This image will surely be an indelible icon of our historical moment: A white teenager strolls nonchalantly along the streets of Kenosha, with an assault rifle in his right hand, casually waving at police shortly after he jas murdered two people protesting the shooting Jacob Blake. The image will survive long after the details of the night of August 25 have faded into the distant memory.
Like the photograph of a Jewish boy with his hands held up in surrender in the aftermath of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, the enraged white racist raising his middle finger to the camera at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and Stanley Froman’s shot of a racist protester about to impale Ted Landsmark with the American flag outside Boston City Hall, this photo contains far more than was captured in the frame. The image from Kenosha says so much more than anyone can put into words: about racism, systemic oppression, white privilege, and the quotidian reality of gun violence in America.
But, of all the messages contained in the Kenosha terrorist’s blithe demeanor and upraised hand, the one that haunts me the most is this: White nationalist hunting season has begun.
A few weeks ago, I shared my thoughts with friends about the relentlessness of state-sanctioned violence against Black and Indigenous people, and people of color. Witnessing our times – indeed, witnessing the whole breadth of American history – feels uncomfortably like watching the movie Saw in an endless loop. It is one bloody, nauseating atrocity after another, served up continuously and without a break. To see America is to see racist violence without end, it often seems, without hope.
Yet, at the same time, the white nationalist terrorists who have haunted American life have seemed strangely quiescent lately. The wannabe militiamen and cop-worshippers have certainly been visible throughout our summer of uprisings against police violence and structural racism, standing with their weapons at anti-mask demonstrations, and waving their guns outside palatial homes, but there has not been a white nationalist massacre since El Paso a year ago.
Quite apart from feeling an uncomfortable chill when I reflect that the absence of white nationalist mass murder is the state of exception, I can only wonder why it is so. What was tamping down the inevitable and expected explosions of freelance white racist violence? Do would-be Dylann Roofs have other things to do? Did Roof’s death sentence give them pause? That seems unlikely. Maybe they figured that the police, who have demonstrated great eagerness to murder unarmed Black men and women on the street and even in their own homes, had the racist terrorism down pat, and didn’t need any additional help?. That does not seem likely, either.
The only explanation that I can come up with is that the global coronavirus pandemic has been both keeping white nationalists preoccupied with protesting mask mandates and “owning the libs” by contracting COVID-19 and, on the other hand, depriving them of opportunity by keeping people off the streets. Not surprisingly, there were no right-wing terrorist incidents this spring like the Poway shooting or the Escondido mosque arson last year. The appalling calculus actually made sense: there is no point in shooting up a synagogue, for example, if there are no Jews there to kill.
Our summer of protests against police violence changed all that. The righteous rage over the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor– two more names in a long and growing litany of victims of official terrorism – brought hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets to demand justice, social distancing be damned.
President Trump, racist demagogues like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and other white supremacist surrogates in the media, government, and social media seized the moment to promote the narrative that American values and America itself – implicitly understood as a social order dominated by white, Christian power and defended by the power of the police – are under attack. Police-worshiping white nationalists snapped to attention across the country, put aside their anti-mask placards and Confederate flags, and picked up their assault rifles.
Not only did the thousands of protesters in Americas streets have the gall to demand racial justice and deny the prerogatives of white power, but they also provide what would-be Rambos call a “target-rich environment.”
That thought should give us all pause for, over the last four years, the coming of autumn has heralded a season of white extremist terrorism that will only fade in the spring. It began with the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on August 12 2017; in October 2018, a white nationalist gunman massacred eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; just over a year ago, a terrorist murdered 23 people in El Paso. As Americans emerge – ready or not – from lockdown, as students return to their campuses, as Jews begin the observance of our most holy days, as the demonstrations against state-sanctioned racist violence continue, the terrorists will only find an environment richer with targets.
And as the November election approaches, the incitements of apocalyptic rhetoric – of “American carnage,” of the existential threat of Antifa, of attacks on white privilege, of warnings of “white genocide” and “the great replacement” – will only escalate, shouted by the keening mob of the totalitarian Twitterverse and dutifully relayed, re-posted, and legitimized by the president and his surrogates. We should not forget that the Kenosha terrorist was both a “Blue Lives Matter” cheerleader and an enthusiastic MAGA acolyte.
The Kenosha terrorist is not a “lone wolf;” he was only one of many heavily-armed freelance thugs welcomed to the city’s streets by Police Chief Daniel Miskinis and his men. He is merely the surface manifestation of a mass of white rage churning below the surface of American political life. He is one among thousands of American brownshirts – Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Boogaloos, Proud Boys, Atomwaffen, and all the rest – who have spent the long summer of our discontent looking for a fight.
A right-wing counter-demonstrator was shot and killed last night in Portland, apparently connected with a “Trump 2020 Cruise Rally.” The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington and Joanna Waters report this morning that “about 600 vehicles, many flying large ‘Trump 2020’ flags, revved and honked their way through narrow downtown streets, seeming to taunt protesters in the city” the night before.
After the murders at Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso, and just this summer in Austin; after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the mosque burnings, and the destruction of the Chabad Center on the campus of the University of Delaware last week; after the Hitler salutes, the taunts and the threats, the white terrorists have a martyr. They know that you only need to keep pushing someone before they push back. And they are delighted that, last night, they got their fight.
The extremist right is armed for bear and hunting humans. And with the coming of fall, hunting season is here.
This article was edited to address the events of the night of 30 August 2020.