Trump Encourages Armed Vigilante Groups, Leading to Deadly Street Violence in Kenosha and Portland

Interview with Mark Bray, an author and historian of human rights, terrorism and politics, conducted by Scott Harris

During a week of escalating violence at social justice protests, two Black Lives Matter activists were killed and a third was wounded – all unarmed – when Kyle Rittenhouse used his AR-15 rifle to shoot at demonstrators who had gathered in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Aug. 25 to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse has been charged with six criminal counts, including first-degree intentional homicide. Seventeen-year-old Rittenhouse, who is from Illinois, had been with a militia group on the evening of the shooting, which included at least one person who has promoted white supremacist propaganda.

In Portland, Oregon, Aaron Danielson was shot and killed on the evening of Aug. 29 after clashes that followed a pro-Trump car caravan that drove into the city’s downtown area. Danielson was wearing a hat with the insignia of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group that has clashed with Portland protesters in the past. (UPDATE: Michael Forest Reinoehl, a suspect sought for questioning in Danielson’s shooting, was killed by a federally-led fugitive task force in Washington state. Reinoehl had been a regular presence at the ongoing protests, as security detail.)

When asked during a recent press briefing, President Trump declined to condemn Rittenhouse — who has been charged as an adult with two counts of first degree homicide and one count of attempted homicide — claiming without evidence, that it appeared the gunman was acting in self-defense. In reference to Portland, Trump praised the pro-Trump caravan of activists as “great patriots,” although their presence appeared to contribute to the violence on the night of Danielson’s death. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mark Bray, a historian of human rights, terrorism and politics and a lecturer at Rutgers University. Bray, the author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” talks about the dangerous link between Trump, the Republican Party and vigilante violence targeting progressive activists.

MARK BRAY: Even if we look at the comments he made earlier about how Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old gunman in Kenosha was simply defending himself and that he even said that had he not shot those protesters, he would have been killed himself. Earlier on in Trump’s administration, people would talk about him dog whistling to the far right. He’s no longer coding what he’s doing. He’s very clearly talking to and encouraging the far right. Of course, the difference between right and far right, is increasingly less clear as the Trump administration goes along — but increasingly encouraging far right violence. Regarding the Trump caravan in Portland, where his supporters were on the back of pickup trucks, shooting paintball guns at protesters, you know, he said apparently something to the effect that it’s just paint, it’s not real bullets. Meanwhile, he called for protesters who threw paint at statues to get 10 years in prison.

So it’s a very alarming situation, both in terms of how the far right is becoming increasingly more emboldened to be violent in response to the Black Lives Matter protest. Frankly, I’m somewhat surprised it took this long because when the massive protests after the police of George Floyd erupted, I expected this to come more quickly. I’m pleased that it took awhile, but of course it’s unfortunate that has emerged. It reflects the kind of substantive deep-seated divisions given the history of white supremacy and racism in this country that have erupted.

And Trump is losing in the polls. He’s trying to present himself as a law and order candidate. Anyone who watched some of the RNC can see how the Republicans are trying to paint the election in very stark terms that basically Biden and the Democrats are somehow encouraging violence, encouraging property destruction and that if they win — as one of the speakers said – we’ll have a socialist utopia in the United States, which anyone who’s been following Democratic politics will know is far from the truth. But yeah, he’s trying to present himself as a law and order candidate, and it helps him to have disorder now in, as he calls the Democratic cities in order to get there.

SCOTT HARRIS: Mark, you specifically called out the Republican convention featuring Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who are well publicized as brandishing their firearms during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. And there was plenty of video footage of them in the front yard of their home, brandishing I believe a handgun and what looked like a semi-automatic weapon. Again, it was a peaceful social justice protest that had just gone by their house, but yet they were there brandishing these weapons. And they were celebrated by the Republican (National) Convention. What’s the link in your mind between the message sent out with their appearance at this convention and the militia activity that we’ve seen step up in recent days?

MARK BRAY: You don’t need an advanced degree in politics to see the connection, right? Especially if you watch the speech that the McCloskeys gave about how they believed that they were being threatened, that their lives and property were in danger and that these kinds of – as they phrase it — the kind of violent, threatening protests are coming to what they called quiet neighborhoods all across the country, which of course is coded language for white suburbs. And similarly, there has been this wave of antifa bus hoaxes, where the far right creates fake anti-fascist social media profiles that threatened to bring busloads of violent anti-fascist into predominantly white suburban areas and commit property destruction in order to alarm local residents and get their sympathies for kind of a more vigilante form of justice.

So, you know, these kinds of fears are connected — that quiet neighborhoods are under attack. Traditional values are under attack in American society. The America that you grew up with, as they phrase it, is being threatened and trying to tie into the history of American individualism and gun rights and frontier justice. The argument is, “Hey, if the police can’t stop this from happening, then you gun owners have not only the right, but the obligation to do so.” And, you know, with militias, that’s just a more organized form of that very same impulse. And it reflects a long history of armed white violence against black freedom struggles.

Visit Mark Bray’s website at

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