24 hours after the terrorist attack on Emanuel AME church in Charleston, Barack Obama took the podium at the White House and delivered his reaction. The president had a pressing issue on his mind: gun control. “At some point,” he intoned, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
To many people, this will seem to be a thoughtful statement that no progressive person could object to. Yet there was immense skepticism from a sector that most wouldn’t expect: young African-Americans. Alicia Garza, a professional activist who helped start the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, pushed back on Obama in an essay published the next day:
Despite what our president says, this is not merely an issue of gun control. In fact, this is an issue of the prevalence of structural anti-Black racism that results, in many cases, in anti-Black violence, and in too many cases, anti-Black murder.
Garza then fingered the president as one of “those who, in the face of extreme and unnecessary violence, will use that as an opportunity to call for peace [from African-Americans], to distort the real issues, to essentially neutralize what has been bubbling under the surface for a very long time.”
Her call-out was mild compared to the rage on the streets of Charleston. Although the media attempted to paint a picture of a pacifist Black community that was quick to forgive a shooter who hadn’t even asked for forgiveness, a very different image burst through when CNN went live on the scene. Reporter Don Lemon was shouted down by an irate African-American woman who declared “We’re angry! Tell the truth!” directly rebutting CNN’s theme of docile “heartbreak” in Charleston. “Speak about the anger,” she insisted. “Talk about the anger…Stop the lies.” She then preceded to call both Lemon and Barack Obama “Uncle Toms” Her last words: “Black folks, get off your knees and stop praying.” Protesters spray-painted “Black lives matter” on a Confederate memorial down the street that same morning.
The militant African-American response to Charleston was only beginning. Over the weekend, a new hashtag started trending on Black twitter: #WeWillShootBack
Guns Controlled By Whom?
While Obama contrasts US shooting incidents with that of “other advanced countries,” he passes over the other fundamental differences America has with European societies. The contrast might be best illustrated with Marx’s observation that the violent “barbarism of bourgeois civilization…assumes respectable forms” at home, but only “goes naked” in the colonies. This is indeed how the cultures of most imperial countries of Europe developed, but the US, founded as both a settler and slave-state, is different. Here the line between home and the colonies was never, ever clear. The colonized slaves lived among our heads of state, sometimes under the same roof; meanwhile, the frontier demarcating white civilization from Indian country kept shifting. The US has never had the European luxury of quarantining its violence; that violence has always been, and always will be, part of the domestic “routine” as long as the empire persists.
Let us note that the mass violence exercised by US police departments also doesn’t happen in other advanced countries. At least 100 unarmed people have been killed by American police in just the first half of 2015, yet Obama has never called on the nation to “reckon” with that fact, much less chided us about “our power to do something about it.” Indeed, his administration’s policy is to not even study the bloodbath.
This is crucial since it’s these very police who will enforce any new gun control laws. If the way they implement current gun policy is any guide, this has alarming implications. The degrading policy of stop and frisk has been presented as primarily a weapons search policy from its earliest days, but when a strident gun control advocate, Michael Bloomberg, became mayor of New York City in 2003, stop and frisk immediately increased by 50%. By the end of his regime, stop and frisk had increased more than 600%. An average of half a million searches took place each year with an overwhelming number of targets being Black, Latino and innocent. After he left office, Bloomberg admitted that his goal was to keep guns specifically out of the hands of minority males—for their own good of course—but a federal judge found that his policy was effectively racist. Bloomberg made no apologies, and today helps lead one of the nation’s largest gun control lobbying groups.
Freedom Got a Shotgun *
Of course, there are some in the African-American community who genuinely support both stop and frisk and gun control. One of the most ardent defenders of the policies in New York is a Black mother who tragically lost two sons to gun violence. It is understandable that she would value security above all else. But there are many African-Americans who attempt to balance values of safety with values of liberty and dignity. This tendency has often manifested with what civil rights pioneer Robert F. Williams called “armed self-reliance.”
One of the best known analysts of this practice is historian Akinyele Umoja. His book We Will Shoot Back (published by NYU Press in 2010) gave the hashtag its name. Even before Charleston, Umoja noted a “black ambivalence on gun control”, writing that,
Blacks do not want gun control that will leave our communities defenseless against white supremacists or right-wing paramilitary groups. They will not voluntarily return weapons while those groups are allowed to exist [nor will they] disarm in a political and social environment where black life is still challenged and not valued.
But evidence that Black life still isn’t valued is unfortunately everywhere. The day after the massacre, Black churches in Tennessee and North Carolina received death threats. South Carolina politics is still heavily influenced by the Conservative Citizens Council, the white hate group that inspired Dylann Roof. And despite the breakthroughs of the past year, no police officer has been convicted for the homicide of an African-American since the killer of Oscar Grant served a brief sentence for manslaughter in 2010 (a conviction which only took place in the aftermath of militant “black bloc” protests in downtown Oakland).
Umoja is far from the only historian to emphasize the life-saving tradition of self-defense. In his classic book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles M. Payne argued that the civil rights movement owed some of its greatest advances (including those associated with Freedom Summer and voter registration) to African-Americans’ willingness to brandish arms in the 1960s. Terror was how white supremacists enforced Jim Crow, but armed and organized Blacks broke down that mechanism. Payne noted that “Even in the mid-fifties, the killers of Emmet Till had felt little need to hide their identities and treated their trial as the joke it was,” but by the mid-sixties
…night-time marauders had learned to keep a more respectful distance from their targets because the targets were increasingly prone to shoot back.
Payne notes that “the calculus of repression had changed. They had now entered a situation in which a significant number of [Mississippi] blacks, no longer feeling so alone…reacted to each additional act of intimidation by becoming more aggressive themselves.” It was then that American apartheid began to fracture and collapse.
African-Americans today are being murdered by police, by lone wolf racists, and now possibly by organized fascists, yet the government tells the victimized group to disarm. When we look behind the propaganda to study the real history of the Black Freedom Movement, we see the heroic people who changed the South five decades ago didn’t take that path. Blacks and their allies would be foolish to take it now.
* “Freedom Got a Shotgun” is a civil rights song sung on the March Against Fear through Mississippi in 1966. It can be heard in this episode of Eyes on the Prize at around the 42 minute mark-