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)