The mob that swarmed the capitol on January 6th was ill-prepared to mount an insurrection and seize power, performing a coup de gras to civility but coming well shy of delivering a revolutionary punch. A few of its factions are surely “counting coup” in anticipation of another performance, to lift a scoring ruse from native American warrior-lore. But there was no evidence of a speech-ready leader or military preparedness.
The late Paul Krassner would likely have pegged this action a limping erection, the activists softening their muscles amid stiffening rhetoric and a petering police presence. And it’s the Yippies (Youth International Party), the organization he co-founded in the late 1960s to protest the materialism and violence—especially with respect to the Vietnam War—of American life that offer a useful frame of reference to understand this breakout. They called themselves pranksters, a concept nurtured from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters from earlier in the decade, road rebels trying to remain spiritual kin to the Beats while exposing new hypocritical attitudes and behaviors of everyday life. The Yippies amped up this effort, diagnosing an even more diseased culture. They practiced a form of gotcha-consciousness-raising, shocking the sleeper-masses into seeing the way things really are so they could begin to recognize their real interests.
They were famous for invading the stock-trading arena on Wall Street and dropping piles of currency from the ledge onto the floor to witness traders frantically grab for the free bills, demoing the pathology of materialist acquisition. At protests they would put flowers in the barrels of the rifles of the national guard troops, smile and invite them to drop their weapons and join them. Abbie Hoffman, a co-founder, tested a prank at the March on the Pentagon event in October 1967, a few months before the group was officially formed on December 31, 1967. He proclaimed that the seminal strategy was to levitate the Pentagon: “We will dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees, panhandle embassies, attack with water pistols, marbles, bubble gum wrappers, bazookas, girls will run naked and piss on the Pentagon walls, sorcerers, swamis, witches, voodoo, warlocks, medicine men and speed freaks will hurl their magic at the faded brown walls” (Katie Mettier, “The Day the Anti-Vietnam War Protesters Tried to Levitate the Pentagon,” Washington Post, 10/19/2017).
Jerry Rubin claimed that a new kind of protester surfaced at this event, a hybrid of New Left and hippie, one uncomfortable with normal SDS politics (Pat Thomas, Did It! Jerry Rubin: An American Revolutionary).
It’s interesting that as many as 100,000 came to witness this wizardry (which comprised many fringe radical groups, including American neo-Nazis), and between 30,000 and 50,000 descended physically on the Pentagon. There were few injuries, perhaps because this event was permitted. Sympathies for ending a war with 20,000 casualties to date had sufficiently infiltrated the higher echelons of power.
These cultural rebels shocked and disrupted, pranking their desire for a redress of wrongs. They had little interest in pragmatically reforming politics from the inside or even crafting manifestoes since they believed the system was hopelessly flawed, its obsession with materialism and violence blinding most to sustainable humane concerns. Drop out but stay finely tuned to the conditions that might kickstart a new system!
The Capitol event could be MAGA’s countercultural moment, their version of Woodstock or Altamont (Jeffrey St. Clair, “Roaming Charges,” CounterPunch, 1/15/2021). The former event occurred in mid-August 1969, and the latter in early December of the same year, the two separated by some three months. Both were cultural festivals celebrating the music of the counterculture. But whereas Woodstock was mostly an unblemished upper, Altamont was a sure downer that signaled the end of innocence as a bodyguard for the Stones killed a patron on camera (actually, the innocence associated with the Yippie cultural strategy ended with the police crackdown at the Chicago Democratic Convention in August 1968 which resulted in much violence and even deaths). The Capitol raid perhaps fused the tenor of both events, but the deaths make it a certain bummer even though clarity on the causes has yet to fully surface.
It is tempting to read this raid as a festival for the gathering of a motley array of cultural disruptors who represent groups alienated in one way or another by the drift of American society and are having difficulty fully grasping why, such an understanding obviously needed to begin expressing what replacing power will entail. As a result, some act out their frustrations in behaviors that resemble those of the theatrically inclined Yippies, even resorting to sartorial excesses. But their rebellious assaults don’t measure up to the meaning and force of pranks. They display, on their persons or on banners and placards and flags, snips of slogans regurgitated ever since Trump sashayed into the public consciousness, essentially mimicking their leader’s limited conceptual range. They offer no articulation of stories that could potentially be plotted into a larger narrative that explains why they exist, why they are really at the Capitol. Let’s see. The election was stolen and country will no longer be great so we’ll have to suffer through more lockdowns for a pandemic that doesn’t exist!
There must be more behind this than the decline of education that ensued with the budget-cutting mandates of the neoliberal regime that succeeded the Yippie moment.
The imaginative references to pop culture at the event perhaps provided a false sense of security that jived with the laxity of policing. The skull-like symbol of The Punisher made an appearance, the crime-fighting Marvel comic book antihero that seems harmless enough as a far-right symbol especially since it is sometimes used by police officers for discreet signaling. Its vigilante identity will not be lost among audiences, however, since the portrayal of this character on film by Dolph Lundgren and other action-adventure icons justifies extreme violence when the cause is right.
“Pepe the Frog” was visible, the green anthropomorphic amphibian with a humanoid body created by Mark Furie in 2005 for the comic “Boy’s Club.” Originally a neutral meme celebrating adolescent male antics, ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) pronounced it a hate symbol in September 2009 because of fledgling right groups that were attaching it to their conversations. The bulk of current usages remain neutral. But the link of Pepe to “Kek” conjures sinister motives. This is an androgynous Egyptian deity of darkness and chaos, often depicted as a frog or frog-headed male. “Kek” rules the fictional country of Kekistan, symbolized by green-and-white flags on display. While these images are in our faces, the deeper meanings are the province of an in-group only. But the apocalyptic connotations are not likely lost on the insiders.
An impending apocalypse is also suggested by the presence of emblems from the Zombie Outbreak Response Team, a national organization with chapters in every state. Their mission statement conjures a sense of impending disaster tempered by support for family: “Our goal…is to connect our states, cities, communities and their people, to help and train people to survive in any situation. We can offer self and home defense, community watch and natural disaster response as well as wilderness, urban survival and prepping. We also sponsor community events such as picnics, dinners, dances, parties, charity events and conduct fund raisers to help others in need—and to survive” (http://uszort.com/Home_Page.php).
This could be copy for a group of countercultural families from the 60s gesturing their different values. After all, any alternative grouping commits to educating as many as possible in the right way, fighting off the zombieness that strikes such large numbers in this culture. The politicized counter-culturalism of the Weathermen comes to mind. It’s just that instead of reading Mao or Marcuse in the interim between events these alt-righters are likely fixated on watching the Quest Channel to become guerilla-ready and family-steady.
The militias, trained in military techniques, their members including tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans, are always ready to take charge of situations when government fails, which they believe is inevitable. Their presence at the Capitol was therefore no surprise, and timely since the policing authorities were an early no-show. They seemed to fill a precarious void as a result. The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 in response to the Obama administration and its policies, and the Three Percenters, founded in 2008, were most prominent. They support the freedom of groups to protest they feel are especially hindered by the overreach of the Federal Government. As their dates of origination might suggest, they sympathize with the ideals of the Tea Party, especially its anti-Fed fixation. They’ve played a big part in the recent anti-lockdown and gun-ownership actions. The Oath Keepers—pledged to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic—provided “security” for communities and businesses during the demonstrations against racial injustice during 2020.
The mere presence of these militias at the event conjured the potential for chaos like the mere display of these pop icons insinuated the immanence of apocalypse. The presence of the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Boys reinforces these sentiments while focusing other issues, including race. The Proud Boys, founded by Gavin McInnes during the 2016 election, are a male-only group that supports the superiority of Western culture and free speech for all. They adamantly deny any connection to the racist “alt-right,” insisting they are simply a fraternal group spreading an “anti-political correctness” and “anti-white guilt” agenda, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They also claim to oppose fascism, communism and authoritarianism, and have gone to great lengths to disassociate themselves from white supremacist ideology, despite some current and former members holding such views. According to Matthew Rosenberg, these kept a low profile at the Capitol event (“Decoding the Far-Right Symbols at the Capitol Riot,” New York Times, 1/13/2021).
The Boogaloo Boys are more recent, an anti-government and anti-authority extremist movement founded in 2019 according to the Anti-Defamation League. They show up at protests and rallies around gun rights, pandemic restrictions and police related killings. Their anti-police beliefs prompted them to participate widely in the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd. Most members are not white supremacists though there are some in the movement. The term “boogaloo,” however, is a slang reference to a future civil war, a casual connotation of the potential mayhem we perhaps expect to absorb when devouring our favorite action-adventure heroics. Their dress in Hawaiian shirts drives home this playfulness and likely contributes to a false sense of security since some of them—and some of the Proud Boys—have been arrested for violent acts.
The thousands of devoted Trump supporters on hand wearing their MAGA hats and sporting Christian crosses, some with children, perhaps tempered these potentially explosive participants. Many of these were QAnon fans, wearing shirts with the letter “Q” or “Save the Children” on them. How could such a family affair become truly violent? Apparently, many didn’t think it would, perhaps assuming the security at the Capitol would let them frolic as if they were participating in a cultural festival, gyrating to their visions of perfection realized once the Electoral College votes were changed; for QAnon folks, to a world where sin and the exploitation of children were fully removed, and all responsible parties doing the max at some Federal institution.
The fact that only six weapons were recovered that day supports the expectation that the event would be non-violent (AP, 1/6/2021). Fourteen officers were hurt in skirmishes with the crowd. The question is whether the deadly violence would’ve occurred if the Capitol had been properly secured, preventing access, and weapons were sufficiently screened. The officer’s death could have been prevented, as could those of the three who had medical emergencies. The death of Ashlii Babbitt, whose story seems to have been dropped into a black hole, remains a mystery. She was the first to break through the door, so was she a symbolic kill? Had she not been killed would the remaining violence have occurred? After all, the Justice Department investigators have yet to find conclusive evidence that the rioters intended to capture and kill any lawmakers (Information Clearing House, 1/18/2021).
No plan needed when differing clusters converge on a site for the purpose of occupying it, just being there to bear witness to their ability to fill up a space denied them, grabbing it with authority like MLK’s direct action minions in a gesture that lets them share a vision about being central to the country’s rebellious saviors (hence the presence of the Gadsden flag, referencing the sentiments of some American revolutionists for limited government). The Capitol buildings are the physical locus of our government, which helps explain part of the uproar at the events. The raiders violated the sanctity of the peoples’ space, garnering the view that their actions were an assault on Democracy. Structures of course don’t make a socio-political order, only the rules of access to them and the actions of those who legitimately occupy them, i.e. the elected representatives. Perhaps the raiders felt excluded from the latter, the rules and the people nominally hired to do their bidding through the institution of participatory democracy. It’s not exactly news that the gap between what our elected representatives believe and act on, and what we believe and want done, have remained quite wide for some time.
Occupy Wall Street mostly winged it as events transpired, though inviting participation from their members in a democratic process. Here, no such concerns were registered on the grounds or elsewhere. We expect more awareness from budding revolutionists! We have a long history of protest actions that register symbolic occupations of sites of power (the above-mentioned March on the Pentagon one of the more prominent), instilling hope for a convergence of minds and a grasp of the facts to ballast some overriding theme or purpose. A rush of bodies obstructing the process to certify the election and demanding it be overturned was the crass goal of the event, but any larger meaning was absent as was clarity about how these different groups relate to each other. And the goal itself was patently unachievable. They couldn’t force the counting to stop permanently (and again, they were unequipped to grab power). Its very existence was surely driven by the polling snafus leading to election day, seeing mostly double-digit deficits vanish that helped legitimize the concept of theft; payback for accusations from Hillary and the Democrats in 2016 that Trump stole that election; and the cultish mistrust of government that buttressed the groups.
But then protesters demand the impossible, knowing that obstructions and occupations will be short-lived, and that the levitation of buildings will likely not work.
These raiders clumsily followed some script while projecting patriotic passion but offered very little consistency or depth. The drumbeat of anti-government comes from the Tea Party most recently, these groups taking on the task of barking outside the system what that movement couldn’t accomplish inside. But the tea partiers were blind—as these groups are—to how private power owns government, and as a result pushed principles with little bearing on the real world. The Oath Keepers heel to a Constitution that exists only in the case law evolving over time, the freedoms they claim to protect mere abstractions that have nothing to do with the real world. The QAnoners see a conspiracy to exploit children so vast that it would be impossible to plot. Conspiracy as a concept vaporizes. Networks certainly exist that enslave children, but are these folks overreacting to a reasonable concern through the irrational, ultra-conservative blowback from the sexual revolution?
Can a stew of easy answers and abstractions and baseless accusations underwrite a credible patriotism and guide masses of people who want change to produce real solutions? Are these real patriots or merely giddy at their presence among the likeminded and at having reached a moment when questioning and the contextualizing of information are no longer needed? Will the weaponizing of this produce aimless destruction and provoke infinite backlashes?
The media has identified this swatch as the “far right,” but is it the B-Team or possibly only its practice squad? Is it far right or just too farout? A move further right from the right should issue in a deepening and radicalization of core right wing ideas, comparable for example to how the left-liberal idea of relative equality becomes something closer to absolute equality for the far left. The move further right here represents no coherent elaboration of the core, only a collage of reactive tendencies, and demonstrates how rationality gets lost to rapture when pushed to the edge. This can’t be translated into a template for securing power and therefore isn’t exportable as a legitimate political threat.
But in the post-raid universe the media and especially the Democrats have been hyping the potential for exactly this. Stanley McChrystal, retired Army Gen. and an architect of the Mideast misadventures from nearly two decades ago, claims we’re witnessing the “birthing of a violent American insurgency,” and finds an analogy in the Iraq War: “I did see a similar dynamic in the evolution of al-Qaida in Iraq, where a whole generation of angry Arab youth with very poor prospects followed a powerful leader who promised to take them back in time to a better place, and he led them to embrace an ideology that justified their violence. This is now happening in America” (James Kittfield, “Attack on Capitol Was the Beginning of an American Insurgency,” yahoo/news, 1/16/2021). Suspicious comments from one leader who was principally responsible for the policy miscalculation that brought ISIS into being! Who is this powerful leader? What is the ideology? Did McChrystal’s training in politics provide experimental models for comparing apples and common figs?
There was a rally of pro-gun protesters on the 18th in Richmond, Virginia that was predicted to script McChrystal’s claims but it was mostly a no-show, and peaceful. But much of the media slighted these facts because they surely deviate from the narrative (Matt Taibbi, “Meet the Censored: Status Coup,” TK News, 1/26/2021).
Unfortunately, the inflation of “insurgency” claims is leading to at least threats to curtail dissent and protest gatherings from the Biden administration. This climate has already issued in censorship of certain alternative media outlets as Taibbi shows. McChrystal is a timely pundit-retrieval since it is starting to feel like a return to the Bush years when it seemed the alert level on terrorism seemed to be raised at the mere mention of a rumored public complaint.
We need the opposite now, an expansion of regulated protests that expand free speech, invite a diverse population to participate. Viable democracies permit large numbers of concerned citizens to congregate and express themselves, mitigating the potential for violence. This doesn’t mean the abdication of policing. Stricter control will help ensure that some members of the policing authority will not be able to alter the course of protests—the police in last summer’s riots in many locations letting protesters destroy property, early on at least; and the Capitol police doing the same in sympathy with the protesters (Anna North, “Police Bias explains the Capitol Riot,” Vox, 1/12/2021).
Offer permits! They legitimize the process and open the event, helping to create more watchdogs and buffers against violence. Encourage debates. These can bring a larger cross-section of far-right sympathizers to the party, the diversity of input helping to modulate the discourse or even clarify issues to combat misrecognition and polarization, possibly banishing the extremists from the mix. They could surely help get into their minds. Are they over-reacting to the perceived extremism of Black Lives Matter, and especially threats to their livelihood from last year’s racial protests? What makes them so sure that communists are everywhere and coming after them?
If they refuse to participate in the debates their currency will devalue. We can then watch them disperse and hopefully upgrade their agenda with new insights…