For two weeks, a group of Tri-Citizens have expressed concern about the ad hoc militia groups patrolling parking lots throughout the area.

These armed groups regress our community’s justice, complicate the work of our law enforcement officers, reduce the feeling of safety of our neighbors who are People of Color, and their net effect does not make our community more just. Further, they create massive legal liability for cities, business owners, and the gun-wielders themselves.

The pop-up groups emerged in response to social media rumors that antifa agitators and violent protesters are being bussed into town in order to vandalize and loot our community. Local law enforcement have stated that these rumors are unfounded.

I know several men who have advocated for the value of the militia groups thus far. They are people whose character I wouldn’t and couldn’t begin to question. Among them are men who I love and respect immensely. Some of those men have changed their position on this matter.

Local Black poet and activist Jordan Chaney has shared a letter he received from a Franklin County law enforcement officer after he read a version of the article you are reading now:

I read Adam Brault Avenir’s post, in which he acknowledges how difficult the role of a law enforcement officer has become. The post changed my opinion on the visual presence of  armed deterrents in front of businesses, and I think his acknowledgement of my own struggles helped open me up to understanding his view of the situation. As a white man, I am not afraid of walking up to a “red neck” with a rifle slung across his chest, but I had not considered how differently a person of color, whose experience in life has differed from my own, would perceive that same person. I strongly support the 2nd Amendment, but I don’t believe that to be the right message to send to our community at this time.

This is a difficult issue, and it’s one that on the surface may seem to be a deceptively simple question of 2nd amendment rights, but there’s more to it than that.

Let me address why I believe these militias patrolling community parking lots and showing up armed to protests is concerning behavior, even if it is done with the genuine intention of protecting the community.

First, let me ask:

Do you agree with the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests?

I am assuming you agree. 76% of Americans now say they believe that systemic racism is a big problem, and the vast majority of Americans support the protests in response to the unjust killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and scores of other Black lives.

You may take issue with violent protest or looters, and that is a different topic which we will save for later.

Our community’s protests have been peaceful and beautiful. They have reflected some of the very best of our community and they have highlighted some wonderful people in the next generation of leaders who the Tri-Cities is going to need.

Some of the language of Black Lives Matter protests are negatively charged in expressing outrage against the police. This is an understandable response to both the grief of unjust deaths and the racism that People of Color deal with in their encounters with the law. It is also understandable that people who know, love, and are good police find some of these statements deeply hurtful and unfair.

What is it that Black Lives Matter is protesting?

People across the country are protesting systemic racism and police brutality which has overwhelmingly impacted Black people, including unjustly killing innocent people.

The Tri-Cities has a very real history of overt racism. There was a time Kennewick had laws on the books enforced by police that required Black people to be out of the city limits by sundown. Both Richland and West Pasco also had extreme levels of segregation that made them de facto “sundown towns”, too. These are real pieces of our community’s history that have left an undeniable legacy, even if nearly all traces of that history have been erased.

Systemic racism is not the top layer of overt racism of segregation or calling someone an epithet, but the subtle racism we all have and innately feel because it’s part of the water we are swimming in as a society. It is the racism that I still find emerging in my biased sense of entitlement and instinctive responses and fears that are overwhelmingly hard to shake, even though I want to.

That kind of racism is hard to get rid of. And it’s possible to be anti-racist one minute and racist the next.

And it’s systemic racism that emerges in broken systems that are made up of broken people. But broken systems made up of broken people with weapons attached are frankly terrifying if you’re the people who the system tends to break against.

The fact is that people are always going to be broken. But there are ways and processes and approaches that we can take to improve our systems.

We ask police to do too much

Absolutely no living person has the makeup to be a perfect cop and it’s an unfair burden we place on them.

You have to be calm in the face of terrifying situations, peaceful in response to anger, a psychologist and counselor and dispute mediator, able to handle trauma and loss and pain and be on the receiving end of abuse without letting it harden you and strip you of empathy and compassion for those you serve, and you have to do all that while wielding a deadly weapon and knowing that a good portion of society is going to see you as a villain no matter what you do. Oh and you have to make wise decisions on a hair trigger in a split second or you could lose your job or your life.

So we have a broken system made of broken people and then that system puts expectations on those broken people that further breaks them.

So when we say “Black Lives Matter” we’re saying “we need a better system.” And we need a better system for *everyone* not just one group.

Smart systems are good. Planes don’t crash and surgeries don’t get botched because we know these are high stakes situations and so we have systematically removed the likelihood and impact of human error through things as simple as checklists and separation of responsibilities.

We can do law enforcement and emergency and mental health crisis response and justice and corrections MUCH better than we do today. There is overwhelming evidence that tells us so and there are a long list of solutions that have been trialed and demonstrated as much more effective than our current approach.

But here’s the thing. Modern police training is pretty amazing. We have squeezed and optimized as much as we’re likely to get out of these people. We are fully irrational and destined for more of the same if we think the answer is simply “havebetter cops”. The *system* is what has to change if things are going to improve.

BLM is a cry for society to care as much about our neighbors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as we do about airplane safety or surgery, and do things to make the system smarter.

Now let’s talk about these pop-up militias

First, I get that the people involved in this behavior want to help, and deeply desire to protect our community. I also think a lot of them support BLM. There are definitely some who I have directly witnessed who have expressed sadistic enthusiasm with violence, as detailed in this article. I believe these are a minority, but I also believe some ne’er-do-wells are made to feel more safe by these groups, if not even emboldened.

But let’s completely set those aside and assume that every single person who is joining in the effort to protect the community is also a firm believer in the BLM movement—at least very specifically the peaceful protest aspect. This seems doubtful numerically, given that 6000 people joined ‘Defend the Tri’ Facebook group in its first day, while the two local peaceful protest groups had mere hundreds of people after a week. But again, let’s assume that it’s true.

If we do respect the movement, the #1 thing we need to do in response to BLM is listen to the perspectives and experiences of Black people.

What I know directly from my Black friends is that they feel a level of background anxiety anytime they are out at night, knowing that someone’s mistaken judgment could cost them their life. This isn’t an irrational fear—it’s happened time and again. And it is also a template that has existed in our region’s history, as both police and later white militias did indeed intimidate Black residents from remaining in some parts of the Tri-Cities after sundown.

If we are listening to the protesters, we should be moving to create better smarter systems that make people safer, not regressing to put in place an ad hoc non-system that is even more problematic than the thing that is being protested.
If police are vetted, trained, equipped, and experienced dealing with these kinds of situations and they still screw it up—and screw it up in a way that disparately affects People of Color, why would we think augmenting them with an ad hoc group with guns and no police training is a good idea?

I have heard business owners say they feel more safe knowing these guys are out there. When they say that, they’re referring to their businesses. They’re not talking about their own lives—these militias aren’t standing guard outside homes, they’re guarding businesses after sundown.

I get that people are scared some kid is going to act out and vandalize their business and that will cost them money. That fear is real. But our fear over the loss of ‘stuff’ should not be allowed to outweigh the fear that People of Color in our community feel for their lives and safety.

One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes of all time resonates so loudly in this respect:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

So yeah when we talk about safety, I completely get that business owners feel more safe. But what about the people in our community?

I have had multiple Black people reach out to me privately to say that they feel incredibly unsafe with the idea of people patrolling the town with guns in the name of a deterrence against ‘violent protestors and looters’.

Where do these people draw the line with regard to what is acceptable protest? Why do they get to be the ones to decide that? And how can we assure there’s a degree of impartiality and justice?

And what happens if these folks do feel threatened?

The common refrain of citizens and police who have killed innocent Black people is presumptive overreactive self-defense: “I feared for my life.” “I thought they had a gun.”

While we have not had buses of antifa agitators show up, we have had a couple businesses vandalized by young people

I guarantee there are teens—children!—in this town who undoubtedly feel angry and frustrated about the state of the world. Kids who’ve tasted fresh cruelty and injustice firsthand, witnessed it unfold on the news, and heard the stories from their friends and family. Some of these kids are connected to mentors and awesome people who are showing them how to channel the hurt and anger that they feel into peaceful protest. But guaranteed not all of them have those kinds of connections.

There’s a reason governments recruit and send teenage boys to war: they have seemingly unlimited courage because they feel invincible and they don’t think about the long-term consequences. Young men don’t even have fully developed brains until their mid-20s. (And speaking as someone who was once a young man, I can certainly validate this as true!)

I hate thinking about some 14 year-old throwing a rock at a window or a group of guys with guns and ending up dead for it. And I hate the idea of a 14 year-old seeing the video of a Black man being stopped in a parking lot by a group of armed white men. How does that help him to grow up as a citizen if he sees evidence there are people in his community who would prefer him feeling unsafe wandering through a parking lot is the fair tradeoff of protecting a lawnmower?

Our friends who are leading these militias need to be the adults in the room. And part of being an adult is knowing when it’s time to leave the work to the professionals.

Nearly 10,000 Tri-Citizens have signed a petition saying they believe these groups do not make our community safer

A petition was started a week ago opposing these militias asking local Cities and Counties to enforce RCW 38.40.120, which reads:

No organized body other than the recognized militia organizations of this state, armed forces of the United States, students of educational institutions where military science is a prescribed part of the course of instruction or bona fide veterans organizations shall associate themselves together as a military company or organize or parade in public with firearms: PROVIDED, That nothing herein shall be construed to prevent authorized parades by the organized militia of another state or armed forces of foreign countries. Any person participating in any such unauthorized organization shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Kennewick Council member Steve Lee detailed a number of questions in an open letter to the City of Kennewick raising concerns about these armed groups.

What about the second amendment?

I will add in that I really don’t think the argument of 2nd amendment rights has bearing here.

The 2nd Amendment is about individual rights and does indeed mention a well-regulated militia, not an ad hoc group of people with no structural or organizational accountability, no chain of command, no independent and proven process to weed out people who are unsafe.

Further, in DC v Heller (2008), the US Supreme Court reiterated that the Second Amendment “does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations.”

There is a lot that can be done to discourage this behavior without infringing on anyone’s rights. For one, we can stop celebrating it.

I am not troubled by the idea of a man showing up to a protest concealed carrying, and I am not troubled by the idea of a uniformed, licensed, insured, and employed security guard watching over a parking lot or business.

But when a group of men organize together in order to create a defense squad, we are dealing with a very different animal than individuals exercising their 2nd amendment rights.

It is hard to imagine the police would take friendly photos with a group of Black or Latino men loitering outside Burger King holding assault weapons.

Here’s the bottom line

Ad hoc militias are a net negative for our community.

If you’re in one of these groups and you support Black Lives Matter, please rethink it, and please raise these concerns with others.

Disbanding these groups altogether and showing up unarmed to this weekend’s protests would be the greatest way to make a statement of support and solidarity for People of Color in our community.

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi