By Bonny Wells
Right wing militias have been part of the US political landscape since at least the 1980s. The ideology that guides them, a combination of patriotism, capitalism, religious fervor, and white supremacy, has also been attributed to “lone wolf” attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing and the massacre in Waco, Texas (Kimmel and Ferber, 2000). There are more recent examples as well: In 2013, the town of Gilbertson, Pennsylvania was effectively seized by the police chief Mark Kessler, who also headed the Constitution Security Force. In 2014, the armed standoff at the Bureau of Land Management by Cliven Bundy and his family put militias on the national stage again, as he was connected to the sovereign citizen movement and, by extension, the Oath Keepers Militia. Most recently, a standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from January 2nd-February 11th, 2016 returned the Bundy family to the public eye (Ammon Bundy was present at the Oregon Standoff). These movements are based on a particular narrative about control of land, which contributes to associated beliefs about the intrusiveness of the federal government and movements toward state sovereignty. While only one of the above incidents was directly carried out by a militia, the sentiments that inform right-wing militia activity undergird all of the conflicts: white settlers using any means necessary to control territory. At the same time, organizations on the political left have renewed their efforts to engage with right wing militias and find a common cause against the state. This paper will examine these efforts, as well as theoretical analyses of the position of white settlers, in order to assess these organizing efforts.
Understanding these narratives is useful at this moment in U.S. politics. In the months leading up to and following the election of Donald Trump, numerous articles were written attempting to understand the mentality of the so-called “white working class”-rural, low income white people in areas that are economically depressed and have been neglected by politicians and institutions. Writers attributed Trump’s success to several factors, but racism and economic depression consistently topped the list. In many cases, “economic anxiety” arguments were used to refute or complicate the notion that white rural voters were motivated by Trump’s racist, xenophobic and misogynistic platform. While responses to Trump’s election ranged from sympathetic to vindictive, they all pointed to the failure of existing institutions to redress economic exploitation and vulnerability. Neither major political party has the will nor the capacity to provide basic economic support for these people.
The framing of Trump voters as uniquely racist shifts the responsibility for white supremacy from white progressives, who prefer to see themselves as “good” or “antiracist” white people, to people comfortable with the most vulgar display of a set of values that is for the most part shared by white people across the political spectrum. This is further complicated by even more deeply assured white communists, socialists, and anarchists, who frequently deride white liberals for evading their role in white supremacy while insisting that the violent racial resentment of a prototypical Trump supporter would be best addressed by a combination of radical economic redistribution and stringent social conditioning (by which I refer to the militant “no platform”, direct physical confrontation approach favored by antifascist organizations).
A program of radical wealth redistribution is a significant improvement over liberals’ approach to racism as an individual attitude problem to be repaired through endless discussion and recognition, without any effort to address systematic racism or violent capitalist exploitation. However, anarchist and communist responses often fall short of directly confronting the white relationship to land and wealth in the United States. These tendencies argue that working class white people have been conditioned by wealthy white people to fight with working class people of color to fight for the scraps of unequally distributed wealth. In its less sophisticated forms, this argument states that poor white people have been manipulated by their wealthy counterparts to “work against their own class interests”-wealth redistribution that would benefit working people of all races equally.
Communists and anarchists have identified this political moment as an opportunity to radicalize poor white people and engage them in anti-capitalist and anti-racist activism. One such group is Redneck Revolt, a nationwide group formed specifically to bring poor white people to the radical left. Some chapters also form armed self-defense groups under the banner of the “John Brown Gun Club”. The objectives of Redneck Revolt are multifaceted, but a key component is the effort to converse with and educate poor white people and to offer an alternative to white nationalist groups, who have also consciously incorporated anti-capitalist rhetoric in their platform. While they are one of the most notable examples, Redneck Revolt is part of a broader radical fascination with the aesthetics and popular culture of poor white people.
This type of organizing leads to strange bedfellows, or at least attempted alliances that other groups on the left might not consider. Recently, Redneck Revolt has been encouraged by the testimony of Peter, a former member of the III% militia who wrote a powerful reflective essay about a car ride that forced him to rethink some of his deeply held racist and Islamophobic prejudices. While Peter stated on no uncertain terms that he would not compromise his former militia members, his essay signaled that it is possible to encourage anti-racist and anti-capitalist consciousness in people who have been considered longtime enemies of the radical left.
The Oath Keepers are a national organization with branches in all 50 states. The name comes from the oaths that military and law enforcement take as they enter their respective forces. Oathkeepers see their duties as expanding far beyond a paid position in government; their duties are an integral part of their identity that follows them through life. Their objective is to defend themselves and their communities (however these are defined-this will be explored in more depth) from any entity that contradicts their interpretation of the United States Constitution. They assert that they are a non-partisan organization:
“We don’t care if unlawful orders come from a Democrat or a Republican, or if the violation is bi-partisan. We will not obey unconstitutional (and thus unlawful) and immoral orders, such as orders to disarm the American people or to place them under martial law. We won’t “just follow orders.”
While this papers will focus a great deal on white identity, it is necessary to note that the Oathkeepers website emphasizes diversity. An interview with member David Berry attempts to dispel assertions that the Oathkeepers primarily serve white people. Berry discusses his dedication to the Constitution as a document that can withstand human fallibility and changes in leadership to defend the rights of all U.S. citizens. Berry also notes that the Constitution was used to secure the liberation of black people in the United States. The website states that “Oath Keepers come in all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and backgrounds with one common bond – the oath to defend the Constitution”.
In their “Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey”, the Oathkeepers emphasize their desire to protect state governments against federal government intrusions. Member must swear not to occupy a state without the consent of the governor, not to send people to detention camps, and not to confiscate food or arms from U.S. citizens. The idea here is that, as current and retired members of military and law enforcement agencies, Oathkeepers can resist the federal government by refusing to obey unconstitutional orders.
The Oathkeepers have also received media attention for their services at various Donald Trump rallies in recent months. One message on their website calls for assistance at a counter-demonstration against Donald Trump in Harrisburg, PA on April 29th. In this case, they premise their support on defense of free speech. Earlier, on April 15th, Trump supporters, neo-nazis, and antifascists fought violently at a Trump rally in Berkeley. The LA Times reported that Oathkeepers “founder” Stewart Rhodes travelled from Montana with about fifty other members to defend rally attendees against antifascists. A statement on the Oathkeepers website elaborates on the organization’s commitment to defend Trump supporters against “antifa thugs” who espouse “intolerance towards any proposed speaker who does not follow the liberal/progressive/leftist ideology”.
Having briefly overviewed these militias’ platforms, it is also necessary to examine Redneck Revolt’s attempts to build relationships with these groups. Following the violent conflict between antifascist groups and neo-Nazis, Trump supporters and militia members in Berekely, Redneck Revolt released a statement that simultaneously criticized the Oathkeepers and III% militias for protecting white supremacists, while calling on them to participate in activities that better reflected their “true values”:
We call on all Oathkeepers, III% members and other patriot militia members to disavow their association with nazis and others who are openly calling for ethnic cleansing and genocide of folks of color, Jews, and others. We call on the Oathkeepers and III% members to stand for real liberty for all people and stop enabling those who want to strip away that liberty because of the color of someone’s skin, the religion they practice, the country they were born in, the people they choose to love, or what gender they are.Will you join us to struggle against tyranny and fascism?
However, given Redneck Revolt’s explicit anti-racist, anti-capitalist platform, it is reasonable to assume that it will be difficult for these groups to find common cause. There are two obvious means by which the radical right and radical left might bridge the gap: racial unity or class unity. Recognizing that these two forms of identity aren’t neatly separable, it is necessary to further examine the grounds on which these organizations might form a relationship, and the implications this has for left political activism. .
There is an ongoing tension within the left about the pervasiveness of racism and the perpetuation of colonialism in narratives about class struggle. Renewed dedication to the so-called “white working class” is the most recent manifestation of this tension. Redneck Revolt is not unique in arguing that, pragmatically speaking, it is absolutely necessary for poor white people to join in the anticapitalist resistance. In order to gain support, organizers on the left must address their needs directly-acknowledge the ways in which these people are exploited under capitalism as well as the failure of the mainstream left to engage them directly. However, this argument is also frequently accompanied by an implicit assumption that this group justifiably resents the Left for focusing too much on other identity groups-people of color, queer people, women and femmes. There is truth to this argument in the sense that white resentment is a very real motivator for the most recent tide of authoritarianism in the United States. However, greeted with this resentment, the instinctual response of many leftist scholars and activists is to appease it-not challenge it directly. It is this response that should be interrogated and examined.
Colonialism is as integral to the formation of the United States as capitalism, and it is absolutely necessary to understand settler colonialism in the United States if we wish to identify and resist the most recent authoritarian overtures of the United States government. Scholars have investigated how white men in rural settings understand their social position. Levi Gahman (2015) notes that in rural areas, white men view their capacity for armed defense as an integral part of their masculinity. This is explained in terms of a traditional gendered family structure: men are tasked with supporting and defending their wives and children, who are physically less powerful.
Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber (2000) trace the emergence of the rural militia movements in the US to economic restructuring following the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s. Small and medium farm owners were hit particularly hard, as were blue-collar industrial workers. Part of the frustration that led to armed resistance among rural white people was certainly economic. Yet, Kimmel and Ferber also connect the economic downturn to a perceived threat to rural white masculinity. This was accompanied by social changes that challenged the assumed superiority of white men; women’s roles in society changed and racial superiority, while not eliminated, changed in appearance to give the illusion that whiteness was a less privileged identity. In this context, the “paramilitary warrior” served as an image and aspirational figure to restore white men to their rightful social position (586).
Kimmel and Ferber describe the militia movement as a series of “loosely connected paramilitary organizations” that view themselves as a vanguard in resisting a global, conspiratorial elite power structure. Many of these groups believe that reform of the government is impossible and that violent revolution is inevitable. To this end, they practice survival tactics, accumulate weapons, and promote a militaristic ideology which resists government intrusion and encourages self-sufficiency and self governance. With regard to political orientation, Kimmel and Ferber describe these groups as “fiercely patriotic and simultaneously…anticorporate capitalist and antifederal government” (584). They recognize that capitalism is inherent to the individualistic narrative of the “self made man”, a white, male property owner and head of a patriarchal household.
It is also important to note that while these groups are anti-government, they are incredibly patriotic; they believe that “the state has been captured by evil, even Satanic forces” and that they can restore the country to a state more consistent with its founding principles. The fears of invasion and tyranny espoused by these groups have a significant racist element accompanied by apocalyptic imagery. For example, Kimmel and Ferber note that during the “Y2K” disaster preparation, some militia members asserted that black and latino people, unable to receive public assistance because of a defunct bureaucratic system, would invade rural, white christian communities in search of sustenance (591). These groups are anti-government precisely because they believe that excesses in federal spending and oversight have limited their autonomy and promoted dependency. As articulated by Kimmel and Ferber, “middle class straight white men…believed they were entitled to power by a combination of historical legacy, religious fiat, biological destiny, and moral legitimacy” (592).
Patrick Wolfe (2006) asserts that “invasion is a structure, not an event” (388). Settler colonialism requires not only a multifaceted elimination of indigenous people from a geographic territory; it also requires the creation of a replacement settler society. In the United States, settler colonialism is enacted through a continuous process of displacement, genocide, land seizure, and assimilation. Additionally, violent displacement has historically been carried out not only by political elites, but by “greed crazed invaders who had no intention of allowing the formalities of federal law to impede their access to the riches available in, under, and on Indian soil” (391). The structure of colonialism is not maintained by the state alone; it is reinforced and reproduced through settlers themselves, who have a vital interest in the ongoing displacement and elimination of indigenous people. If not specifically endorsed by the state, acts of extrajudicial violence are tolerated as “inevitable” consequences of invasion.
With regard to the specific relationship between settler colonialism and white supremacy, Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood (2016) argue that racism in the United States is often depicted as a particular historical event (the Reconstruction, the Civil Rights ers) or as a particularly egregious action or organization (the Ku Klux Klan). Both types of depiction disguise the permanence and structural pervasiveness of white supremacy. Whereas scholarship on racism tends to focus primarily on the everyday manifestations of white supremacy, Bonds and Inwood position white supremacy as the “disease” which causes the “symptoms” of racism and privilege (720). Therefore, it is necessary to closely examine the foundations of white supremacy to understand how it manifests.
Bonds and Inwood turn their attention to the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff to illustrate how settler colonialism informs white resistance to state intrusion. Cliven Bundy initiated the standoff after failing to obtain a grazing permit from the Bureau of Land Management. When the BLM attempted to move his cattle, Bundy and his supporters took up arms against the incursion by federal agents. The narrative informing this action was, of course, centered on the Bundys’ claim to land and their desire to defend their territory against federal government overreach. However, in the United States, such claims to land by white settlers are never far removed from white supremacy.
Cliven Bundy lost some support from conservative media and figureheads after he commented on the status of “the Negro” in a New York Times article. As Bonds and Inwood note, his comments, revolving around the “culture of dependency” generated by public assistance in urban housing projects, were only exceptional because he used overtly racist language rather than dog whistle allusions to “inner cities” or “welfare mothers”. The sentiment, however, is common and is expressed in myriad ways. What interests Bonds and Inwood more is that Bundy’s resistance to federal government was taken seriously and the standoff raised a genuine debate about federal control of territory. In other words, there was no interrogation of Bundy’s claim to the land, and certainly no critique of his position as a settler on occupied territory.
This allows us to circle back to the question of engagement between the radical left and radical right. When any group takes up arms against the federal government, it piques the interest of all parties interested in challenging the state. It is this sense of shared objective that led Redneck Revolt to open communication with the Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. An examination of anarchist responses to right wing armed resistance reveals the complex relationship between the two. The following articles focus on the 2016 standoff at Malheur Wildlife Refuge; however, underlying tensions are similar.
Alexander Reid Ross (2016) offers an account of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation that provides some insight into the perceived connection between anti-state activists with varied political orientations, ultimately arguing that the affinity some leftists felt toward the standoff was erroneous and based on a poor understanding of the settler colonial project. Ross points out that the type of liberation the Bundys and their supporters aimed for was merely designed to allow white farmers and ranchers to have unlimited control over and access to territory. Additionally, while the occupation was expressed as a challenge to state power, it was enabled by the white supremacist state, which would “ruthlessly destroy similar dissent from communities of color” (Ross, 2016). This recalls Wolfe’s argument that extralegal actions taken on by white settlers are tolerated or encouraged in order to maintain control of the land and reinforce the narrative that they are its rightful owners.
Ross also spends some time analyzing the internal dynamics of the occupation, noting that it was erroneously depicted as a “local” resistance effort that was actually supported primarily by people from out of state. Ross also divided the attendees roughly into three categories: the predator, calculating ringleaders who establish dominance through intimidation and manipulation; the true believer, whose “autonomous capacities are questionable”, but yet “they commit some of the most atrocious acts, simply out of the desire to be appreciated and even loved”; and finally, the low bagger, unaffiliated attendees with some anti-authoritarian tendencies but little commitment to any particular cause. With regard to low baggers, Ross acknowledges the temptation to try to build some kind of alliance with people not fully committed to the white supremacist, settler colonial aspirations of more committed militia members. However, he urges a more discriminating attitude toward these efforts:
It is tempting to suggest that the left could be winning them over. However, the question becomes not “do we want to court low-commitment members of the right,” but “is it possible to cut the cord between them and the militias, and attempt to show them the errors of conspiratorial thinking of white supremacism and the corporate private property ideology?” (Ross, 2016)
Ross concludes by pointing out that the anti-state objectives of right wing militias lead to a different conclusion than left-wing anti-state projects; the goal of the Malheur Refuge standoff was to “bring down the government by enshrining the corporate state even further through the sacralization of the patriot movement and its would-be martyrdom”. Despite the appearance of shared interests, the right-wing patriot movement “remains the enemy of all we stand for”.
Focusing again on the colonial underpinnings of the occupation, it is also important to note that the Burns Paiute Tribe strongly condemned it. Charlotte Roderique, a tribal chairwoman, stated that the occupiers had no claim to the land, which rightfully belonged to indigenous people. Roderique also pointed out that the campaign to remove land from federal government control and give it to white settlers completely obscured the fact that the land rightfully belonged to indigenous people-not the militias.
An anonymous author further expands on the underlying motivations of the occupation, elaborating on the interests of the Bundys and comparing the Standing Rock resistance to illustrate the differences between right-wing anti government action and left wing or decolonial actions. Like Ross, the author points out that the state repression at Standing Rock compared to the relatively permissive response at Malheur reflects the white supremacy of the state. However, they also emphasize the capitalist orientation of the Malheur occupation, pointing out that Cliven Bundy is a well established business person whose interests in the wildlife refuge were not to expand “the commons”, but to seize federal land for personal profit. Ross (2016) also pointed out that the sense of entitlement to land for the Bundys is rooted in the colonial principles stating that land rightfully belongs to whoever makes productive (profitable) use of it. This is a different logic from left critiques of federally owned property, which aim to redistribute land from the state for collective use by the people. The author also argues that this difference affected the very disparate state responses to Malheur vs. Standing Rock: the wildlife refuge was not profitable, whereas the Dakota Access pipeline was. A combination of racism and the settler colonial entitlement to land for “productive use” justified the brutal repression at Standing Rock.
These analyses reveal that the potential for collaboration between militants on either end of the political spectrum is not an objective that the left has pursued uncritically. Both Ross and the anonymous contributor conclude that leftists tempted by the anti-state orientation of the Malheur occupation should recognize that the end goals of the occupiers are far too different to justify short-term collaboration. The best case scenario, according to Ross, would be to bring uncommitted right wing militants more ideologically left, and even this should be approached carefully,
Thus far it has been established that right and left militants have clearly different objectives and that leftists acknowledge, at least perfunctorily, that anti-colonial resistance is an important component of any leftist project. However, the left is not without its own internal racism and colonial attitudes, and this should be discussed briefly. Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin (2015) offers a great deal of insight into the shortcomings of the North American anarchist movement; “a movement which is all White, middle-class, self-absorbed, and naive about our struggle is not one we can unite with”. Ervin argues that the anarchist community in the United States is essentially “a White youth counter cultural scene” without the political awareness or commitment to form useful political connections with people of color. While his article is brief, Ervin draws on a long history of personal organizing experience to illustrate the most troubling manifestations of white supremacy in anarchism. According to Ervin, many circles are dominated by white, middle class young people who presume to speak on behalf of poor people of color. The work anarchists do with poor communities amounts to “missionary work” evoking the same paternalistic attitudes as their liberal and conservative counterparts. Additionally, ideological purity is used as a justification to withhold support from struggles led by black and brown people, because their platforms do not fit perfectly with (largely European) anarchist theory. Finally, these groups sometimes attempt to lump all workers together, arguing that white and black workers have essentially the same experience with exploitation under capitalism.
Ervin’s article is short and anecdotal, but it clearly identifies some of the major problems with white-led leftist organizing. In “The Colonizer and the Colonized”, Albert Memmi (1960?) draws a portrait of the resistant colonizer-”the colonizer who refuses”. This is the colonizer who, witnessing the violence of colonialism, decides either to leave the colony, to attempt to repair the colonial condition from within, or, rarely, to attempt to join the colonized. To this end, the colonizer might “openly protest, or sign a petition, or join a group that is not openly hostile to the colonized” (64). However, the internal contradiction of fighting colonialism from the settler’s position will be frequently overwhelming and disconcerting. Essentially, the colonizer is required to fight against their own existence on the territory, Additionally, they must confront other colonizers, those who have accepted their role and who actively and happily benefit from the social order of the colony.
In rare cases, as mentioned above, the colonizer can elect to “join” the colonized. However, this option is not without its own pitfalls. When the colonizer aligns with the colonized it tends to always be with reservation-at the behavior and customs of the colonized, and also at their tactics of resistance to the colonial occupation. Both sentiments reflect the permanence of the colonial mindset and the difficulty of settler or colonizer participation in an actual anti-colonial project. Additionally, the colonizers who refuses finds themselves in a difficult political position. It is theoretically impossible for them to resist colonialism and envision a future for themselves in the colony. While the colonizer who accepts has a clear, materially based position with support, as does the colonized, the colonizer who refuses is forced to adopt a political platform that does not meet the material demands of either group. The only way to resolve this contradiction, according to Memmi, is “leaving the colony and its privileges…by ceasing to be a colonizer, he will put an end to his contradiction and uneasiness” (88).
Memmi’s argument continues to pose problems for leftist organizing in the modern day United States. The concept of being a “colonizer who refuses” may find more recent representation in Accomplices Not Allies, which encourages those in solidarity with indigenous struggle to resist the privilege of their settler position by taking risks that place them in clear opposition to the state, making themselves a target of state hostility regardless of race, class or gender identity. From this perspective, colonizers and settlers disrupt the social hierarchy not by leaving, but by wholeheartedly and actively rejecting the legitimacy of state and social relations that enforce it. This approach also functions as a critique of “ally” politics, in which white settlers participate in struggles as outsiders with no stake in the outcome of resistance. Because of this, they tend to tokenize black and indigenous leaders without meaningful political engagement, ignoring the obvious fact that people of color have diverse political orientations and interests. This method of solidarity leads to political incoherence and instability.
It is clear that territorial struggles on the militant right are directly informed by the colonial narrative. The militant left rejects colonialism, but their internal practices reflect the contradictions of “the colonizer who refuses”-a group of settlers who ascribe theoretically to the anti-colonial struggle, yet reinforce it internally to the overall detriment of the movement. From here, it is necessary to envision a political project that engages working class people in resistance without obscuring the ways in which settler colonialism shapes the political and economic landscape. What future, if any, do white settlers of any class have in North America?
In “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”, Eve Tuck and K.W. Yang (2012) caution against the trend toward rendering decolonization a symbolic process. Particularly relevant to this paper is Tuck and Yang’s assertion that actual decolonization does, in fact, require settlers to give up their claims to land and the wealth produced through its occupation. As they state, “Decolonization eliminates settler property rights and settler sovereignty. It requires the abolitio of land as property and upholds the sovereignty of Native land and people” (26). Importantly, attacks on ‘wealth inequality’ without an accompanying challenge to settler colonialism reinforce settlers’ legitimacy. These efforts redistribute wealth but do not remedy the theft and displacement that produced it.
This is ultimately a call for radical left groups of all tendencies to engage critically with the forms settler colonialism takes currently, and to think reflectively about the ways in which radical left spaces reinforce the power dynamics of settler colonialism-as well as the ways in which these power dynamics are being confronted and disrupted. This work is necessary in order to develop a material (not symbolic) program for dismantling settler colonialism in the United States. This will require a radical transformation of the way we understand just distributions of wealth, as well as the capacity to communicate this message convincingly to people who have a concrete interest in retaining their control over this wealth.
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 See Alexander Reid Ross (link below)