Violence, as H. Rap Brown said, is "as American as cherry pie." It has a long and coveted place in U.S. history. Vigilante groups, including slave patrols, gunslingers, Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts detectives, gangs of strikebreakers, gun thugs, company militias, the White Citizens' Council, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Ku Klux Klan, which boasted more than 3 million members between 1915 and 1944 and took over the governance of some states, formed and shaped America. Heavily armed mercenary paramilitaries, armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and the anti-immigration extremist group Ranch Rescue, along with omnipotent and militarized police forces, are parts of a seamless continuation of America's gun culture and tradition of vigilantism. And roaming the landscape along with these vigilante groups are lone gunmen who kill for money or power or at the command of their personal demons.
Vigilante groups in America do not trade violence for violence. They murder anyone who defies the structures of capitalism, even if the victims are unarmed. The vigilantes, often working with the approval and sometimes with the collusion of state law-enforcement agencies, are rarely held accountable. They are capitalism's shock troops, its ideological vanguard, used to break populist movements.
Imagine that, if instead of right-wing militias, so-called "ecoterrorists" -- who have never been found responsible for taking a single American life -- had showed up armed in Nevada. How would the authorities have responded if those carrying guns had been from Earth First? Take a guess. Across U.S. history, hundreds of unarmed labor union members have been shot to death by vigilante groups working on behalf of coal, steel or mining concerns, and thousands more have been wounded. The United States has had the bloodiest labor wars in the industrialized world. Murderous rampages by vigilante groups, almost always in the pay of companies or oligarchs, have been unleashed on union members and agitators although no American labor union ever publicly called for an armed uprising. African-Americans, too, have endured a vigilante reign of terror, one that lasted for generations after the Civil War.
And all the while, vigilantes have been lionized by popular culture, winning mythic status in Hollywood movies that glorify lone avengers.
Vigilante bands have served and continue to serve the interests of state power or, as in the case involving the Nevada rancher, corporations that seek to eradicate public lands. They are used to make sure the dispossessed and marginalized remain dispossessed and marginalized. They revel in a demented hyper-masculinity. They champion a racist nationalism that is fused with the iconography, language and rituals of the Christian religion. And they have huge megaphones on the airwaves, funded by the most retrograde forces in American capitalism, to spread their message. They are the bedrock of American fascism. The terror inflicted by street shootings in cities like Chicago conveniently gives these vigilante groups their right to existence.
The raison d'etre given by vigilante groups for the need to bear arms is that these weapons protect us from tyranny and keep us safe and secure in our homes. But history does not support this contention. The Communist Party during the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany did not lack for weapons. Throughout the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, citizens had assault weapons in their homes. In Yugoslavia during the war there, AK-47 assault rifles were almost as common in households as stoves.
I watched in Iraq and Yugoslavia as heavily armed units encircled houses and those inside walked out with hands in the air, leaving their assault rifles inside. And neither will American families engage in shootouts should members of the U.S. Army or SWAT teams surround their homes. When roughly 10,000 armed miners at Blair Mountain in West Virginia rose up in 1921 for the right to form unions and held gun thugs and company militias at bay, the government called in the Army. The miners were not suicidal. When the Army arrived they disbanded. And faced with the full weight of the U.S. military, almost any armed group would disband, and that includes vigilantes. The militias in Nevada might have gotten the Bureau of Land Management to back down, but they would have scattered like frightened crows if the government had sent in the 101st Airborne.
America's vigilante violence, rather than a protection from tyranny, is an expression of the fear by white people, especially white men, of the black underclass. This underclass has been enslaved, lynched, imprisoned and impoverished for centuries. The white vigilantes do not acknowledge the reality of this oppression, but at the same time they are deeply worried about retribution directed against whites. Guns, for this reason, are easily available to white people while gun ownership is largely criminalized for blacks. The hatred expressed by vigilante groups for people of color, along with Jews and Muslims, is matched by their hatred for the college-educated elite, who did not decry the steady impoverishment of the working class. People of color, along with those who espouse the liberal social values of the college-educated elites, including gun control, are seen by the vigilantes as contaminants to society that must be removed to restore the nation to health.
Richard Rorty in "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America" writes that when our breakdown begins, "the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words 'n-word' and 'kike' will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet."
Our inability to formulate a coherent, militant revolutionary ideology, meanwhile, leaves us powerless in the face of mounting violence. We wander around in a daze. We lack the toughness and asceticism of the radicals who went before us -- the Wobblies, the anarchists, the socialists and the communists. We preach a mishmash of tolerance, and Oprah-like hope, and exude a fuzzy faith in the power of the people. And because of this we are run over like frogs blindly hopping up and down on a road.
Our most cherished civil liberties have been taken from us. Our incomes are in free fall while obscene wealth is in the hands of a few oligarchs. We are watched and monitored by the most pervasive security and surveillance system in human history. We are hemmed in by archipelagos of prisons. And the ecosystem on which we depend for life is being destroyed. And, through it all, we are bombarded with propaganda, manipulated and mocked by our elites as we dance in their choreographed political charades.
We must begin to speak in the language of revolution, not accommodation. We must direct the rage that grips huge swaths of the population not against the oppressed but against the structures of corporate power that create oppression. We will have to begin from scratch, for America has no revolutionary intellectual tradition, with the exception of Thomas Paine. We have produced notable anarchists -- Randolph Bourne, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Noam Chomsky. We have an array of great black radicals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, James Cone and Cornel West, as astute about the evils of empire as white supremacy. We once had some fine socialists, Eugene V. Debs among them. But we lack genuine revolutionists such as Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Frantz Fanon, and because of this we are losing the class war.
As the historian Richard Hofstadter writes in "American Violence," his book with Michael Wallace, class conflict and income inequality in the United States, now at near historical levels, have traditionally been "overshadowed by ethnic-religious and racial conflict. Intermittent group warfare has been our substitute for, or alternative to, class war, and class war itself, when it has flared up, has seldom taken place in a clear atmosphere, unclouded by our racial-ethnic antagonisms and by our complex hierarchy of status based upon religious-ethnic-racial qualities."
There have been a few forays into insurrectionary violence, including the 1786-87 Shays' Rebellion and the armed uprising by the Blair Mountain coal miners. But these insurrections have lacked, as Hofstadter wrote, "an ideological and a geographical center." Insurrectionary violence in America has, he observed, "been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes." A revolutionary language and consciousness must replace the current murderous nihilism.
The government is banking on the fact that we are not hard-wired for revolution. The state, for this reason, permits the population to load itself up with weapons, including assault rifles, because it understands that they are almost never turned against centers of power. There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but one estimate is 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world -- an average of 90 per 100 people. We shoot each other or we shoot ourselves. Of the 282 people shot every day in the U.S., according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 32 die in murders and 51 commit suicide.
Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.
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