Senator Jeff Merkley planned to visit a federal immigration detention center for children in Brownsville, Texas last week. Children of asylum-seekers, separated from their families under the current administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy, were being warehoused in a former Wal-Mart, repurposed as a privately run prison. When Senator Merkley arrived at the facility, staff panicked and refused to let him enter. Then they called the police.
What happened next should not happen again. Opponents of this administration face a reckoning. Our allegiance to a set of “norms” forged in a different time, under different circumstances, is developing into a critical weakness. We are not mentally ready for the fight unfolding around us. Senator Merkley backed down, losing the Battle of the Brownsville Wal-Mart without a fight. We should all be more prepared for the next confrontation.
Another civil war in the context we normally understand, is nearly inconceivable. Modern civil conflicts don’t look like 19th century wars, with set-piece battles and uniformed armies and sophisticated weapons. Modern civil conflicts rise from the disintegrating power of a political center, often fostered by a hostile, better organized external power. Forget about Fort Sumter or Antietam, modern civil discord looks like Eastern Ukraine or Sinaloa.
The most critical early battle in an emerging civil conflict is fought over control of whatever established political institutions remain functional. Though we seldom acknowledge it, our legislative and executive branches have largely collapsed. Damage they’ve endured over the past decade in terms of lost institutional cohesion, declining respect, and public disinterest might take decades to repair under better circumstances. Institutions still functioning at a reasonable level of competence are the ones best insulated from democracy; the FBI, military, Federal Reserve, etc. Pressing these existing institutions into a moral dilemma early, before the rot invades too deeply, will be crucial to the outcome of this conflict.
Sen. Merkley missed a valuable opportunity. For a clinic in the successful use of violence in a civil conflict, take a close look at the Bundy family’s long, successful fight against the federal government.
How Resistance Wins
Nevada’s Bundy family are a bit deranged. They have almost nothing going for them but for the fact that they’re white, crazy and rich. They’ve been stealing from the federal government since the 1990’s when they decided to stop paying grazing fees on federal lands. They were on the losing end of almost two decades of court judgments, with no successful effort at enforcement.
When, in 2014, federal officials took the modest step of trying to impound cattle the Bundys had been running illegally on federal land, the Bundys rallied hundreds of armed, drunken weirdos and staged a standoff. They shut down Interstate 15. They placed women and children at the front of their lines as human shields. A sympathetic local sheriff (remember, sheriffs are elected) came to their aid. They threatened and assaulted journalists. In a final showdown, they blocked access to federal lands, leveling guns at federal officials. The feds backed down.
Quick note on the role of guns in this standoff. If the federal government had decided to force the issue, they could have cut through that mob of morons in about three minutes, with likely no losses on their side. The guns were important as theater. They also served to raise the complexity and stakes of any federal action. Yes, FBI agents would have prevailed, but as demonstrated by the fallout from the Koresh Compound raid in 1993, a field of dead white perpetrators is too high a price to pay for justice in America.
That rule only applies to white people. Hardly anyone remembers what happened to black members of the bizarre MOVE cult. Philadelphia police incinerated an entire city block in 1985 to kill them off. When white people carry guns in a standoff with authorities it raises the cost of confrontation, making them hesitant and reticent. When non-whites carry guns while challenging authorities, it justifies any degree of violence the authorities choose to deploy.
Complain it about later. Understand it and use it now.
Formal charges arising from the incident at Bundy Ranch were laid on the family and a dozen or so of the dumbest members of the mob. Even then, most of them skated. A judge this year finally dismissed charges against the Bundys themselves for their role in the 2014 standoff.
Two years later, the Bundys went further, seizing an isolated federal park at Malheur in Oregon. They held the facility for more than a month while federal officials waited them out. One of their allies was killed when he appeared to be reaching for a gun. Again, a handful of the craziest perpetrators faced prosecution, but the Bundys beat the federal charges again. After stealing from the government and threatening to kill federal agents for decades, the Bundys remain alive, free, rich and popular.
Learn from this.
Seize the Initiative
If you gain nothing from this piece but this one sentence, it will have been worth the effort: In our legal/political system, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to wrench gains from the hands of those who seize the initiative – as long as they’re white. The heirs of Bernie Madoff may have suffered for his crimes, but their family members will still inherit fortunes.
With very few exceptions, our system grants enormous deference to those who take the initiative, even if they do it with the worst of intentions and with terrible consequences to others, as long as they’re white. So, what happens if you take the initiative in seizing clear moral high ground?
Senator Merkley’s brief, failed standoff with local police is a learning opportunity. By politely walking away after police were called, he got a few columns of media attention. He took a moral question up to the point of conflict, then backed down. That allowed the owners of that private prison to duck a moral dilemma and retain their control over a horrifying situation. Merkley was later allowed to tour a facility, but without the right to photograph anything within. What he described went largely unnoticed. The moment had passed. Now inept Democratic legislators are working to pass a bill granting Congressmen access to these facilities, as if that was the point.
What if he hadn’t left? When employees at that facility panicked and called the police, what if he insisted on his right as an elected Senator to oversee a federal program, and on his rights as an American and a human being to resist oppression? Instead of having a brief polite conversation with local police, what if he refused to leave and called out supporters who showed up in the hundreds? And what if he threatened to take a sledge-hammer to that Wal-Mart door?
Let’s be clear about an important detail. In a strict legal sense, Merkley had no right to enter that facility without permission. Police were within their rights to force him to leave or even detain him. Insisting on access and refusing to cooperate with police are inappropriate behaviors; impolite, disrespectful, destructive of civilized norms. So was the Battle of Gettysburg. Know your circumstances. Know your ground. Know when to hold it. Your president and his henchmen don’t give a shit about the law. You won’t get any points for respecting the law and losing a fight.
If Merkley had refused to back down in Brownsville it is unlikely he would have been arrested unless he decided to submit to arrest. Remember what the Bundys have taught us. Police had no desire to intervene in that situation. If he had made the situation more difficult, they would have backed off to a perimeter and sought guidance from supervisors. There is a chance he might have faced some subsequent criminal charges for obstruction, trespassing or perhaps even something more serious. With a little effort, he could have fought those charges to a stalemate.
Out of that standoff would have come a very visible splash of crucial information and attention, which has otherwise gone largely unnoticed. In an election season, the forced warehousing of refugee children separated from their parents would have rocketed up the list of political priorities. Comparisons to certain (ahem) “historical regimes” would have been unavoidable. The grimy details of how those children have been handed to contractors and the millions of dollars those contractors are earning from this unconscionable policy would be at the center of the public’s view. Merkley missed his opportunity to give his enemies what they least want and can least endure. Don’t make that mistake. Seize the initiative.
Mental Preparation for a Fight
Mike Tyson has some helpful advice, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.” If you are a white, materially successful, law-abiding citizen with a sterling credit rating, you are America’s little precious. When something happens to you, the country reels. You are also entirely unaccustomed to any form of conflict with government authorities. Your disobedience is worth several hundred bombs, but like Senator Merkley, you are probably unprepared to use that leverage in a conflict. You are conditioned toward a compliant relationship with uniformed authorities that will undermine you in a standoff. Everybody has a plan until they take a punch. Fix that vulnerability, and you could save many lives.
Identify circumstances in which simple disobedience can cause a high-stakes stalemate. For example, our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is entirely out of control under this administration’s supervision. Though “law and order” is the theme of their raids on immigrants, Trump commuted the sentence of an Iowa meatpacker convicted of hiring illegal workers. ICE has concentrated their enforcement efforts on deporting Latinos rather than punishing white employers who hire them illegally. ICE is evolving into an ethnic cleansing force. They should be made the emblem of this administration.
Last year, ICE stopped passengers disembarking on a domestic flight, demanding proof of citizenship. If a nice white lady had simply sat down and refused to cooperate, all hell would have broken loose. ICE lacked the authority to do what they were doing. Under pressure from the people America cares about, they would have been forced to back down, with likely career consequences for some asshole in their senior management. Simple non-cooperation at this point can raise the cost of ICE’s operations significantly.
Recognize your leverage. Neither that scenario, nor the one faced by Sen. Merkley required any guns. No one needed to punch a Nazi. At this stage of the conflict, placing your white body in the way of an unjust authority is an act of war capable of achieving consequential victories. You will experience inconvenience. You might even be briefly detained. But you will bring down painful outcomes that will shift power inside those organizations. Force your enemy to pay a price for the ground they are trying to seize. You may discover that they were weaker than you thought.
At this stage, few of us will see an opportunity for civil disobedience. We will, however, see chances to rob collaborators of legitimacy. Last month, a professional Trump shill had a drink thrown at her during a brunch in Minneapolis. That was impolite and intolerant and a pretty good idea. There is no reason to extend civility or tolerance to the people enabling this regime.
Force a cleaving. Burn down the neutral spaces. We are in the early stages of a fight for the future of this country that won’t likely be resolved without bloodshed. A disrupted brunch and a stained blouse are relatively civilized and humane forms of resistance when you consider what’s at stake.
By confronting collaborators now, in ways that involve the lowest levels of physical resistance, we may be able to stunt or block the growth of the Trumpist cancer inside our remaining institutions. All of our civilized instincts toward civility and national unity are being used against us now. Resist that. No one should feel safe expressing support for this regime in public. Smart exercise of resistance or even low-level violence forces a cleaving, placing decision-makers, authorities, and even bystanders in a position from which they can’t escape a clear, consequential moral choice. When you have the moral high ground, use it.
Getting Your Head Straight
No one expects ICE to check their papers on a domestic flight. Sen. Merkley probably wasn’t expecting to be confronted by police on his Brownsville visit. White people expect to go through their lives without disruption or inconvenience. Lulled to complacency by generations of relative security, we are unprepared to halt the erosion of our rights and decline of our institutions. That should change. Get your head straight.
Prepare yourself mentally for an environment in which your comforts and convenience may be compromised. Know as much as possible about your rights. Form ties to people and organizations who can offer assistance in a conflict. Use this time to get more deeply connected to your community, especially more vulnerable members of that community. Know what you won’t tolerate.
Most of all, learn the bizarre lessons of the Bundy family. When white people resist this government with implacable determination, they usually win, even when they’re hopelessly wrong and heedlessly reckless. When armed with clear moral justification, such resistance is extremely powerful. Using determined, measured resistance now, at this phase of the conflict, could save lives down the line.