By Michael Shank
This commentary is by Michael Shank of Brandon, an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
Last month, in an online report of “America’s Best Places to Live in 2021,” which ranked ten U.S. states as “America’s most welcoming,” Vermont ranked first. The state’s impressive Covid-19 response and strong public health spending boosted its spot.
But what’s paradoxical about this report is that most of the states in the ranking’s Top Five are states where armed white supremacy and extremism are pervasive, manifest in state institutions and non-state actors, and frequently make news headlines due to threatening and bullying behavior and violence — all unwelcoming activities that this report failed to quantify.
Vermont, for example, is witnessing armed white supremacy across the state, but so are North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, who ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, on the ranking of America’s best places to live and most welcoming states. The Capitol Hill insurrection on Jan. 6 was a wakeup call for many, but that movement was alive and well across America for years. In fact, data show a surge in homegrown armed white extremism not seen in the last several decades.
And while former U.S. President Donald Trump has been accused, rightly, of emboldening this armed white extremism by modeling the bullying and intimidating behavior and threats of violence, local and state governments are now further enabling this behavior. It’s more than just a Trump effect. U.S. foreign policy is a history of armed bullyism. Armed white extremists are merely taking a lesson from American history books.
Take Vermont, where even its progressive colleges, like Middlebury College, aren’t safe for professors of color (who left campus describing it as a “racist hell”) and where, just this summer, the Vermont Human Rights Commission’s extensive investigations found multiple incidents of systemic racism in the state’s armed institutions: the Chester Police Department, in discriminating against a Black driver; the Bennington Police Department, in discriminating against Black former legislator Kiah Morris; and the state police, in discriminating against the Black owner of Clemmons Family Farm. That was just this summer.
Vermont is, increasingly, landing national headlines for all the wrong reasons. National wire story after wire story illustrate how many people of color — including leaders of Vermont-based NAACP chapters and Black state legislators — had to flee their homes due to armed white extremism and pervasive white supremacy in the community, schools (with increasingly hostile pushback against equity and inclusion efforts in schools), local government, and state law enforcement.
Vermont’s armed white extremists are so emboldened that they publicly publish their militia websites and openly recruit on social media. And with some of the loosest gun laws in the country, the state is becoming a haven for armed white extremists, like Max Misch. It’s why Vermont’s most infamous armed white extremist — Daniel Banyai — moved to the state for just that reason: It was an easy place to build an armed militia compound.
But Vermont is not alone. Take third-ranking North Dakota, where neo-Nazis recently had plans to take over a local town, dissolve its local government, and establish an Aryan stronghold, and where schools across the state are reporting on the insidious nature of white supremacy as racist threats are creating hostile school environments. It’s such a pervasive problem that local administrators are describing the state’s racism as a “pandemic,” with victims’ identities anonymized in order to protect them from further harm.
The rising resistance to critical race theory in North Dakota (and Vermont, too), along with the rest of the U.S., isn’t helping things either, further fueling the local white supremacist movement.
Take fourth-ranking Minnesota, where armed white supremacists descended on the Twin Cities to foment violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death and again during the anniversary of his death, and where armed white extremists, identifying with the national Boogaloo Bois movement, shot up a Minneapolis police precinct last year.
Take fifth-ranking Iowa, where Nazi symbols and white supremacist messages — saying that “we are everywhere” — are showing up in city parks, where “White Supremacist Hotlines” have been created this year to track threats, and where Black Iowans have been encouraged not to travel alone as it’s too dangerous.
One wonders how these states can be considered the “most welcoming” when armed white supremacists’ movements are clearly gaining visible traction.
When states like Vermont, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa are ranked as the most welcoming and best places to live, it’s failing to factor in the experiences of communities of color who are bullied by threats of physical violence and intimidation. In fact, a ranking like this does further harm by gaslighting the experience of communities fleeing armed white extremism.
So how do we counter this growing armed white extremism capably and quickly before the threat metastasizes further?
As one example of policy response, the Center for American Progress has suggested everything from an anti-lynching bill and better data collection on the domestic terror threat, to rooting out violent white supremacy in the military and law enforcement. This is much needed in states like Vermont, where bias and discrimination persist in local and state law enforcement. Other policy responses, from the Brookings Institution, for example, have recommended the obvious — the arrest and indictment of extremists violating the law, as well as the removal from social media and more active countering of anti-government conspiracies.
When weapons are so easily acquired, trafficked and unchecked in many of these states, however, more will be needed to counter armed white extremism. All four states highlighted above score poorly on the Annual Gun Law Scorecard by the Giffords Law Center. And with gun sales spiking during the pandemic, and showing no signs of slowing — even if state legislatures show some new backbone in making their states safer for everyone, as New York did with its recent gun violence emergency declaration — it may be too late, given how easy it is to traffic weapons across America.
We need to take this threat seriously. While several of us are launching an evacuation fund to help Vermonters flee violent or intolerant environments, it can’t be left to citizens to save themselves and evacuate.
We need a national effort that draws the line, regains ground from armed white supremacists and extremists (whether in state systems or as non-state actors), ratchets up rule of law vis-à-vis access to weapons, prioritizes prevention, and normalizes nonviolent behavior. A big ask for America, I know. But we need it now before this pandemic consumes us all.