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Author's note: The report "'Go There Ready for War'—Militia Organizing in North Carolina in the Context of the Insurrection at the US Capitol" is a new undertaking by a set of veteran activists with BluePrintNC, NARAL NC, and Bend the Arc. Having recently returned to North Carolina, I joined them after the election in their Thursday afternoon meetings. As our discussions unfolded, I agreed to write up what we were finding out about North Carolina in light of the events of the U.S. Capitol, whose key Oath Keeper insurrectionists today remain oddly unnamed and unindicted. The report is the first effort of our North Carolina Anti-Racist Research Collaborative, and we anticipate future stories on key topics by diverse authors. We hope this report of the insurrection's roots and fruits in our state can provide a model for those wishing to fight back here and elsewhere. We want to give democratic forces in counties and across our state information that they (we) need in this very old and very new terrain. This essay introduces readers to our report.
January's national insurrection took me from déjà vu to shock—and back again.
As Republican Representative Peter Meijer lamented only days after being sworn into the 117th U.S. Congress: "I still can't wrap my head around the fact that the President of the United States was completely MIA while the next three individuals in the lines of succession… are under assault in the Capitol." He was in for a steep learning curve.
A week after the sitting U.S. President ordered his followers to storm the national Capitol and stop the peaceful transfer of Presidential power, Meijer was one of 10 Republicans to vote for impeachment in the House. Most of the Congressional Republicans seemed to adjust well to having their own private army.
The next day, Meijer was buying body armor.
For me, as a white Southerner with at least three Confederate great grandfathers, getting my head around the "why" of that day's events was not the learning curve. Adapting to their tactics in 2021, however, was.
As an infant, I was enrolled in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1963, after federal court orders desegregated four Alabama high schools including those in Tuskegee, my parents helped to organize a white private school, which I attended. That year my brother hung an American flag in his bedroom with the Alabama star burned out. In 1966, Marvin Segrest, a distant cousin, shot and killed SNCC worker Sammy Younge, Jr., and was then freed by an all-white jury.
I witnessed these same violent white mobs in my youth. I also saw civil rights activists face down those white mobs with a courage that over the longer haul changed my life. That's the thread that I'm searching for in sifting through the déjà vu of today.
In 1983, North Carolina had the most virulent Klan and neo-Nazi movements in the country. Having left Alabama for graduate school at Duke, I volunteered for and then staffed North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV) with Christina Davis-McCoy. It became a vibrant coalition with national allies that busted two out of three of the major far-right groups in the state. Today, however, there are 20 such groups in the state.
Back then, the neo-Nazi White Patriot Party (WPP) blasted "Dixie" and the Hitler youth song from pickup trucks in marches through small Carolina towns. They also led paramilitary organizing with a cadre of military veterans using stolen weapons from Ft Bragg, the huge Army base in Fayetteville—in violation of the same state misdemeanor paramilitary laws flagrantly violated earlier this year, laws that eventually helped to bring them down.
The WPP and groups like the Aryan Nations foretold a new wave of far-right organizing to overthrow the U.S. government in a race war—as do the Boogaloos and the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers today.
So it was with a frisson of déjà vu and genuine shock that I sat in front of my television to watch the Capitol events unfold nearly 40 years later.
For me, the connection that wrapped my head around the old devil and the new details, my primal and my postmodern memories, was the Confederate flag brandished for the first time in the Capitol rotunda.
See also: A white supremacist coup succeeded in 1898 North Carolina, led by lying politicians and racist newspapers that amplified their lies
The reason these scenes played out so rapidly is because the first Civil War over slavery was never really settled.
The difference this time, I realized, is the level of militia organizing that these groups now have, which almost makes old images target practice at Glenn Miller's farm seem quaint. Today, some of those military vets—trained by our tax dollars—liken the Civil War they hope to create here to the ones they fought in Iraq.
Old, new, borrowed and blue
So what is old and what is new, what is borrowed, and what is blue in these is new marriages between these old devils?
What's old is the underlying and overriding white supremacy of the white mob. It is the motivating fear from the 1980s of the "demographic time bomb" for white people who cannot imagine being a part of a multiracial democracy, one that positions white people to lose status as the racial majority in the United States.
What is old is the myth of the Lost Cause and the idea of Race War. In 1869, post-Confederate Edward Pollard proclaimed in The Lost Cause Regained that the abolition of slavery in fact broke down the largest role that slavery served; a barrier that kept the country from reckoning with race. The South continued to avoid that reckoning by ensuring Black people stay in a position of political influence similar to slavery. This is the formula for anti-Black racism today.
What is new, however, is the capacity that technology and communication today allow for modern white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and "Manosphere" misogynists to take their crusade to scale.
In the 1990s, WPP leader Glenn Miller assessed the glass ceilings of his 1980s neo-Nazi organizing by way of some 20,000 copies of The White Carolinian newsletter. In his online autobiography, he "pondered the financial and mathematical results," concluding that "it took distribution of a thousand papers for one new member, supporter or subscriber. And a meeting or rally brought only $1 per attendee in donations." Not to mention the 28 answering machines on 28 separate phone lines with tapes sent in the mail periodically with the latest message of hate.
He envisioned a future that foretold of "a great aboveground organization with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of dollars with which to build the cause of racial unity, strength and survival… growing formations of awakened white people… [whose] fanaticism would create… social upheavals… that the overcome [the white masses] fears and brainwashing."
The internet broke those ceilings to white supremacist organizing and raised the stakes exponentially for Miller's vision. It was a new, digital "mode of production," and its reorganization of the culture shifted the terrain drastically in ways that are still unfolding.
In 2019, a marauding killer in a New Zealand mosque wore a livestreaming camera as he shot peaceful Muslim worshippers in an attempt to stir a race war. He got 1.5 million views—the more grotesque the violence, the better. That perhaps explains the camera on the chest of the "Zip-Tie Guy" in paramilitary gear who broke into Congress with plastic ties on his belt on minutes after Congresspeople barely escaped the Chamber with their lives.
What's borrowed are the money and resources behind these old efforts. After 9/11, the "Wars on Terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan—the most continuous war(s) in U.S. history—trained generations of veterans; and as Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and 3%, they formed the cadre that penetrated the Capitol. Also new was the federal 1033 program that gives "surplus" military weapons from Afghanistan and Iran to local sheriffs and police and to militarized communities. Those weapons came back in Fergusson, Missouri, used against those protesting the death by police of Mike Brown, and in North Carolina, where Columbus County's sheriff got a new $3.8 million arsenal from the 1033 Program as a new nest of Oath Keepers arrived.
When Blackwater first rose in 1997, originally funded with its CEO Eric Prince's $1.35 billion inheritance from his right-wing father, it soon became "the world's largest private military facility," and Prince's enterprise drew millions of dollars in U.S. military contracts—making the "terror wars" increasingly privatized and profitable.
In December 2020, Donald Trump pardoned four Blackwater mercenaries convicted of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Today, Blackwater-type private companies dot the North Carolina landscape—as illustrated in Davie, Yadkin, and Moore counties.
Those tactics themselves are borrowed, too. It's Ronald Reagan who first mainstreamed in 1980 the idea that government did not solve problems, it was the problem.
Republicans became highly practiced in "starving the beast" of social welfare spending to funnel increasingly obscene amounts of money to the military and police. They slashed taxes on corporations and the wealthy, gutted labor and environmental protection, and perfected theological justifications for violence against abortion clinics and providers. They set about to turn an advanced industrial democracy and one of the richest countries in the world into a failed state.
When such misdirected governing failed, it just proved their point.
In the 1980s and 1990s, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was the most right-wing U.S. Senator, his popularity fueled by his racist (and later homophobic) editorials on local TV. In the 2020s, the woods are full of Little Jessies, cohorts that became Supermajorities in North Carolina and nine other states in 2010 when corporate money flooded U.S. elections after Citizens United to pay for computer-driven gerrymandering.
In digging deeper into the roots of these modern evils, I found solace in the fact that North Carolinians are opposing this new para-militarization and mobilization as we have for decades and for centuries. Those same abuses of power in North Carolina are what led to the Moral Monday Movement, to the emergence of Reverend Doctor William Barber II on the national stage, and to the reinvention of the Poor People's Campaign.
However divided we are, I do not think that most Tar Heel folk actually want the Civil War for which these violent extremists work.
What's old in this too is the scapegoating that Donald Trump thundered on the way to the White House, while in it, and throughout his ignominious departure. Let me be clear: it is white people who have denied suffrage and stolen votes in the years since Emancipation—and the years since the 15th Amendment, the Civil Rights Acts, the Civil Rights Movement. The same laws declaring corporations protected under the 14th Amendment were those intended to protect freed slaves.
Trump and William Barr stifled discussion in the FBI about the much more serious threat of white supremacist violence with false equivalencies to Antifa and the Movement for Black Lives, as did Trump's insistence that the greatest source of U.S. danger lay at the Mexican border, not the racist enemy within, the army so ready in his defense.
What resulted over last summer were the attacks by police and white counterdemonstrators against Black Lives Matter rallies in the wake of George Floyd's death—which grew into the largest protest movement in our lifetime. And after that, this?
We still have work to do. We hope this report helps.
'Go There Ready for War'—Militia Organizing in North Carolina in the Context of the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is a new undertaking by a set of veteran activists with BluePrintNC, NARAL Pro-Choice NC, and Bend the Arc.