Bleeding Kansas?

The expanding armed resistance to shutdown orders, from Michigan to Texas, are alarming enough in relation to the deadly spread of Covid 19. The far right is joining with mainstream Republicans, evangelicals, anti-vaxxers and others in this cause, lending it media spectacle along with the threat of real violence.

But just as the far right is helping to bolster the “Re-open” movement, that movement is bolstering the broader prospects of the far right.

The presence of an armed right at public protests has been developing for some time now. It has intensified since Trump’s election, with greater interaction between militia groups and Republican party officials in Oregon, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

At present, the array of identifications among armed groups at lockdown demonstrations ranges from Oathkeeper and Three Percenter militias to an emergent milieu of “boogaloo bois” – kind of next generation of Proud Boys who have swapped out Fred Perrys for Hawaiian print shirts and who are actively calling for a “second civil war” online and in the streets.

We might think of each of these gun-wielding confrontations around the pandemic as nascent military exercises in the field. To be sure, these are often bumbling attempts, like the demonstration in Lansing when two protestors fought over a noose in a pouring rainstorm.

But we may be seeing the contours of burgeoning armed cadre that are, in effect, the advanced guard of a much broader right, from libertarian funders to the Republican Party itself, from county organizations up to the White House.

The “re-open” movement protesters are vocal defenders of petit bourgeois capitalism in the streets, speaking out for “small businesses”, not frontline workers. “What is coming to arrest a person who is opening their business according to their constitutional rights? That’s confrontation,” said One online fitness instructor in Texas who had organized a heavily-armed perimeter around a tattoo parlor in Shepherd, Texas.

This framing is increasingly compelling to people who are feeling some of the economic pain from the shutdowns but not yet the effects of the virus itself, which has fallen far more brutally on black and Latinx workers, families, and communities. As tension over opening (and possible re-closing) of economies continues, issues of race and class will continue to roil, sharpening divides along lines of racial geography and ideology.

The decade before the U.S. Civil War saw intensified violence between pro and antislavery forces, particularly where the conflict over political authority was most acute along the Kansas/Missouri border. What was called “Bleeding Kansas” anticipated the national conflict to come.

A renovated right that is now represented by an armed wing on the streets in defiance of municipal and state ordinances suggests the stakes in coming conflicts beyond the pandemic. So far Democrats in a number of states have hesitated to use state power against protesters, in Michigan going so far as to cancel a legislative session to avoid being in the statehouse when gun-toting demonstrators arrived.

What happens if Trump loses in November? What happens if he wins?

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