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.
In this April 13 file image taken from video provided by KCTV-5, Frazier Glenn Cross is arrested in an elementary school parking lot in Overland Park, Kan. He later was charged with killing three people at two Jewish-affiliated facilities. AP/KCTV-5, File
At least nine people were killed and at least 35 others were wounded in shootings across Chicago on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Thursday police announced that a man had been arrested on charges of firing on a number of motorists recently, wounding three of them, on Kansas City-area highways. On April 13 three people, including a child, were murdered at two Jewish-affiliated facilities in Overland Park, Kan., leading to the arrest of a white supremacist.
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On April 12, armed militias in Nevada got the federal government to retreat, allowing rancher Cliven Bundy to continue to graze his cattle on public land. All this happened over a span of only nine days in the life of a country where more than 250 people are shot every day. In America, violence and the threat of lethal force are the ways we communicate. Violence—the preferred form of control by the state—is an expression of our hatred, self-loathing and lust for vengeance. And this bloodletting will increasingly mark a nation in terminal decline.
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 hypermasculinity. 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’être 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.