The Insurrectionist On My Street

I live in a very progressive part of Brooklyn, and if you think that’s a redundancy (like hot water heater, or tuna fish, or ATM machine), I’ll take you on a walk through Bay Ridge or Crown Heights. 

My neighborhood is a racially, religiously, and economically diverse community that retains a fair amount of old school Brooklyn flavor, even as it admittedly embodies some of the most comic stereotypes about the borough post-gentrification. Ax-throwing bar? Check. Artisanal rubberband shop? Check. Vegan Peruvian fusion sushi? Check. Flyer for band seeking mandolin player (Influences: Tom Waits, Partridge Family, Megadeth….glut of guys respond to ad, all with the same handlebar mustache)? Check. 

Politically speaking, the community comes down hard on the Democratic side. Barack, Hillary, Bernie, and Biden bumper stickers are prevalent. It’s not a place where you’re apt to see any “Make America Great Again” or “All Lives Matter” signs in windows.

So it struck me as very odd when, a few years ago, I noticed a car regularly parked on my street with an Oath Keepers license plate. It was there so often that it was clear it belonged to one of my neighbors. 

At the time not many people were familiar with the organization, but I was, in part because it panders to the community I came from, which is the military and law enforcement. 

Since January 6th, of course, the whole country has learned who these guys are. 

The Oath Keepers are a far right wing extremist group founded in 2009, the same year the so-called Tea Party movement emerged in reaction to the election of the first Black US president. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them thusly:

The core idea of the group is that its members vow to forever support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to defend the Constitution. But just as central is the group’s list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government—orders, for instance, to force Americans into concentration camps, confiscate their guns, or cooperate with foreign troops in the United States. 

These supposed threats are, in fact, part of the central conspiracy theory advocated by the antigovernment “Patriot” movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part—the baseless claim that the federal government plans to impose martial law, seize Americans’ weapons, force those who resist into concentration camps, and, ultimately, push the country into a one-world socialistic government known as the “New World Order.” In 2013, the group took on a more aggressive stance, announcing the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation” militias meant to defend Americans against the New World Order.

Understanding that, it’s no shock that on January 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers were prominent among the terrorists who stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to murder government officials and overturn the election in favor of Donald J. Trump. The notion that these malicious clowns are somehow “keeping their oaths” to defend the Constitution by acting as self-appointed brownshirts is the cruelest joke of all, but by now we ought to be used to living in this Kafka/Orwell/Idiocracy mashup.

Thirty-one Oath Keepers thus far have been charged with crimes related to the events of that day. The group’s involvement seems to be far more extensive, pre-meditated, and centrally coordinated than almost any other organization implicated in the attack.

And yet, that car and its pro-Insurrection license plate are still there on my Brooklyn street.

(The car has out-of-state plates from somewhere that, unlike New York, doesn’t have both front and back tags. Because, as my friend Aaron Naperstak notes, “Nothing says patriotism like insurance fraud.”) 

Hilariously, it’s a Prius, perhaps the most stereotypically bleeding heart liberal car on the American market. I guess Insurrectionists like getting good gas mileage too.

But if it was always disconcerting to have a neighbor sporting the emblem of a radical right wing militia, one keen to infiltrate and radicalize the armed forces and law enforcement communities, it is much more unnerving that it is still there after that organization has been exposed and publicized as openly seditious and violent, and complicit in an ongoing domestic insurgency.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

I can’t say I was surprised when, earlier this spring, the Oath Keepers car was vandalized. It was keyed along the left side, and someone had scratched “FU” on the driver’s side door. 

It stayed that way for a while, unrepaired, until recently someone added a second “FU” right next to the first, in the same scratchiti “handwriting,” suggesting that it came from the same commentator. Subsequent to that, several big dents have lately appeared in its body, as if kicked. (Nothing implying a hammer or other Kubrickian “Dawn of Man “ implement of destruction—a measure of graduated, Herman Kahn-style response, perhaps. This is a liberal vandal, remember.)

I continue to wonder: how much more of this abuse will the owner take before he gets the message? 

Maybe the repairs are financially prohibitive. Maybe he is sticking to his, er, guns, as a show of defiance. Or maybe he has no idea why this is happening. 

Several people have suggested to me that the owner may have bought the car used, and didn’t understand what that Oath Keepers plate meant and didn’t bother to remove it. That strikes me as odd: Would you leave a random license plate on a car you bought, especially if you didn’t understand what it means? (Also working against that theory: the multiple radio antennae on the car, suggesting someone monitoring police frequencies, CB, etc. Very Oath Keeperish.)

But maybe. Human beings, I’ve noticed, do all kinds of weird shit. If so, the fella must be really confused about why he keeps getting vandalized. Perhaps someone should leave him a note. 

But all of this offers a teachable moment, as it was once popular to say; a chance for a thought experiment in freedom of expression, community, and the limits of comity.

So for the sake of argument, let’s turn the tables for a moment. 

If I lived in deep red Staten Island, or one of those other conservative Brooklyn communities that I mentioned, and kept getting my car keyed because I have a Biden/Harris sticker on it (which I do), I would be disgusted, and angry, and would rant about the need for respect for freedom of expression. I would go on at length, sanctimoniously. Might even write a blog about it.  

Likewise, if this were 2012, and my moderate Republican neighbor in San Francisco (they do exist) was getting her car vandalized because it had a Romney sticker on it, I would feel the same outrage, even though I was very much on Team Obama. We don’t cotton to mob rule in America. Tolerance for differing opinions is the bedrock of democracy.

OK. 

But what if some white dude living in Harlem had a Klan sticker on his car? Should he expect that to go unnoticed or remarked upon? Should he expect his neighbors to smile and nod and say hi to him when he walked by, to invite him to block parties, and to solicit his participation in community board meetings? 

What about someone living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood like Skokie, Illinois whose car (German, I presume) sports a swastika decal and the slogan 6MWE (“Six Million Wasn’t Enough”)? We still in the realm of reasonable political discourse that calls for civility and goodwill?

These are extreme examples, admittedly, but they speak to the issue. How much civility can you expect when you announce that you would like to see your neighbors disenfranchised, treated as second class citizens, or even rounded up and murdered? 

Conversely, should the community be expected to put up with it?

When it comes to domestic political protest, I don’t advocate violence—either against property, or, far worse, people. Absolutely not. The Oath Keepers and other Insurrectionists do advocate that, of course, so they have little standing to complain when it is employed against them. That does not open the door to an eye-for-an-eye free-for-all, or imply that we ought to descend to their level, but it does make their whinging pretty hard to take. Not to put too fine a point on it, but keying a car—even repeatedly—is a lot milder than storming the Capitol to lynch our lawmakers and overturn an election. 

We are not talking here about ordinary political differences, like my Biden and Romney examples. We are not talking about people who share a communal belief in Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy and whose differences dwell within that agreed upon ethos. We’re talking about a group of people who reject the fundamentals of democracy altogether, who want to seize and retain power by force, and oppress those groups whom they find distasteful.

The magnanimous refrain I’ve heard from some—including progressive friends who are equally opposed to this dude’s politics—has been: “What about this guy’s First Amendment rights?” A fair point. But when you publicly align yourself with an organization that openly advocates violent revolution, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, autocracy, or other such poisons, can you reasonably expect meek acquiescence from those whom you are openly declaring unworthy of the same respect? Freedom of speech is necessarily tempered by concerns for public safety, particularly when one advocates and incites violence, or worse, actively engages in it, as the Oath Keepers have done.  

Funny how those who demand civility often have a truncheon gripped in the hand that they are hiding behind their back.

This was the whole crux of the media’s woeful inability to comprehend Trumpism when it emerged in 2015. Treating a terrorist movement that is an existential threat to our system of government by the same rules that you treat ordinary political players who act in good faith is exactly the kind of naivete that those terrorists hope to exploit. The US media has barely gotten better at it even after six years of practice. 

NOTES ON CAMP (WITH APOLOGIES TO SUSAN)

As a sidenote, it irks me that the Oath Keepers emblem shamelessly mimics the US Army Ranger tab in color and design. Right next to the Biden/Harris decal on my car I have an American flag—the idea of my friend Justin Schein, who gave me both stickers—as a reminder that Republicans and right wing assholes don’t own the Stars & Stripes, even though their ostentatious displays of it endeavor to make us think otherwise. (It’s gotten to the point where—tragically—like many people I know, when I see someone flying the flag I tend to be suspicious of their politics.) Next to my Biden and US flag decals, I have Airborne wings and the Ranger tab, which I sweated a bit to earn, a rebuke to the reactionary attempt to hijack the whole concept of patriotism, and a reminder that plenty of people who served this country have no truck with Trumpist scheisse.

It just so happens that this past weekend my wife and I picked our ten-year-old daughter up from sleepaway camp in upstate New York. The region where her camp is located is serious Trump country, and the number of TRUMP 2024: TAKE AMERICA BACK signs was chilling……to say nothing of the occasional house that sported not just one or two Trump signs (pikers!), but had been turned into gigantic Christmas-decoration-level shrines to the Donald. 

The mind reels. 

After we picked her up we treated our rollercoaster-crazy child to a visit to a Six Flags amusement park upstate. (I’ll pause here to note that the Six Flags brand, which originated outside Dallas, refers to the six national flags that have flown over the Lone Star state: those of Spain, France, Mexico, the independent Republic of Texas, the Stars and Stripes, and—lest we forget—the flag of the Confederacy. Fitting.) 

At the entrance to the park there was a sign that read “NO PROFANITY / NO OFFENSIVE CLOTHING.” So inside the park, what was I to make of the kindly grandfather in the electric wheelchair, cradling his infant grandchild while wearing a black t-shirt with huge lettering that read FUCK BIDEN? Does that not count as offensive, or profane, or obscene? Not in that community, I suppose. 

There were a great many other patrons in the park with hyper-patriotic (faux patriotic, I would say), quasi-Blue Lives Matter, and other right wing t-shirts and hats. Nearby, at a diner, I saw a guy with a star-spangled t-shirt bearing the legend “Just an Ordinary Dad….Trying Hard Not to Raise Liberals.” With him was his sweet little crewcut son, maybe four years old. Childhood is not predestination, but as Philip Larkin reminds us, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly bode well for that unfortunate kid. 

By contrast, there were but a handful of people of color among the visitors to that park that day, likely a function of the racial homogeneity of the region, but perhaps also a reflection of their desire not to be surrounded by people who so openly and proudly display their open hatred for them. And those haters do so, I hasten to add, without the slightest apparent fear of confrontation. Or shame.  

They would be in for a rude awakening if they were to park in my neighborhood.

“LEAVE THE REST TO ME”

The question of facing down Insurrectionists is not an academic one. As I have noted many times in this blog, echoing a chorus through the mediasphere, Trump’s self-coup may have failed, but Beer Hall Putsch-like, it has merely set the stage for the next attempt. 

The threat of violence from right wing radicals who reject Biden’s legitimacy remains dangerously high, as Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, writes, a threat that is connected to a whole range of other reactionary grievances. Already angry, spittle-spewing right wingers, enraged at being asked to wear a mask to help stop a deadly pandemic, have physically confronted public health officials and threatened bodily harm. (The Venn diagram of those who think Biden is not the legitimate president and those who think the COVID-19 vaccine is a government mind control plot is a near-perfect circle.)

And it is not just some lunatic fringe that is engaged in this gangstercrat effort to undermine democracy. Even as we speak, the Republican Party is attempting to seize power in defiance of the will of the majority through voter suppression and electoral subversion. That slow-burning guerrilla campaign, a form of what the US Army once called “low intensity conflict,” will only intensify as we lurch toward the midterms, when a Republican retaking of the House might be sufficient to throw this country into utter chaos even worse than late 2020 and early 2021. 

What this slow motion Republican coup d’etat bodes for the 2024 presidential election is even more terrifying, especially when we look back at how close we came to disaster last winter. 

In the Daily Kos, Laura Clawson writes:

Donald Trump isn’t just a sore loser. He isn’t even just a sore loser who indiscriminately lashed out and encouraged his supporters to riot. Donald Trump was at the head of an actual, methodical coup attempt last December and January, a fact that’s starting to draw more and more notice as details emerge.

There was “an actual, cognizable plan to overturn the election, an actual strategy to get Donald Trump declared the winner of the election, not just throwing stuff against the wall and tantrum tweeting and easily dismissed farkakte lawsuits,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said Thursday night. He added, “Now it’s clear that by late December, they had arrived at an actual plan in place they were trying to execute.”

Clawson goes on to explain how, in the interregnum between election day and the inauguration, Trump called his acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and acting deputy AG Richard Donoghue and pressured them to announce that the election was illegitimate. According to contemporaneous notes Rosen took, Trump told him: “Just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.” 

By now we ought not be shocked by revelations of anything Trump did, yet he continues to astound. 

The next day, December 27, at Trump’s direction, a Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark drafted letters trying to get state officials to overturn the results of their states’ elections. Rosen and Donoghue refused to send those letters out, prompting Trump to consider firing Rosen and putting Clark in his place. As Clawson writes, “If that had happened, Clark could have sent out those letters, giving state-level Republicans the excuse they needed to trash the election results and put in new electors for Trump.”

(Bill Barr, on whom I’ve been very hard in these pages, had also refused to participate in the “Stop the Steal” con job, which is part of the reason Rosen was in that “acting” role in the first place. When a reprobate like Bill Barr thinks you’ve crossed an ethical line, watch out.)

Trump’s infamous call to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger came soon after, on January 2, during which he pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” that would swing the state into his column, or at least create a sufficiently useful shitshow he could exploit. (Clawson notes that on December 31 and January 3 phone calls were also “made [but not answered] from the White House to the Republican chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.”) Famously, Raffensperger’s refusal to cooperate is all that stopped that plan; had a more complaint bootlicker been in that job, Trump would have gotten his way. 

Since these latest revelations, Rosen has met with the Department of Justice inspector general, and spoken to the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than six hours. Donoghue has also agreed to testify, as have other DOJ officials. As Heather Cox Richardson notes, “What this means is that congressional investigating committees now have witnesses to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.” What, if anything, Congress and Merrick Garland’s DOJ will do about it, remains to be seen. 

But we know this much: Clearly, Trump’s strategy was to generate enough doubt and disinformation that he could throw the election into chaos and have a plausible chance of getting Republican lawmakers to refuse to certify it. Not coincidentally, the January 6 mob attack—just four days after the Raffensperger call—was aimed at the same thing.

And he came damned close to pulling it off.

As many have noted, what are the odds that we will be so lucky next time? If our system depends on the integrity of just a few random Republican officeholders in key positions in a handful of swing states—people whom the GOP is now methodically removing and replacing with loyal foot soldiers for that very reason—we are well and truly fucked.

The GOP-controlled Georgia legislature has since stripped Raffensperger of his power, and ensured that it, not some rogue official with an irritating sense of integrity, will be in place to make that call next time. Those Republican legislators also recently took steps to seize control of the Fulton County Board of Elections—which is to say, Atlanta—enabling them to remove board members they don’t like and replace them with their own minions, thus controlling the count in that otherwise overwhelmingly Democratic county, which accounts for about a fifth of all votes in the entire state.

If Republicans succeed in these efforts they won’t even need a Rosen or a Raffensperger to overturn the results of the next election, should it not go their way. Nor will there be any need for cosplaying Oath Keepers in tactical gear to storm the Capitol. Because the Republicans will have already put the fix in upstream.

THE PUMPS DON’T WORK CAUSE THE VANDALS TOOK THE HANDLES

Which brings us back to Brooklyn. 

Someone openly advertising their support for the violent overthrow of the US government is no small thing, especially when they are not some rando outlier but part of a very real and very dangerous national movement that commands the loyalty of tens of millions. 

Of course, every redneck flying the rebel flag is gleefully siding with the traitors who took up arms against the USA 161 years ago. But we are not talking here about events in the distant past, even as flying the Stars & Bars has become a totem of present day seditionism as well as the Civil War-era variety.

One poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol put the percentage of Republicans who approved of the Insurrectionists’ actions at 45%. Six months later, even after the gory and horrifying details had emerged, another poll reported that 47% of Republican respondents still consider it “a legitimate protest.” 53% of Republicans think Biden is an illegitimate president and Trump actually won the election. 

And these folks have made it clear that they don’t put further violence off limits. On the contrary: they revel in it. Just dip into right wing talk radio, social media, and the reactionary press and you will find a tsunami of juvenile valorization of the idea that “patriots” must “take back our country,” by force if necessary. They relish the idea, for the same reason that they flocked to Trump in the first place: because it is an outlet for their white rage, because it speaks to their desperate need to feel heroic and connected to some larger purpose (might I suggest joining Habitat for Humanity instead?), and because it gives them permission to vent their irrational hatred of various fellow Americans on the basis of things like skin color and cloak it in the guise of something legit. 

Make no mistake, folks: We are still in the thick of the Insurrection, and January 6th was but one battle in a long campaign.

In the meantime I won’t shed any tears for the pro-coup d’etat Prius owner on my street. 

************

Photo: Oath Keeper outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on January 5, 2021, the night before the attempted coup at the Capitol. 

Credit: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Originally published by NPR.

9 thoughts on “The Insurrectionist On My Street

  1. “What about this guy’s First Amendment rights?” Someone keying the confused dude’s car is not a violation of his free speech rights. The first amendment prohibits the government from restricting his speech (with exceptions and carve-outs, of course). It doesn’t prohibit some less confused dude from busting him in the nose for being an asshole—other codes “protect” him from that. Do you remember Stanley Fish’s essay from the 1990s, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech—and It’s a Good Thing, Too?” It was such a barn burner in Academia back then, but I haven’t heard anyone mention it in a decade at least? Fish’s argument is complicated, and maybe a little too cute at times, but often very prescient about our current situation. Nothing is going to protect us but ourselves. https://web.english.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Fish_FreeSpeech.pdf

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That long comment was, of course, a silly little objection to something your interlocutors propose, and hardly worth all the pixels I spent on it. Much shorter comment this time to say: another excellent post. Thanks for continuing to write these. I really value them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. THIS x 1,000,000 : “Treating a terrorist movement that is an existential threat to our system of government by the same rules that you treat ordinary political players who act in good faith is exactly the kind of naivete that those terrorists hope to exploit. ”
    I keep waiting for “the good guys” to say “enough” and crack some heads. I guess they only get cracked if they’e the heads of student protestors. The whole thing pulls the curtain back more and more to reveal a deeper power struggle beyond R and D.

    Like

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