It's odd. These days as right-wing "militias" multiply -- that is, armed groups of whites taking to the streets of our cities to protect Donald Trump, white supremacy, and god knows what else -- I always think to myself: if such groups were Black, what would they be called? And you know the answer to that question perfectly well. They would be called "gangs." But gangs, of course, sounds so much less romantic and constitutional than "militias," right?
So militias it evidently is (even in the mainstream media). And in a nation whose president defended a militia-loving teenager who killed two protesters with an AR-15-style assault rifle (while the pundits Trump watches on Fox News praised the murderer), in a nation that leads the world by a country mile when it comes to civilians who own guns (including battlefield-style weaponry), a militia-ized future is not so hard to imagine -- especially given American history thus far. If you doubt that for a second, then check out the latest piece by TomDispatch regular, Foreign Policy in Focus columnist, and author of the Splinterlands series of dystopian novels John Feffer. Tom
Will the November Election Be Decided in the Streets?
By John Feffer
The white mobs didn't care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.
It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The "red" referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The "summer" actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.
In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country's wealthiest African American community ("Black Wall Street," as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.
During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.
Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.
White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they're gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.
According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." More than 40% agree that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." In a recent essay on his survey's findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism "has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy."
As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of "their mobs" and "Antifa terrorists" to drive its base to the polls. "We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities," tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: "I'm the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos."
Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conducted two ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme "All Lives Splatter" around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.
The prospect of far-right vigilantes or "militias" heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020," reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."
As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.
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