma that continues generation after generation.

None of this is necessary. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in the middle of organizing a poor people’s movement. He was hoping to join poor whites and poor blacks in a fight against the oppression of a caste system of a permanent underclass. It was understood even long before MLK that class war was used to oppress not only blacks but also poor whites. This argument was made by Peter H. Clark (1829-1925), the first black socialist in the United States. There was also the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, that in the early 1900s organized across racial and ethnic lines in reaching out to minorities and immigrants; and, as always, they too were persecuted. Even many racist whites prior to the Civil War understood that the emerging industrial capitalism was being built on class war that kept lower class whites in a state of desperation and disenfranchisement. One doesn’t even have to be an anti-racist supporting black freedom and civil rights to understand this basic truth of capitalist class oppression and disenfranchisement.

Following MLK’s assassination, others tried to carry forward a multiracial (and multicultural) fight against class oppression, including the popular Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who united with diverse other groups in a Rainbow Coalition, including the Young Patriots consisting of Southern whites living in poor Chicago neighborhoods (Poverty In Black And White; Michael McCanne, The Panthers and the Patriots). Guess what happened to Fred Hampton? He also was assassinated. And who was behind the assassination? The FBI and police. This was the era of COINTELPRO where the government sought to infiltrate, co-opt, and manipulate groups considered to be a threat to statist power and interests. For example, earlier on, the FBI sent MLK a letter threatening to expose his extramarital affairs in order to blackmail him to commit suicide. Please understand, these were some truly evil people in our government and evil people like them are still in positions of power and influence.

The point is that this was never only about blacks and other minorities. Poor and working class whites were also harmed and disempowered when those black civil rights leaders, MLK and Hampton, were assassinated. I’d go so far as to argue that even middle class whites were worse off for having lost these voices that, if they had lived longer, might have alerted them to the forces that were also attacking the middle class. Now there is a narrative for you. It’s not only a story for it is actual history, much of it based on government documents that were released or leaked along with some great investigative news reporting from the past. But how many Americans, particularly poor whites and conservatives, know their own American history? Very few. The propaganda of corporate media, corporatist education, and corporatocratic politics has suppressed and silenced these facts that are inconvenient to the capitalist class and ruling elite. More importantly, it isn’t only a class war being hidden behind racist agendas of social control. As the likes of MLK and Hampton understood, all of this is inseparable from violent and oppressive imperialism, a class war against the entire world’s population of the poor.

Some relatively comfortable and privileged Americans get upset because a few people died in the recent protests, along with some property damage. They take this as indicating the protest movement has gone too far. Yet many of these same people supported the Iraq War based on a lie, a war of aggression and invasion that ended up destroying an entire country while dislocating, injuring, killing, and orphaning millions upon millions of innocent people. For what purpose? So that the United States could set an example for what happens to anyone who doesn’t bow down to American hegemony. And so that American corporations could maintain control of Middle Eastern trade routes and access to Middle Eastern oil and other natural resources. Talk about looting and on mass scale, not to mention the vast wealth and resources that corporations steal from the American public every year (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars).

It’s far from limited to Iraq. American imperialism has led to aggressive wars, overthrowing of democracies, support of terrorist/paramilitary groups, and much else all over the world. Of course, those are mostly poor black and brown people suffering and being killed and they are far away in other places. American policing around the world is far more brutal than the policing at home, but the two are simply expressions of the same fundamental brutality. This is made more apparent with the overt militarization of the American police, not to mention the deployment of military in U.S. cities. The counterinsurgency tactics used to suppress populist movements in other countries are brought home to be used on the American people, of all races and ethnicities.

This protest movement is not only about blacks and other minorities, is not only about police brutality. Most importantly, it is a fight over narrative, a fight to speak truth to power. If whites don’t stand up with blacks now, then later on upper working class whites won’t stand with poor whites, middle class whites won’t stand with any of them, and eventually the ruling class will turn on us all. We are divided up into groups and each group is isolated and attacked and neutralized, until there is not enough people left to stand up against the authoritarianism that began creeping into power over many generations. Authoritarian oppression against any of us, in the end, is authoritarian oppression against all of us. Violence is violence.

All of this was made possible through narratized propaganda that too many of us blindly or cynically accepted because it was easier to do so. Maybe it’s time to change that, time to wake up to reality, time to unite in solidarity. There are more of us than of them. As was understood when America was founded, supposedly in the words of Benjamin Franklin to the Continental Congress in signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But at the same time, we have to take responsibility for being complicit in a society where we’ve projected our authoritarian impulses onto an ‘other’, the police and military, instead of healing this disease within. If we hang separately, it may very well be on a scaffolding we helped build with the thought that we were building it to deal with another set of ‘others’, the poor and minorities.

We need new narratives and so do those authority figures who stand in as representatives of our social order. The police are in an impossible position. They are being commanded to serve too many masters, serve too many purposes. With increasing militarized power and aggressive methods, they are supposed to, implicitly or overtly, represent the enforcement of authoritarian statism, capitalist interests, systemic racism, and class war while somehow also “basically being tasked with addressing every social problem that we have”, far beyond mere enforcement of basic laws (NPR CODE SW!TCH interview with Alex S. Vitale, How Much Do We Need The Police?). While being the ultimate symbol and representative of hierarchical power and privilege, they are supposed to monitor traffic infractions, protect communities, uphold individual rights, deal with troubled teens, handle disorderly conduct, help the mentally ill, provide services to the homeless, mediate spousal conflicts, stop child abuse, intervene in alcoholism and addiction, monitor sex workers, act as guards in schools, enforce order in classrooms, and on and on.

The main tool we give the police to deal with this overwhelming and ever growing set of tasks is violence and threat of violence with a gun always at hand — stop the bad guys by any means necessary, in a narrative where all social problems are turned into black-and-white morality judgments. The police are often both the first to be called and the last resort to enact punishment when all else fails. The police are put into an impossible situation. They are asked to carry the entire load of our schizoid society, simultaneously serving authoritarianism and (hyper-)individualism, two sides of the same dysfunctional society of ideological extremism and dogmatic absolutism. It makes no sense. It defies all possibility of sense. So, we end up scapegoating the police when they fail to do the impossible, no different than we also scapegoat the poor and minorities in being victims of the same moral rot that grows like a cancer within our collective humanity.

Such vast areas of modern life have been criminalized. This has placed a large part of the population under the control of militarized policing that must enforce law and order. As communities have disintegrated and culture of trust has weakened, the police are suppose to replace what has been hollowed out, what once made society functional. It’s fucking insane! This is how we end up with more police than social workers, more police than teachers, more police than librarians and coaches and ministers. The police have become the sole pillar that must hold up the entire social order or it will collapse into total chaos and that will be the end of civilization as we know it; or so the story is told in a tone of the fear-mongering. Well, that is asking a lot of police. No wonder they feel stressed out and so often break under the pressure in turning to brutal violence and abuse, not only of citizens but also as seen in the high rates of spousal abuse among police officers.

The police are incapable of even policing themselves, much less reforming themselves. That is because they are forced to try to do what is beyond their capacity. They are violence workers with the mandated power to stop and arrest criminals with the protected right to kill whenever they deem it necessary. “And while we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today,” Alex S. Vitale spoke, “we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced. We’re invested in this kind of austerity politics that says the government can’t afford to really do anything to lift people up. We have to put all our resources into subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy. But those parts of the economy are producing this huge group of people who are homeless, unemployed, have untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. And then we ask the police to put a lid on those problems — to manage them so they don’t interfere with the “order” that we’re supposedly all benefiting from.”

It’s not surprising that the police act dysfunctionally and oppressively in acting on behalf of a dysfunctional and oppressive system. It could not be otherwise. And so we should not be surprised that, when turning police against protesters who are protesting police abuse, it will not turn out well — as Vitale explained: “What we’re seeing is really an immediate escalation to very high levels of force, a high degree of confrontation. And I think part of it is driven by deep frustration within policing, which is that police feel under assault, and they have no answer. They trotted out all the possible solutions: police-community dialogue sessions, implicit bias training, community policing, body cameras. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t make any difference. And so they ran out of excuses. So the protests today are a much more kind of existential threat to the police. And the police are overreacting as a result.”

Policing has not only become our answer to everything but, worse still, our explanatory narrative of everything. And to try to resolve this conflict, we’ve made our problems worse by militarizing the police which ends up conflating military and police, as our society further takes on the characteristics of a fascist police state and hence a banana republic. With each new wave of policing failure, we throw even more policing measures to deal with it. But this is not a problem for the police to take care of. Turning to the police in the first place is the problem. The police are an extreme measure and should only be called upon when all other measures have been tried and failed. Only in immediate situations of violence should the police be the initial course of action. Militarizing the police in treating them as the solution to everything is not only anti-democratic and anti-libertarian but also simply unfair to the police officers themselves who shouldn’t be forced into that position of authoritarian oppressors. All of us as citizens and community members need to take responsibility for having apathetically succumbed to authoritarian realism, of having failed to radically imagine another way.

It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine non-violent methods and services to replace present violent policing. Even within the limits of the present legal system, if given a choice, most Americans would rather have rehabilitation than harsh punishments and mass imprisonment (Reckoning With Violence; & The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2). We Americans aren’t a punitive people. Rather our imaginations have been intentionally constrained by a punitive ideology enmeshed in social Darwinism and capitalist realism, a system maintained through the narratives pushed on us by polticians funded and MSM owned by big money interests, largely transnational corporations seeking to uphold the fascist police state and military empire.

It could be added that neither are we a divided people, not fundamentally, certainly not in terms of what we support according to diverse public polling over decades (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; American People Keep Going Further Left; Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism; Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public; Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric); Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life; Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich; Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data); Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals; Environmentalist Majority; Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party; Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies; Who Supported the Vietnam War?; & Most Americans Know What is True), although the ruling elite have gone to great efforts to divide us but in reality it’s the ruling elite who are disconnected from the silenced majority (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public; Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism; Sacrifice of Liberal Pawns; Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization; Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward; Racial Polarization of Partisans; Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels; & Get on board or get out of the way!).

In imagining another way, consider some possibilities from Ktown for All. These aren’t necessarily perfect suggestions, but they give us the basic sense of how other solutions could operate, specifically at the community level. This is how we need to start thinking. After we get past the idea phase, it will take years and decades of local experimentation, if centralized government will get out of our way. In some ways, this is simply a return to local community systems that used to operate in the United States — consider the non-criminal courts in the mid-20th century that offered community solutions for juvenile problems which is a far better system than our present school-to-prison pipeline. When naysayers tell us that change is impossible, there are precedents we can look to. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, to take one inspiring example, was a nonviolent removal of a police state that allowed democratic reform, specifically to how policing was done. The Portuguese demilitarized the police, eliminated mass incarceration, ended their war on drugs that was a war on the people, decriminalized drug use, turned funding to programs for intervention and rehabilitation, and as a result saw a decline of drug addiction.

Maybe reforms are unlikely to be successful anytime soon, as the forces resisting them are powerful. Maybe or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to dream. We have to start somewhere and there is nowhere better to start than with radical imagination. If an era of ever worsening crises is heading our way, that is all the more reason to get our minds in the right space. We need to have new ideas and narratives in place ready for when we finally get to the point where change is inevitable. Let us prepare for a better tomorrow so that the next generations will have a fighting chance to build a free society, the dream that has inspired Americans for centuries.

“We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.

“Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”

~ Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

“Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement.

“As protests, riots, and police violence roiled the nation last week, the president vowed to send the military to quell persistent rebellions and looting, whether governors wanted a military occupation or not. John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote that we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end of the American experiment” because of President Trump’s catastrophic failures.

“Trump’s leadership has been disastrous. But it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone. In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.

“The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, the same can be said of our criminal injustice system, which is a mirror reflecting back to us who we really are, as opposed to what we tell ourselves.”

~ Michelle Alexander, America, This Is Your Chance

“If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.”

~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How Do We Change America?