There’s a movement metastasizing across America. It’s well armed, it’s extreme, and it’s led largely by white men. They’re enraged, they’re feeling entitled, and they’re taking ground wherever it’s given. And while the movement clearly got new wind in its sails under the Trump administration, it’s now self-sustaining. The Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill was just the tip of this seething iceberg, as last month’s anguished police testimony to Congress made clear. This movement isn’t going away anytime soon.
It’s everywhere. It’s even in Vermont, where I live, which some people mistakenly consider a progressive haven. It’s bullied countless people of color in Vermont — who had to flee their communities because it became increasingly hostile and unsafe for them — and now it’s pushing me out, too. I’m selling my farm this summer, in fact, because the assault-weaponed bullies are winning on my road, and I refuse to stoop to their level and weaponize myself to fight back.
In states like Vermont, it’s easy to be an armed white extremist. It’s why NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” did a sketch with actor Adam Driver suggesting Vermont was a neo-Confederate paradise. It is. Even armed militias do well here. There’s little to keep you accountable or keep you in check and the state seems disinterested in stepping in and protecting its residents.
Factor in extremely lax gun laws. The Brady Campaign once called Vermont’s gun laws the worst in the nation. The Giffords Center gives its gun laws a C minus. This toxic combination allows white extremists and militias to thrive. Just look at Slate Ridge in Pawlet as one example. As one local official told me, this is the Wild West of the Northeast. And as I pack up my farm and my animals and move out, and as I receive story after story of armed bullying behavior experienced by other Vermonters, this is becoming all too clear to me.
Not only does Vermont’s Department of Public Safety fail to crack down on armed white extremists, the state’s police forces discriminate against people of color running from those very extremists. I’m not making this up. There are ample, well-documented stories like this. In fact, if you’re a person of color here in Vermont, the bias and discrimination shown by Vermont State Police are pervasive, persistent and proven. This state is not a safe place if you are non-white, unarmed or both.
All of this sends a clear message to armed white extremists that there’s nothing standing in their way and they are free to rule the roost here.
And that’s why I’m moving. After attempts to institute a simple noise ordinance to contain the hours-long and erratic assault weapons use on my road in Brandon — a road with a recent history of Aryan Brotherhood identifiers, “white lives matter more” statements, hate crime charges and racial slurs — not only did my town’s leaders refuse to recognize the problem, but they also emboldened the armed white extremists on my road by gaslighting my concerns.
This, then, ratcheted up threats, intimidation and retaliatory gunfire at all hours of the day and night, imperiling my farm and any legal property rights to quiet enjoyment. And it just keeps escalating. Since I received death threats during the Fourth of July weekend, it’s been shocking to see how limited local police are in disarming these active threats.
Throughout this process, Vermont friends have advised me to weaponize and fight back, to not let the armed bullies win this one. As someone who grew up in a peace church — from a long line of Amish and Mennonite pastors and preachers — and as someone who has studied and promoted peacebuilding and conflict resolution work globally, the last thing I’m going to do is weaponize to “win.”
That’s what laws are for and that’s what government is for. But these systems are failing us fast. The Vermont Legislature has been lackluster in this regard, which is why the armed extremists keep winning. And while I’m moving north — like many of my friends of color have already done — and away from this part of Vermont where armed white extremism appears to run rampant, I’m concerned that this will happen again. I’m on a short leash with this state. This isn’t worth life and limb. Others have already left for similar reasons, which portends poorly for a state already in population decline.
What’s most frustrating, however, beyond losing the farm, is how normalized this armed bully behavior is becoming in Vermont and across America. This is a dangerous, slippery slope, as other war zones can testify. We’re patterning their destabilizing trends to a tee. I’ve been involved in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes overseas, and it’s clear that’s needed here, now.
America’s armed extremists are that armed, they’re that mobilized, and they’re that in need of rehabilitation and reintegration back into society. Many of them have nothing to lose and until states like Vermont take these threats and their underlying conditions seriously, extremists will continue to seize ground and bully further. This is war, and we are refugees fleeing violent, extreme and often racist non-state actors. It’s time we take this fight seriously and draw the line because they are winning.
Brandon resident Michael Shank teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A version of this commentary first appeared last week in USA Today.