Back in the gloomy days before “hope” (Bush's first term), sometime after the invasion of Iraq, the president flew to California to give a speech on the state of the US economy. It was May of 2003, I think.
I remember some details of the day very well. (A colleague and I even wrote about it a few days afterward.) A carload of hippies, anarchos, punks, and commies (myself included in there somewhere) had driven to Santa Clara and attempted to march on W's event and hold a protest. Bush's people flew into the San Jose Airport and were whisked in an armored motorcade across closed Bay Area freeways at high speed. My friends and I walked with about a hundred other antiwar protesters toward the spot we knew he'd be: the United Defense plant, an arms manufacturer.
We got about two hundred yards from the entrance when we were met by Santa Clara's finest. The cops donned full body armor and carried not only the usual weaponry (handguns, mace and tazers) but also sleek black katana swords and three foot staffs made out of some indestructible polymer - beat down sticks. I remember a horse mounted officer plowing his animal into us. It whinnied and bit my friend's head. Bush's handlers parked a bus perpendicular in the street between us and the plant's entrance ensuring that we couldn't see the motorcade arrive, and Bush wouldn't see us.
I have similar memories of Bush motorcades speeding through the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. I saw W's entourage on two separate occasions. The last time his black sedans and SUVs sped over the Industrial Canal and I think I caught a glimpse of Laura Bush gazing out a Chevy Suburban window. It was hard to tell from so far away.
Each time I remember the president's appearance being defined by a very militaristic police force, beating back the crowds that might gather and preventing us from getting within much distance. I never even tried getting into the carefully managed events his administration would hold from time to time - imitations of town hall meetings and listening sessions. With respect to that day in Santa Clara, getting into the weapons factory by posing as a right wing war supporter wasn't even and option. Security was always heavily armed and paranoid around president Bush. Looking back I can only imagine what would have happened had I toted any kind of weapon to a protest, let alone a firearm. I imagine the police and secret service would have found some excuse to arrest anyone armed with more than a protest sign or a pithy anti-Bush t-shirt.
This is why seeing so many men, mostly white men, across the nation bringing loaded weapons out to protest events where president Obama is scheduled to appear has thrown me for a serious loop. I attended a lot of antiwar rallies during the Bush presidency and I cannot remember a time when I saw any protestor carrying a firearm. I do remember in San Francisco seeing young black masked anarchists tossing newspaper machines through windows and otherwise getting rowdy, but the president wasn't within a thousand miles of that.
How is that it's suddenly okay for anti-government protesters to pack heat in the crowd? Would this have ever happened during the Bush years without the armed citizens being arrested or at least escorted far away from the event? Did it ever happen? I'm not sure I can recall one instance where a citizen brought a gun anywhere near a Bush event.
The confluence of the birthers, the rabid response to health care reform, ascendant right wing populism, this obsession with "socialism"... it seems we are seeing the violent patriarchal underbelly of America on display. I reckon though that we're only seeing a tiny fraction of what's out there. I often debate people about just how conservative and reactionary Americans really are. I think too many folks have taken the election of Obama as a sign that the nation has progressed, that young people and people of color represent the mainstream now, and that this mainstream is good and gentle and bends toward social justice. A lot of commentators are calling these gun-toting men examples of a "delusional" America. It's the same as all of those who laughed at the McCain-Palin campaign and chalked up its defeat to the irrational and backward attitudes of its supporters, who wer are told are a dying social breed. Perhaps they are, but might it not be true that liberals who think they're now in a majority are in fact the ones deluding themselves.
A prediction: as times get tougher (and they're only going to get tougher over the long-haul) we're going to see strong reactionary movements in the US. They will be violently xenophobic, racist and misogynistic. They will act like a toxin to divide the working class. They will be strongest among the white middle and working class. It will be peculiar kind of facism, one that claims to not trust the state, but which eminates from social groups who have controlled the state throughout American history and used it to prop up their privileges and feed their consumerist lifestyles. People are going to die. It will not be pretty. It's coming soon.