Why Redneck Revolt Says Deal With Racism First, Then Economics
Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences where possible.
—Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
There is no shortage of media commentary discrediting “identity politics,” particularly the focus on Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities calling for justice and equity. Economics is our real problem, a counter argument goes, not race, sex, gender, citizenship. But as author Nancy Isenberg points out in White Trash, “identity has always been a part of politics.”
Laws have been written to oppress and exploit particular identities—Native Americans, Black Americans, Asians, homosexuals, transgender, and women—in a successful effort to maintain a system of White supremacy. Yet, members of these communities have worked for the rights and equality of everyone. In turn, White allies have joined in these anti-racism fights.
The Redneck Revolt is one such organization. The self-described anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist group challenges working-class White people to stand against White supremacy.
I recently talked to Brett, one of the members who heads up the network’s Southeast Michigan Chapter. (Because of hostilities toward the organization, Redneck Revolt members use only their first names publicly.) There are about 40 chapters nationwide. He explained why the group focuses on anti-racism rather than economics even though it seeks out white working-class and poor people in economically struggling rural areas.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Zenobia Jeffries: What is the significance of the name Redneck Revolt? Why did the name change from the John Brown Gun Club?
Brett: They’re two sides of the same coin. We have some branches that are still the John Brown Gun Club. Our national network is Redneck Revolt.
Redneck Revolt chapters like ours in Michigan here primarily focus on outreach, and winning hearts and minds, counter recruitment, showing up, being present, being allies, being where we need to be to show our community support.
Whereas, John Brown Gun Club pretty much only deals with the firearm aspect of things. It deals with a lot of tactical training, a lot of information security-type stuff.
Jeffries: Can you give an example of what you mean by “changing hearts and minds.” What does that look like?
Brett: A really great example would be back in June. The ACT for America folks did an anti-sharia law march. Redneck Revolt was there. We were on one side of the barricades along with a slew of other leftist organizations. On the other side of the barricades were Proud Boys, Vanguard America, and a hodgepodge of other alt-right groups. But one of the most prominent was the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is famously racist and famously exclusionary.
Toward the end of the demonstration, this one older gentleman—he was an older White man up at the barricade with all the gear on, and armed—had his rifle. One of my members and [I] went up to this guy and were like, “I understand mixing state and religion is not good. Nobody here wants to mix state and religion, nobody is protesting that. [But] it’s clearly anti-Muslim. This protest is against Muslims.
“Furthermore, it’s against all people of color because this neighborhood [is] first-generation Somali, first-generation people form sub-Saharan Africa who are fleeing abject poverty and warfare, starvation, disease. So how can you be in this neighborhood and be like, ‘This is what America stands for’?
“Not only that, if you look to your left and right, those kids with the sun wheel on their shields, and the eagle on their shirts, those guys are self-described, literal Nazis. We fought a war about this. I thought we were all in unanimous agreement that Nazis are bad.”
And this guy he kind of started tearing up, and he was like, “You know, I’ll tell you, my dad died in World War II in Europe fighting Nazis.” And he goes, “This really has given me [something to think about]. You know I may not agree with everything you say. But associating myself like this has really given me pause, and has really made me think about what I’m doing here.”
We don’t expect anybody to walk away from someplace where we’re counter-recruiting waving the red flag of revolution. But if we can at least pull them out of that mindset, that’s a win for us.
Jeffries: One of the things I find fascinating about Redneck Revolt is that your primary focus is organizing working-class Whites, yet you center race and anti-racism in the work that you do. So many are putting the focus on the economy, and calling anti-racism work “identity politics.” How did you all decide that you wanted to focus on White supremacy—that it is just as much of a problem for working-class Whites as for people of color?
Brett: Our stance is that our entire capitalist system is built on a bedrock of White supremacy, and as White folks we have access to spaces that people of color don’t. So we try to exploit the spaces and put ourselves in those positions to reach the White working class because it’s like the old IWW [Industrial Workers World] saying, “If we don’t get to them first, the Klan will.”
And we understand that if there’s going to be any kind of serious discourse about dismantling capitalism, about building the new world from the ashes of the old, as they say, that description can’t be had until the underlying issue of racism is addressed.
That’s why [we] don’t engage law enforcement. We believe law enforcement is an extension of the old slave catchers.
We don’t engage with anything that reinforces the current system that basically is built on White supremacy. We go to great lengths to dismantle that system and empower people to help us do that, but at the same time using the spaces that we have access to, to get other people to see that.
And I believe that a lot of people we speak to may generally not be racist in a conventional sense. But they’re certainly benefitting from the system of White supremacy that has been built. They’re not doing anything to actually help dismantle it.
So, that’s kind of the message that we try to bring across. Nobody is saying [to them], “You’re like burning crosses, you’re actively racist.” But you have to acknowledge that … as a White person in America, you are benefitting from White supremacy.
So, in order to address capitalism, in order to address economics, the issue of systemic racism first has to be addressed.
Jeffries: I would imagine that when you’re in those spaces, and saying what you’re saying, that people respond, “But Black people are racist, too.”
Brett: Yes, we get that a lot.
For an example, I was talking to a gentleman the other day. He was like, “Blacks have a whole month. They have Black History Month, where we do nothing but celebrate Black history. Blacks have their own channel. People would be up in arms if we had a White Entertainment Television.” And that’s the kind of thing we get most often.
What I say, first of all, is there is no such thing as White culture—that’s a myth.
Secondly, we do celebrate White holidays: Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, arguably Columbus Day. Not to mention our entire society is [tilted toward] celebrating Whiteness. What I try to tell people is, Look at your ancestors. Most White people can point to a single village. I’ll use myself as an example. I can point to a single village in Sweden. I know exactly where my people are from. That’s why I take a lot of pride in my Scandinavian heritage.
Whereas with Black folks—and other people of color, but especially Black folks—the reason they celebrate Black culture is because their culture, everything Blacks had, was ripped away from them when they were taken from Africa. So that’s why it’s celebrated; that’s why it’s important.
Because it’s the counter narrative to hundreds of years of systemic murder, oppression, just brutal slavery. That’s why we celebrate Black culture, because that’s all most folks have.
The conversation we have to have is how can we look at ourselves and say, “I’m benefitting from this culture that has been built to only make sure people that look like me get the advantage.”
And, obviously, the topic of privilege comes up, and most White folks will deny that they have White privilege. They’ll say things like, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” or “My grandfather started his own business."
It’s hard to get people out of that mindset.
[We] start explaining to them that “I’m sure your grandfather was a hardworking man, I’d never doubt that he was. But the fact that he was able to do that, and given that opportunity, I can promise you that postwar United States, a Black man applying to that same position definitely would not have gotten it.”
Jeffries: Along the lines of the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” mindset, I’m sure you also get folks who say, “Why should we poor and working-class Whites care about what’s happening to Blacks and other people of color when we’re struggling, too?” Especially, when the issue of crime is brought up.
Brett: We get a lot of reactionary questions, and it keeps us on our toes. But it makes our practice better. What we try to explain is that Black communities have their own set of problems just as other communities have their set of problems.
The difference is White communities have the support of the state. For example, [when] a Black family moves into a primarily White neighborhood, then the housing values tend to go down. So what happens? The state intervenes and then makes the price of housing so high that then that Black family has to leave. That’s one example of how the state supports White supremacy. I’ve given that example a whole lot, and it tends to resonate with people.
I have the clarity to understand that I am a college-educated [man] … who’s had uncountable numbers of opportunities thrown my way because I’m White. And given the same circumstances with a young Black man, that most certainly would not have happened. That’s what I try to explain: that people of color in the United States categorically do not have the same opportunities as White folks. Even if you are poor, which a lot are.
But there are systems in place to make sure that I succeed. There are systems in place that make sure that my Black counterpart does not. And it’s designed that way.
Until we as White folks can recognize collectively that we are benefitting from a system of oppression, then economics is secondary, or tertiary at best. There is no point in talking about economics when the only people affected by these economics are White people.
Jeffries: I’ve read some articles stating that Redneck Revolution doesn’t have a political ideology. While you may not align yourselves with the status quo parties of Democrat or Republican, your actions and principles are very much political. How do you describe your politics?
Brett: We’re broadly on the left. We’re what’s called a “big tent” organization. We’re overwhelmingly anarchists, but we have some communists in our ranks, we have some capitalist Democrats, progressives, and Republicans, believe it or not. I mean, we have people from all political stripes.
That being said, we do understand there’s not going to be any grand revolution tomorrow. But the best thing that we can do short of a revolution is revolutionary change. We believe that revolutionary change comes in the form of dismantling the system of White supremacy that exists.
Jeffries: What is the end goal of Redneck Revolt?
Brett: Part of it is dismantling White supremacy. Another part of it is creating spaces inside of communities [where we can] help people not rely on the state. We help to create and encourage radical spaces that encourage things like mutual aid and direct action, as opposed to relying on the state for whatever means.
For example, we’re working very closely with the IWW, one of the oldest radical unions in the country. They have a soup kitchen in Detroit where they distribute food and clothes every second and fourth Sunday in Cass Park. They’ve been doing it since 1996, or something like that. We’re trying to build a sustainable model like that close to Ypsilanti [in Michigan], especially with the winter months coming up. There’s another organization called the Michigan People of Defense, who do a lot of street medic training. There are a lot of us, including myself, who have military experience. I’m a combat lifesaver, so I have skills I can teach people.
People get hung up on the firearms thing, but we also believe that it’s very important for the working class to be armed. We also understand that that puts people of color at a very high risk. So we try to put ourselves at the tip of the spear, so that way we can teach people the knowledge that we have. We can show them safe operation of firearms. How to use them, how to safely handle them.
In [one community], there are a bunch of Hammerskins [a White supremacist group]. They basically patrol the neighborhood, and we have people of color over there who are in fear for their lives, and they’ve been reaching out to Redneck Revolt to help show them to use firearms.
We’ve taken proactive steps, and if a community needs us, they know they can call on us, and in a heartbeat we’ll be there to help in any capacity that we’re able.
The big point is building mutual aid, radical spaces inside of existing communities to not have to rely on the state, and while doing that trying to dismantle the system of White supremacy.
We think that by doing that, one kind of complements the other.
Jeffries: Was the Trump campaign for the presidency the catalyst for Redneck Revolt?
Brett: We were already around, it’s just people didn’t know about us. And that’s probably one of the problems that we face, is that people don’t know we exist. And I want to say it’s our own fault, but we do things very intentionally.
We don’t have much of a social media presence, and we do that on purpose because we have no interest in getting bogged down in spam wars on the internet. If you have a legitimate critique of our practices, meet us in the streets, tell us what we’re doing wrong. And if your idea is better, then we’ll incorporate your idea. That’s the way we operate.
We feel like we’re an organization that is meant to be in the streets with the people doing things, making differences in people’s lives, not sitting behind a keyboard crying about capitalism.
You can be any [ideology] you want. If you agree with the fact that capitalism is a system of oppression, and that system of oppression is largely held up by White supremacy, and you’re willing to dismantle that system, then welcome aboard.
Jeffries: What would be your message to the middle and upper-middle classes, to so-called elite/progressive/liberal Whites who dismiss rural poor and working-class Whites simply as Trump supporters?
Brett: The major issue is getting them to come out of their bubble of comfort. They hear the word “redneck” and they don’t see it through the [same] lens that we do.
The word redneck has always been used pejoratively, but we don’t see it that way. We look at our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers and understand why they were called rednecks. You look back at the Harlan County wars, and those folks would wear bandanas to keep the sun off their necks, and that’s where the term redneck comes from. We embrace that term, and say, “Yeah, that’s who we are. We’re working-class people who are out in the streets.”
If you can take the blinders off, you’ll see that … your comfort is still built on a system of White supremacy. Your comfort and the things that you’re enjoying are a byproduct of 150 years of working-class struggle. If you like the weekends, thank a union man. You like your 40-hour work week, you like that there are no kids slaving in textile factories, thank a union worker.
It’s working-class people who brought those changes. It wasn’t [the] middle-class bourgeois who brought that change. It was working-class people out fighting in the streets. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.
Last year, following the presidential election, I wrote a column suggesting that people who identify as White consider working in their own families and communities to address the racism and bigotry that helped to put Donald Trump in office. I asked what if the well-intentioned White allies who have moved to urban centers to “help” communities of color had instead remained in their own communities—however racially regressive and intolerable—and worked to make them better at engaging in race relations.
I later discussed two communities doing this kind of work. In Maine, a Truth & Reconciliation Commission investigated how generations of Native children had been taken from their homes, against the wishes of their families, and placed in foster care with White families. From that process came the organization Maine Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural group that worked to implement suggestions that came out of the commission to help heal that community. And the Truth-Telling Project, founded in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police-killing of Michael Brown, is not only working within its community to address police violence enacted on the mostly Black community, but also with White communities in other states. The TTP is helping them with their approach to truth-telling in their local areas, and unlearning racism.
My thinking is this: Our best hope for changing deep-rooted attitudes that perpetuate racism and White supremacy is for people from similar backgrounds to work together toward that end. Conversations between people with shared life experiences could perhaps more effectively change minds and, ultimately, behaviors. This is a strategy of Redneck Revolt.
The self-described anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist group was founded in the summer of 2016 to challenge working-class White people to stand against White supremacy.
In an open letter called “To Other Working Americans,” Redneck Revolt put out a call for its fellow working-class rural White people to “reject the idea of whiteness.” That is, they wrote, “to reject the idea that our allegiance is somehow determined by what skin we have, even when our real living situations are so different.”
Media and some progressives want to lay blame for the Trump presidency at the feet of working-class White people, yet it is this demographic that makes up Redneck Revolt. The organization recruits working-class and poor Whites in rural areas—the target of far-right and White nationalist groups.
This is intentional.
They are rural White people challenging other rural White people to connect to their local communities so that they can build the kind of relationships that defend each other against the divisions caused by right-wing politics. They do this by sharing the history of struggle experienced by all working-class Americans and immigrants: people of color, White people, and LGBTQ communities.
“Race affects us all differently,” co-founder Tyler said in a Redneck Revolt podcast, “but what unites us is our shared struggle to survive—the working-class folks, poor folks.
“And there are people who systematically benefit from our struggle.”
To be clear, that’s the wealthy.
With about 40 chapters nationwide, Redneck Revolt members can be found “counter recruiting” at gun shows, country music concerts, and White nationalist/Ku Klux Klan demonstrations around the country.
Modeled after the Rainbow Coalition, the group builds alliances with non-White organizations. It’s not uncommon to see them show up at a Black Lives Matter protest in support of that movement’s efforts.
Redneck Revolt’s immediate work is organizing White working-class people to attend to the needs of their local communities. This includes food programs, community gardens, clothing programs, and needle exchanges (in addition to their armed self-defense programs, which comes from the organization’s roots in the John Brown Gun Club). All this organizing is done as a coalition with organizations of color.
This is what it looks like when White folks exercise self-determination in their own communities—naming for themselves who are their allies, what is their real enemy, what needs to be done to heal and build community on all sides of the color line.
Getting more serious about that sort of work is Scalawag Magazine, which on Nov. 2 announced an in-depth reporting initiative on how Southerners are challenging White supremacy. In a recent New York Times article, Alysia Nicole Harris, the editor of Scalawag, said: “Ultimately, we believe that the South is going to be the voice that emerges to lead this conversation about trauma and healing, because here is where the trauma was the thickest.”
This is hopeful news. For decades, Whites have worked alongside communities of color for civil rights. It is reassuring to know there are White allies bold enough to hold their own people accountable to disrupt racism and White supremacy.