Sunday, September 6, 2015

Black Lives Matter and Groups Outside the Mainstream

Black Lives Matter has been met with conservative outrage from the start, and often with unfounded accusations.  They have been called a hate group and accused of inciting violence against police. And a number have protested that chaos would reign if we abolished police departments altogether.  But Black Lives Matter is not proposing to eliminate police forces, but merely to hold them accountable with a platform well within the mainstream of civil libertarianism.  More realistically, many police would probably complain that one reason for their rough behavior in minority neighborhoods is that crime rates there are genuinely high, that a lot of firepower is aimed against them, and that they feel genuinely threatened and besieged.  They would propose that the community has an obligation to reach out to them, to stop treating them with such hostility, to cooperate better, and to cut back on the firepower.  Black Lives Matter might respond with a "you go first," but I assume that they would basically agree that there is too much firepower in their neighborhoods.

All of which leads to another movement, well outside the mainstream, that would disagree, that does see police as altogether unnecessary, and that believes that more firepower is always the answer to any social problem.  I refer, of course, to the militia/patriot movement.  I have a certain tap-in to groups somewhere along the fringe between radical libertarian and anarchist from a Facebook friend who does not belong to any militias herself, but is a clear sympathizer with them.  She regularly posts accounts of police brutality, accompanied with appropriate denunciation, but not accompanied by any acknowledgment that police do anything other than brutalize.  And these libertarian/anarchists make no secret of their viewpoint -- they do not consider the police to have any legitimate function, and they want to eliminate the office altogether.  They definitely favor decriminalizing not only drugs, but all minor "broken windows" or "quality of life" issues.  Urinating in public, disturbing neighbors with loud noises, and the like are appropriate expressions of individual liberty and nobody else's business.  As for what to replace police with, proposals have ranged from talking things over with your neighbors (great if it works, what if it doesn't) to a neighborhood watch (though with the acknowledgement after the Trayvon Martin shooting that a neighborhood watch can degenerate into vigilantes).  Most recently they have proposed replacing the police with a private security firm citing an alleged instance in which this was highly successful.  Cited advantages -- they lack the authority of the state behind them and therefore have no power beyond the power to make a citizen's arrest, they cannot arrest for misdemeanors, they are paid less than regular police, do not have a union or lobby, and have much less employee protection.

This story is overblown, but it is a rather mild example of the libertarian/anarchist perspective.  More significantly libertarian/anarchists are great champions of the militia movement, even if they do not belong themselves.  They strenuously deny that there is anything racist about the militia movement and assume that so long as it is not racist, what could possibly be wrong with it?  Certainly it is assumed that the more firepower police have, the more dangerous they are, while the more firepower private citizens have, the more virtuous and liberty-loving they are.  For police to look like an army is an outrage.  For private citizens to look like an army is very much a thing to be desired.  And as for the suggestion that private armies might not respect the liberty of outsiders -- now that's just crazy talk!

All of this reached an interesting culture clash when heavily armed members of the Oath Keepers militia showed up in Ferguson for the anniversary protests.  Their presence was not welcome.  Black Ferguson residents resented the fact that white men could get away with being so menacing looking while the police automatically reacted hostilely to any armed black person.  The police described their presence as "inflammatory."  The Oath Keepers apparently originally showed up as bodyguards for a like-minded radio reporter, but they joined the protests and proposed to arm the protesters, saying that their only safety from police brutality was to be as heavily gunned as the police.  They did not receive a friendly reception.  Most Ferguson residents considered armed confrontation with the police to be suicidal.  Certainly my libertarian/anarchist Facebook friend is a big fan of heavily armed guards marching alongside protesters to protect them from the police.

There are, however, any number of good reasons why black people might not like the idea of teaming up with the militia movement.

The militia government focuses heavily on the Federal Government as the enemy:  Some more mainstream member of the states' rights wing of libertarianism acknowledged that this approach has limited appeal with black people.  Clive Bundy, for instance, apparently belongs to a group that believes that the federal government has no legitimate law enforcement powers, and that the highest authority is the local sheriff.  The federal government is presumed always to be oppressive and local sheriffs are presumed never to be oppressive.  But black people have historically looked to the federal government as protector from the oppressive county sheriff.  Nor is this just historical.  Most black people's complaints about police brutality to this day are about their local police and not the federal government.  Bundy and his friends do not appear ever to have considered this.

Alternately, the militia movement may assume that government at all levels is oppressive, but private paramilitaries are always virtuous.  This has not been most black people's experience, to put it mildly. Nor is this concern altogether historical, either.  Even if we dismiss armed racists and vigilantes as ancient history, the main "paramilitaries" in most black neighborhoods have been street gangs, not notably respectful of other people's liberty.

The militia makes an overly binary distinction between "good guys" (us) and "bad guys" (government).  My guess is, that solidarity in the face of police abuse notwithstanding, most black people do not have any illusion that everyone in their neighborhood is a "good guy" who should automatically be trusted with a gun, or that ever-escalating arms races offer any sort of security.  See also the above point.

Finally, black people are probably more realistic that the Oath Keepers about what will be tolerated from black versus white people, and in urban versus rural areas.  The reaction of the more mainstream right is instructive here.  Clive Bundy, after all, had plenty of champions in the mainstream right, including a Nevada Governor and Senator, five members of the Arizona Legislature, and Sean Hannity on Fox, even though Bundy held radical views on the illegitimacy of the federal government these mainstream figures presumably did not share.  When confronted with Bundy's radical and racial views, his more mainstream champions pointed out that you do not have to agree with his politics to champion his rights against a rather heavy-handed federal government.  As for a large, heavily armed paramilitary pointing guns at law enforcement and making them back off -- well that could still be seen as regular citizens standing up to oppression.  Less emphasized -- that the paramilitaries were not so saintly as they liked to think -- that many locals found them intimidating, and that they soon began quarreling among themselves and threatening each other with violence (though stopping short of anything but fists).

Mainstream right wing reaction to Black Lives Matter has been something different altogether.  Even before riots broke out, merely marching and chanting slogan was enough to make the mainstream right freak out and proclaim the police to be under siege.  Can you imagine what they would have done if the protesters had been heavily armed, formed a paramilitary company, and backed the police out of their neighborhoods?  Libertarian/anarchists might have applauded.  Fox News and Republican politicians, not so much.  Furthermore, Ferguson might have found out that being ruled by a black militia might not be all that great, either.  (Many white rural residents have not liked a militia presence all that much).  All-in-all, it seems safe to assume that most Americans would have viewed the development with alarm.  Most black people would expect as much.

Nor would any of this be new.  It would simply be a recycling of the story of the Black Panthers.  At least according to David Frum, it was the Black Panthers who originated the whole idea of a law-abiding paramilitary.  As Frum puts it:
There had been previous cases where Americans organized themselves into anti-governmental paramilitary forces. But in the past, these forces recognized themselves as illegal: that's why the Ku Klux Klan of the late 1860s wore hoods. . . . What was different about the Black Panthers, at least at the start, was the pains they took to organize their militia movement within the law.
They scrupulously followed California's firearms laws, which allowed openly carrying long guns so long as they were not pointed at anyone.  Heavily armed, they trailed the police, observing arrests and making sure there was no police brutality.  Heavily armed, they marched onto the floor of the California Legislature and expressed indignation that anyone would see them as a threat or an attempt to intimidate.

Two things happened.  One was that the white power establishment freaked out.  Willing to cooperate with the peaceful Civil Rights movement, it regarded heavily armed black men forming their own private army -- even a law-abiding private army -- as a different matter altogether and cracked down. The other was that the Black Panthers were not able to maintain their status as a law-abiding private army.  Lots of guns, swaggering machismo, and an ideology that basically glorified violence while stopping short of actually committing it proved to be too great a temptation. They ended up degenerating into police shootouts, terrorism, and in-fighting.

The younger generation may or may not know all the details of this history.  But they have a realistic grasp of what the reaction to a black urban militia would be.  

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