ESSAY: HERO. TERRORIST. MARTYR. MADMAN.

On July 15th, a 69-year-old white anarchist by the name of Willem Van Spronsen stormed an ICE detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, and it has been praised and reviled at the same time. Van Spronsen, as stated in his manifesto, believed this “concentration camp” and others to be “an abomination” that needed to be destroyed immediately by any means. He was armed with a home-built AR-15 rifle, a 500-gallon propane tank, and flares, and as he threw Molotov cocktails at surrounding buildings, he set his car aflame in an attempt to make the gas tank explode. Four police officers who arrived at the scene neutralized Van Spronsen after he refused to drop the rifle he was pointing at them. Van Spronsen belonged to a self-described anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker, pro-gun organization named the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, in honor of the enigmatic subject from the graphic novel, Thunderbolt: An American Tale Vol.1. In his writings, Van Spronsen urged those who felt like him to arm themselves for an “upcoming revolution”, quoting John Brown, "What is needed is action!" who he saw as an inspiration and “moral guide”.

Official logo as seen on CNN

WVS almost certainly knew he was going to die when he decided to take the lead and put his money where his mouth was in the hopes that others followed suit in liberating and abolishing the “abhorrent concentration camps” around the country where thousands of asylum seekers are being held, including many children. He was also willing to kill to do so. Unlike the familiar anti-gun stance of most leftists and progressives, WVS saw the Second Amendment as an opportunity to have the choice, if needed, to assert his right to self-defense. I never understood the whole anti-gun thing, why leave the opposing team with all the guns and bullets? You can’t stop a bullet with good intentions. Sometimes ugly shit needs to get done. It’s how we get nice things. John Brown was a white abolitionist; he died in 1859 charged with treason and executed by hanging when he and 21 men confronted government forces in a failed, brazen attempt to raid an armory. The weapons would’ve been used to arm the black slaves to incite an insurrection against the state sponsored institution of slavery. Throughout history, John Brown has been portrayed in both a positive and negative light. During his time, some saw him as a charlatan and a murderer, having executed pro-slavers in the past. To others who thought of slavery as such an immoral abomination that anything, including murder, was justifiable in order to stop it, he was a gutsy, brave soul who gave his life righteously and selflessly. You do have to wonder what Van Spronsen exploding a propane gas and setting aflame the building would have done not just to the employees but to the detainees inside. At best, he didn’t go through with it. At worst, he was willing to sacrifice them for his cause. John Brown, a man of deep Calvinist beliefs, was willing to put not only his life on the line but that of his own family and others. For him, abolishing slavery trumped all. I was puzzled by the mention of concentration camps and kids in cages in Van Spronsen’s manifesto because some of the circulated images were from the Obama years, which garnered almost no reaction when Obama was still in power. I do remember at the time it was dismissed and blamed on the kids’ parents or custodians crossing the borders. Why did WVS wait almost four years later to act? What was the catalyst for his actions? The parallels between WVS and John Brown and the inevitable questions and moral dilemma about both men was as present in the 1850’s as it is today, a century and a half later-- are these men heroes or terrorists? Martyrs or just plain nuts? When the goal justifies the means, it’s all about context. Slavery is such a low blow to humanity that killing someone seems acceptable to most people; detention facilities, even under bad conditions, is not slavery, and for many, they are not concentration camps, despite being given that label. Some may argue Jews didn’t walk thousands of miles to Auschwitz to climb its walls to get in, while being welcomed with legal counseling on the other side. Still, the question for people today remains whether WVS' actions were as reasonable if not disturbing as John Brown’s own. "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood." John Brown wrote that on a beautiful morning on the way to the gallows. Soon after his death the American Civil War broke, tallying massive causalities and settling the question of what to do about slavery in the US to rest once and for all in 1865. Hero or terrorist, the madman was right.

Thunderbolt: An American Tale Vol.1 on sale Sept 16.

Wilfred Santiago | July 26th, 2019

“John Brown's intense, inspired personality is revealed through dialogue and correspondence”— FOREWORD MAGAZINE