How—and why—Missoula progressives could reclaim guns for the left 

Imagine it's six months from now. Your Facebook feed, never mind the newspapers, is still filled with foreign bombings, murky hints of Russian interference and reactionary analysis of the president's tweets. Just under the surface of mainstream discourse, alt-right groups continue to exacerbate tensions, engaging in public fist fights with anti-fascists and trolling the Internet with hate speech.

As an engaged citizen, you've attended local resistance efforts, marching in support of science and open borders. Such demonstrations have been happening with at least monthly regularity, so it's no surprise you've begun hearing rumblings about plans for a far-right counter-demonstration in Missoula. You're skeptical—the neo-Nazis who announced their protest of a Jewish real estate agent in Whitefish turned out to be a false alarm, after all.

As the scheduled day approaches, the group amps up its rhetoric. They start talking about carrying firearms openly, about showing Missoula what the alt-right is really made of. You try to brush off the implied threat, but it becomes harder and harder to unknot your stomach.

The day finally arrives. The whole city is anxious. This time, they actually show up.

Crowds of MAGA-hat-wearing young men (and a few women) swarm downtown. Some are sieg heiling, others hoist signs featuring Nazi symbology. Many of them are carrying: pistols, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles. In assembling, armed, they are exercising their rights—open carry and public protest are perfectly legal in Montana. And yet their presence feels clearly like a threat. The police are aware, of course—the demonstrators received the proper permits—but shy of actual violence there's nothing the cops can do.

click to enlarge COVER ILLUSTRATION BY CHARLIE WYBIERALA
  • cover illustration by Charlie Wybierala

Counter-protesters soon show up and line the streets. Paleoconservatives and neo-Nazis hurl insults at the spectrum of anti-Trump Missoulians. Resisters hurl insults back.

Then a shot rings out. Maybe someone fired into the sky as a warning. Maybe the shot was fired into a crowd, or at some protester in particular. Regardless, the street is suddenly thrown into chaos. Whatever intangible barrier separated the two sides collapses, and within minutes downtown is engulfed in violence. Rocks and punches are thrown, and guns are drawn. But just one side has the guns.

Soon, the police will swoop in with their full arsenal of military-grade response gear and quell the riot, but the police can't be everywhere.

Now let's say you're at this demonstration. Let's say you're black, or Jewish, or transgender, or Native American, or Latinx, or liberal, or poor. You're unarmed, and your belief that something like this could never happen here has just been shattered. Empowered by the violence, a 20-year-old kid storms toward you with a 9mm pistol on his hip.

Do you run?

Alternately, let's say that the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017, shook you to your core. You couldn't get past the fear, born of the candidate's campaign rally thuggery and the embrace of white supremacists, that the country had taken a turn toward the threatening. So let's say that, in response, you went to a pawn shop, or a sporting goods store or Walmart, and you put $500 on the counter and left with a gun. You took some classes and got a concealed carry permit. You know how to use it.

And let's say, in downtown Missoula, mid-riot, with an armed kid charging you, you have your gun with you.

What would you do?




Throughout history, both the political left and the political right have found occasion to take up arms, from the FARC in Colombia to the Bundys in Oregon. But in America, mainstream gun culture tends to favor conservatism.

The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that 41 percent of gun owners in the United States identify as conservative, with only 23 percent considering themselves liberal. The National Rifle Association gave 99 percent of the roughly $1.1 million it spent on campaign contributions in 2016 to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

click to enlarge Gus Hemphill, 23, in his apartment. Hemphill studies the development of far-right movements at the University of Montana. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Gus Hemphill, 23, in his apartment. Hemphill studies the development of far-right movements at the University of Montana.

Far-right individuals and groups make up just a fraction of conservatives, but Montana is no stranger to their influence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in February that of the 917 hate groups currently active in the United States, seven are based in Montana. Five of those groups are considered anti-Muslim, and two are primarily white nationalist. (Whitefish is the occasional stomping ground of Richard Spencer and his white nationalist National Policy Institute.) Such extremism has a long history, but SPLC claims that its prominence and visibility has increased dramatically following the election of Donald Trump.

That election, and the newfound prominence and visibility of right-wing extremism, has leftists—Marxists, anarchists, socialists and some Democrats—reaching for their holsters. After the election last year, NBC reported that minority groups fearful of an uptick in hate crimes were arming themselves in response. And the BBC reported that FBI background checks for gun sales on last year's Black Friday, just weeks after Election Day, set a new single-day record.

Today, the threat of far-right violence is palpable for many Montanans. In an age when neo-Nazis threaten to storm Whitefish and white supremacist propaganda litters Missoula synagogues and gas pumps, opponents and potential targets of newly empowered racists, nationalists and fascists have reason to be scared, and motive to recalibrate their response.




Nick Campbell, a 27-year-old independent construction contractor and musician in Missoula, started learning to shoot from his parents when he was 5 years old. Today he's the very picture of a working-class anarchist, wearing jeans and a T-shirt revealing a tattoo of a black cat on his triceps, a symbol of the anarcho-syndicalist union the International Workers of the World.

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