Disturbing the Peace

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 225 years ago. It states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So let’s consider the Oxford Dictionary definition of “militia”:

A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. “creating a militia was no answer to the army’s manpower problem”

Now let’s read who showed up last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as reported by The Guardian:

With their loaded assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, combat boots and helmets, it looked like the US army had descended on the pretty college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, as a white supremacy rally turned violent last weekend.

The military did officially turn up, in fact, in the form of the Virginia national guard, called into service to back up the police when a state of emergency was declared at 11am on Saturday morning….

But they were not the most visible or heavily armed soldier types [present]. That distinction goes to the militia [sic] members brought together as a unit from a handful of the hundreds of unofficial paramilitary groups that have long thrived across America due to the second amendment’s directive: “A well regulated Militia….”

With their trigger fingers ready on their loaded, battlefield-style rifles, held across heavy-duty body armour, these quasi-troops turned heads as they murmured to each other via radios and headsets.

The men in charge of the 32 militia members who came to Charlottesville from six states to form a unit with the mission of “defending free speech” were Christian Yingling, the commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, and his “second in command” on the day, George Curbelo, the commanding officer of the New York Light Foot Militia.

“We spoke to the Charlottesville police department beforehand and offered to come down there and help with security,” Yingling told the Guardian.

“They said: ‘We cannot invite you in an official capacity, but you are welcome to attend,’ and they gave us an escort into the event,” he added.

Gun laws vary from state to state and even city to city, but Virginia has one of the most relaxed sets of laws in the US. It is legal for civilians to carry weapons openly, including intimidating assault rifles loaded with 30-round magazines, which the Light Foots – but not the police or official military – carried during the Charlottesville event….

Curbelo praised his militia unit…. “We were de-escalating things and treating people injured on all sides, until we were hugely outnumbered,” he said, although he noted: “If I saw me coming at me in all my gear, I would find it intimidating.” 

This is insane. Private citizens who enjoy getting together and pretending to be soldiers are not a “well-regulated militia”. They aren’t a “militia” at all, no matter what they call themselves. A better word for these idiots is “paramilitary”:

Organized similarly to a military force. “illegal paramilitary groups”

Even if some right-wing fool on the local police force said they’d be welcome (“Come on down. Bring the biggest guns you have. The more the merrier!”), they had no business being in Charlottesville. The city police, the Virginia state police and, if necessary, the National Guard were responsible for keeping the peace. 

Furthermore, the law says these paramilitary groups are illegal. From Philip Zelikow, a lawyer and history professor, at the Lawfare blog:

For those close to the action, including the law enforcement personnel on duty, hardly any aspect of the Charlottesville confrontation was more menacing than the appearance of organized, often uniformed, private bands of men in military getups, openly brandishing assault rifles and other long guns.

This is an ominous development, but it is not a new one. And it can be—and has been—countered with legal action. I took part in that work.

In 1981 an organization called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized and trained paramilitary groups to harass Vietnamese-American fishermen on the Texas Gulf coast. They, too, wore Army-surplus-style clothes and gear, not white sheets. Working with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Berg and I represented the fishermen in a federal lawsuit against the Klan. We invoked a Texas law more than a century old that banned “military companies” other than those authorized by the governor. There are similar laws in most states, including Virginia.

We asked the judge to shut down the Klan’s paramilitary activities.  Since this law had never been interpreted, we developed a legal standard to define the barred activity…We focused on private efforts to create a military or paramilitary organization that had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.”

Expert witnesses explained how the group’s activities met the standard. The Texas attorney general urged the judge to accept our application of the law.  The judge … granted our request and in 1982 shut down the training activities…. The order worked. 

Our approach was used again in 1985 and 1986 when the Southern Poverty Law Center took legal action against the Carolina Knights of the KKK and its successor, the White Patriots Party. After they violated court orders, a jury found the organization and its leaders guilty of criminal contempt. The leaders were jailed….

The problem arose again during the 1990s as self-styled militias organized in several states. Morris and I published an op-ed in the New York Times in May 1995 to review the legal option of restricting the activity of private military groups. That danger subsided, after many lives had been lost—above all, in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 

But the danger is rising again, as my town, the nation and the world can plainly see.

The Second Amendment arguments can be—and have been—overcome.  Individuals may have a right to bear arms for self-defense, but they do not have a right to organize and train as a private military group. In 1886 the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for controlling what the Second Amendment calls a “well-regulated Militia,” when it held that “[m]ilitary operations and military drill are subjects especially under the control of the government of every country.  They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law.” A New York appellate court noted in 1944: “The inherent potential danger of any organized private militia is obvious. Its existence would be sufficient, without more, to prevent a democratic form of government, such as ours, from functioning freely, without coercion”….

The language of Virginia’s Constitution is clear. While “a well regulated militia” is valued, including what state law calls the “unorganized militia,” the Constitution stresses that, “in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

Well, when truckloads of organized groups of heavily armed men drive into my town—or your town—it is time to uphold the civil power. Virginia, like most states, has the legal power to stop them. And the precedents are on the books.

Amen.

“Antifa” Stands for Anti-Fascist

Until a few days ago, I’d never heard the term “antifa”. It’s a word that refers to the anti-fascists, anti-racists who believe in direct action against fascists and racists, including violence at times. From an article in The Washington Post by the historian Mark Bray:

Antifa are autonomous anti-racist groups that monitor and track the activities of local neo-Nazis. They expose them to their neighbors and employers, they conduct public education campaigns, they support migrants and refugees and they pressure venues to cancel white power events.

The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.

Antifascists argue that. after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late… The first antifascists fought Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts in the Italian countryside, exchanged fire with Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts in the taverns and alleyways of Munich and defended Madrid from Francisco Franco’s insurgent nationalist army….

In the United States and Canada, activists of the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) doggedly pursued Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists from the late 1980s into the 2000s. Their motto was simple but bold: “We go where they go.” If Nazi skinheads handed out leaflets at a punk show in Indiana about how “Hitler was right,” ARA was there to show them the door. If fascists plastered downtown Alberta’s Edmonton with racist posters, ARA tore them down and replaced them with anti-racist slogans.

Responding to small fascist groups may seem trivial to some, but the rise of Hitler and Mussolini show that resistance is not a light switch that can simply be flipped on in a crisis. Once the Nazi and fascist parties gained control of government, it was too late to pull the emergency brake.

In retrospect, antifascists have concluded, it would have been much easier to stop Mussolini back in 1919 when his first fascist nucleus had 100 men. Or to stamp out the far-right German Workers’ Party, which had only 54 members when Hitler attended his first meeting, before he transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party). Though the regimes that inspired their original protests are long dead, antifascists have devoted themselves to treating small fascist and Nazi groups as if they could be the nucleus of a murderous movement or regime of the future….

Years before the alt-right even had a name, antifascists were spending thankless hours scouring seedy message boards and researching clandestine neo-Nazi gatherings. They were tracking those who planted the seeds of the death that we all witnessed in Charlottesville….Behind the masks, antifa are nurses, teachers, neighbors, and relatives of all races and genders who do not hesitate to put themselves on the line to shut down fascism by any means necessary.

At The Atlantic, another professor, Peter Beinart, expresses concern about antifa’s occasional use of violence and threats of violence, but points out that there is no equivalence between the antifa movement and the neo-nazis they fight:

Antifa activists are sincere. They genuinely believe that their actions protect vulnerable people from harm. Cornel West claims they did so in Charlottesville. But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists … can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing “red MAGA hats” marched alongside the local Republican Party….

But saying it’s a problem is vastly different than implying … that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase “alt-left” suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.

For starters, while antifa perpetrates violence, it doesn’t perpetrate it on anything like the scale that white nationalists do. It’s no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer—and not an antifa activist—who committed murder in Charlottesville. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.

Second, antifa activists don’t wield anything like the alt-right’s power. White, Christian supremacy has been government policy in the United States for much of American history. Anarchism has not. That’s why there are no statues of Mikhail Bakunin in America’s parks and government buildings. Antifa boasts no equivalent to Steve Bannon [or] to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who bears the middle name of a Confederate general and the first name of the Confederacy’s president, and who allegedly called the NAACP “un-American.” It boasts no equivalent to Alex Jones, who Donald Trump praised as “amazing.” Even if antifa’s vision of society were as noxious as the “alt-right’s,” it has vastly less power to make that vision a reality.

And antifa’s vision is not as noxious. Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery. They’re mostly anarchists. Anarchism may not be a particularly practical ideology. But it’s not an ideology that depicts the members of a particular race or religion as subhuman.

CNN has an article with a brief video. The video includes a reporter talking to a group of masked antifa people in Oregon. It’s CNN, and I didn’t read the whole article, but their treatment of the movement seems even-handed. Democracy Now! has an extended interview with Mark Bray, who I quoted above. Part 1 is here. The second part is here.

The New York Times has an article too:

Last weekend, when a 27-year-old bike messenger showed up at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., he came ready for battle. He joined a human chain that stretched in front of Emancipation Park and linked his arms with others, blocking waves of white supremacists — some of them in full Nazi regalia — from entering.

“As soon as they got close,” said the young man, who declined to give his real name and goes by Frank Sabaté after the famous Spanish anarchist, “they started swinging clubs, fists, shields. I’m not embarrassed to say that we were not shy in defending ourselves”….

The closest thing antifa may have to a guiding principle is that ideologies it identifies as fascistic or based on a belief in genetic inferiority cannot be reasoned with and must be physically resisted. Its adherents express disdain for mainstream liberal politics, seeing it as inadequately muscular, and tend to fight the right through what they call “direct actions” rather than relying on government authorities.

“When you look at this grave and dangerous threat — and the violence it has already caused — is it more dangerous to do nothing and tolerate it, or should we confront it?” Frank Sabaté said. “Their existence itself is violent and dangerous, so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical.”

By the way, ThinkProgress reports that, despite the widespread violence in Charlottesville last weekend, only eight people were arrested in connection with the white supremacist rally. That’s two more than were arrested for public drunkenness. A member of the antifa movement would almost certainly argue that those numbers show why we can’t rely on the authorities to fight fascism.