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Voices: True inclusive democracy cannot thrive at the barrel of a gun

America has some reconciling to do with white supremacy, not just the guys in white hoods, but the structures and practices that have kept white people in power and disproportionately hurt people of color.

The social movement for Black Lives Matter is making its mark and having a definitive impact, even here in Montana. The people of color leaders in this state have excelled at educating, mobilizing, and fundamentally changing the conversations across the state. With every social movement of this scale, there are naysayers and those that sit back hoping to keep the status quo, but there are also opportunists who will twist the message and manipulate the situation to keep their power.

Rural America is facing not only the scourge of racism that has manifested as police violence, but the overt bullying and manipulation by paramilitary militia activists trying to control our communities. Don’t be fooled. These white guys with guns inserting themselves at anti-racist events are there to distract from the message of racial justice and the changes that the Black Lives Matter movement is seeking.

These paramilitary activists don’t give two shakes about stopping systematic racism. They are using big guns in an attempt to further oppress black and brown people and to normalize the weapons of war on our streets.

These defensive white men may be playing war in their replica fatigues, but their semiautomatic weapons and handguns are very real. So is the threat of violence they represent. The messages of community safety, police accountability, racial equity, and the undoing of a history of white supremacy are at risk of being drowned out by the potential of whizzing bullets and the bully tactics of armed paramilitaries.

These militia activists are not spontaneous attendees, they are 21st century lynch mobs, and they are using Black Lives Matter events as an excuse to control and manipulate our communities under the threat of violence. It’s only a matter of time before somebody shoots. This threat of violence is not theoretical. All it takes is one pumped up, untrained, unaccountable armed person who cannot handle being asked to leave or use manners and, BOOM, all hell breaks loose.

Armed paramilitaries that are unaccountable are not the answer to police violence. How do we hold these private wannabe police accountable? There is no path for redress when something bad happens. We can’t call on them to be fired. There is no review commission or someone to vote out of office These mobs are dangerously acting as judge, jury, & executioner.

They are white guys with guns flexing their power. And these armed paramilitaries are not keeping the peace. Peace is not just a state of temporary ceasefire. Peace is rooted in justice and freedom.

These militia activists do not share our values. We didn’t ask for, nor do we need their protection. We are having serious conversations about shrinking the scope of police responsibilities, investing more in equitable mental-health care, housing, healthcare, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs. They are seeking to further erode our weak gun laws and obsessively put more weapons of war into the hands of angry white men. Conversations about creating inclusive democracy don’t happen at a barrel of a gun.

Our movements and our elected officials must NOT legitimize unaccountable paramilitaries. We must end our abusive relationship with white supremacy. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice. America must reconcile with our racist history and racism’s continued stronghold on our institutions. Rural America must also reconcile its problem with guns and militias.

Rachel Carroll Rivas resides in Helena and is the Co-Director of the Montana Human Rights Network. Eran Thompson, based in Billings, is an organizer for social, racial and economic justice with over 25 years experience. Judith Heilman lives in Bozeman and is the Founder and Executive Director of the Montana Racial Equity Project. Lauren Small Rodriguez attends UM in Missoula, is an advocate for indigenous rights and public health, and is a Northern Cheyenne Coast Guard veteran. Dustin Monroe is a Blackfeet and Assiniboine tribal member, data scientist and indigenous rights advocate in Missoula