During the two most successful American protest movements in my lifetime, you never saw a demonstrator carrying a gun. The civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam sit-ins employed political activism, songs, and signs to spread their messages. Even in the face of bigoted cops, vicious dogs, and weaponized firehoses, the non-violent tactics worked.
The Vietnam War ended largely because of the unrelenting protests on college campuses, in the streets of Washington, DC, and all across America. Folk ballads and leaflets were the weapons of choice. The only guns used were the ones callously fired by the Ohio National Guard against peaceful anti-war kids at Kent State University.
The incredible advances made in the civil rights era came not from military-style tactics by gun-toting Black militias but from the courageous and dignified men and women of color like the late John Lewis and Rosa Parks, who sat holding only her purse on a segregated Alabama bus.
Conversely, the protests this spring to reopen Michigan, Oregon, and elsewhere during the coronavirus pandemic were some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve witnessed in recent history.
As MSNBC commentator Steve Schmidt tweeted, “Let’s be clear about something. Camo-clad paramilitary fetishists festooned in tactical gear and carrying assault rifles storming our state capitols while ‘protesting’ is obscene. It is an assault on the sanctity of representative democracy and our American system.”
Things have only deteriorated since Schmidt’s tweet. Wannabe stormtroopers are front and center during the recent protests against racial injustice and police brutality in Portland, where long rifle-toting right-wing militias have clashed with demonstrators.
Their objective is clearly transparent: to ignite a civil war along the red versus blue political battle lines that President Donald Trump has so blatantly encouraged. His goal is to stoke enough fear among undecided swing voters to win another term this November.
Guns have also surfaced most horribly, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a 17-year-old white Trump supporter from Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly murdered two innocent protestors with a Smith & Wesson AR-15 style .223 rifle, a gun he had no legal right to own.
Rittenhouse has since become a cause célèbre among the most virulent of the right-wing echo chamber, being reinvented as a courageous patriot that traveled to Wisconsin to protect the city from the demonstrators.
President Trump, never one to miss a moment to cleave Americans further apart, defended the arrested murderer, “They very violently attacked him…I guess he was in very big trouble, he probably would have been killed.”
Trump did not clarify who “they” was, but his implication was that they deserved to be slaughtered. No doubt a presidential pardon is in the offing and perhaps an appearance at a Trump campaign rally. After all, this is the year 2020.
Also worth noting is the shift in Trump’s rhetoric. In the aftermath of the 2017 Charlottesville white power rally, when tiki-carrying racists chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” Trump employed a moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and the counter-demonstrators. He said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Today, however, he never misses a moment to label racial justice demonstrators as “thugs” and that the Black Lives Matter supporters as part of a “Marxist organization.” Very fine people now only exist if they support Trump’s dystopian vision.
I admit I’ve been naïve. I had no idea about the assortment of military-style assault weapons Americans are allowed to legally own and openly carry. I can imagine Vietnam veterans wishing they had possessed those same long guns when they were splashing through a soggy rice field with an M-16 that often jammed during battle and consequently being slaughtered like so much cannon fodder.
Now guns are all the rage among Trump supporters to protest, among other things, mandates requiring Americans to wear masks, or people of color demanding equal treatment from law enforcement and justice from the courts.
No governor or mayor has ever suggested suspending the 2nd Amendment, confiscating guns, or imposing martial law. Yet, in March, more guns were bought in the United States than ever before: around two million, roughly, sadly, the same amount as were purchased in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders and President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2008.
Fuming Macho Men
What gives? Was the initial toilet paper shortage the “trigger” that led these GI Joe wannabes to rush out to their neighborhood gun store and grab the latest AR-15? Is it the fear that people of color will finally get justice instead of bullets that brings out the macho men? Is it this kind of imagined domestic Armageddon exactly what these paranoid jack-booted men want?
Whatever legitimate complaints they have are overshadowed by the real threat of a mass shooting by one of their own. We know it only takes one Tim McVeigh nutcase to go off at one of these rallies.
Someone like Kyle Rittenhouse.
These fuming macho men decked out in Soldier of Fortune gear and red MAGA hats waving Confederate flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners seem just a hair’s breadth away from emptying the magazines on their AKs. I mean, why else do they own those guns if not to hunt humans?
Despite their fury, they appear well-fed with ample resources for brand new pickup trucks, expensive weapons, body armor, and ammo. The practical side of me would suggest to them that they should have saved the money they just spent in those gun stores for a tumultuous economic time like this one, but who dares argue with an angry male wielding a loaded gun?Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.