The growing and persistent anti-racism protests in the United States have faced opposition from two primary quarters.
US President Donald Trump, representing the federal government, has vociferously attacked the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, denouncing it as a “Marxist-inspired” plot.
The second source of opposition does not originate from the US authorities, but has been encouraged by federal and state law enforcement.
White nationalist militia and vigilante groups – organised loosely as “Blue Lives Matter” – have violently confronted BLM protesters, usually with the connivance of the police. These racist militia groups – which are accurately described as racist terrorist organisations – trace their ideological origins to the mass white racist violence directed against African American and anti-racist movements for greater equality.
Armed ultra-rightist militia groups have long vented their vitriol against federal government tyranny. They have denounced what they consider the steady erosion of individual liberties and accumulation of power by the US federal government. Stockpiling military-grade weapons was rationalised as a necessary backstop measure to fight an impending battle for freedom and the “true” US constitution. How ironic it is that these white vigilante groups are currently fighting alongside US law enforcement agencies, and have a friend in the White House.
Indeed, white terrorist vigilantes have helped to enforce the very tyranny they claim to oppose – omitting to mention that they are the shock troops of white racist tyrannical order.
White nationalism has produced radicalised killers in the past, and the latest, Kyle Rittenhouse, is no exception. The 17 year old Rittenhouse travelled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he murdered two people. He did this with the approval of his parents, and under the watchful eye of the police. This was a killing motivated by the political agenda of the racist Right, enabled by the gun-toting militia groups that have rallied against the BLM protests.
People such as Rittenhouse do not emerge out of nowhere. They are created by a culture of armed white vigilantism, police connivance and facilitation of racist violence, and the circulation of racially-paranoid conspiracy theories. Throughout US history, the lines between law enforcement and white vigilantism have always been blurry. In fact, white vigilante racism has found a friendly and reception environment in the police.
Trump has done his utmost to encourage the far-right militia groups, rationalising their actions and expressing a broad ideological continuity with the white nationalist philosophy that underscores them. Hostility to the BLM protests, and the issues of systemic racism and economic disparities they have raised, has united the various strands of the ultra-nationalist right.
When far-right militia organisations were protesting the COVID-19 lockdown measures implemented by various states, Trump tweeted his support for the collection of anti-quarantine groups, encouraging them to “liberate” their respective states. Trump has recycled white nationalist conspiracy theories, pushing unsubstantiated and outlandish claims about the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and attacking BLM as a result of a socialist plot funded by George Soros.
White vigilantism is nothing new in US history. As a colonial-settler project, white nationalism requires the cultivation of a culture of pre-emptive violence, particularly against the indigenous people, but also against ethnic minorities. Jonathan Obert, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, wrote that white vigilantism has been an adjunct of US law enforcement, upholding racial and economics hierarchies.
When ultra-nationalist militias have struck out to enforce white supremacy, law enforcement agencies have, at best, kept their response muted and quiescent. During the civil rights movement, when white vigilante mobs attacked black communities, police authorities quietly kept their distance, allowing the perpetrators to commit their crimes.
Vigilante violence flares up as an armed response to the assertion of African American communities and their demands for equality and representation. Police authorities have a long history of active collaboration with armed militia groups, and it is not only in the “Deep South” where the lines between law enforcement and racist vigilantism are blurred. Bigotry has marched proudly through the streets of the ostensibly liberal North.
Ishaan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post, states that ultra-nationalist terror groups are becoming more mainstreamed under the Trump administration by posing as “victims” of encroaching black and ethnic minority power. Fear-laden manifestos, issued by white racist killers, speak to a culture of reactionary grievances and racially-resentful driven politics.
The eruption of xenophobic nationalism, encouraged and used by the police, exposes the racist underbelly of US capitalism. Indeed, racism and capitalism are conjoined twins, relying on and sustaining each other.
It is time to revisit the writings of WEB Du Bois, who spoke about the colour line as the great unspoken division of modern society. The surge of ultra-rightist extremism is not outside of the mainstream in US society.