The new civil war tearing America apart: As rival armed militias are photographed in a terrifying stand-off in Kentucky, TOM LEONARD provides a chilling insight into the bitter cultural battle that’s making this the most toxic US election ever
The images were stark.
In one part of town, marching in columns through the leafy streets, some 250 African-American men and women — dressed head-to-toe in black combat clothes and clutching assault rifles and pump-action shotguns — were making their presence felt.
A couple of miles away, so too was a white militia of Trump-supporting ‘patriots’ wearing khaki camouflage gear and equally armed to the teeth.
That week, the genteel southern city of Louisville, Kentucky, was supposed to be celebrating the successful delivery of its famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby — America’s answer to Ascot, once heralded as ‘the greatest two minutes in sport’.
Some 250 African-American men and women — dressed head-to-toe in black combat clothes and clutching assault rifles and pump-action shotguns — have taken to the streets
Instead, body armour and skull-shaped masks replaced the traditional colourful hats and natty suits as the event became the latest battleground in America’s combustible election year.
The nation has never seemed so divided. ‘No justice! No Derby!’ chanted the black-clad protesters, members of a group calling itself ‘Not F****** Around Coalition’ (NFAC).
The justice they are demanding is for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old local black paramedic who was fatally shot during a police raid on her home in the middle of the night six months ago. No officer has yet been charged.
Countering with pro-police shouts of ‘Back The Blue’, the opposing militia — also estimated to be about 250-strong — mercifully never encountered the folk of NFAC.
A white militia of Trump-supporting ‘patriots’ wearing khaki camouflage gear and equally armed to the teeth also made their presence felt
Instead they clashed with another group, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, some of whom were also armed with rifles and handguns.
With the police barely in evidence (most were protecting the racecourse), the two sides spent 45 minutes jostling and scuffling as they screamed into each other’s faces through loudhailers.
No scene has so forcefully summed up the terrifying ugliness of the 2020 White House race — and what many fear is the potential for it to explode into full-blown civil war if either side doesn’t get the result it wants.
U.S. politics has been getting more polarised for years. But the regular collision of armed protesters and counter-protesters — one side violently for President Trump, the other violently against him — is a recent development that is naturally causing much alarm.
The risk of carnage is always just a squeezed trigger away. Back in July, when these two armed groups confronted each other in Louisville, a black militia member accidentally fired a few rounds, injuring three comrades.
Armed left-wing individuals counter protest whilst armed pro-trump militia members demonstrate in Louisville Kentucky on the day of the famous Kentucky Derby
Both sides insist they are turning out only because the other is there — and both say they are upholding the U.S. Constitution in what they see as their fundamental right under the Second Amendment to bear arms.
Sadly, their respect for the law only goes so far. The leaders of each group are hardly models of restraint.
The NFAC’s leader, ex-army veteran John ‘Grandmaster Jay’ Fitzgerald Johnson, had previously warned they would ‘burn this s*** down’ — meaning Louisville — if police officers were not charged in Ms Taylor’s case.
Mr Johnson has since said his threat was ‘figurative’, although he was back to the incendiary talk on his latest visit when he told his citizen army that if anyone pointed a gun at them, ‘don’t shoot them — kill them’.
The pro-Trump militia is led by Dylan Stevens, a blond-bearded giant who calls himself ‘Angry Viking’ and says it’s time to take a stand against the racial justice protests that have rocked the U.S. for months. Stevens describes himself as ‘a staunch supporter of Trump, police, our troops, Second Amendment, America and the flag’.
While President Trump accuses Democrats of underplaying the violence spawned by Black Lives Matter, and Democrats counter that he exaggerates it to make political capital, no one can deny that the U.S. is plagued by protracted urban violence
He and his comrades loudly insist they are not racist but do believe they need to arm themselves against an oppressive government that may soon try to enforce socialism on them. They are, of course, talking about a Democrat government headed by Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden.
And there are plenty more Angry Vikings out there. Armed Right-wing groups are increasingly pitching up at Left-wing protests and Black Lives Matter rallies, saying they are protecting citizens and property.
Many are members of so-called ‘constitutional militias’, a loose network of heavily armed, mainly white paramilitary groups that started in the mid-1990s.
Some are ‘preppers’ — continually readying themselves for a catastrophic societal breakdown — while others are ‘Three Percenters’ (after the supposed 3 per cent of colonists who took up arms against Britain in the War of Independence and won).
The justice protesters are demanding is for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old local black paramedic who was fatally shot during a police raid on her home in the middle of the night six months ago
Estimates of total militia numbers range from 40,000 to 100,000 and membership requires little or no weapons training. They have stayed largely out of sight for years but now clearly sense their moment has come. It is not hard to see why they might think so.
While President Trump accuses Democrats of underplaying the violence spawned by Black Lives Matter, and Democrats counter that he exaggerates it to make political capital, no one can deny that the U.S. is plagued by protracted urban violence, arson and looting linked to racial justice protests that keep being reignited by cases of unarmed African-Americans dying at police hands.
Most recently, there have been violent clashes between BLM protesters and police in Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, New York State.
Protesters in Rochester are demonstrating about the death of Daniel Prude, a black man who died in hospital a week after police restrained him and placed a mesh hood over his head.
A few days after a 1,500- strong crowd threw rocks and fired fireworks at his officers, the city’s black police chief last week became the latest in a stream of senior officers in the U.S. to tire of the criticism — often from their Left-wing mayors — and resign.
A Metro Police Department officer helps form a perimeter on a downtown Louisville street as members of patriot militias march in Louisville
Like Louisville, Portland has now passed the milestone of 100 days of violent unrest since the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.
When the grim anniversary came, about 500 protesters ignored a police declaration of a riot to launch their 100th night of anarchy. Police fired rubber bullets — and Molotov cocktails were hurled back.
As in other cities, some of the most violent activists in Portland are black-clad members of Antifa, a loose alliance of Left-wingers who insist violence is justified against the Far Right.
Their involvement has been catnip to Trump as he runs as the law-and-order candidate. Although Joe Biden has condemned the trouble on the streets, others on the Democrat Left have been reluctant to antagonise their progressive supporters and BLM.
Depending on how febrile the situation becomes between now and election day on November 3, this could be a fatal mistake.
‘No justice! No Derby!’ chanted the black-clad protesters, members of a group calling itself ‘Not F****** Around Coalition’ (NFAC)
For while polls suggest voters are most upset by Mr Trump’s abysmal handling of coronavirus, some pundits suspect many are concealing secret support for the Republicans as they look in horror at the failure of Democrat state and city leaders to quell the violence.
It is into this festering swamp that the boys from the militias and their gun-toting Left-wing opponents are joyfully marching. Given that there are 45 ‘open carry’ states in the U.S., militia members will often be staying within the law until the moment they actually pull the trigger.
With Trump having everything to gain by not quelling the violence, his supporters are coming out on the streets to deal with it themselves. And while confrontations between protesters and police have been fairly contained so far, with angry armed citizens on both sides squaring up to each other, the potential for incidents to spiral out of control is terrifying.
The first lethal shots have already been fired by Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, an ardent Trump and police supporter. He has been charged following the fatal shooting of two BLM protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on one of many nights of mayhem there since the killing of a local black man by police.
Rittenhouse, whose lawyer insists he was acting in self-defence, had joined a self-styled militia protecting businesses after the town was devastated by looting and arson.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg promised last week that it would try to stamp out any organising of election-related violence on its platform
Even before new evidence suggested he was in fear for his life that night, Rittenhouse was inundated with support and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for his legal defence.
Political exchanges all over America are being filmed descending into violence, with police frequently standing by as people exchange punches or hit each other with sticks and flagpoles.
The problem is being exacerbated by social media, exploited to summon large crowds on to the streets, sometimes galvanised by bogus video footage and police appeals for help.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg promised last week that it would try to stamp out any organising of election-related violence on its platform. Democrats say that polls show voters blame Trump for encouraging the violence.
But patience with BLM protesters is wearing thin — Trump last week made much of video footage of demonstrators in Pittsburgh descending on an elderly white couple dining outside to shouts of ‘f*** the white people’.
And there is another reason why some experts fear Americans may end up sorting out their political differences down the barrel of a gun. Pundits predict that far more Democrats than Republicans will vote by post, giving Trump victory on the day — but not when all the votes are totted up.
That could take weeks, and Trump has repeatedly warned his supporters that any attempt to change the election-night vote tally will be fraudulent.
Given that sort of chilling rhetoric, militia members may not be the only Trump supporters to conclude that any subsequent Democrat government is an illegal one. Armed resistance is hardly out of the question.
Meanwhile, Jacob Blake, the black man shot in the back by police in Kenosha, has appealed from his hospital bed for calm.
‘Please, change y’all lives out there,’ he said to those protesting at his fate. ‘There is a lot more life to live out here, man.’
Sadly, his message of conciliation is falling on deaf ears.
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