I apologize up front for this possibly meandering reflection masquerading as a newswire.
On Monday—Martin Luther King Day—tens of thousands of white men, armed to the hilt, took to the Virginia state capitol in Richmond, apparently to take back the country and their rights from all the rest of us. Writes Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
On a day set aside to celebrate a fighter for peace and human rights who was shot and killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 Remington rifle, our social media streams were filled with middle-aged white men in absurd camouflage, wearing helmets or flak jackets, some (illegally) covering their faces with masks, with assault rifles or grenade launchers or weaponry to shoot down a small aircraft strapped to their bodies. VICE News tweeted out, “Virginia declares state of emergency after armed militias threaten to storm the capitol,” making a large US state sound more like a faraway banana republic, overthrown by the latest junta.
Virginia treats the King holiday as a public “lobby day,” which makes good sense, but increasingly gun lobbyists have claimed it as their own. Though no guns were allowed in the space cordoned off for the event, the 22,000 distressed white men who showed up to answer the call of the Virginia Citizens Defense League simply stayed outside the area with guns threateningly in tow.
Bunch objects vigorously to the media’s coverage of the event as “peaceful.” He calls the action terrorism.
Think about the rights that we hold most dear as Americans. The rights to move around freely from place to place, to assemble in public and to hold rallies to air grievances, and to counter people one disagrees with by exercising free speech and giving the opposing point of view. American citizens were deprived of those basic rights on Monday—on Martin Luther King Day, of all days—by an intimidating bullying, armed mob. Do not dare call this “peaceful.”
In the context of this country’s politics and history of mass shootings, Bunch says, the rally was a threatening act.
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Some of us are old enough, however, to remember when the massively misunderstood Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) first took up carrying arms as they monitored violent police actions in Black communities. We would have been treated to the same rhetoric around terrorism then, of course. The BPP was started by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, coexisting with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and MLK until he was killed in 1968. The Black Panthers didn’t believe in gun control; they felt it was important to counter state violence by arming citizens who claimed their right to live lives unmolested by what in some communities amounted to an invading force in the police.
Even as King’s nonviolent stance could be contrasted with the BPP’s armed self-defense stance, both were targeted by the FBI as enemies of the state. And, in fact, both agreed on many points, including their positions against the Vietnam war and for economic equity for poor and working people of all races. These days, this point of view may be unpopular point, as we tend to deify King as a lone hero, but both points of view, along with other Black movements of the time, were legitimate and had widespread support.
So as much as I believe in gun control, Bunch’s column makes me uncomfortable. King was a master of positioning, and he knew better than anyone that his influence was strengthened by the existence of those who espoused more radical positions. There were many such groups, along with those who were less radical than SCLC. To King, that continuum was useful.
So, what is my point? It’s that historical context is critical. The rally may have been organized to advocate for Second Amendment rights but its ties to white supremacist groups is what makes its character terrorist. White supremacy is racialized hate, which has a virulent, violent, and oppressive history on its side.
While terrorism is often framed as a tactic primarily used by “the other” (read: “Islamic terrorism”), we forget in this country at our own peril that the deepest—and sadly, most successful—terrorism in US history involved white supremacist terrorism. If you need a refresher, I direct you to this account from Smithsonian Magazine of the mass murder by the KKK of 200 blacks seeking to vote in Louisiana in 1868.
In Richmond—lest we forget, the former capital of the Confederacy—a rally held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, primarily comprised of white men provides cover for this foul ideology. Perhaps only a tiny portion of this nation’s array of racist true believers were present, but their presence allowed other hatemongers to look more tolerable by contrast.
It may be good news that their offensive and aggressive showing in Richmond ended with no one getting shot, and the subsequent passage of “red flag” gun legislation in Virginia, but Bunch is right in saying that it is not, as some headlines implied, a peaceful end to an afternoon out. It is an overt threat with the weight of history and the current White House, which finds the show useful ballast, to judge by the tweets emanating from there. But simply countering that agenda does not work. We need an alternate vision of inclusion, equity, and collaboration to attract people in our communities—and the pursuit of such a space needs to have the integrity of the desired result.—Ruth McCambridge