I’m a journalist who frequents protests that can feel more like war zones (like the siege on Ferguson, Missouri this month), and it’s clear to me that social justice advocates in the US are much more likely to be pummeled by police than their nationalistic countrymen. But since I was nearly whooped by pro-war goons while protesting the Iraq War, I’ve been sure not to discount the international phenomenon of “pro-government thugs.” These folks surface in defense of violently corrupt regimes, from the sort of self-motivated American zealots who almost punched me in the face way back when to paid henchmen in places like Sri Lanka, where last year more than 100 supporters of the crooked president attacked reformers.
The list goes on. In Kiev’s Independence Square, civilians acting in the name of the Ukrainian government recently mauled demonstrators with bats. Venezuelan nationalists slaughtered dissidents in motorcycle drive-by assassinations, while in Syria supporters of Assad joined state authorities to derail human rights protests with steel pipes. In the past decade alone, there are too many comparable examples to list—Jordan, Iraq, Egypt.
In the US, though, while there’s enough national pride to power upwards of a dozen country music stations in some markets, we’ve yet to encounter a significant wave of pro-government pugilism. But with Fox News pundits and their white American followers attempting to vindicate the shooting of a black man by a white cop in a St. Louis suburb this month, it’s time to ask: As police departments grow more militant, will an increasing number of folks flank The Man, vigilante-style? Could that jingoistic nightmare soon become reality in a country where, according to a poll taken by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 43% of Republicans view the police response to the Ferguson shooting as “appropriate”?
My own encounter with patriotic thugs came back in 2002, about a year before I quit working politics to join the Fourth Estate. I was protesting aggression in the Middle East in Midtown Manhattan when a red pickup truck pulled up next to the crowd and five steroidal jerks emerged, hollering and grabbing signs. I still remember the smell of mucus as thick gobs of their spit splashed my face. Before things got out of hand, the situation was defused by members of the NYPD which, so soon after 9/11, had even less tolerance than usual for pandemonium. Had things gone differently, I would have certainly received a knuckle sandwich on behalf of Uncle Sam.
My situation wasn’t unique. There were other spurts of American exceptionalism during the march into Iraq and Afghanistan. According to reports from the time, thousands gathered in California, Florida, and Washington DC to convey their outrage with pacifists. But while a lot of those factions happily embraced the anti-anti-war label, to their credit they kept the vigilance to a minimum, as would Tea Partiers years later during Occupy Wall Street. Legionnaires of Rush Limbaugh and the like hardly bothered to counter-protest the progressive movement, let alone pillage the encampments people slept in. A lot of right-wing agitators harassed occupiers and flashed winks at cops in solidarity, but their violent words ultimately (and thankfully) rang hollow.
That was then. So far in the Ferguson fracas, most violence has been issued by official storm troopers with badges. However, the ugly face of extreme civilian pride has begun to manifest in public. In addition to Facebook campaigns blasting the protest, more than 100 people rallied outside the NBC affiliate in St. Louis in defense of Darren Wilson, the patrolman who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, catalyzing a revolt. Recently, a couple wielding signs reading “Justice for Police Officer Wilson” trolled demonstrators on the ground in Ferguson, while “Support Officer Darren Wilson” T-shirts have raised nearly $150,000 on GoFundMe so far.
To understand the role that these forces have played in the US, I reached out to Boston University sociology lecturer Don Gillis, a labor expert and former municipal administrator in Boston. “Pro corporate thugs,” Gillis reminded me, “have attacked labor throughout U.S. history.” He added: “What about the DNC 1968 Chicago? Were there not government ‘agitators’ provoking confrontations with protesters?”
Indeed there were. In her 2013 book The Pro-War Movement, Sandra Scanlon, a history lecturer at University College in Dublin, explores the hurt that ethnic white Americans inflicted upon anti-Vietnam crusaders. Like a lot of the authority boosters in Syria and Ukraine, many of the state-sponsored hate-mongers who cracked hippies in Chicago appeared to be on the government payroll. In that sense, undercover agent provocateurs qualify as pro-American thugs, as could strike-breaking Pinkertons and other barbarians-for-hire. Still, such violence has rarely metastasized Stateside on a large scale.
Now that may be changing. From Fox News to online sewers like townhall.com, firebrands are positioning troops behind police. While the mainstream and independent media shudder at the sight of such excessive force and armaments in Ferguson, the far-right continues to peg demonstrators as the threat. They may not support the current president of the United States, but despite their talk of independent libertarian values, conservatives can be faithfully relied on to defend the status quo, however inhumane.
Considering that voices buttressing police are endorsing the slaying of an unarmed teenager, it’s clear there are enough violent undertones surrounding the scenario in St. Louis to warrant fear of a rise in fanatical patriotism. Just read between the lines. At the aforementioned pro-government rally in St. Louis last weekend, one protester told a reporter from the Guardian that Wilson was just “doing his job.” Anyone who doesn’t see how such a sentiment could escalate should read up on their history, American and otherwise.