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Black Lives Matter is America's Arab Spring

The movement has thrown a challenge down to white supremacy but has brought reactionary vigilante groups out onto the streets

Black Lives Matter reveals more than the power of online social media to agitate offline social activism. It peels back the scab that conceals everything that is wrong in America: from racial inequality to a racially biased justice system; from poverty to wealth disparity; from a corrupt political system to a corporate-owned media class that is no longer able to tell the truth.

In many ways, Black Lives Matter is America’s Arab Spring. In Egypt, a downtrodden underclass rose to resist a totalitarian regime that not only shunned democracy but had also embraced a gulag-esque justice system while imparting sky-high unemployment and poverty on the Egyptian people. In other words, the Arab Spring was every bit about social justice in Egypt as the Black Lives Matter movement is in America today.

Similarly, it was fires that ignited both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Arab Spring, as Britni Danielle, a civil rights activist, points out. In December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor set himself alight and “kicked off a wave of protests that ignited the country and toppled the regime of Tunisia’s then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Soon, the call for change swept across the Middle East and North Africa, sparking widespread demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria”.

The fires of Baltimore and Ferguson took what was a Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, into what is now a full-blown civil rights movement that calls for the end of social and racial injustice.

On Monday night, the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to remember the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the Ferguson Police Department. Confronted and agitated by a military armed police force, and unjustifiable arrests of high-profile protesters, the peaceful protest turned violent.

Television viewers were not only watching Ferguson’s descent into the abyss, but also America’s, and this was emphasised with the appearance of the Oath Keepers, a heavily armed right-wing militia.

“When states cease to function, rightwing extremist groups do the dirty work of the state,” Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, told me on Foreign Object.

Armed vigilantes and white supremacists

While heavily armed white vigilantes, the Oath Keepers, roamed the streets of Ferguson, black residents were routinely arrested on the suspicion of carrying firearms. If one needed to understand racial inequality in America in a single image, surely this was it.

So who exactly are the Oath Keepers?

With a membership of 35,000, the Oath Keepers were born after its founder, Stewart Rhodes, published a 2008 manifesto calling on constitutionally concerned “Patriotic citizens” to resist what he described as dictatorial leaders. “If a police state comes to America, it will ultimately be in your hands,” Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, wrote. “That is a harsh reality, but you had better come to terms with it now, and resolve to not let it happen on your watch.”

But it’s not a “police state” they resist. Oath Keepers are typically pro-law and order, and the fact they arrived in Ferguson to supplement the police’s intimidation of black protestors tells you everything you really need to know about the Oath Keepers.

The Black Lives Matter movement has thrown a challenge down to white supremacy. On behalf of white supremacy, the Oath Keepers arrived in Ferguson to meet that challenge. Lost in the irony is the fact that the Oath Keepers, who are typically working-class whites, share much of the same plights as the minorities they aim to suppress – for working-class whites, like impoverished blacks, are victims of a corporate-owned ruling elite that has dismantled welfare, public health services, labour unions, public housing – “the institutions of social democracy”.

Right-wing militias, who hide behind the guise of the “patriotic citizen,” are not only on the rise; they’re also expanding their enemy hit list. Initially, it was conspiracy-fueled opposition to the US Federal Government. After 9/11, and with the emergence of ISIS, it morphed into virulent opposition to Islam and Muslim Americans. Black Lives Matter has given them a new cause.

“The mechanisms of control, which usually work to maintain a high level of fear among the populace, have produced the 'patriotic citizen', plagued by job losses, bankrupted by medical bills, foreclosed on his or her house, and worried about possible terrorist attacks,” writes Hedges. “In this historical vacuum, the ‘patriotic’ citizen clings to the privilege of being a patriot - or, perhaps, the double privilege of being white and a patriot. The retreat into a tribal identity is a desperate attempt to maintain self-worth and self-importance in a time of deep personal and ideological confusion.”

'Patriotic' and 'religious citizen'

In America, periods of “deep personal and ideological confusion” translate into a rally behind the nation state – the “patriotic citizen” emerges. In Egypt, social and political turmoil translates into a rally behind religious authority – and we saw this with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood – the “religious citizen” emerges.

Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia are nightmarish illustrations of what happens when nationalistic, right-wing groups emerge in times of national distress, but there’s little reason to believe similar horrors won’t and can’t happen in the US. Is that a stretch? Well, not if you consider the fact that Chris Kyle, the American Sniper and martyred hero of millions of right-wing Americans, fantasised so hard about killing unarmed blacks that he even lied about killing black looters during the aftermath of New Orleans.

“The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 - rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012,” the Southern Poverty Law Centre calculates. One federal law enforcement official quoted by the SPLC says: "This is the most significant growth in 10 or 12 years. All that's lacking is a spark. It's only a matter of time before the threats turn into violence."

That “spark” might be the rapid growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are an estimated 30,000 hardcore white nationalists and 250,000 active sympathisers in America today, according to the SPLC. The FBI has already identified right-wing groups to be the greatest terror threat facing America today.

In Egypt, pro-government vigilante thugs attacked pro-democracy protestors during the Arab Spring, and, since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the military has gone all out to crush the movement. Before it succeeds in bringing about measurable and satisfactory change, the Black Lives Matter might have to withstand an assault from those who wish to sustain state violence against those who call for social justice, too.

CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Black Lives Matter protesters carrying signs in New York City (All-Nite Images/Creative Commons)

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