Originally posted March 27, 2011 at The Defenestrator. This article also appears on LibCom and the Hampton Institute, as well as in a condensed version on Medium.
Following the election of Obama, many folks involved with a spectrum of different anti-racist work were left dumbfounded by the rise of the aggressive and often explicitly racist white Tea Party movement. Though the Tea Party Movement had been funded in the millions, enjoyed the enthusiastic backing of Fox News and was being manipulated by powerful forces on the right, it was also clear that the right was comfortably engaging with a sector of the North American working class largely abandoned by the broader left. In the throes of economic crisis many formerly enfranchised whites were looking at serious setbacks. In response the left for the most part smugly responded by dismissing the crazy tea baggers while white supremacists and conservatives moved into largely uncontested territory. In looking for exceptions, I decided to check out the John Brown Gun Club, a group of white working class anarchists who before the emergence of the Tea Party movement, had been sowing class struggle and anti-racist solidarity amongst mostly white gun enthusiasts in Kansas. Here Dave Onion interviews long time anti-racist gun slinger Dave Strano.
You were part of the John Brown Gun Club in Kansas and now are involved with Redneck Revolt in Denver. What are these groups are about? What sort of folks were involved and are you coming from politically?
Dave Strano: The John Brown Gun Club was a working group of Kansas Mutual Aid, an anarchist collective active in Northeast Kansas from 2002 until early 2009. Kansas Mutual Aid focused on a variety of organizing initiatives and social programs including free food distributions, support for political prisoners and prisoners of war, Copwatch and legal support, anti-military recruitment, and firearms and self defense trainings.
The John Brown Gun Club focused on two main program points. We worked to provide skillshares and trainings in the tactical use of firearms within the radical community and also to distribute free anti-racist literature at gun shows in Kansas and Missouri. We managed to table at over 30 different gun shows in a three year period, and distribute hundreds of copies of anti-racist and anti-Minutemen literature during that time period. We even managed to make some close allies with several other gun show vendors, one of which quit the Minutemen. That connection would later prove very advantageous after my move to Denver, as that vendor helped provide some of the first tabling space for the Redneck Revolt project at gun shows in this area.
Kansas Mutual Aid was mostly comprised of working class anarchists, few of who seem to meet the normal demographic of ex-punk and ex-middle class backgrounds. The majority of the folks that made up the John Brown Gun Club working group even went as far as to openly identify as rednecks. Our shared experiences of growing up in poor or working class white communities, in trailer parks and run down apartment buildings, surrounded by redneck culture, made it easy to find commonality.
The term "redneck" started to become part of our political identity. We produced literature specifically targeted toward white working class people, urging them to abandon their kneejerk racism and allegiance to whiteness and to instead build alliances with working class brown and black folks. This effort culminated in a widely distributed piece of literature, "An Open Letter to Other White Working People..." The essay was distributed by the hundreds to attendees at gun shows and later at Ron Paul's "New Liberty Movement" rallies and events.
Kansas Mutual Aid disbanded in early 2009, and I moved to Denver in April of that same year. 2009 was a big year for the Tea Party and their efforts to mobilize and organize. I penned a new essay, "Of Tea Parties and Patriots" and launched a new organizing effort, Redneck Revolt.
Redneck Revolt never has really amounted to more than just my singular efforts at agitation and education, mostly due to the birth of my daughter and my large time commitments to the work of the Denver Anarchist Black Cross. It's a project I'd like to focus on more, especially as the worker's revolts in Wisconsin bring white working class supporters of the Tea Parties into the streets to back the horrific attacks on the broader working class. There is political affinity to be found in the Rocky Mountains with other radical rednecks, but the efforts have been put on hold for the last year.
Another reason that Redneck Revolt hasn't been developed as much as it could be, is that another project I am affiliated with already fulfills half of the mission of the original John Brown Gun Club. The Denver Armed Resistance Committee (DARC) is a working group of the Denver Anarchist Black Cross that focuses on firearms and tactical defense. The group offers a free monthly introductory class through the Denver Free School, as well as multiple live fire exercises throughout the year. DARC is much more formal and better organized than the John Brown Gun Club ever was, but only fulfills half the mission of the predecessor project.
As anti-racists, why would you ever identify as rednecks?
Strano: I'll first quote directly from the Redneck Revolt blog:
"The history of the term redneck is long and complex. One of the earliest recorded uses of the term comes from the 1890s, and refers to rednecks as “poorer inhabitants of the rural districts…men who work in the field, as a matter of course, generally have their skin burned red by the sun, and especially is this true of the back of their necks."
In 1921, the term became synonymous with armed insurrection against capitalists and the state, as members of the United Mine Workers of America tied red bandanas around their necks during the Battle of Blair Mountain, a two week long armed labor uprising in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Today, the term redneck has taken on a demeaning connotation, primarily among upper class urban liberals who have gone out of their way to dehumanize white working class and poor people. Terms like “white trash” have come to signify the view among these same upper class liberals of poor and rural whites.
To us, the term redneck is a term that signifies a pride in our class as well as a pride in resistance to bosses, politicians, and all those that protect domination and tyranny."
We're very upfront about our position of being not only opposed to white supremacy, but to the shared culture of whiteness being one that has only been defined by being an oppressor race. What unites white skinned people currently is a shared history of being the foot soldiers of oppression. We want to ensure that as many whites as possible reject this commonly understood idea of whiteness and instead join in a common struggle with workers of all skin colors in a struggle for total and real liberation.
We feel like it's important to understand our backgrounds and roots, to understand where we come from and organize within those communities. It has been stated over and over again from our comrades and allies within black and brown liberation struggles that only whites can help organize within white communities. We wish to step up and start to build a white, anti-racist working class element of the broader working class movements active in the U.S.
The call ourselves rednecks then, to celebrate the history of treason to whiteness and allegiance to the working class that this term once embodied.
We talked earlier about your work tabling at gun shows. What sort of reactions and dialog has come out of that work? What sort of materials did you use?
Strano: The efforts of the John Brown Gun Club were definitely more successful than the efforts in Colorado in this area of struggle. In Kansas and Missouri, we were on a first name basis with gun show organizers. After about a dozen shows, the Minutemen actually stopped tabling at shows. Of course, the Kansas Minutemen also almost entirely dissolved during that time period, certainly not solely from our efforts. We were able to build some alliances with gun dealers and other vendors, as I detailed just vaguely earlier in this interview.
However, I don't want to downplay how negative a lot of the reaction was either. We received death threats at more than one gun show. We had consistent moments of loud and explosive arguments during many shows.
There was a specific incident involving members of a Confederate Hammer Skin crew when we tabled in Kansas City that was particularly tense.
The reactions in Colorado, where the Minutemen have had a stronger foothold have been definitely more on the negative side. Unlike Kansas, where we had some direct confrontations, but never from actual members of the Minutemen, we've had Minutemen members threaten to break our arms or mob up on our table threatening to have us kicked out of the show. Despite these reactions, Colorado has a higher percentage of non-white gun show attendees, and the reactions from these gun owning black and brown folks has been amazingly positive.
Our typical table setup has been pretty consistent whether in Kansas or Colorado. We typically have several dozen literature titles, some focusing on firearms and tactical defense mechanics, but the vast majority are typically anti-white supremacy essays and pamphlets. Titles like David Gilbert's "Looking at the White Working Class Historically" and James Murray's "From Chiapas to Montana" have been among the more popular.
However, there isn't a whole lot of radical anti-racist literature out there that is specifically written towards the experiences of white working class people. Most anti-racist literature targeted toward whites is written for folks that already identify as radical, or written by folks that have no frame of reference for what it's like to be a redneck or white working class person. My experience has always been that it's easier and more effective for radical rednecks to craft these pieces ourselves, as we have the backgrounds and experiences to begin to reach folks from these communities.
Our tables usually include some sort of visually appealing graphic heavy display that gives an overview of who we view our real class enemies and allies as, and a small TV with a radical video on repeat. Typically our favorites have been anti-police state documentaries, old Black Panther films, IRA documentaries, or anything that is heavy on gun related imagery. It tends to play better to people than anything that may make us appear as anti-gun liberals.
We also definitely display weapons on the tables, to add some credibility to our organization and our views, and to yet again, illustrate that we're not some pro-gun control liberals. I can't overstate how important it is for us, as anti-racists trying to organize within the white working class, that we distance ourselves from upper-middle class democrats.
So many white anti-racists have been at a complete loss of how to approach the upswell in racist organizing we've seen most visibly inside the Tea Party movement. You've been to some of their gatherings. Can you talk about what sort of work you've done there?
Strano: Throughout 2009 and 2010, I've distributed over 2,000 copies of my pamphlet "Of Tea Parties and Patriots", which is an over-glorified open letter to working class whites that have been swept up in the Tea Party fervor. These have met mixed reactions at Tea Party events, but almost always have led to long, drawn out, productive conversations with folks in attendance. I've been to 5 or 6 Tea Party rallies, including a rally that specifically targeted the migrant community here in Denver.
While close comrades from local anti-capitalist migrant organizations have stood across the street holding signs against the Tea Party, I find myself on the other side, distributing literature, engaging in dialogue and causing trouble for the rally organizers.
I won't try to make some argument that my efforts have produced a whole lot, but I've made some interesting contacts, and definitely have seen some folks that were at the last Tea Party event come to support radical, and even pro-migrant events just several weeks later.
We've seen conservatives and fascists speak directly to (and often manipulate) some of the racialized fears of working class white folks who've either felt or fear the sting of the economic crisis. Why do you think anti-racists and voices from the left were so absent in these circles?
Strano: Let's be honest about this. The white working class has been completely abandoned to the right wing. The left has pushed white working class folks aside. Most liberals and progressives have very little activity with any sort of working class organizing, let alone white working class organizing.
Working class whites are more often the topic of jokes or ridicule than the target of any organizing efforts from our quarters. And I don't mean to say that the white working class hasn't earned a lot of that derision from the left. They have historically sided with the capitalists and the state and turned on non-white working people at nearly every opportunity.
But we also can't ignore the internal classism prevalent amongst many members of the Left, especially the institutional Left (non-profits, NGOs, etc). The folks in leadership positions are almost always white upper class liberals, and they have done much to cement their class leadership at the expense of working class people of all colors who may or may not be the perfectly educated political machines that the leaders of the liberal left yearn to be.
We, as radical and progressive movements are also quick to push anyone away who doesn't use the right words or does use the wrong words, or anyone that we're suspicious of being tainted by oppressive behaviors or thoughts. Of course, this means that 90% of the working class is automatically an enemy, and the ranks of the Left are instead filled with upper middle class educated academics that know what words are acceptable and anti-oppressive and have the time and resources to have attended a never ending series of anti-oppression workshops and classes.
This is not to downplay the need for these workshops, classes, and even attitudes toward oppression, but we need to be real. If we imagine a broad based people's movement that includes working class people, then we have to be able to meet people where they are at, and make these struggles relevant to their everyday lives.
The last thing a poor or working class redneck that is a paycheck away from being evicted from their rundown trailer wants to deal with is some upper or middle class college educated kid from the burbs talking down to them because they use an offensive word.
We also need to be honest, that the folks that can actually speak to the white working class (namely radical white working class people) are few and far between, and that many are actively silenced and ridiculed for their backgrounds by affluent white organizers. While much has been done to point out the inherently racist issues that plague many progressive and radical organizations, almost nothing has been done to point out the inherent classism that runs rampant on the left.
Folks seem to think that if they have a job as a union organizer, or have a friend that's a union member, or have attended a labor rally they are somehow not classist...
In Philly, some folks on the left have been taking on gun control as an issue to tackle the violence in our neighborhoods. One recent series of actions was to shut down a gun shop linked to high numbers of straw purchases of hand guns, many involved in killings, mostly of black youth.
Do you see urban gun violence playing into what you do and how would you address concerns by folks who see stricter laws on guns as a way to stop the killings?
Strano: I want to preface this with a disclaimer that I have never lived in an extremely violent urban center like Philadelphia, so it's hard for me to pass judgments on the organizing efforts of people that do live in those situations.
Having said that, however, I tend to feel that trying to solve the problems related to urban poverty by implementing gun control is like putting a band aid on a cancerous part of the body. It really misses the cause of the trauma, and honestly, will probably not do anything to stop the trauma.
I honestly feel that there are many racist implications to gun control campaigns specifically targeting black youth from having access to guns.
The message that is being sent is that police forces and white rural communities can responsibly own guns, but not black youth. We're saying that black youth are inherently more irresponsible, are incapable of making good decisions, that they need to be coddled and controlled in ways that are not necessary for white folks.
I would also openly ask if the folks that are targeting gun shops are also targeting drug dealers, liquor stores, and other legal or non-legal institutions that are profiting off of the misery of urban communities of color. It seems that these issues may destroy the lives of more youth of color than gun shops ever could.
Of course, the folks organizing these campaigns may very well being doing all these things... but I honestly don't think that closing down individual gun shops, or making guns illegal will stop gun or other violence in these settings.
In my opinion, a better, but much more controversial strategy, would be for organizers to do the hard work of organizing gun safety trainings in their communities, of having real and honest conversations and classes about guns, their effects on the communities, and maybe even some more liberatory uses of firearms.
Many progressives, especially pacifists, will scoff at this idea, but what if we started to actually talk openly about turning the guns that are already present in urban cores against the people that make these horrible conditions a reality. As former members of the BLA have repeatedly said, if black youth have guns anyway, why not build a culture where those guns are used for liberation? Why use guns to rob folks in the hood if you can rob a bank? Why turn your guns on other youth of color when you can turn them on murderous police officers?
These questions are hard, and controversial for sure. They make us feel uncomfortable. But if we're real about ending the actual causes of gun violence and the greater misery and poverty in the urban centers, then we must be asking these questions. We have to create a culture where kids who rob banks for their hoods are glorified and treated as heroes and not gangsters that target the members of their own communities. We have to compete to create a new culture against that of the dominant culture.
In LA, during the rebellion in 1992, the Crips and Bloods formed a truce and decided to no longer gun down each other, but to turn their guns against the cops and capitalists. If that effort happened across the country, it could be the action that finally ends these horrific and predatory social, political and economic systems. That's a concept that is sure to enrage many a liberal, but it's also hard to argue with.
A firearm is just a tool, and it can be used to do many different things and inflict very many different outcomes. If the guns already exist, and our efforts at this moment in time to control them have done nothing to stop gun violence by poor folks against other poor folks, why not try to develop a different strategy?
If rednecks turned their guns on politicians and not migrants, if Crips turned their guns on CEOs and not Bloods, if poor folks turned their guns that they currently point at each other against our common class enemy, we may not have to live in a world of capitalist, statist, and racist exploitation and oppression.
This article also appears on LibCom and the Hampton Institute, as well as in a condensed version on Medium.