U.S. activists face unique challenges in the context of rampant violence.
The United States is, without question, the most violent nation in the developed world. In fact, it could easily be argued that the US is one of the most violent nations in the entire world.
Currently, the US is doubling-down on its imperial policies abroad while the Republic falls apart from within, with police shootings, gun violence and white supremacy rampant in many parts of the country. In short, extreme violence ravages the US. In this context, activists and organizers face a series of challenges that many of our international counterparts do not.
Uniquely American Violence
As most people know, the US is off-the-charts when it comes to gun violence and the proliferation of arms. In the land of Uncle Sam, guns rule the day, with the US averaging 88 weapons per 100 citizens. The US's closest competitors in this illustrious category are Serbia with 70 weapons per 100 citizens, and Yemen with 55 guns per 100 citizens. According to GunPolicy.org, "The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in the United States is 270,000,000 to 310,000,000."
Without doubt, none of this should come as a great surprise, as the amount of firearms produced in the US continues to expand. In fact, "The number of guns manufactured each year in the US grew from 2.9 million in 2001 to nearly 5.5 million in 2010, which was one of the highest-volume years in history," notes Face the Facts USA.
Consequently, one of the US's most infamous corporations, Walmart, also happens to be the "largest seller of arms and ammunition in the United States." Indeed, it's only fitting that Walmart is the main supplier of arms and ammunition to US citizens. After all, their business model produces poverty, unrest and the fragmenting of local communities, which, in turn, creates a context ripe for violence. The US, while only encompassing 5% of the world's population, owns more than 30% of the world's firearms.
This proliferation of weapons has resulted in an unprecedented number of gun deaths in the US. For instance, the Atlantic reports that, "Firearms killed 32,251 people in the United States in 2011." As a result, 2015 could mark the first year where gun deaths outnumber those killed in automobile accidents in the US. Here, it's important to illuminate how these trends manifest in the real world.
For example, there were 56 people shot and 12 killed over Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. The victims include a 47-year-old woman who was shot by her husband, a 20-year-old man who was shot while sitting on his porch, and a 21-year-old man who was shot in the head while playing basketball outside of his apartment complex. Undoubtedly, the mainstream media focused on the subjective elements of each story: who the victims were, where they lived, how they were shot, and so on.
Another unique feature of American violence is police shootings, particularly the killing of unarmed Black people. So far, in 2015, over 385 people have been shot and killed by police, according to a recent report from the Washington Post. The report indicates that, "About half the victims were white, half minority." Further, the article goes on to note that, "(B)lacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred." In other words, as the world is quickly finding out in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore, police are killing Black people at an astounding rate in the US.
To be clear, the militarization of police, apartheid political policies (housing, etc.) and poverty as a result of neoliberal economic reforms, all greatly contribute to these violent statistics and realities. Meanwhile, the mainstream media has focused on rioters breaking windows, as opposed to the fact that eight neighborhoods in Baltimore have a higher infant mortality rate than Pakistan and Nigeria.
Biker Gangs and White Supremacists
On May 17, 2015, over 200 bikers from rival gangs engaged in a shootout at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas. This explosion of violence resulted in the deaths of 11 people, with another dozen injured or hospitalized as a result of the violent rampage.
According to police reports, over 318 weapons were confiscated from the brawl. Some of the confiscated weapons include AK-47 assault rifles, sawed-off shotguns, dozens of handguns, brass knuckles, knives and chains with padlocks. While outbursts of violence are quite routine in the American context, this particular outburst shocked even the most cynical commentators, leaving many asking, "What the hell is happening in the US?"
Of course, this unrest has been building for several decades, as the "Angry White Man" plays a central and toxic role in American culture. From Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson, Angry White Men have dominated the last 35-plus years of American political culture. Each day, white demagogues can be found on corporate AM radio channels and cable news networks.
Within the US government, Angry White Men can be found in police stations, military bases and capitol buildings around the nation. For instance, new reports reveal that members of the military have provided, and still provide weapons and arms to biker gangs in the US. Some of those weapons include grenades and C4 explosives.
As always, there's more to the story: white men have plenty of reasons to be angry, particularly over the last several decades. Unfortunately, however, the white working-class has been hijacked. Instead of directing their anger at the corporations that outsourced their jobs to Latin America, then Southeast Asia, the vast majority of white men in the US have blamed Muslims, single moms, the homeless, the poor, Black people, welfare programs, unions, liberals, gays and immigrants for their troubles.
Hence, the vast majority of white men overwhelmingly vote for the Republican Party, a political force hell bent on alienating itself from everyone except white men and the ultra rich. By all means, anger is justified in the context of neoliberalism. However, in the US, particularly among white males, that anger is focused on the wrong people and institutions, often resulting in extreme violence.
In 1995, Angry White Men blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing close to 200 people and injuring 680 others. Unsurprisingly, the two primary terrorists, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, met in 1988, during Army bootcamp training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Eventually, police investigations revealed that the group carried out the bombing in response to the 1992 FBI standoff with Randy Weaver and the 1993 fiasco at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where the ATF burned down the cult's complex, killing 75 people.
Surely, it's no coincidence that anti-statist rhetoric fills the right-wing AM airwaves and cable news networks. One of the far-right's primary ideological tools in the US is anti-government sentiment.
After 9/11, Angry White Men in the US found a new enemy: Muslims. Immediately following the attacks of 9/11, white people across the US killed, assaulted, terrified and harassed minority communities; some victims were actually Muslims, while others were Sikhs who were mistaken for Muslims. The last decade has been filled with anti-Muslim policies and attitudes at home, and abroad.
As a result, the 2008 election of President Barrack Obama sent the right into a fit of rage unprecedented in the modern-era. The racist commentary and reactionary behavior on behalf of the American Right has been truly scary. Much like Clinton's time in the Oval Office, Obama's presidency has sparked a wave of militias and white supremacist groups, with one report suggesting that extremist groups have grown by 755% since Obama's election.
As a result, several days ago, over 250 armed-protesters surrounded a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona. Unsurprisingly, many of the protesters wore military gear and carried military-grade weapons. Some protesters dawned t-shirts that read, "Fuck Islam." One protester had the word "Infidel" tattooed on his lower neck, with a dotted line tattooed at the base of his neck that read "cut here." The leader of the protest, Jon Ritzheimer, is a former US Marine and combat veteran, of course.
Organizing in a Violent Context
For those organizing in the US, these issues are of great importance, as organizers continue to struggle with extreme forms of violence. Again, it's no coincidence that the world's most powerful empire engenders violence at home. As many people know, the US ranks at the bottom of almost every socio-economic-ecological indicator when compared with its industrialized counterparts, creating a context ripe for violence: extreme alienation and oppression.
In the meantime, with 5% of the world's population, the US military accounts for 50% of global military expenditures. Thus, when imperial policies trump social welfare, extreme violence will always manifest in horrific ways.
Police shootings, gang violence, arms proliferation and white supremacists are very real factors when organizing in the US. Each shooting, each bombing, each violent outburst has devastating results: communities are destroyed, individuals traumatized or buried, political lines drawn in the sand. Unfortunately, these trends are beginning to negatively impact even the most strident activists. They, like so many Americans, are becoming weary and disempowered in the face of such brutality.
In this context, activists in the US face the institutional violence of society's most powerful forces — military, political, corporate — while also navigating the legacy of white supremacy, domestic terrorists, gang violence and gun culture. Again, these factors are not present in the struggles of many activists around the globe, particularly in developed nations. Thus, activists in the US could learn valuable lessons from those who've organized, and continue to organize, in extremely violent contexts: Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, etc., as the experiences of those organizing in Western Europe, Canada and Australia often seem alien to the US context.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist who lives and works in the Rust Belt. He's a member of UAW Local 1981 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org