The gathering, which took place at a picnic shelter along the French Broad River in July 2017 and was billed as “Meet Your Local Redneck,” functioned as a sort of coming-out party. After months of firearms training and partially successful efforts at community gardening, the Carolina Mountain chapter of Redneck Revolt was ready to unveil its program to allies in Asheville’s far-left activist community.
Wearing uniform red kerchiefs around their necks, sleeveless shirts, tattoos, and looks ranging from shorn-haired punk to bearded mountain man, they mingled easily with their left-wing friends: anticapitalists from Industrial Workers of the World, Democratic Socialists of America interested in responsible handgun ownership, a representative of an LGBTQ self-defense outfit called the Pink Pistols, and hardcore communists. They grilled chicken and gathered in a circle with banjos, fiddles, and guitars to sing “Solidarity Forever.”
Redneck Revolt is a national network of antiracist militias founded in July 2016. Four chapters sprang up in North Carolina in 2017, although only one remains in the national network today. Assault-style rifles in hand, Carolina Mountain, with members from Asheville and Boone, played a key role in responding to the violent white-supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
The arrival at the July picnic of three members of the Asheville-based far-right militia American Pit Vipers didn’t come entirely as a surprise — a couple Redneck members had invited them after encountering them at a July 2 impeachment rally in Asheville. Both sides were wary of each other but eager to talk. Considering the deepening polarization and escalating tension surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency, each side worried that they could find themselves on opposite sides of a firefight.
Carolina Mountain’s hospitality set the tone for the impromptu summit. A handful of members leaped to their feet and greeted the right-wing militiamen with handshakes and wide grins. Seated across the picnic table from each other, three to three, the conversation was friendly but intense, more like a spirited bar chat than a court-ordered mediation. One of the Pit Vipers wore an American flag-patterned do-rag and a black T-shirt with Arabic-style lettering that read, “Go fuck yourself.” He flashed a genial smile.
One Carolina Mountain member from Boone broke away from the huddle to provide an elated report on the dialogue.
“It’s going well,” he said. “We probably disagree on 95 percent of things, but they’re about community defense and we’re about community defense. The next time we see each other is going to be in the streets, and we’re both going to be armed.”
Redneck Revolt’s interest in firearms dates back to efforts by the anarchist-oriented Kansas Mutual Aid Network to disrupt the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, which attracted the attention of the FBI. Organizers, including future Redneck Revolt founder Dave Strano, decided to start training with legal firearms to signal that they wouldn’t be intimidated. Strano hoped his example would encourage friends in far-left activist circles to undertake bolder modes of organizing. For several years, Strano and his associates cultivated the ideas of class struggle, antiracism, and Second Amendment advocacy that would form the basis of Redneck Revolt.
The network’s founders adopted the term redneck in part to open doors in predominantly white communities. But it was also meant as intentional subversion, in much the same way queer has been reclaimed by the LGTBQ community as a term of empowerment. Some chapters have found that the racial connotations of the word redneck impede cross-racial organizing. The Carolina Mountain chapter, for instance, ultimately swapped the “Redneck Revolt” moniker in favor of “John Brown Gun Club”—a reference to the antislavery zealot who tried to lead a slave rebellion in the years before the Civil War—explaining in a public statement that redneck did not reflect its membership and might be “initially off-putting or possibly offensive” to marginalized people they seek as allies.
[pullquote]At a time when liberal commentators are calling for media “conversations” with hard-hit working-class folks to better understand Trump’s populist appeal, Redneck Revolt members have done the work face to face. And it’s guns — and shared gun culture — that have brought people to the picnic table.[/pullquote]The emergence of Redneck Revolt in Phoenix in the summer of 2016 coincided with Trump’s acceptance of the Republican nomination, but it also followed years of anti-immigrant hostility in Arizona. Beyond the state’s repressive SB 1070 law — which requires police to determine the legal status of anyone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is not in the country legally — right-wing militias had been showing up at mosques and harassing migrant border-crossers.
In the 21 months since the network’s founding, Redneck Revolt chapters have participated in armed defense actions against white supremacists, engaged in outreach to right-wing militias to discourage extremism, and experimented with projects modeled after the survival programs of the Black Panthers and Young Patriots in the late 1960s.
But the group has also come upon internal difficulties. In the fall of 2017, a series of posts on an anonymous blog made an allegation—unsupported by evidence—of misconduct against Strano. In a letter threatening a lawsuit if the allegation was published, Strano denied it. Nonetheless, organizations in the antifascist movement have challenged Redneck Revolt’s handling of the matter, and at least one Redneck Revolt chapter — Rose City in Portland, Ore. — withdrew as a result.
Strano could not be reached for comment. Displeasure over Triad City Beat’s inquiry into the matter resulted in key members in North Carolina and Arizona withdrawing cooperation for this story.
What most sets Redneck Revolt apart from the traditional left, of course, is its open-carry tactic. Even among leftists who recognize the value of armed self-defense, displaying assault rifles has been greeted with skepticism — although, after Charlottesville, in which one antiracist demonstrator was killed by a white supremacist, some critics have grudgingly conceded that the network’s armed presence provided a bulwark of stability.
Redneck has only open-carried in limited circumstances, while honing competence through target practice and buddy-team drills. But the group’s involvement with firearms has opened a dialogue with right-wing militia groups — and that’s kind of the point.
Based on a reverence for the Second Amendment and limited government, patriot militias have styled themselves as the contemporary equivalent of the original American revolutionaries. The movement draws heavily from military veterans who are well versed in handling firearms.
Right-wing militia members frequently espouse a working-class brand of libertarian self-sufficiency that denies the authority of federal agencies. This was on display in April 2014, when patriot militias in southern Nevada engaged in an armed standoff with federal authorities to prevent the impoundment of rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle. Some patriot militia members are also nostalgic for a time when white Christians held unchallenged dominance in the United States.
While gun ownership is embedded in the cultural fabric of the right, the mainstream left treats gun control as something of a civic religion, and that sensibility has only grown over decades of mass shootings, including the most recent Parkland massacre in February.
But the American left also has a long history of using guns as tools for self-defense or radical action. The most prominent example is the Black Panther Party. Founded in 1966, the Panthers instituted armed community patrols to protect residents from the police in Oakland. The next year, they marched with rifles into the California statehouse.
Even within the Southern civil rights movement, which was grounded in nonviolent resistance, firearms played a role. Most notably, the Deacons for Defense and Justice provided armed security for the March Against Fear across Mississippi in 1966.
Redneck Revolt positions itself as an inheritor of these legacies. But its anarchist streak, combined with its efforts to court rural white people living paycheck to paycheck, bring it closer to right-wing militias than the Panthers or the Deacons would ever be. Redneck Revolt has used this proximity for counter-recruitment, trying to shift potential militia members away from right-wing ideology and conspiracy thinking.
“When we refer to counter-recruitment, what we mean is that we’re working to pull our families and neighbors away from white nationalists and other formations that have threatened our communities,” said an unidentified host during a Redneck Revolt podcast in September.
Carolina Mountain’s engagement with the American Pit Vipers heightened during the four weeks leading up to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. To demonstrate good faith and earn trust, Carolina Mountain members showed up to support a pro-veteran rally organized by the Pit Vipers’ Tom Horne. The gesture paid off when Chance Allen, another Pit Viper, drafted a statement that disavowed the white-supremacist ideology of marquee speakers like Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer.
“This event does not represent APV, our morals or our standards,” the statement reads. “APV will not stand in accord with any individual or unit that is in attendance and has openly expressed their support for white nationalists… APV will stand by and support any community in any state that opposes the appearance or existence of white nationalists among them.”
At a time when liberal commentators are calling for media “conversations” with hard-hit working-class folks to better understand Trump’s populist appeal, Redneck Revolt members have done the work face to face. And it’s guns — and shared gun culture — that have brought people to the picnic table.
The Carolina Mountain and Silver Valley chapters — the latter is composed of members from rural Davidson County, Greensboro, and Durham — from North Carolina provided the backbone of Redneck Revolt’s armed presence in Charlottesville. Members from Pennsylvania and Michigan, along with the allied Socialist Rifle Association, filled out the ranks. Redneck Revolt members viewed their operation — maintaining a security perimeter around Justice Park — as support for the larger antifascist cause.
Armed with assault rifles, Redneck Revolt transformed Justice Park into a staging area that allowed antifa and other militants to confront white supremacists and then return to safety.
Members of the Redneck Revolt network traveled from North Carolina to Charlottesville for extensive meetings with locals in the run-up to Aug. 12. Redneck Revolt fell into a camp favoring a more militant response, while Black Lives Matter Charlottesville and Standing Up for Racial Justice, a white antiracist group, were part of a coalition that wanted to take a more moderate tack.
As recalled by an anonymous member of Anarchist People of Color in a CrimethInc. podcast, “A group of us wanted to establish an agreement toward a diversity of tactics that respected different tactics such as open-carry as a deterrent of violence, antifascist blocs, blockading, and basically any tactic that would go toward the goal of defending Charlottesville from fascism. People from SURJ, even people in the newly formed Black Lives Matter chapter, the clergy, liberal groups, progressive groups resisted that idea and that strategy very strongly, with the feeling that we would get bad press after the fact, that we would be putting people in harm unnecessarily, that people were not consenting to being confrontational.”
Representatives of the less-militant faction — although no one from Black Lives Matter — spent a day with the Silver Valley chapter of Redneck Revolt discussing tactical differences and visiting a gun range. Ultimately, SURJ and Black Lives Matter opted to stage their resistance to the alt-right separately from Redneck Revolt.
Walt Heinecke, who took out the event permit for the counter-demonstration in Justice Park, says he wasn’t notified of Redneck Revolt’s plans to show up with assault rifles. An associate professor at the University of Virginia, Heinecke had hired a local private security firm for the day’s events. The security professionals ended up coordinating with Redneck Revolt as the threat of violence escalated.
“When I got there, I didn’t know who they were,” Heinecke recalls. “I asked one of my security people. They said they were an antiracist and pro-Second Amendment militia. They never entered the park. They were on the corner. When I went over to talk to them, they seemed like an affable group of people. They didn’t cause any problem.”
In one of many tense encounters over the course of that Saturday, Redneck Revolt stood down a column of activists associated with Identity Evropa, a white-supremacist group that recruits on college campuses. According to Redneck Revolt members who were present, the Identity Evropa members hesitated when they saw the armed contingent and then walked back in the other direction.
“Justice Park was a safe place,” Matthew Casella, a member of the International Socialist Organization, recounted during a tearful speech the following day in Greensboro. “It was under guard by Redneck Revolt, who repeatedly kept the fascists at bay each time they came and marched around the square to intimidate us.”
From their vantage point, Redneck Revolt members warily observed suspected white supremacists circling Justice Park in vehicles. One of the drivers, it turned out, was James Alex Fields Jr., who had rallied with the white supremacist group Vanguard America. Shortly after encountering Redneck Revolt, Fields drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of antiracist marchers three blocks away, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
In a later Facebook post, Dwayne Dixon, an assistant professor in UNC’s Global Asian Studies department, boasted of chasing Fields away from Justice Park. Dixon gained local notoriety six days after Charlottesville when he showed up at an antiracist rally in Durham bearing an assault rifle. He was arrested nine days later, but the charges against him were dropped in February. Dixon is part of the Redneck faction that declined to cooperate with this story.
While overt white supremacists looked for opportunities to attack Justice Park, right-wing militia members equipped with assault rifles roamed the streets of Charlottesville and interposed themselves between the alt-right gladiators and antiracist counter-protesters at Emancipation Park. Redneck Revolt maintained radio communication with the American Pit Vipers, according to a recent Facebook post by APV member Chance Allen.
Whether through APV or other sources, Redneck Revolt’s plans to show up in Charlottesville were well known within the patriot movement days before the event.
Francis Marion, a prominent patriot leader active with the militia American Freedom Keepers, broadcast a Facebook Live video on Aug. 9, directed to Redneck Revolt, antifa, and Black Lives Matter, as well as to right-wing militia allies. Without explicitly disavowing white nationalism, Marion staked a neutral position while recognizing the legitimacy of the antiracist groups on the left.
“We’ve been told that Redneck Revolt has reported that they are taking the same stance,” Marion said. “They’re providing First Amendment security for folks on that side that are holding the event, that are holding their event in the parks. So if antifa’s holding an event and Redneck Revolt is providing security, their position is the same as ours as far as protecting free speech without violence. And that is our intent.
George Curbelo, the state commander of the New York Light Foot Militia commented in Marion’s Facebook feed: “I’ll get this to the right people.”
While Redneck Revolt’s armed presence and dialogue with patriot militias likely prevented further violence, the armed antiracist group was not welcomed by official Charlottesville. The city, along with neighborhood associations and local businesses, filed suit against Redneck Revolt, along with a collection of white nationalist and patriot militia groups. The suit charges that “private military forces transformed an idyllic college town into a virtual combat zone.”
Despite its tactical differences with Redneck Revolt, SURJ condemned the lawsuit, charging that it “outrageously” echoes the “both sides” argument infamously voiced by President Trump.
“When the city having ordered its police to stand down, groups like Redneck Revolt and SRA were the last line of defense from the alt-right’s planned violence,” SURJ Charlottesville posted on its Facebook page on March 20. “Now, instead of taking responsibility for permitting the white supremacists to hide their hate behind the First Amendment, the city of Charlottesville and several local businesses and neighborhood associations have filed this lawsuit, attempting to shift the blame and perpetuate the ‘both sides’ narrative, suggesting that leftist groups are just as blameworthy as the white supremacists they helped us defend against.”
While an independent review by the Charlottesville law firm Hunton & Williams concluded that law enforcement “failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury and death,” contributing to “a deep distrust of government within this community,” for many on the far left, Redneck Revolt’s stand vindicated militant antifascism.
By all indications, Charlottesville broke the momentum of the alt-right. In Knoxville, Tenn., on the day of the second annual Women’s March, the avowedly fascist Traditionalist Worker Party drew only 20 people, compared to 14,000 who turned out to protest the Trump administration. By March, Traditionalist Worker Party appeared to be collapsing after its leader, Matthew Heimbach, was discovered having an affair with the wife of the organization’s spokesperson. Meanwhile, celebrity fascist Richard Spencer complained that his provocative campus appearances, which have faced relentless harassment from antifa, are no longer fun.
The militant left’s forceful response in Charlottesville raised the stakes for the alt-right. Notably, the neo-Confederate League of the South began to shy away from street battles with the far left after Charlottesville. But Redneck Revolt may have inadvertently rewritten the rules for future engagements.
“After Charlottesville, the League of the South decided we weren’t going to participate in any further disarmed rallies,” Brad Griffin, the league’s chief propagandist, wrote on his Occidental Dissent website. “We’re always going to be as armed as Redneck Revolt at all of our future events.”
Charlottesville also created repercussions for Redneck Revolt. The Carolina Mountain chapter withdrew from the national network in January. According to two sources, the split arose because of troubling conduct by one Redneck Revolt member in Charlottesville, his treatment of other members, and ultimately his unwillingness to take responsibility for his behavior.
The departed Carolina Mountain and Rose City chapters were not outliers: in March, the Shelby, NC chapter also disassociated itself from the national network, renaming itself the Carolina Workers’ Collective. In a Facebook post, the Shelby chapter accused the network of perpetuating oppression to the detriment of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and differently abled members.
Carolina Mountain has discontinued the counter-recruitment work initiated with American Pit Vipers after concluding that it required too much time and energy, and that ultimately the chapter’s first priority was building strong relationships with marginalized communities on the left. Members view the work with the Pit Vipers as valuable in the context of preparing for Charlottesville, but the circumstances of the relationship were so unique that it would be impossible to use as a model for future organizing. Chance Allen remains friendly with the Carolina Mountain members, but Silver Valley — the one North Carolina chapter that has remained with Redneck Revolt — has picked up the baton to continue the counter-recruitment work.
Since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the armed antiracists, molded by their experience in Redneck Revolt, have grappled with the implications of the progressive ardor for gun control. Among both loyalist and breakaway chapters, many members resist the idea of disarming while police violence goes unchecked, while respecting the agency of high school students demanding change. Pro-gun antiracists also argue that white supremacy and toxic masculinity are more proximate causes for gun violence than firearms.
Redneck Revolt’s sudden rise coincided with the election of Donald Trump, but in the second year of the administration, its internal contradictions have raised marked difficulties: What is the central cultural idea for the network if many of its chapters have discarded the moniker redneck as too problematic? And how does an organization that attracts both anarchists and communists balance autonomy and cohesion?
Whatever Redneck Revolt’s future, even in the #NeverAgain era, its primary legacy may well be a demonstration of armed community defense against fascism for the 21st Century.