Redneck Revolt — an anti-racist, pro-gun community defense network — is answering crucial questions, while raising others.
“I don’t know if I want to hold a weapon,” said Lindsay Caesar, a social worker and new member of Redneck Revolt (RR), at the “Charlottesville and Community Defense” event held in Durham, North Carolina over Labor Day weekend. “I’m not sure where I fit in yet, but my ethical imperative is that we have to be doing more than we have been. Personal politics isn’t enough.”
But when the personal is political and the political becomes real weapons wielded by Nazis and white supremacists actively seeking to harm, what is the appropriate response? Just what is enough? And given the staggering number of innocent people who die from guns every year in the U.S. — and the country’s prevalence of mass shootings — what defense can be made for carrying guns as a means of social justice?
Redneck Revolt is an anti-racist, pro-gun community defense network providing answers to these questions, while raising a host of others. The organization purposefully counters white supremacist messaging and organizing in traditionally white-held spaces — where the hard right is known to recruit — like NASCAR races, flea markets, and gun shows. Members do so with an inclusive economic message, an authentic affinity for “low-brow” culture (including railings against elites), and smart historical analysis.
‘My ethical imperative is that we have to be doing more than we have been.’
Redneck Revolt started as an online off-shoot of the John Brown Gun Club in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2009. Cofounder Dave Strano was involved in the gun club, a community of gun enthusiasts focused on self-protection, and radical organizing work taking place in the Lawrence community in response to the rising Tea Party movement.
Within the local culture of social movements, he saw a need to create space for firearms education and training, while demystifying gun culture and gun use to activists on the left. He began blogging and experimenting with different ways to communicate about guns, the struggles of the white working class and poor, and understanding the historical role the white working class played in promoting and upholding systemic racism. The initial blog was a short lived venture going offline for a few years. Yet, it planted the seed for Strano to re-launch Redneck Revolt in June 2016, now expanded as a national network with a substantial online following and on-the-ground presence.
The term “Redneck” brings with it significant cultural baggage. It is both a trope rolled out to demean working, blue-collar people by elites, and a badge of honor for some on the right who believe in a certain portrayal of the hyper-masculinized, politically incorrect, gun-toting white guy wearing a MAGA hat.
In reality however the term is decidedly neither. “Redneck” is squarely rooted in a progressive piece of working class history. In the 1900s, a multi-racial coalition of coal miners fought for their right to organize in West Virginia, one of the largest labor uprisings in U.S. history. Coal company owners paid workers in scrip, not dollars, and required coal miners to shop only at approved company stores.
To make matters worse for workers, the company stores routinely inflated the prices of necessary goods. The miners — many of whom were immigrants and people of color — were fed up and began to formally strike against their working conditions. To identify each other as allies, they all tied red bandanas around their neck, and the term took root. Redneck Revolt is continuing this tradition, with participants identified at protests and community events by their red bandanas.
The broader history of the white working class is also one of oppression and terror of others through enslavement and genocide, working in collaboration with and on behalf of white economic elites. Redneck Revolt sees in this collective history significant challenge and opportunity. White supremacy is both a system that the white working class has protected and benefited from, and a tool used against all working people. Helping the white working class better understand this history and connect the dots to their current economic struggles is a big part of the counter-recruitment efforts the group engages in.
Brett M., a Southeast Michigan Redneck Revolt chapter representative, grew up working class. His family and community were hit particularly hard by NAFTA and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
“There is a lot of misplaced blame and anger out there,” says Brett. “So much of the left lives in this very sterile environment, where there is no connection to the working class.” When he discovered RR and their mission, he knew it was the kind of work he wanted to be doing.
He is not alone. In January of this year, the group had 13 chapters nationwide, and now boasts 34 branches, with 26 of those branches in states that went for Trump.
Poverty and economic hardship is a lived reality for most folks Brett and others are in dialogue with. In recent years, studies have shown huge spikes in suicide and drug abuse among working class whites without college degrees. Redneck Revolt members largely hail from the working class communities they organize within. Many members are white, but the organization reflects the diversity of the working class itself, cutting across race, class, gender, regional, religious, and political affiliations.
“You are not going to get very far at a gun show, for example, talking about dialectical materialism,” says Brett. “You say, ‘hey, the government has left you behind. We are in the same boat. We are all in this fight together. It isn’t brown or black keeping you down or immigrants. We are all being used as an apparatus of the state, and the only people looking out for working people are other working people. Isn’t it wild that so many working people supported some Yankee billionaire?”
This approach, according to Nadine Hubbs, Professor of Women’s Studies and Music at the University of Michigan and author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, is spot on. She adds, “If we are to dismantle white supremacy, we need to get the working class on board.”
The organization’s counter-recruitment praxis is not without criticism, namely that they are romanticizing the white working class and enabling the very complicity in white supremacy they are supposedly dismantling. Jamil, a first generation Palestinian-American, Muslim cis male who joined the organization in 2016, offered this response to these concerns:
“Real, material anti-racist work requires not only acknowledging the blatancy of privilege in our analysis, but putting our own bodies on the line. As folks working directly on the ground, we are accountable to the oppressed people in our communities. We build coalitions with them, cross-train with them on community defense, and build trust via our conduct and follow-through….Although our principles explicitly state zero desire to deny the irrefutable complicity of white folks in white supremacy, we also acknowledge the existence of nuance within that complicity. This all falls under our strategy of meeting people where they are at — one which has netted us real results.
While Redneck Revolt is not the only path…..it is one of very few which takes reactionary elements directly to task…facing down the most brazen threads of white supremacy that threaten and target folks in our community — because we see it as a shared one. The other part of the work requires us to hold our own in white-held spaces, which serve as breeding grounds for white supremacy — spaces which liberals and radicals have, in most recent history, steered clear of.”
Alongside counter-recruitment, RR aides in communal self-care amid dire circumstances. “You can’t shoot poverty. You can’t shoot homelessness,” says Dwayne Dixon, a Silver Valley Redneck Revolt member, who grew up in a military family in North Carolina. “We are about liberation. We focus on alleviating poverty, not just [on] guns.”
Poverty is seen as a systemic problem, though the organization steers clear of political advocacy efforts and electoral politics, choosing to solve specific needs as they arise. In Southeast Michigan, the group has held “Rent Parties,” wherein they’ve raised money to help families struggling to avoid eviction. The Silver Valley Branch in North Carolina grows a community garden to aid in feeding the hungry healthy food. In Kansas, transgender health clinics are run to help people receive primary care, surgical referrals, and gender affirming hormones.
‘You can’t shoot poverty. You can’t shoot homelessness.’
For brown, black, LGBTQ, and ethnic communities, RR offers firearms and self-defense training — and armed protection when requested. RR distinguishes between responsibly owning a gun for self-defense and lauding support for the arms industry and the military. To them, the gun lobby industry and the NRA are economic elites manipulating poor folks for profit.
When it comes to gun control, as evidenced by their statement on the mass shooting in Las Vegas, they assert that pundits, economic elites, and elected officials leverage and coopt these moments for their own purposes, but care little about actual public safety. These forces are invested in maintaining gun manufacturing monopolies and policing populations, determining which people get to protect themselves and which ones don’t. This never works to the benefit of the marginalized.
In June of this year, the Somali community in Lansing, Michigan requested RR show up armed in a neighborhood thought to be under threat by ACT for America, a group that bills itself as the NRA of national security and which organized more than two dozen anti-Sharia-law rallies around the country. ACT believes Somali refugees are a terror threat. RR was not able to stop ACT’s larger protest in Lansing, but was able to repel the ACT march of terror through a major Somali neighborhood.
“Current threats are deadly serious. Our defense strategies should be too,” says Brett M. “The left has a very long history of being non-aggressive and there’s been a hesitation to use firearms (or other show of force). The overall reaction by alt-right organizations has been one of shock — when they see a bunch of folks in red bandannas, armed. They’ve been more hesitant to do the proactive things they would have done.”
Following President Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, the trans administrator for the Northeast Kansas RR branch posted this to their 1,600+ Facebook followers:
“We exist to put our bodies in the way, to get you out of dangerous situations, to guard your home if you feel threatened, to escort you where you need to go in daily life, to help equip and train you if you feel it necessary to acquire body armor for use in the home or in the street, to begin carrying a weapon for self defense, or both. Get in contact with us so that we can be ready to back you up.
We know well that the temptation of self-harm is magnified by owning a firearm, too, so do not be ashamed if you feel unsafe about the idea. You don’t need to be made any more uncomfortable than existing in this world already is for people like you and me.
We carry the gun for you. We will carry you. We’ll get through this time of increased persecution together. They can try whatever they want, but we won’t go quietly.”
The pro-gun tactics, even when requested and willfully chosen by members, is not without critique. “The fixation on firearms on their homepage struck me,” says Hubbs. “A lot of people might not get past that, people who would otherwise be interested in their political analysis.”
Since the Orlando night club shooting in early June 2016, there have been 556 mass shootings in the United States. Each year, the CDC estimates nearly 12,000 gun related homicides take place, and for every person shot, there are at least two more estimated to be injured by a gun. The individuals and communities experiencing post-traumatic stress and injury either directly or indirectly from gun violence is vast. The presence of armed protesters at community events, regardless of purpose, may trigger fear in many.
The organization’s gun stance is rooted in the belief that there are individuals and communities all across the country which feel unsafe and abandoned. The violence and potential violence against them is so real and so visceral, at a physical and systemic level, that arming themselves or leveraging armed protection from neighbors — many of whom they’ve likely never met before — is seen as the only option. If you are on your own, with the expectation that those in power will not aid you, radical self-determination becomes not so much a philosophical statement on the role of government in society, but an act of survival.
That the Somalis in Michigan or trans people in Kansas or organizations like Muslims for Social Justice or Black Lives Matter cannot reasonably and completely count on the police to protect them at protests or in their day to day life — that is a root failure that should be roundly condemned and fixed. Local governments, and political and relief organizations, are falling short.
Radical self-determination becomes not so much a philosophical statement, but an act of survival.
RR members at the Charlottesville debrief were clear that they’d rather have spent their weekend doing almost anything else than holding the line against Nazis, who were armed. Dixon spoke about the gripping, traumatizing fear he felt that comes with possibly stopping a bullet with his own body. He is a parent — many of the people in the audience who had also gone to Charlottesville were moms and dads. To them, they aren’t choosing violence, so much as violence is here, it is now, and it is on the attack.
Whether or not arming oneself or joining armed protests is the only response, an escalating response, or one of many reasonable responses to a newly ascendant and unafraid white supremacy is a question, unfortunately, we are all being asked to answer.