Trump appears to be on the way out, but none of us can have failed to notice all his numerous heavily-armed gangs of supporters out on the streets across the USA. And even if the man may be finished, Trumpism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. These militias, “boogaloo bois”, ‘three percenters’ etc are constantly readying themselves for the apocalyptic civil war they believe is imminently coming. Meanwhile, mainstream liberals in America are very keen on gun control for the masses but fully support the police, who are themselves the main armed danger to large sections of America’s population.
How are the left responding to these threats? How do leftists, antifascists and minorities operate when the opposition are all armed to the teeth? Where is this all heading? One of the left responses to this situation is the Socialist Rifle Association – a national network of left wing gun clubs that has rapidly expanded in the last four years and now has over 10,000 members across the USA. We talked to Faye Ecklar, co-founder and Director of Mutual Aid for the SRA.
So thank you to Faye for very patiently answering our (numerous) naive questions…
AFN: How did the SRA come about? What do you see as being its purpose?
FE: The SRA had a long history as an online phenomenon before it became a real organization. Originally some members of the Liberal Gun Club with socialist politics split off and made a forum called ‘Socialist Rifle Association’ in 2012, but it never had more than 100 members and quickly died off. In 2013 someone made a Facebook group called ‘Socialist Rifle Association’ and posted left wing memes advocating gun ownership. The group was mostly a joke, but in 2016 during the rise of the Alt Right and the Trump campaign a lot of people got more serious about it. More groups sprung up on Reddit and Discord. In 2017 the Facebook group started talking about forming a real organization. Two members of the group went to the Unite the Right Rally, August 11/12 in Charlottesville, Virginia to stand with members of Redneck Revolt. This got the group a lot of publicity.
This is where the story gets messy. Thousands of people flocked to the SRA Facebook and Reddit wanting to get involved in a real left wing gun organization. However, the admins of the Facebook group struggled to organize at scale and couldn’t decide if they wanted to be a militia or a left-wing NRA. Then, Redneck Revolt and Socialist Rifle Association were named in a lawsuit targeting the militias who arrived at Charlottesville. While Redneck Revolt successfully fought the lawsuit, the SRA Facebook admins decided to hide their identities and close membership of the group so that they could not be legally served with the lawsuit. Shortly after, members of Redneck Revolt blasted the two SRA members who had been at Charlottesville, calling them out for being dangerously incompetent with firearms, for being aggressive and posturing rather than acting in a professional manner, and for putting people in danger by starting and escalating fights with the Alt Right.
I and a number of other people, including the Tulsa, Oklahoma and North Georgia chapters of the group, felt that the Facebook ‘leadership’ were incompetent and needed to be replaced. In March, 2018 we formed our own organization with a legal basis as a non-profit. There was a struggle for legitimacy between our SRA and the Facebook SRA (FBSRA) that lasted until November/December of 2018. In October 2018 our organization conducted Disaster Relief operations for victims of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, proving that we were capable of doing effective praxis in the real world. We were also interviewed by the New York Times, and we were able to present real arguments for left wing gun ownership and community defence to a wide audience without having to rely on memes. We also achieved federal recognition as a nonprofit. Then in December 2018 the FBSRA lost all credibility when a group of Maoists infiltrated the group’s leadership and revealed that their Texas-based Facebook admins were working with an FBI informant. Our rivals the FBSRA fell apart, and the organization I am a part of became the modern Socialist Rifle Association.
We founded the Socialist Rifle Association to be an institution to help build and shape a new left wing gun culture. The SRA is not a militia or armed militant group, but rather an educational and advocacy organization that also organizes mutual aid and disaster relief. Rather than focusing on any specific left-wing ideological line, the SRA adopted a big tent welcoming socialists of all tendencies. The argument the SRA was founded on is that all left wing tendencies in America need to deal with the reality that the US is full of guns and militarized police, and any sufficiently successful left wing project will eventually be attacked by fascists and/or the state. In order to be successful those projects must be able to deter those attacks, or if necessary defend themselves. Additionally, there has been an increase in hate crimes and violence against members of minority groups, especially Black people, immigrants, Jews, and LGBTQ+ people.
The SRA therefore focuses on: encouraging socialists to be armed; encouraging members of minorities to be armed; providing training in the fundamentals of gun handling and safety; the creation of local chapters to act as gun clubs and mutual aid organizations; and for this new leftist gun culture to reject the machismo and gun fetishization so common in right wing gun culture. We also made anti-fascism, anti-racism, and anti-misogyny core parts of our organizing philosophy.
AFN: How big is the organization and what sort of people join – lefties who have got into guns or gun people who have got a bit of politics? Does it bring you into contact with a different constituency of people to normal left politics?
FE: The SRA recently surpassed 10,000 members. Looking back to when we started with only 30 members in April 2018, it’s amazing to me how quickly this organization has grown. Membership is made up mostly of left wing people who feel the need to arm themselves and their community for defence against fascism.
AFN: How do you use your training and practicing? Is it to feel confident in self defence?
FE: Most SRA members are interested in guns for self defence or home defence, as well as participating in unarmed community defence such as disaster relief or mutual aid programmes, or learning emergency first aid skills.
AFN: What is your opinion on gun control laws? Is the SRA totally against it? Are you aligned with NRA on that?
FE: The SRA does not necessarily oppose all gun laws, but it does oppose laws which disproportionately disarm working class people or members of minority groups. Considering that the American police and government are steeped in white supremacy and fascism, this means we oppose the majority of proposed gun control in the US. However, our members do have varying outlooks on how guns should be controlled (or not controlled) in their ideal socialist or anarchist society.
One principle that I personally advocate is this: if the police are a ‘supposed to be’ a ‘civilian’ force, separate from the military, then civilians should be able to own and carry any weapon that the police can carry; and police should not have access to any weapon that civilians cannot own. If the police have substantially more firepower than ordinary citizens, then they are in practice indistinguishable from an occupying paramilitary.
AFN: What’s the solution to what looks like insane amount of gun deaths and mass shootings we see in USA?
FE: It’s important to understand gun deaths in general, and mass shootings, as two separate phenomena. The majority of gun deaths in America are suicides. The suicide rate in the US is largely due to poverty and economic insecurity, the despair of people who don’t see a future for themselves, and a culture which sees people who are non-productive as being useless. The next biggest cause of gun deaths is homicide, the bulk of which occurs in impoverished communities. Gun deaths due to these factors can be greatly reduced by addressing poverty and economic insecurity by providing free healthcare, cutting the cost of housing, and giving workers better wages and more control over their jobs and lives.
Mass shootings, however, are a separate issue. A useful way to look at mass shooters is that they are America’s equivalent to suicide bombers or car bombers. The only difference is that in America it is easier to get a gun than to get explosives. The root cause of this form of violence is the discontent, disillusionment, and nihilism of young people who are then either inspired by media depictions of past mass shootings (the media contagion theory) or are recruited by right wing political extremists who use these young peoples’ death wish to create terror. This is a fundamental issue with America’s decaying social fabric, and banning guns will not effectively stop these terror attacks.
AFN: What’s the relationship between race and guns? The image of gun enthusiasts is very white and NRA seems very white conservative.
FE: The relationship between race and guns is very complicated, and I don’t believe I can give a completely comprehensive answer here. However, it is important to understand that gun rights were enshrined in the US 2nd Amendment partly because of a need for armed violence at the frontier to continue the genocide of Native peoples, as well as Southern fears of slave uprisings. Gun rights were largely reserved for white people for most of US history, and during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, Black people who armed themselves for community defence were often massacred and disarmed by white mobs and police. Attempts by Black people and other marginalized groups to arm themselves have often led to increased gun control; the National Firearms Act of 1934 was partly justified by crime committed by Italian and Irish immigrants; the Gun Control Act of 1968 was partly put in place due to Civil Rights riots; the Mulford Act was passed in California and signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1967 in response to the Black Panthers; ‘Saturday Night Special’ laws banning inexpensive small caliber handguns were passed in the ‘70s in response to Black people in cities preferring those firearms. The history of gun control in America is the history of white people owning guns to oppress marginalized people; Black people and other marginalized folks acquiring guns to defend themselves; and white people then passing laws to disarm the marginalized.
AFN: Are guns affordable in USA or is it more of a thing for better off people?
FE: Until 2020 guns have been very affordable. A Hi-Point C9 9mm pistol could be purchased for $100 – $150 in most places; 12ga pump action shotguns are available for as cheap as $100; and before the recent panic-buying you could buy an entry level AR-15 for $400, or build one yourself from parts for as little as $300. With the current panic buying around the election, pandemic, and civil unrest, prices on firearms have doubled, while prices of ammunition have tripled or more, and many common calibers such as 9mm and 5.56mm have had limited availability. Now that the election has passed and it looks like Trump has failed to capitalize on right wing rage to stoke an insurrection to preserve his rule, I expect there to be a decline in demand for firearms which will leave retailers with a glut of surplus guns and ammunition. Unless there is another explosion of civil unrest or political turmoil, gun prices will likely crater in spring of 2021, and stabilize by the end of that year.
AFN: Does it feel like there is a genuine threat from the armed right wing? Is that what you are responding to?
FE: There is a genuine threat from right wing militias and neo-Nazi terror cells. Militia members have shot BLM protesters and then been protected by the police. Neo-nazi terrorists in groups like Atomwaffen and The Base have committed terror attacks or been apprehended planning attacks. History shows us that a common feature of fascism is the use of non-government affiliated armed groups to commit violence on behalf of fascists in government while maintaining distance and plausible deniability. We can observe this in the history of Germany, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, and elsewhere. These types of armed groups are tools which can be wielded by competent fascists to attack the left and minority populations without the bad optics of using state forces directly.
AFN: What about militias? Do they exist everywhere or only in certain parts? Are they all really right wing or not?
FE: Militias exist in every state in the US. There are some states where stricter laws and more liberal culture make it difficult for militias to recruit or engage in actions (California, New York, etc). But I would say that of the 50 states, 35 to 40 of them have significant militia presences. Militia membership generally ranges from generic right-wing conservatives, to thinly disguised fascists. A representative, middle-of-the-road example would be the Three Percenter (III%) network, which nominally serves to ‘protect’ the US Constitution and in theory rejects neo-Nazis, but in reality incorporates many anti-communist, anti-Black, anti-liberal ideas into its ideology, and will readily accept people who espouse Nazi rhetoric as long as they are not too open about it. There are a handful of left wing militias, but only a tiny fraction as many as there are on the right. The one advantage is that many of the right wing militias are full of aging Baby Boomers who lack the physical stamina to be an actual threat. Even accounting for that though, there are probably 10x as many effective militia members on the right as there are on the left.
AFN: We hear a lot about the ‘Boogaloo’ movement recently. What is your opinion about it?
FE: The Boogaloo movement is a descendent of the Alt Right. While it is not explicitly fascist like the Alt Right was, it is based on the same rejection of neoliberal American society, but without any coherent political-economic analysis of why society is like this, rather focusing on disdain for political elites (with an undercurrent of antisemitism). It is notable that the Boogaloo is anti-government and anti-police, in contrast to the mainstream conservative and fascist movements which idolize or attempt entryism into the police. The movement is predominantly right wing, though there are some young left wing people who have been drawn into it. Boogers have been involved in a number of attacks against police, and have attempted entryism into BLM and anti-police brutality protests, but because Boogers are overwhelmingly white and right-wing, BLM protests have largely rejected these efforts.
AFN: Do people carry firearms to demonstrations or as part of political actions? Would that make people safer or put them at more risk?
FE: Firearms are increasingly carried at political actions, especially by the far right, but also by some left wing groups starting in 2015. The presence of guns at charged political events obviously makes situations more dangerous. However, when right wingers are armed and leftists and anti-racists are not, this merely emboldens the right to feel that they can commit political violence without repercussions. When leftists bear arms at these events, they are often able to deescalate situations before they turn violent by intimidating right wing provocateurs who would otherwise feel that their guns give them immunity to consequences. Armed leftists at protests/political altercations in Charlottesville, Stone Mountain, Seattle, and elsewhere have likely prevented right wingers from carrying out violent attacks.
AFN: What’s the situation where you live on everyday level? Do people routinely carry weapons?
FE: I recently moved from California to Kansas, places which have polar-opposite gun laws, so I will speak to the situations in both states. In California the open carry of weapons was banned by the Mulford Act in 1967, in response to the Black Panthers carrying rifles and shotguns during their cop-watch programmes. California does allow concealed carry of a handgun with a permit, but these permits are administered on a county level. The most populous California counties, such as Los Angeles County, San Francisco County, Alameda County, etc largely refuse to issue conceal carry permits to citizens, while many other counties require proof of some dire need to justify a carry permit. Only the largely rural counties in California will freely issue concealed carry permits. Because of this, out of a population of 40 million adults, there are only 120,000 active concealed carry permits in California, or roughly 0.3% of non-police Californians have a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and these are largely concentrated in rural counties.
However, a US Federal law called LEOSA allows almost any retired police officer who was not fired for misconduct to carry a concealed firearm regardless of state or local laws, and many retired police officers take advantage of this. It is unclear exactly how many retired police officers there are in California, or how many carry guns. But retired officers carrying pistols under LEOSA regularly either intervene in crimes, or commit crimes themselves. A retired officer with a concealed pistol murdered an intellectually disabled man in a Costco last year for the crime of bumping into his cart and yelling, mere miles from my previous home.
In Kansas citizens have a state-constitutional right to carry arms, open or concealed. Any person over the age of 18 may open carry a firearm anywhere, except when prohibited on private property. Since 2017, any person over the age of 21 may carry a concealed handgun anywhere, again except when prohibited on private property. In rural areas it is common to see gun racks on the back of vehicles with rifles or shotguns. It is uncommon to see long guns carried openly in large cities such as Wichita, Lawrence, or Kansas City, but it is not unheard of. I don’t have any data for what % of Kansans carry concealed pistols, but at least 4% of Kansans currently maintain concealed carry permits, even though they are no longer required by law. In my short time since moving here I have seen at least two people in the supermarket with pistols openly carried on their hips. This does not concern me, as I have grown up around firearms; but when guns are carried in conjunction with pro-Trump or QAnon apparel, one gets the sense that the guns are being used as an attempt at political intimidation.
In both states, it is worth remembering that the police constitute an openly militarized armed force, which serves to protect white and wealthy communities, while acting as an occupying paramilitary in Black, Latine, and poor communities.
AFN: What do you think we can learn from the SRA in our country with (mostly) no guns?
FE: This is difficult to answer, as I am not extensively familiar with the situation in the UK. I will say that the SRA exists as a response to the existing gun culture in America, and would likely not have developed independently if this gun culture did not already exist. The greater lesson Europeans should learn, I suppose, is that you must observe the weapons (both physical and metaphorical) and the battlegrounds (both street and cultural) in which fascists are advancing, and strive to meet them in those same battlegrounds with those same weapons. Do not surrender any space to fascism, and do not let them own a monopoly on any tactic or section of your culture. Provide a socialist alternative in all arenas.
AFN: How do you think the overall situation on the streets will change with results of latest US elections? Are we likely to see more violence from the far right or are they become more demoralised?
FE: What we are seeing now is a feeding frenzy by right wing radical and fascist groups as they aggressively recruit and absorb disappointed Trump supporters. Groups like the Proud Boys, which have always served as a bridge between mainstream conservatism and explicit neo-fascist politics, have begun to more openly display their fascist bona fides, exhibiting quotes and references to the Turner Diaries, the 14 words, and Holocaust denial in their national comms. Right wing militias have been more openly talking about murdering dissidents and journalists, both in their comms and in public. The QAnon conspiracy universe has become increasingly unhinged and detached from reality, and is leaving many people in a confused mental state that makes them vulnerable to ideological conversion to fascism.
The main danger, however, is the growing political solidarity between the police and the far right. While militias and street brawling clubs like the Proud Boys can cause trouble at protests and intimidate people in the streets, they do not have anything approaching the power needed to initiate a fascist takeover. The police, however, do. Police often protect fascist and right wing protesters even when they are openly breaking the law, while those same police will abuse Black Lives Matter protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons at the slightest provocation. The police often have friendly relationships with right wing groups and militias, and some radicalized sheriffs departments will actually deputize right wing militias to act with the authority of the police, without any legal oversight. We have also seen in Portland the willingness for Federal police forces like the US Marshalls to deputize politically radicalized local police to act with the authority and lack of restraint of Federal police. The worlds of the extreme right and Law Enforcement are growing more intertwined as time goes on.
I have talked a lot in this interview about police, and likened them to a paramilitary. I want to stress that this is not an exaggeration or exercise in rhetoric. American police have always played a role in exerting the dominance of the ruling class to enforce white supremacy and class division. But a number of factors – including the militarization of the police starting in the early ‘90s, the influx of military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into the police force in the late 2000s, the deliberate infiltration of police forces by fascists in the 2000s-2010s, and more recently the rise of Trumpism, and the Defund/Abolish the Police movements by left wing and anti-racist protesters who have recognized law enforcement’s role in upholding capitalism and racism – all have combined to create a class of angry, armed, self-aggrandizing and self-aggrieved men who view black, poor, immigrant, and left-wing people as their enemy. These individuals are above the law, shielded from most consequences for committing murder or assault by Qualified Immunity, police-friendly prosecutors, and racist judges. They often claim to owe their allegiance to the law, to the Constitution, or to the flag; but these are just religious/ideological idols for them, representing the true things they worship: power, authority, and the right to abuse those whom they view as undeserving of their protection. American political scientist Frank Wilhoit described the ideology of the modern ‘Conservative’ movement thus: “There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” We can see this put into practice by American law enforcement every day.
In the meantime the liberal/Democratic left is completely devoid of answers or urgency for dealing with these issues, if they acknowledge their existence at all. Biden has promised a return to normalcy, a return to the nostalgic days of the Obama administration when liberals could safely ignore politics while the machinery of the empire hummed efficiently in the background. He has no roadmap for dismantling the Trumpist movement or its infiltration into the gears of government and policing. Liberals scoff at Republicans while they and their fascist allies appear on Fox News and One American News spreading the idea that democracy is dead and that conservatives must rely on force to ‘protect the nation’. Biden’s administration will leave all of the components of American fascism in place, while leaving the great majority of liberals completely unprepared for its inevitable second wave.
The threat we are facing, the rifle muzzle pointed at the heart of American society, is this: all of the pieces exist for the formation of a unified fascist movement: the Republican Party, the right wing media/propaganda ecosystem, neo-fascist organizations and street brawlers, radicalized police departments, a victim mentality that views any criticism as censorship, and a religious-political ideology based on the twin pillars of Evangelical Christianity and rabid White Nationalism. Our only saving grace so far has been the relative incompetence of Donald Trump. All it will take is a more competent, charismatic fascist to bring the movement Trump enabled to its logical conclusion.
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*for those unfamiliar – this is a gender neutral way of referring to what what otherwise have to be referred to as Latino or Latina communities. Go back.