The Kentucky Paramilitaries and Why We Need MLK Day

I really did want to write this yesterday. But I realized I had to calm down before even attempting to compose my thoughts on the news of recent days, and I confess that I am still not as calm as I’d like, and I think that is the way I’ll remain until I’ve said what needs to be said.

Yesterday was one of the greatest paradoxes I’ve ever witnessed. On the one hand, a national holiday celebrating a landmark, perhaps the landmark, civil rights leader in the last 80 years or so of American history. At some point, maybe, I’ll write a separate post on MLK’s legacy and the battle over it, but that’s now what I want to talk about today. For the purposes of this rant, let’s just say that MLK has a universally popular legacy and is thought of very highly all over the country. People regularly quote the man, and MLK day is a national day of mourning and remembrance where the whole country remembers those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for justice in this country. Everyone in the news media was falling over each other making tributes to the man and his work.

On the other hand, while they were celebrating the civil rights leader, they were giving the most obvious group of racists to be exposed on national media this decade a pass: a bunch of paramilitary “teens” in MAGA hats who came very close to assaulting a Native American man for no other reason than he was there and they had decided to stand in front of him. There are dozens of links to the story and you’d have to be living under an immovable rock not to have read or watched about it in the news, so I won’t waste time linking to the actual news event here.

I will instead focus on what actually happened, the piss poor excuse for journalism that justified what these paramilitaries did, and what the MAGA hat has come to represent. It is no coincidence that groups of people wearing said hats appear when they do: during (usually progressive) demonstrations as a sort of counter protest intimidation force. The indigenous peoples’ march, the first of its kind, had been planned for months, and, especially considering the march for life the boys had been bused to was at the same location (the National Mall, a historic location for protests and another twist of irony regarding this story I will return to later), there’s little chance they would not have known about the first indigenous peoples march taking place.

There’s also little chance the paramilitaries (by that I mean the boys, but I frankly don’t think they deserve to be called boys after behaving the way they did) were even attending the life for march at the time the incident took place. Like most protests, both the indigenous peoples’ march and the march disseminated itineraries and lists of events to those attending well in advance of the actual rallies. The agenda for the indigenous peoples’ march clearly shows the main rally starting at 11, wrapping up by 4, and everyone heading home by 6 at the latest. The march for life also had an itinerary of events. According to their schedule, their march started at 1 in the afternoon and finished at 3. In other words, the MAGA people, who were still present for an incident at 4, had been loitering around the mall for at least an hour or so after the march for life ended.

There’s also the fact that the youth event they were supposed to be attending wasn’t even at the national mall, and yet somehow the “boys” were at the mall. The separate march for life youth rally didn’t even take place on the same day (it was the 17th) and didn’t take place at the National Mall. The youth rally is event where students from across the country who are so politically inclined attend to listen to speakers and sign up for things. The youth rally was the event specifically created for students like the Covington High students, and yet they were still at the march at 4pm on the 18th, a day after the youth rally and more than an hour after the main event ended. By 4, there was only one reason for anyone to be at the National Mall: to watch or participate in the indigenous peoples’ march.

To sum up what we can deduce so far: the paramilitaries were, most likely, not at the event that was the reason for their trip, as the youth rally was the day before. They were not still at the main march, because that had ended at 3. They were still outside because of the indigenous peoples’ march; there was no other reason for them to be there.

Now we come to why I’m calling them paramilitaries, not “misguided youths” or whatever. It is because of the hats; wearing them publicly at a political event is an intentional choice. Anyone who does so is clearly conscious of what the hat symbolizes and is at least aware of, if not a participant in, the activities carried out by people who wear them. It is a pattern that has been replicated throughout history when dictators or wannabe dictators seek to destroy democratic institutions ans disrupt society by encouraging and escalating political violence. Donald Trump has followed that trend. First, by branding his most loyal supporters with an unofficial “uniform” that was designed to last far past the 2016 presidential campaign (the hats). Then, by encouraging violence against protesters and political opponents. Even Politifact rates several claims that the president has encouraged violence at his rallies to be true. The hats are sold or given away at every one of these rallies, without exception.

Sometimes these groups of supporters, over the course of their radicalization, become better organized into true paramilitary groups, as was the case with the SA and Nicaragua’s Dignity Battalions. Sometimes they are little more than roving bands of armed thugs, like the blackshirts, who are later legitimized into a “national militia” or some such. At first, of course, all the blackshirts did was attend rallies where Mussolini encouraged violence and then, of their own accord, practiced that violence, in incidents ranging from harassment to armed robbery to assault and eventually murder. The MAGA people aren’t so organized as that. Yet. But so far they have followed the blueprint. They have attended rallies where violence has been encouraged. They have, as an aggregate group, engaged in that violence. They have harassed and intimidated their political opponents. All that’s missing is a little more organization, a little more legitimacy.

The president just announced this afternoon that the paramilitaries were invited to the White House. That’s a decent amount of legitimacy right there.

And this is why we need MLK day and the legacy of Dr. King, a man who not only fought for racial justice but against authoritarian tendencies he observed in the governments of southern states towards his people. King, and hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries, were forced to deal with the same kind of armed mobs, the same kinds of terrorists, as Mussolini’s, Noriega’s, or Hitler’s opponents. It is to that legacy people wanting to end this MAGA nonsense must turn. It is more than a slogan, it is the beginning of a paramilitary organization meant to do as much damage as possible to the normal order of American life. Dr. King’s career has a few things to teach us about to combat this creeping authoritarianism, and if we want to end it we must listen.

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