Disclaimer: This Comment gets a bit theoretical. Be patient and plow through. I think it will be helpful.
One of the difficulties of discussing politics and violence is that we have a tendency to make it a black and white issue. We ask, “Is political violence good or bad?” Whatever the answer, it spawns disagreement and the examination of political violence stops there. Nuance dies and there is room for little more than crude explanation. We rely on tropes and clichés to define what is happening. Vandalism is conflated with physical harm done to people. Violence used in self-defense is treated the same as offensive violence.
A yes/no debate on violence also tends to ignore violence by those in power. The government, police, and right-wing supporters escape responsibility for participating and/or initiating violence. The blame and responsibility for political violence is placed on the traditionally powerless. The rare times that we accept that police are capable of political violence, we muddy the discussion with Yeah, but’s, i.e. “Yeah, but the protesters are violent, too. Yeah, but a protester smashed a window.” Police beating protesters is framed as a reaction by the police, not an initiated action. The knee of the neck on a dying man is framed as “one bad apple,” and not a political act of repression.
It is unfortunate but understandable that we strip police violence of political meaning. All our lives, we’ve been taught that police are apolitical public servants, who do not have an overt or even covert political agenda. Even when police spy on political organizations, frame activists, or assassinate political leaders, we avoid labeling such acts political. We learn that police are here to “protect and serve,” but we fail to ask “Protect and serve whom, for what reason, and why?”
Similarly, we tend to either downplay or deny political motivation by authoritarians or those on the right who commit political violence. Curiously, we also fail to label authoritarian/right-wing violence as criminal. Lacking a political or criminal motive, authoritarian/right-wing violence is either ignored or viewed as unremarkable and unworthy of discussion. Like the sun rising in the East, authoritarian/right-wing violence is treated as part of the natural order of things. Thus, outside academic circles, we fail to discuss and define authoritarian/right-wing violence so, when such violence occurs, we are left without the means to understand it.
Lacking context and a frame of reference, our need to understand finds nothing but a vacuum which our most primal emotions seek to fill. When violence triggers warnings of danger, our default emotional reaction is fear. Our defenses react to the fear by either lashing out or retreating, i.e. fight or flight. Because our fear of authoritarian/right-wing political violence is compounded by little to no understanding of why or what is happening, we panic. When that panic is public, we become fear’s super-spreaders. What results is mass retreat and political disengagement.
While the authoritarian/right-wing might not explain political violence as I just did, they very much understand that violence and the threat of violence are tools of coercion. When used in an organized manner, the threat and the action of political violence keeps people from participating in social and civic spheres. The authoritarian/right-wing knows that when its members act like the violent guy in the pit, the pit clears and becomes their own.
What follows is an attempt to analyze and frame authoritarian/right-wing political violence. The flat tone that follows is an attempt to create a clear picture of what is happening and should not be mistaken for dispassion or dismissal.
Certainly, armed right-wing militia members show up at protests ready to get violent, but generally their goal is not action but intimidation. Most often, the intimidation is meant to be prescriptive. Right-wing thugs with guns show up to a progressive protest today in order to keep activists from protesting tomorrow. Once the authoritarians are able to establish fear of their future actions – real or imagined, intended or bluff – they are free to script peoples’ reactions with threats, hoping that by merely threatening, they can get their way.
In the last six months, we’ve seen many displays of authoritarian/right-wing threats of violence. Armed “freedom fighters” storming the Michigan state house to challenge health-requirements is a threat of violence. Armed, self-appointed guardians “protecting” buildings during protests is a threat of violence. Armed “patriot” strangers flooding a town square or an historical site to defend an “antifa invasion” is a threat of violence. Even creating and publicizing a Facebook event calling for “patriotic citizens” to gather armed at a protest to protect the “liberty” expressed in the form of a Confederate statue is a threat of violence. Every single one of these threats is an attempt to intimidate, to use the minimum effort of a threat for the maximum gain of limiting our participation in the political process.
When authoritarian/right-wing political violence happens, it is usually unplanned or individual. When an organized group plans political violence it most often happens as ritual, a dance between “two sides,” much like a “gang fight.” Three examples of unplanned, individual, and ritual violence are recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon. Let’s start in Kenosha.
On August 23, Jacob Blake, a Black civilian, was shot in the back seven times by Rusten Sheskey, a White police officer. The shooting set off a series of protests, which prompted police attacks on protesters, as well as protesters vandalizing property. Images of the violence, coupled with President Trump’s “law & order” re-election strategy, fed the “Cities on Flame” narrative dominant in right-wing and mainstream media. The narrative begged a response.
On August 24, a group of armed White men answered a social media call to come to Kenosha to “protect the city.” One of the men who responded to the call was Illinois-resident and Trump-superfan Kyle Rittenhouse, who arrived with an assault rifle. One day after his arrival, while “patrolling” the streets with his rifle, Rittenhouse got into a conflict with protesters and open fired. Protesters attempted to disarm Rittenhouse, who responded by shooting two more people. In total, Rittenhouse murdered two people and seriously injured one.
Rittenhouse might have gone to Kenosha sincerely believing that his “job” was to “protect” people and property. He might have gone to Kenosha with a desire to shoot someone. Or, perhaps, he went to Kenosha to protect and kill. Whatever the case, the shootings appear to have been unplanned, the result of an unstable, deluded, right-winger with a gun, enabled by Kenosha law enforcement’s acceptance armed vigilantes. Whatever Rittenhouse’s intent, his was a crime of opportunity, not a lay-in-wait, ambush, or purely offensive situation. He was ready to kill, but not without a trigger.
In this way, Rittenhouse’s crime is similar to that of James Field, the white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right counter-protest. Fields went to Charlottesville to participate in a far-right march and rally. That the event would turn violent was predictable. That Fields would use a speeding car as a weapon was not. Fields might have wanted to kill, but the murder he committed was “See protester, kill protester,” not a planned attack coordinated with others.
A good example of planned political violence by an individual happened in Oakland and Ben Lomond, California last Spring. On May 29, using George Floyd protests as a cover, former Air Force sergeant Steven Carrillo gunned down a federal officer guarding the Oakland federal building, in a drive-by shooting. On June 6, police went to Carrillo’s Santa Cruz county home to arrest him. Carrillo was laying in wait. He attacked police with explosives and shot and killed one officer.
Carrillo was inspired by the “Boogaloo Movement,” an internet trend that advocates fomenting revolution by staging individual armed attacks. Carrillo met the driver in the Oakland attack online, a man named Robert Justus. However, evidence available suggests that Carrillo planned and coordinated his political violence alone, seeing himself as part of a greater movement.
Carrillo’s individual, planned political violence is reminiscent of Dylann Roof’s racist attack. On June 17, 2015, Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the middle of a Bible study session. The gunman waited a while and then open fired on the congregation, murdering nine African American church goers. His goal was similar to Carillo’s: Roof wanted to start a war.
Over the summer, Portland, Oregon has been the scene of continuous protests against police violence. In an attempt to boost his popularity, President Donald Trump sent secret police to Portland, to attack protesters and create footage he could use in his re-election campaign. Far-right members of the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, militia, and white supremacist organizations slipped into Portland to help create chaos. Trump got his footage but was unable to “dominate” the protesters or turn public opinion. On July 30, federal police were ordered home. The far-right stayed and continued to attack Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters.
On August 29, members of Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and others formed a 600-vehicle caravan in Clackamas, Oregon, and, with a police escort, drove out of town, across the county line to Portland. From their vehicles, they fired paint balls and pepper spray at BLM protesters. Portland and state police stood by and watched. Fights broke out between the right-wingers and protesters. By the end of the night one person was shot dead (no information is available about the shooting).
Right-wing political violence in Portland was not only planned by Patriot Prayer and others, it is part of an ongoing conflict between the far-right and anti-fascists, one that, over the past decade, has played out in “gang fights.” While the right-wing plan of attack doesn’t seem to have a clear strategic aim, it is neither random nor diffused. It is intentionally focused on anti-fascist activists and, now, members of Black Lives Matter. The attacks tend to occur at protests either organized by BLM and anti-fascists or the far-right. The police, who have been in contact with Patriot Prayer and others, either stand down or attack progressive/left-wing protesters. No one is surprised when violence occurs. The conflicts are now ritualistic in nature. They are also growing in volume and intensity.
While authoritarian/right-wing incidents of violence are not limited to unplanned, individual, and ritualistic attacks, these are the three dominant forms that such political violence takes. Things can change. In the future, we could see authoritarian/right-wing plan group attacks on random targets – or we might not. No one can predict the possibility or probability of targeted, strategic right-wing political violence. This is an unknown, an unknown that we must not fill with fear.
Political violence and the threat of political violence are nothing new. When properly framed, we see political violence in European colonialists’ attacks on the indigenous population. The Salem Witch Trials were political. Racism, created to justify the slave system, is political. From White pioneers shooting Indians from passing stage coaches, to Ku Klux Klan burning churches, to Southern police clubbing Civil Rights protesters on the Edmond Pettus Bridge, to police attacks on protesters at the 1968 or 1984 Democratic National Conventions, American history is wealthy with acts of political violence.
We see the threat of political violence by the authoritarian/right-wing, including those in government, in anti-immigrant hysteria in the late 1800s, the lynching of Blacks, Italians, and Catholics, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, the Southern Strategy, Reagan-era anti-communism, the Culture War, and so on. In every one of these cases, the danger of the left was hyped and the prescription to that that danger was an authoritarian/right-wing threat of violence, i.e. “If you don’t stop being bad, we will beat you.”
As November’s election approaches, we will see more and more misinformation and disinformation from the right-wing. Part of the mis- and disinformation campaign will be threats of violence or allusions to threats of violence. These threats will take the form of whisper campaigns which hint that danger is afoot. We will read warnings by “respected journalists” about militias planning to attack polling places. Because the “warnings” are speculation, they do not come with supporting evidence or specific dates, times, or places. We will see Republican Party “poll watchers” sent to intimidate voters under the cover of “fraud prevention.” Because these threats of violence are not overt, are made second-hand, and related through right-wing media, they are not treated as threats even when they clearly are. The difference in the fear felt when some says “I think Joe is going to shoot you if you keep that up” and Joe saying “Keep that up and I am going to shoot” is minimal.
To protect ourselves from fear and intimidation, we must be able to identify the nature of the political violence we see and experience, and to differentiate real violence from the threat of violence. We also must understand that threats of violence do not have to be direct. An allusion of a threat in the form of a sly suggestion that violence might occur here or there, now or then, should be understood as a threat.
No threats should be treated as a factual prediction of the future. Every threat must be measured and evaluated. Once examined, if the threat is credible, it must be measured for risk. Those engaged in politics decide if a threat is more important than the political work that inspires the threat. Thus, if someone threatens to beat up people at the polling place, first, we assess whether, in fact, that person is full of shit and actually has the capability to beat up people. If the threat is real, we must ask if the risk of getting beat up is worth preserving the freedom to vote or even freedom itself. Nowhere in that examination is there room for fear to dominate. Submit to fear and we lose everything without putting up a fight.