[A Peace of History]
Fifty-two years ago, members of a far-right militia attacked the Voluntown Peace Trust. Two days ago, a ring-wing militia confronted demonstrators in Kenosha, WI, and two people were shot dead. In both cases, the police might have been able to prevent the violence altogether -- if they had not already positioned themselves opposite to the victims in the first place.
A couple hours after midnight on August 24, 1968, five members of the right-wing vigilante group the Minuteman Project attacked the main house of what was then known as the Peace Farm in Voluntown. The Farm had been the headquarters to the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) for the last six years -- residents had been protesting nuclear weapons production as well as US involvement in VIetnam, drawing the anger of some from surrounding communities. The so-called Minutemen (which included KKK members and George Wallace supporters), armed with rifles with bayonets, pistols, knives, rope, tape, and cans of gasoline, had come to Voluntown to put an end to the peace movement in southeastern Connecticut.
There had been warning signs. Earlier that evening, a CNVA member expressed concern about a car he saw drive off into the woods close to the Farm. The Farm’s dog Mach had been uncharacteristically anxious, barking on and off all evening. And at a meeting on CNVA members’ experiences in Guatemala a couple days earlier, three unfamiliar men sat in for a while, and then afterward belligerently argued with the residents, following them back to the main house.
At 2:30 a.m., after completing their shift of the night watch, Mary Suzuki Lyttle and Roberta (Bobbi) Trask were on the first floor of the main house when the Minutemen entered, immediately searching the first floor and restraining the two women at gunpoint. Soon after, Connecticut State Troopers (tipped off by the FBI) arrived. The police deployed several parachute flares outside to light the scene, at least one of which started a small fire. A firefight broke out as the police attempted to enter the house -- an accidental shot from a Trooper's gun even hit one of the bound women, Bobbi Trask, directly in her thigh. At the time, twenty-seven people (including four children) lived at the Farm. One in another building, hearing the shots and seeing the flares, attempted to call for help but found the phone lines were cut. Some residents fled into the woods to get away from the firing, and then to hide from the armed men patrolling the area -- who turned out to be police in plainclothes. In the chaos, several Farm residents were confronted and frisked by police in plainclothes, who in turn also did not know Minuteman from Farm resident. The rest of the residents, hearing the gunshots, sheltered in place.
Reports conflict, but it seems that the FBI knew about plans of an attack on the Peace Farm since at least May, but refused to inform the residents of the Farm -- ostensibly because the FBI feared residents would not cooperate, and instead perhaps go to the press or contact the Minutemen directly. There are also conflicting stories about how the Minutemen got passed the State Troopers at all -- over 50 officers are estimated to have participated that night, starting to form a perimeter in the early evening.
The Troopers captured the Minutemen soon after the shooting began, and then rushed Trask to the hospital. Although seven people (including Trask) were injured, thankfully, no one died at the Peace Farm in the attack. The core of the New England CNVA had a resolute response and a renewed sense of urgency to their cause. Work began on repairing and building new facilities. But with the many close calls of the incident, some of which were caused by the police themselves, at least two members were so traumatized that they left the movement altogether.
Two days ago, a different story emerged from Kenosha, Wisconsin -- but with some disturbing similarities to the Minutemen attack. Following the unjustified police shooting of Jacob Blake over the weekend, a militia group formed in Kenosha ostensibly to defend businesses and police from protesters. A call out on Facebook brought several armed “patriots” to Kenosha, including 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse. Multiple recordings show these militia members, including Rittenhouse, exchanging friendly words with each other: “We appreciate you guys; we really do” says one officer in a video, speaking to the plainclothes vigilantes.
Like with the residents of the Peace Farm, the police were already in an oppositional relationship with the protesters for justice -- many of the Peace Farm’s residents’ had been arrested previously by State Troopers for committing nonviolent actions. In the case of Kenosha, residents were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who had been trying to “de-escalate a domestic incident” before police wrestled, punched, tasered, and finally shot him 7 times in the back (Blake is currently recovering, but is now permanently paralyzed from the waist down). So when self-identified militia members showed up claiming to be on the side of the police, it was easy for the Kenosha PD to embrace the gang of heavily armed men without hesitation or suspicion.
Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them on Tuesday night. He, himself, seemed to idolize the police and aspired to be one. He appeared to be an avid Trump supporter. He was also 17 years old.
In the discussion of who should be held responsible, much ink has been spilled scrutinizing the shooter -- much less has been devoted to the officers or the police department itself that if not endorsed, then at least allowed openly aggressive armed men let loose on unarmed protesters seeking justice. Several parts of the Connecticut State Troopers’ story of the Minutemen attack never quite added up for the Peace Farm residents: If the FBI knew about plans for the attack in May, why didn’t they do anything to stop it sooner? If the State Troopers had been setting up a perimeter guard in the early evening, how did the Minutemen slip past them? What was the deal with the hidden weapons cache? Some suspected that, although the police did not want any of these pacifists murdered on their watch, some Troopers may have been sympathetic to the Minutemen's "patriotic" cause. Two nights ago in Kenosha, that police sympathy for vigilante violence against social justice demonstrators was in plain view.
Attached is the official New England CNVA report on the Minutemen attack published just one month after the attack, written by Mary Suzuki Lyttle, one of the women present in the attack. You can view or download the pages as a PDF here. The link will also be available on our website.
For background information and more details about the Minutemen attack, you can also visit CT Explored for their article on the incident here.
If you are able, please consider donating to the Voluntown Peace Trust. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought our rental requests, our main source of income, to a halt. Not since the Minutemen attack have we been in greater need for our community's support to continue our work. You can make a secure one-time donation online by going to the Givelify link here.
Barton, Gina, Cary Spivak and Bruce Vielmetti. “Kyle Rittenhouse, charged in Kenosha protest homicides, considered himself militia” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/2020/08/26/kyle-rittenhouse-charged-kenosha-protest-shootings-militia/5634532002/
Centore, Michael. “A Legacy of Nonviolence in Voluntown” Connecticut Explored https://www.ctexplored.org/sampler-the-day-peace-was-shattered-in-voluntown/
“Jacob Blake: What we know about Wisconsin police shooting” BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53909766
Lyttle, Mary Suzuki. “Minutemen Attack on New England CNVA: A Report” https://drive.google.com/file/d/1z6L8tlxYvGsCH-s7GfSV7T6HB24AiWrK/view?usp=sharing
Mihalopoulos, Dan. “Kenosha Shooting Suspect Fervently Supported 'Blue Lives,' Joined Local Militia” NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/08/27/906566596/alleged-kenosha-shooter-fervently-supported-blue-lives-joined-local-militia