As my home state not only burns physically but also politically, the rise of right-wing militias in a generally left-wing state has all sorts of potential for horrible violence, as we’ve already seen in Portland. The militias are now taking advantage of the fires to advance themselves on local communities.
Sunday night, wildfires still had most of Clackamas County, Oregon, under a “level 3” evacuation order—which comes with the guidance of “Go! Evacuate now!”—while the sheriff’s office has been juggling multiple crises. Its sworn officers were seemingly at odds with one another, some promoting unfounded conspiracy theories, like claiming “antifa” was intentionally lighting fires and looting, and others pleading with people who had set up militia-style checkpoints and were stopping drivers they deemed unfamiliar or suspicious at gunpoint, to go home and let them do their job. The county drew national media attention as a hotbed of social media–driven misinformation, serving as yet another example of how plodding those platforms were in the face of dangerous rumors.
But more harrowing is how swiftly militia types and right-wing armed freelancers mobilized in response, as they have in other moments of unrest in Oregon and across the country. Though such activity has drawn more scrutiny in recent months, the groundwork for militias to exploit crises and uprisings has been laid over the past several years, resulting now in mounting paranoia spreading far outside such organized groups, along with the threat of violence.
When corporations and governments turn a moment of crisis into an opportunity, Naomi Klein has called it disaster capitalism. When survival is on the line, they have learned, people may be willing to go along with what they may not otherwise. The same dynamic is useful to those in much smaller, more extreme formations, like militia groups, who see disaster as a chance to change public perceptions of themselves—that they’re not racists with guns, but defenders of “law and order.” In a crisis, they can act out and gain ground.
Oregon journalist Alissa Azar helped put the militia activity on the national radar while out covering the wildfires in Clackamas County on Thursday. In the photos she posted to Twitter, the abandoned properties and emergency vehicles were all filtered through a poisonous amber haze, smoke hanging in the air. With her were two other journalists, Sergio Olmos and Justin Yau. Azar posted later that afternoon, “We got 3 guns pulled on us at a militia style checkpoint … none of us are white.” A few minutes later, she added, “We’re safe. It’s scary knowing there are people who legitimately think ‘antifa liberals’ are setting these towns on fire … we are very clearly documenting and interviewing folks. Our pictures were taken and so was the car and license plate.” As people fled their homes, the phantom threat of antifa arson and looting and the very real presence of an armed response emerged together.
These violent fantasies are not unique to this era of massively networked disinformation, of Trump and QAnon, the pandemic and its attendant moral panics over masks and vaccines. The Oath Keepers, “today’s Blackshirts” as Casey Michel described them in The New Republic, was founded in 2009, in response to the election of President Barack Obama.
It’s crazy times out there. There’s been some scuttlebutt, and this sounds right to me, that the claims that “antifa” was starting fires came out of idiots listening to police scanners and hearing cops talk about “BLM” which in this case of course means Bureau of Land Management. That very much passes my smell test of moronic rural Northwesterners to me. But it’s also related to the general right-wing craziness these days. In my joyous last week, with attacks on me in Fox News, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and other lovely publications for correctly stating that while left-wing protestors have every right to defend themselves from gun-toting fascists, it is almost always a terrible idea to use violence, I’ve received loads of hate mail and death threats. None of this really bothers me too much. Like 30% of it is from people with AOL e-mail accounts, which says plenty. But what has really blown me away is the number of people who somehow mention pedophilia with it, both as an insult and as clear believers in Qanon lunacy that massive pedophilia rings exist that only Donald Trump can fight. I mean, what do you even do with people like this?