USA TODAY 08/04/21
By Michael Shank

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 week’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.

The Wild West of the Northeast

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 that Vermont was a neo-Confederate paradise. It is. There’s little to keep you accountable or keep you in check here. The Brady Campaign once called Vermont’s gun laws the worst in the nation. The Giffords Center gives its gun laws a C minus. As one local official told me, this is the Wild West of the Northeast. And as I pack up my farm and move out, this is becoming all too clear to me.

Armed militias do well here. Not only does Vermont’s Department of Public Safety fail to crack down on armed white extremists, due in part to lax local laws, the State Police discriminate against the people of color running from those very extremists. I’m not making this up. There are countless 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 and persistent. This state is not a safe place if you are non-white, unarmed or both.

All of this sends a strong message to armed white extremists that there’s nothing standing in their way and that 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 recreational and erratic assault weapons use on my road in Brandon, not only did my town’s leaders refuse to recognize the problem, they also emboldened the armed white extremists on my road by gaslighting my concerns.

This, then, inspired retaliatory gunfire at all hours of the day, imperiling my legal property rights to quiet enjoyment, and my farm – a 76-acre animal sanctuary that is home to some two dozen horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks and dogs, all of them rescued from abuse, neglect or slaughter. And it just keeps escalating. Since I received death threats over the July 4th 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, that’s what government is for, that’s what democratic governance 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.

This is how nations become war zones

I’m on a short leash with this state and give it a few more years to restrain its armed white extremists or I’m gone. 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, 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 in need of rehabilitation and reintegration back into society. Many of them have nothing to lose – including my neighbors – and until states like Vermont take this threat seriously, they 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.

Michael Shank (@Michael_Shank) teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.