One More Dead in Paintball War
Dress-up fantasies clash with fatal realities in inter-protest skirmishes, leaving one more dead in Portland this weekend.
The question at the front of many minds these days, both at home and abroad: Is America on the brink of civil war?
The obvious answer might be yes. Certain political divides are growing wider than ever (while others narrow, twist, or disappear). Bouts of street-fighting seem to mirror the domestic violence that preceded other wars. Activists on the streets are none too shy in their cries for revolution. But we should not put too much stock in any of this. There is no war in the offing.
Michael Lind’s description of the riots’ driving forces is important:
Dressing up as revolutionaries like children on Halloween, the sociopathic heirs of the overclass, already living in neighborhoods from which the working class was forced out by economic privation, take part in the vandalization, looting, and burning of local businesses, many of them owned by immigrants or members of minority groups. If they get arrested, the fortunate among them can count on being bailed out after phone calls to their indulgent liberal or moderate conservative parents, who live in expensive, nearly all-white urban and suburban neighborhoods and denounce racism and fascism on their Facebook pages.
It might seem borderline blasphemous to dismiss a months-long national panic as a game of dress-up—especially one that has left multiple people dead and countless livelihoods destroyed. But it sure explains a lot, not least of all the bold behavior of our mock revolutionaries. They are fearless in the strangest way. Watch the videos of rioters throwing objects at police officers, smashing shop windows, and badgering guests at the RNC. These aren’t rebels assured of their cause. They’re children throwing tantrums with the knowledge that no real consequence is coming.
We can see it in the way they dress: boogie board shields, sports-outlet elbow pads, bike helmets, skateboards—these are not the trappings of an army. Some of them—especially shields made of low-grade styrofoam—serve no real purpose other than the aesthetic. All this, combined with the t-shirts with the week’s trendiest slogans, doesn’t look nearly as menacing or radical as they think.
If I were going to war, I wouldn’t wear shorts.
The play-acting isn’t limited to the left, either. Hundreds of Trump supporters paraded through Portland in a caravan on Saturday, the latest in a number of right-wing counter-protests against the 3-month occupation of the city by the Antifa Repertory Theatre. The regular garb of the paintball militia is roughly reminiscent of their opponents’, with a little more Multicam and olive drab—two decades-old Army patterns abundant in surplus stores—thrown into the mix. The helmets, the goggles, the bandanas, and the pads all follow along the same lines. It’s the kind of faux-battle rattle that a disgruntled 18 year old would put on, look in a mirror, and think to himself, “I look badass.” (He doesn’t.)
A lot of them had guns, but it’s unlikely they had any plans to use them. These are, for the most part, normal and sensible people—barely varied counterparts of the actors on the other side. What they did use were paintball guns, pantomiming a more substantial act with a war-toy meant for teenagers. They shot paintballs from truck beds into BLM and Antifa crowds, and the crowds threw back whatever objects they could find. I’m sure there were some injuries, as there tend to be in roughhousing like this, but it was all a fairly harmless game.
And then someone got shot.
We don’t know his name yet. We don’t really know any details of what happened. All we know is that he was wearing a cap with the insignia of Patriot Prayer—a right-wing group involved in this and other counter-protests—and he got shot in the chest, and he died. He’s just the latest in a long string of casualties of the summer—just before him it was three men on the other side in Kenosha.
You might think these deaths are reminders that this is not a game. But they’re not. They’re reminders that this is a very stupid, very ugly game. Ask yourselves this: did, or will, their deaths serve any purpose? Unless you seriously believe that the “sociopathic heirs of the overclass” are on the brink of a Marxist revolution—thus making the dead in the street martyrs for one side or the other—I don’t see any way you could answer in the affirmative. And one of Lind’s most vital observations is that even they don’t believe that. He ended his analysis of the riots with a depressingly mundane prediction:
Many of today’s big city riot ninjas will look back in the future with pride on their nights of prancing around in black leotards and spraypainting “BLM” and “Fuck Trump” on downtown buildings. A decade from now, the most successful will have well-paying jobs, many of them in the politically progressive sectors like the universities and NGOs. The unlucky ones may still be working at Starbucks—perhaps at the very stores whose plate glass windows they once spray-painted or smashed.
This vision of the future robs the present of its fantasy meaning. There is no sense to any of it. It has all the viciousness and none of the seriousness of war. It’s a game that gives wide outlets to our worst instincts and free rein to the worst among us. It’s a mess of fantasies—many of them clashing, many of them sick. The people who dream of taking Jeff Bezos to the guillotine and the people who dream of taking cities back with bullets have a great deal in common, including the impossibility of their goals. The game never plays out, and the fantasy certainly never evolves into something as real as war. But people will die in the meantime, and the rest will go back to life.
No war in the offing—there’s a certain sadness to that: when we look back on these casualties, years down the line, we will find no way to justify them.