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Law and Disorder: Non-Violent Civil Rights Campaigns “Then” vs. Armed Protestors “Now”

“I think this is the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened. The nigras are just as free as we are, they have the same opportunity to work and build their part of the town up the same as we have. I just don’t understand it and don’t approve of it. I’m gonna stand up for my rights.”

“Well I think if they remain peaceful it would be a lot better than perhaps the violence.”

“I don’t think it’s the time right now, I think they have equal rights though.”

“I don’t like it, I think it’s tryin to put something on us that we don’t want.”

“I sure don’t like it that’s for sure… I’m afraid we might have niggers next door.”

– Random whites in Albany, Georgia asked about their reaction to 1964 Civil Rights Bill and black protests

As I look at the footage of assault weapon-toting white men pushing their way into the State Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan I can’t help but to ask why white people can call themselves “peaceful” protestors when they freely carry assault weapons as they threaten their governor because she will not open the state up before public health officials deem it safe. I saw armed white men in Madison, Wisconsin during a protest that was also called “peaceful.”

America has a clear double standard for armed whites versus everyone else. I don’t even care if there is a law that allows open carry in place because I know that this would never be allowed if the people with military grade assault rifles were not white. And don’t try to convince me that these were simply Americans taking advantage of their Second Amendment rights. What they are protesting against are stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic that has taken more American lives than the Vietnam War and has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.

None of the stay-at-home orders has ruled that people can’t bear arms. Obviously people have the right to protest unless they are strictly told they don’t have a permit as was done in Madison. These so-called law abiding citizens not only violated a state order by Governor Evers to stay home but also dared the authorities to stop them from marching without a permit. They did not even try.

I did not see the same response when peaceful protests happened around the country to demand an end to police violence against blacks. I know that none of these protests included assault weapons carried by someone other than the heavily armed police. Can you imagine what the news coverage would have said if just one black man showed up at one of these Black Lives Matter protests with a weapon? All hell would have broken lose.

Tear gas and rubber bullets were raining down on unarmed black protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore. Police were standing in ballistic hardware behind armored vehicles with snipers targeting unarmed civilians including children in peaceful protests. There were no armored vehicles, snipers or police helicopters on hand as crowds of protestors including armed white men descended on Madison and Lansing. No news reports clamored to talk about how dangerous and violent these protestors were.

This is a perfect example of the frustration at the hypocrisy we as black people talk about in this country. These double standards are clear for us to see, but white people generally see nothing nefarious in them. I get tired of hearing white people defend these “thugs.” Yes I said thugs, because this is who these men are. They bring their assault rifles, Confederate flags, swastikas and bad attitudes to try to bully their way into getting what they want.

Every time I hear someone refer to a black child or adult with sagging pants as a thug it makes me angry. I see people that obviously don’t see assault weapon carrying white men in the same light. How can anyone be frightened at the sight of a black person whose pants are not pulled up, but feel perfectly safe when a group of clearly angry white men with assault weapons are pushing their way into the state Capitol in Michigan?

“Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.” – Michigan State Senator Dayna Polehanki, Tweet from inside Capitol building on April 30

Much as he did when White Supremacists wreaked havoc in Charlottesville in 2017, President Trump defended these men by Tweeting “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” He’s promoting their bullying tactics and claiming these are good people, a term he also used to describe the mobs of White supremacists in Charlottesville yet there has been no national outrage over this Tweet.

Back in 2015 while still a Republican presidential candidate, Trump complained about unarmed Black Lives Matter protestors by telling Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, “I think they’re trouble. I think they’re looking for trouble.” He went further by asserting, “I looked at a couple of the people that were interviewed from the group. I saw them with hate coming down the street last week talking about cops and police, and what should be done to them. And that was not good. And I think it’s a disgrace that they’re getting away with it.” And most significantly he said, “I don’t think it’s going to end up good. The fact is all lives matter. That includes black and it includes white and it includes everybody else.”

Well what does the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan tell us? If all lives supposedly matter then why are people angrily demanding an end to measures put in place to save lives. As of May 2nd black people in Michigan were 32 percent of the coronavirus cases and 41 percent of the COVID-19 deaths despite being just 15.2 percent of the population. Do these protestors care about those statistics? Is it a crisis to them that over 1,600 black people in Michigan have been killed by the virus or is opening the economy more important? 1,049 people have died in Detroit, 77.3 percent of them have been black.

Last year a heavily armed right-wing militia group calling themselves the United Constitutional Patriots kidnapped and detained at gunpoint Central American migrants at the U.S. border. How did the government respond? They sent border patrol agents to force them to release the captives but did not arrest a single one of these men but did take the migrants into custody. The group had been posting videos of their activity online for months. “These individuals should not attempt to exercise authority reserved for law enforcement,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement.

The New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grishman saying, “The vigilante members of the organization…who posted videos and photographs of the unlawful arrests to social media, are not police or law enforcement and they have no authority under New Mexico or federal law to detain or arrest migrants in the United States. Their actions undermine the legitimate efforts of our state’s law enforcement officials to keep New Mexico families safe and they erode community trust.” A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said that the agency does not endorse “private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.”

Back in January 2016 a group of armed, far-right white men led a six-week standoff against federal law enforcement officers after they illegally seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. The leader of the group Ammon Bundy, along with three other men were arrested and charged in federal court with multiple charges. In January 2018 the trial judge declared a mistrial stating that, “The court finds that the universal sense of justice has been violated,” as a result of misconduct by the federal government.

Bundy became a cult hero. On March 26, 2020, Idaho’s Governor Brad Little issued a stay-at-home order. Bundy held a public meeting declaring he would fight the order and provide support for protestors. “I will be there,” Bundy said. “I will bring as many people as we can. We will form a legal defense for you, a political defense for you, and we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights.” This veiled threat about a “physical defense” should have been national news but it was never considered important enough to cover.

A group of armed, angry white men are allowed to confront law enforcement and flaunt “their rights” without suffering bodily harm in Idaho while the FBI has labeled unarmed black protestors “Black Identity Extremists” (BIE). They made false claims that Black Lives Matter protestors were making “premeditated, retaliatory lethal” attacks on police officers around the country. They issued an “intelligence assessment” sent to law enforcement agencies around the country warning them of “ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement.” Of course this has proven to be not only highly inaccurate and inflammatory but incited opposition to Black Lives Matter protests around the country.

We recall very clearly that just hours after he murdered nine black members of the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina the avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof was treated with kid gloves in the eyes of many and even brought a meal from Burger King during his interrogation by police.

When we see armed, angry white men in Madison and Lansing we are reminded that not so long ago armed, angry white men beat down and attempted to burn to death Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama. We remember the images and video of armed, angry white State Troopers in Selma, Alabama trampling and beating unarmed peaceful black protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. We remember the images of armed, angry white men destroying property and murdering blacks when James Meredith attempted to integrate “Ole Miss” in 1962 before 3,000 federal troops quelled the riot.

We also remember that in each of these instances police took a hands off approach, standing by watching, and in the case of Freedom Riders beaten in Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor made it clear to the mobsters that, “when the bus arrives at the terminal, the mob will have 15 minutes to burn, bomb, kill and maim without police intervention or arrests.” The FBI made was aware of the attack in Birmingham ahead of time but did nothing to intervene.

Howard K. Smith, a CBS reporter, described the violence on the radio: “Toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, with key rings, and with fists. One passenger was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp.”

All of these examples of law and disorder are singed in the collective memory of black people. When we see our community being devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and armed, angry white men fighting for their “rights” to end the stay-at-home orders of multiple governors it is a clear reminder that white people can arm themselves in so-called peaceful demonstrations while no alarm bells go off among most of their white peers.

When we look back on the reactions to peaceful protests by unarmed blacks in recent years and during the Civil Rights Movement the hypocrisy is plain as day. Dr. King was celebrated because he took a non-violent stand against violent mobs of white citizens and law enforcement agencies. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (known as the Black Panthers) in Oakland, California was formed to protest rampant police brutality against blacks in that city. California was at that time an open carry state. The Panthers marched to Sacramento, the capitol of California, on March 2, 1967 legally armed with rifles, shotguns and pistols. They were described by the Sacramento Bee has having “invaded” the Capitol. “Two dozen armed Negroes entered the state Capitol at noon today and 10 made their way to the back of the Assembly Chamber before they were disarmed and marched away by the state police.” They were perfectly within their rights under California law to carry weapons into the Capitol.

Black Panther leader Bobby Seale of Oakland read a page-long statement declaring: “The Black Panther party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people.”

Later Governor Ronald Reagan along with the state legislature passed the Mulford Act, a state bill prohibiting the open carry of loaded firearms, along with an addendum prohibiting loaded firearms in the state Capitol. Interestingly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the time backed that law and others that mandated stricter gun regulations in the 1960s.

“The law was part of a wave of laws that were passed in the late 1960s regulating guns, especially to target African-Americans,” according to Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms. “Including the Gun Control Act of 1968, which adopted new laws prohibiting certain people from owning guns, providing for beefed up licensing and inspections of gun dealers and restricting the importation of cheap Saturday night specials [pocket pistols] that were popular in some urban communities.” What he did not mention was that these particular weapons were intentionally flooding black communities as gun makers saw a huge profit.

When we see such double standards we must call them out. We are not blindly sitting by not paying attention to the actions of these armed, angry white men while our community suffers disproportionately during this pandemic. It is time someone calls out this inaction and lack of outrage by white people around the country. They are not outraged enough at the sight of armed, angry white men pushing an agenda that is certain to lead to more premature re-openings of states and the subsequent reemergence of the coronavirus in the months ahead.

Malcolm X called out the double standard whereby blacks had to be non-violent in the face of constant violence from whites.

“We will be nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with us… I don’t call it violence when it’s in self-defense. I call it intelligence.” – Malcolm X

When armed, angry white men are allowed to freely express themselves by showing their assault rifles at “peaceful” protests none of us are truly safe. There is no rational reason these men need to bring assault weapons designed for use by the military to a “peaceful” protest. White Americans just chalk it up to “boys will be boys.” The black community sees the dishonesty and duplicity in this double standard. We would never be allowed to express ourselves in this same way without facing the wrath of law enforcement.

The fact that organized groups of armed, angry white men have been allowed to grow unabated over the past several decades should scare everyone. America did not learn from what happened in Charlottesville. The clear message sent that day was not just one of hate but of growing power since they received a pat on the back and wink from the President of the United States.

White Supremacists groups are now using the pandemic to actively recruit new members online as many are stuck inside with plenty of screen time on their computers. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement officials throughout the United States of the mobilization of violent extremists in response to stay-at-home measures, according to the New York Times. The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness issued a statement on March 21st warning about how these groups are ramping up to exploit the anger over stay-at-home orders.

“White supremacist extremists are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to advocate for the theory of accelerationism. The theory states that participating in mass attacks or creating other forms of chaos will accelerate the imminent and necessary collapse of society in order to build a racially pure nation. A neo-Nazi media group that promotes this theory has encouraged supporters to incite panic while people are practicing social isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak, which includes discharging firearms in cities and putting bullet-sized holes into car windows.”

These groups have also spread disinformation to stoke fear across the nation. In early March they sent a text falsely stating, “that President Donald Trump would enact the Stafford Act and order a two-week mandatory quarantine. The National Security Council quickly took to Twitter on March 15 to disprove the rumors of a national quarantine.” When we see these men carrying military grade arms wearing bulletproof vests among these protestors we better pay attention to the clear message that’s being sent. Let’s not just wantonly dismiss them as a bunch of gun fanatics or pretend they are like the American colonists protecting their rights. It is more sinister because these far-right groups have used these images to promote the coming race war by showing that they are building an army of supporters. Many of the protestors in the crowds are clearly not understanding how their presence at these protests allow them to be a proxy of the White Supremacists pushing this agenda. They stand side by side with these people and are in effect showing their support for them.

Despite some people attempting to claim these protests as being aligned with those of the Civil Rights Movement, nothing could be further from the truth. We were fighting to save the lives of blacks killed by white Ku Klux Klan members, vigilantes and lynch mobs just as these stay-at-home orders are saving lives that would be taken by the coronavirus. Those 1950s and 60s protests were clearly justified. We can learn a valuable lesson from what Dr. King said about the inaction of white moderates in his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations … It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative … I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

© Photo

Matt Slocum

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About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a Consultant with Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.