Over the past three weeks the world has been watching the protests against racism that have been unfolding in the United States. The sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets out there protesting peacefully, calling for their country to live up to its promise to its citizens of equal treatment under the law, has been moving to say the least.
In response to this moment, we’ve seen governments, agencies and companies react, making big changes to do their part to be a part of the solution. We’ve seen police chiefs kneeling with protestors, NASCAR ban the Confederate Flag, the NFL make an about face on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests and states and cities taking steps to remove monuments that horror racist figures of history.
It’s been something to behold, that’s for sure and honestly sometimes it’s felt a bit surreal the speed of it, despite how much further there is to go. But the cynic in me, the part of me that expects the worst to appear has been gnawing at me too. It keeps saying that something bad will come, as much as we want to believe the best will happen. Well last night we saw an ugly example of what that worst could look like. It manifested itself in Albuquerque, New Mexico at a peaceful protest to remove a controversial sculpture that features conquistador Juan de Oñate. That lead to this scene, which speaks for itself:
For those of us who are not from the United States, scenes like that are just the kind of thing we’d never accept, so many parts of that are unacceptable. First off, the idea that you would have heavily armed vigilantes arriving at any protest is something that you normally would expect to only seen in failed states around the world. Yet in the United States, it’s become a more and more common sight, to the point where you had heavily armed “protestors” storm the Michigan State House in May. Those “protestors” faced no consequences for essentially taking over the seat of the elected government of that state for a day and faced no consequences for that act, which is in start contrast to the fully armed riot police that the protestors of the past few weeks have faced in the streets around the United States. While peaceful protestors in front of the White House were sent running with full force of tear gas and rubber bullets because a President wanted a photo op in front of a church, that other group, which was armed to the teeth, didn’t get so much as a slap on the wrist. Heck, they even had their President cheering them on from the sidelines.
That dynamic is impossible to ignore not only for the double-standard that it creates and messages that it sends, but it’s also dangerous when those messages are received and acted upon. For those heavily armed groups in places like Michigan and New Mexico, they have been sent an implicit message that if they haven’t been punished for acting like they have, then they must be justified in doing so. They have been sent the message that showing up to peaceful protests armed like you were invading a small village in some far-off land is cool because you’re doing it. At the same time, it’s sent the message that they are alright to act in policing roles, taking the law into their own hands on a regular basis. We’ve seen that happening along the U.S./Mexico border for years now, with these groups “patrolling” the area stopping people at gun point with little to no consequences for their actions.
That has been stewing for a long time and it was inevitable that it would lead to something like we saw last night. And that video made it clear what happened. There you saw peace protestors protesting in the streets. This armed vigilante group surrounded the statue in question, which honours a 16th-century despot who massacred hundreds of indigenous people in that region, all in the name of manifest destiny and racial superiority. Yes these “everyday citizens” decided to “protect” that, which blows my mind. But they didn’t put their bodies between them and the crowd, oh no. This militia group was armed to the teeth with semiautomatic rifles, handguns, wearing camouflage fatigues and military-style helmets. As the Washington Post reported on this, they have a Facebook group that shared “materials encouraging people to arm themselves, promoted military training on infantry tactics and “ambushing,” and shared multiple posts opposing the leveling of monuments to Confederate figures in the South and Oñate in New Mexico.”
It’s clear that their intents were showing up there, looking to intimidate those exercising their constitutional rights to protest. We’ve seen that scene play out many times over the past years, but you just knew that eventually it would go beyond that. You just knew that eventually some militia group, who are not professional police & don’t know how to keep their cool in the face of stress, would end up shooting some innocent person. And last night it happened.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham made it clear how she felt about those responsible for what happened. In a statement she said that “the heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force. To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.” Imagine the elected leader of any government needing to point out that “an unsanctioned show of unregulated force” was a menace to the people. In almost any other democracy in the world you wouldn’t need to point that out, because it’s so bloody obvious. Yet the United States keep showing itself to be different, not just when it comes to the culture of arms in certain segments of society but the fact that these people felt totally justified in using them to protest a statue honouring a 16th century racist.
Only in failed states do you see heavily armed, “regular” citizens taking the law into their own hands and shooting at unarmed people, and typically that happens around issues that are more important that protecting a bloody statue. In normally functioning nations, you would call those people vigilantes or even terrorists. Yet in the United States, the current occupant calls them “good people” when they march armed to the hilt, threatening and menacing everyday citizens in places like Charlottesville and Lansing. Of course this problem and mindset pre-dates Trump and has long been simmering in American culture, but the past four years has accelerated it. By giving tactic head nods of approval to these militias and their members, a message of approval has been sent to them. They’ve felt emboldened and supported by the highest elected offices in the land, which you knew would eventually lead to something like what happened last night. The question that remains is that will we see more scene like that from last night in this moment, or will it be enough to snap people out of this heavily armed stupor? Like many things that we’ve seen in the past few weeks, while my instinct is to be cynical of what might happen, I’ve been proved wrong by the actions of the vast majority. I hope they deliver in that sense again because for all the promise that this moment holds, it could all turn the other way fast if the wrong things happen. I pray that good things come here, just as I pray that the law of the land throws the book at the person who shot an innocent protestor for simply exercising their constitutional rights on a dark night in Albuquerque last night.