- Robert Mitchell / Sleepless Art Photography
- If they look scary, that's kind of the point — to scare agitators away from peaceful protesters.
Editor’s note: After this story published, Kevin Smith contacted us to say that the local group has not completed Redneck Revolt’s vetting process, and thus is not officially a chapter yet. When vetting is complete, the group plans to represent members from Denver to Pueblo, and either call their chapter Front Range Redneck Revolt or Front Range John Brown Gun Club.
The sound evokes mortal terror, exploding in a low-ceilinged concrete room.
POP! POP! POP!
Over and over, without reloading.
POP! POP! POP! POP! POP!F
inally, the ear-splitting din relents. Just the clatter of empty shells rolling around on the cold floor can be heard under the shooter's satisfied exhale. It's like a reverberating crash cymbal after the climax of a metalcore song.
Then, the "yeahs!" and the high-fives. Kevin Smith, 34, sets his semi-automatic rifle down with care (safety back on, of course), an exhilarated smirk on his bespectacled face. It's his 33-year-old wife Sherrie's turn now, and she strides boldly toward the weapon.
In the adjacent stalls are other activists eager to help with the Smiths' mission to train, arm and defend the local movement for social-political change, which surged in numbers when President Donald Trump took office in January. Jessica Lawyer, 36, shoots a 9mm Glock with increasing confidence and sports a custom-made T-shirt whose logo perhaps best describes this loosely affiliated movement: "the resistance." She finishes her rounds, lifting her protective goggles to reveal a fierce gleam in her eyes.
"The noise is hard to get used to," she says, her hand over her heart. This is only her second time shooting, after all. She got into it after so-called patriot groups publicized her personal information online. With three kids at home and no intention to quit her after-hours activism, Lawyer took up firearms training. "I'm starting to feel really empowered," she says at this early September session.
This corner of the resistance is a faction of a faction. The Smiths, Lawyer and most of the other shooters at this session at Whistling Pines Gun Club are members of the Colorado Springs chapter of the Colorado Action Network that goes by the more manageable acronym, COS CAN. It's a group styled after the Indivisible project, which acts as a guide to resisting the Republican agenda by mobilizing a nationwide network of progressives to dog their elected representatives. Indivisible was itself modeled after the obstructionist successes of the Tea Party when Democrats held a supermajority in Congress during former President Barack Obama's first term.
Several Indivisible-inspired groups sprung up organically right after the election, but COS CAN has persisted as one of the most tight-knit and committed. The group of mostly women and their more understated husbands gets together regularly to call their congressional delegation, stage sit-ins at their offices and attend protests against whatever has sparked liberal outrage that particular week. And now, in true Colorado Springs fashion, some of them have added regular shooting practice and open-carrying at rallies to their tactical repertoire.
Predictably, the presence of guns has intensified the ongoing debate about safety and violence in the political climate. Locally, activists are torn and trying to figure out whether their tenuous cohesion can withstand such fundamental differences of opinion. Nothing is settled, other than the guns are here to stay. Because this group of gun-toting leftists, a chapter of the aptly named national movement Redneck Revolt, isn't here to have a debate.
An early member and now lead organizer of COS CAN, Sherrie Smith moved to the Springs 15 years ago when Kevin was stationed at Peterson Air Force Base. They both learned to shoot guns well before puberty, having grown up in the thinly populated and thoroughly conservative Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Sherrie, raised with an ardent Democrat for a father, has always been politically left. Kevin grew up apolitical, but eventually her views rubbed off on him. Aside from sporadic canvassing in the past, their activism began in full force this year. Why now? Trump, of course.
"That's what it took to really wake me up," Sherrie says. For the first few months, she put her all into the Indivisible-prescribed activities — leaving daily voicemails for her representatives; going to their rare town hall appearances, all the way to Durango if she had to; and visiting local Congressional offices as often as possible.
But, after awhile, her approach changed.
"For me the turning point was ... getting locked out of [U.S. Rep. Doug] Lamborn's office," she says. "And that's when I was like, we need to stop being polite. They work for us and if they don't want to hear me, I'll make sure they do."
Regular rally-going brought her into contact with more militant protesters, like the anti-fascists who are known for accepting and sometimes promoting the use of violence to effect change. Then, Sherrie discovered Redneck Revolt. It was June 23, at a protest outside Focus on the Family where Vice President Mike Pence was speaking. She met a member of the Phoenix chapter of Redneck Revolt and got to thinking that the Springs could use a chapter of its own.
"I know the term is a slander," explains Kevin, the local chapter's co-founder, "but really 'redneck' just means a white person who works out in the field so they've got a red neck." He gestures at his own, though he doesn't have a sunburn at present. But the point is, as a firefighter, an Iraq War veteran and a Yooper (meaning, he's from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), Kevin identifies with the working class struggle. And that's the basis for his political consciousness.
"Forever, poor white folks got told, 'Oh, you're better than the rest of the working class just because you're the same race as all the people with money,'" he says. "And that's what keeps the elites in power and everyone else struggling to survive."
Redneck Revolt was founded in 2009 in Kansas, in the early days of the Great Recession, to steer rural whites away from the Tea Party. Tea partiers were often opposed to any policy proposed by the first black President of the United States, and therefore many sought to preserve the same economically conservative policies that manufactured the crisis in the first place.
Gun culture, Sherrie explains, is the proverbial olive branch, or a way to say, "Hey, you can do guns with us and you don't have to be a racist!" And counter-recruitment is a central tactic of Redneck Revolt: Go to a gun show, a NASCAR event, a flea market — predominantly white spaces — and strike up conversations with people about politics to divert them away from right-wing extremist groups to which they might otherwise be drawn.
"These people, they go over to the Three Percenters when they're not even way off to the right," says Kevin, referring to an anti-government paramilitary group known for defending "free speech" and white nationalist demonstrators. "And I'm like, 'Why are you over there?' And it's just because they think the left is anti-gun."
There's no official count of the chapters of Redneck Revolt across the nation, though it is known that the group mushroomed after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. National leadership wouldn't grant an interview to the Independent, preferring to stay under the radar. The group de-emphasizes hierarchy, and chapters tend to form organically, though with vetting.
- Daniel Jitchaku
- Bobby Brown, veteran and activist, takes aim.
Aside from counter-recruitment and firearms training, Redneck Revolt is committed to "community defense," which essentially means acting as liberal-left protesters' de facto security detail. The local chapter's first appearance in this capacity was at the Aug. 20 rally in solidarity with the counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, who stood up to the racists who descended on their city for a torch-lit march.
Hundreds turned out for the Springs' rally that, as the Independent reported, lay bare a deepening fissure in the resistance — namely, between those who see nonviolence as non-negotiable and those who see reason to get more militant. Around the outskirts of the emotionally charged gathering stood Sherrie, Kevin and two others, all facing outward, with semi-automatic rifles slung across their torsos. On public property in an open-carry state, their right to do so is well-protected.
"A bunch of people came up to us saying 'Oh, I don't like that,'" Sherrie remembers. "But a lot of people also thanked us and said they want to join."
And if their behavior seemed attention-seeking, that was kind of the point.
"It's a deterrent," says Kevin. "There were people [identified as agitators] there who wanted to come over and start with people, but they saw us and stayed across the street."
Now, say something actually did go down, like a drive-by or active shooter. It's what keeps rally-goers and their loved ones up at night, and it's not out of the realm of possibility. What then?
"Well, we're there to defend people at the rally," says Kevin.
So are the cops. Police presence has grown more visible in recent months, with protests growing larger and at least two instances of undercover officers getting outed by activists. With a few exceptions, these events have remained peaceful and police say they intend to keep it that way.
"Our primary concern with any public gathering is ensuring our citizens are safe," says Colorado Springs Police Department spokesperson Lt. Howard Black. "And that's any public gathering. It could be the Fourth of July at Memorial Park — political content has no bearing at all."
But many protesters distrust the cops, Redneck Revolt members included. "You gotta look at who they've got their backs to to see who they're really protecting," Kevin says, implying it's the counter-protesters police are really there to protect — a theory Black rejects.
Protests in the Springs pale in comparison to more violent showings in Charlottesville, Berkeley or St. Louis, but videos from those places showing police either standing by while leftists get brutalized or doing the brutalizing themselves have fed into fears that the same could happen here. And there's a racial element to that fear too, given the frequency of police shootings that have taken the lives of black men in this country with few legal consequences.
Kevin Mitchell, 46, a local rapper who often performs with DJ Lord Damage, has that fear, not only at rallies, but wherever he goes. "My skin color is seen as a weapon, so I'm always 'armed,'" he says. "And that's a real danger ... Driving down the street and I see a cop car behind me, that's got me thinking it's my time, you know?"
To change that reality, Mitchell co-founded the Empowerment Solidarity Network — a grassroots organization, sort of like the Springs' version of Black Lives Matter, that focuses on leadership, education and action "to develop thriving livelihoods for families of color in the community." (For purposes of this story, however, Mitchell insists he's speaking for himself and not the organization that, at this point, does not have a set position about guns, violence or community defense.)
Though an admirer of the Black Panther Party, Mitchell says he's not personally militant, because he's not convinced it's what people of color or other marginalized people want. "You can never presume to know what's best for people," he tells the Indy. "I'm not condemning [Redneck Revolt]. During slave times, there were poor whites who fought alongside the slaves ... But we don't need people to stand up for us. We stand for ourselves, all together, because we're our own best resource."
Crystal Michelle, 31, another activist of color who's outspoken about racial injustice, says she's grateful when white allies are willing to put their bodies between her and police or counter-protesters. And she's fine if those allies are armed. "Marginalized people always absorb the brunt of violence and aggression, so white allies being willing to stand in front of them, armed, and ready to de-escalate a situation if engaged, is how to be an ally who is about the cause and not there for cookies," she says. "I trust the civilian volunteer marshals at demonstrations, most of whom have gone through de-escalation trainings, community protection trainings, all nonviolent, and all without weapons. People tend to respond more peacefully to marshals."
The "marshals" she's referring to tend to be from anti-war veterans groups or the local chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), another organization specifically designed for white allies. Commonly seen SURJ volunteers are committed to keeping rallies safe too, but their approach more closely resembles traffic controllers than security guards. They monitor the perimeter, sometimes communicate with law enforcement and, most notably, take direction from whomever is organizing the rally.
- Robert Mitchell / Sleepless Art Photography
- Sherrie Smith
For example, before the Sept. 5 rally at Acacia Park to support young immigrants whose protections are in jeopardy, SURJ leaders consulted with organizers, finding they preferred to avoid interacting with the cops, since there were so many people without papers there. Accordingly, marshals tried to de-escalate at least one confrontation between Antifa activists and police that threatened a disruption during the event. In that case, it wasn't counter-protesters the volunteers had to talk down; it was their fellow protesters.
So, do armed groups like Redneck Revolt or masked groups like Antifa, both of whom claim to be acting as "community defense," make it harder for marshals, who strategize closely with rally organizers, to perform the function they're asked to? SURJ leaders say they don't have a position on the matter, telling the Indy by Facebook message, "We continue to support POC-led [people of color-led] organizations and follow their lead on what type of community security measures are needed."
Sherrie, though, puts distance between Redneck Revolt and Antifa. Sure, they have some tactics in common. And she notes, "When you see a big group of people in masks, that's a deterrent too, just like a gun." But, Sherrie points out what she sees as the meaningful distinctions: A real commitment to defensive, not offensive, action and an actual organizational structure.
"We're not looking for confrontation like they are," she says on the first point. And, on the second point, "They do what they want and nobody can tell them any different."
- Robert Mitchell / Sleepless Art Photography
- Andrew Hunt
Granted, there's already some membership overlap between Antifa and Redneck Revolt and likely to be more as word of the new chapter spreads.
Redneck Revolt's formation has sparked discussion in the activist scene about whether guns promote more or less violence in such an overwrought environment. It's not exactly unique, given disparate movements for social change have wrestled with similar questions throughout history, but it's forcing a broad swath of the populace — many of whom come from mainstream party politics or no politics at all — to consider how far, exactly, they're willing to go in pursuit of a better society.
Is it OK to use physical force? What counts as instigation? Can you still align with those whose tactics you don't condone? Should these decisions be based on efficacy, righteousness or their impact on public opinion?
Among local activists, objections to militant tactics vary.
Springs native Laurie Works' opposition is about as personal as it gets. (Full disclosure: she's a friend of this author.) Ten years ago, Works, now 28, witnessed a horrific crime on the northern campus of New Life Church. Her family was leaving church one Sunday afternoon when a gunman opened fire on their minivan. Works' two sisters were struck and died at the scene. The gunman then entered the church and was searching for more targets when a guard shot him in the leg. He then killed himself with his own gun. That's why Works, who's in school to become a trauma counselor and teaches healing yoga classes, pushes back on the "good guy with a gun" narrative, since, in this case, the "good guy" was a woman trained and employed as security, not some heroic vigilante.
- Robert Mitchell / Sleepless Art Photography
- Kevin Smith.
In the grief-filled years that followed, Works decided to go through firearms training — in part to replace fear with familiarity, and in part so she could defend herself if need be. But in the end, she decided not to get a gun of her own. "I had a moment of truth with myself about what it means to carry something that could kill someone," she says. "Literally, I watched my twin sister die in front of me. I can't do that to someone else; I don't care how 'bad' they are."
And if other people decide they can?
Works says she doesn't trust random civilians' ability to act rationally when bullets are flying. "You have no idea what you're going to do in a situation like that. You might think you do, but you don't," she says. "Most people's training doesn't involve adrenaline-inducing scenarios."
Works is all too familiar with such scenarios. In addition to her experience at New Life, she was also a neighbor of the gunman who shot three people in the Shooks Run neighborhood on Halloween 2015; the teacher of a student killed in a mass shooting overseas; and witness to a shootout around her downtown apartment.
That's why she's nervous about attending rallies. "I have no intention of being in a situation that could turn into a firefight — I've already been around that too much," she says. "And I'm sure I'm not the only gun violence survivor at these rallies. So I expect you'll start to see fewer people out there ... And that's damaging to the movement because it reduces our visibility."
Anjuli Kapoor, executive director of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, is also worried about damage to the movement. For her, it's less about how many people show up to an event, how many minds they change, or what kind of policy change comes of it. It's about values. "I don't see the purpose of a gun other than shooting," she says. "Whether it's inflicted on an animal or human being, that's what they're designed for."
While she says she recognizes people's right to bear arms and used to own a gun herself, she adds, "In my mind, if I'm really going to speak my values, having guns present seems to undermine our movement. Because if we're so bent on saying, 'Oh, we're better than the white supremacists,' then we need to act like it."
As a follower of thinkers like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Kapoor hopes the movement stays committed to nonviolence. But she's not naive about the tendency among some to embrace a diversity of tactics, including, in some instances, violence. So, the question becomes: Can people with different strategies and values coexist in the movement or is it time to start drawing lines?
As the public face of a 40-year-old pacifist organization, Kapoor is inclined to draw lines. "If other people decide to use different tactics, that's on them, but we can choose not to be part of it," she says. "And if I can't sway others to join me, I won't judge them for it. But it's what's morally right for me."
Most of the activists interviewed for this story take part in regular roundtable discussions with representatives from the constellation of organizations that form the resistance. They're often passionate and protracted occasions, where disagreements threaten to drive wedges between otherwise like-minded individuals. Even if it gets touchy at times, there's a desire to stay cohesive. For now, that is.
Sherrie, for her part, is well aware of the misgivings some of her fellow activists have regarding the formation of Redneck Revolt. "I don't think we can tell each other how to resist," she says. "It's OK. You can be a pacifist. I'm not telling you 'you're wrong' or 'you're stupid.' I accept you and I need you to accept me. We can still work together."