Why the Left-wing Needs a Gun Culture

Above:  Lois Scott, organizer for the Brookside, Kentucky chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, retrieves a handgun in the documentary Harlan County, USA (Barbara Koppel, 1976)

“We become depressed when we look around and see 1100 white supremacist militia groups, and some of our names at the top [of their kill lists]! You say ‘Oh my god, they got 1100 right-wing militia groups—how many left-wing ones we got?’  ‘Well, we’re working on our journal…’  I got nothing against journals, but it’s lopsided!’” 

Cornell West, Left Forum 2014 keynote address

“When you are attacked by a rabid dog you don’t run or throw away the walking stick you have in your hand.” 

– Gloria Richardson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, Cambridge, Maryland, July, 1964 ¹

We live in a historical moment where everything seems upside down. A proto-fascist seemingly despised by the political establishment has ridden into the White House. That same establishment is now squirmingly trying to accommodate itself to that which it formerly despised. Social media—once thought of as the domain of lefty social justice warriors—turned out to be the far-right’s pathway to power. And while the reactionary candidate praised “the common man,” the liberal candidate gave secret speeches to Wall Street.

Now is the time to reconsider long-held preconceptions, as they embody precisely the thinking which led us to this point—this point where hate crimes against minorities are growing, and economic and ecological hopes are rapidly shrinking. At a juncture where liberals’ wholesale denunciation of “violence” and “gun culture” are revealed to have done nothing to reduce either one, the Left needs to disentangle the issue of oppressive force from that of necessary self-defense against oppressive force.

Brutality against minorities is escalating in the aftermath of the election, and we can only imagine what level it will reach as the Trump administration entrenches itself. Reports of attacks are too numerous to recount here, but the recent murders of a famous Black athlete (Joe McKnight) a young Black musician (Will Sims) and a 15-year old Black boy (James Means) are the most notable manifestations of the racist terror which is growing across the country. As the federal exoneration of George Zimmerman demonstrates, a state crackdown on such murders has never been in the cards, and will be even more remote under the Trump regime.

Reports from the BBC and other major news outlets show that gun ownership in the Black community has begun to grow in recent years. A Pew survey shows at least 54 percent of African-Americans have a favorable view of firearms, up from just 29 percent in 2012. The last poll was taken in 2014—in the years since then, a Southern Christian Leadership Council official has publicly called for armed self-defense, and Black Twitter, in the face of the Charleston massacre, has trended the hashtag #WeWillShootBack—so today the figures are likely higher.

Is the growing black gun movement succumbing to blind emotion and sowing the seeds of destruction? A look at progressive African-American history would suggest not. Although many sectors of the Left prefer to ignore it, there is now a small bookcase of academic studies with names like This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. The importance of these studies is far from academic, however. They redefine our understanding of the most important American social movement of the past fifty years.

One of the first arenas of that struggle was the campaign to expose lynching in Mississippi, specifically the 1954 murder of Emmett Till. The key organizer of that campaign, TRM Howard, not only carried guns for his own protection, but made sure that there were armed guards at all times around campaign spokespeople like Mamie Till. After the rise of Martin Luther King, nonviolence became the image of civil rights, but this nominally pacifist movement never renounced its right to bear arms. When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to the Deep South to organize, they encountered a vigorous Black gun culture among those who were prepared to campaign for equality. Fannie Lou Hamer, legendary founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), told one interviewer that, “I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.” Prior to the MFDP’s work, voter suppression of African-Americans was the rule in Mississippi, but after its ascendance in the late 1960s, Blacks had full ballot access and the Klan was in retreat. The Mississippi movement represents the most effective organizing of the post-war Left; Their policy on armed self-defense can teach us a great deal, particularly as the whole country begins to feel more and more like the Jim Crow South.

But aren’t guns inherently oppressive, reactionary and patriarchal? This idea has found currency in the years since the end of the civil rights movement, but the years since the civil rights movement haven’t been especially good for the Left. From Jimmy Carter to Obama—not to mention from Reagan to Trump—the US has steadily slid to the Right in all but the most superficial ways. In place of working-class activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, we’re now led by pseudo-working-class celebrities like Michael Moore, who cemented the gun control consensus with his sensationalized documentary Bowling for Columbine. Just as Moore denounces the Democratic Party in three year cycles but always comes back to them at election time, his film admitted that there are more important factors contributing to violence than guns, but finally dumped the whole problem at the feet of the NRA. It is revealing that the very same Hollywood establishment that gave Moore an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine proceeded to boo him at the ceremony for opposing the Iraq War. For them, gun control has nothing to do with genuine peace, but everything to do with an orderly and centralized capitalist empire.

It’s inevitable that liberals’ perception of guns is formed hegemonically through the mainstream news media, despite the Left’s claim to be skeptical of it. While such outlets often tell us that guns kill 33,000 people per year in the US, we’re seldom reminded that alcohol kills over 80,000, and prescription drugs kill a devastating 120,000 each year. This may have something to do with the fact that pharmaceutical companies give corporate media over $5 billion per year in advertising, alcohol companies spend $2 billion on the same, and gun manufacturers comparatively nothing. The conventional liberal wisdom is that gun advocates make up for this in lobbying dollars, but shockingly, prescription opioid manufacturers alone spend eight times more courting politicians than the NRA does. Perhaps the gun lobby would like to spend more, but as The New York Times once acknowledged, “guns are a relatively small business in the United States.”

Some liberals sincerely believe that gun control will bring us closer to a humane society, of course, but there’s little in the history of gun regulation anywhere in the world to support that theory. Hillary Clinton and other Democrats often hold up Australia’s compulsory gun buyback as a model, but decades after the confiscations, Australian society is not any kinder: The country maintains a level of economic inequality comparable to the US, and has a growing prison population. As in the US, a disproportionate number of these prisoners are immigrants and ethnic minorities. Recently video leaked out of Australian guards torturing a 14 year-old Aboriginal boy. Contrary to prominent liberals’ implications, an anti-gun culture like Australia’s just doesn’t inspire much in the way of anti-racist, anti-nationalist, or anti-capitalist culture and policy. Likewise there is no evidence that gun culture precludes a progressive society—the pioneering open-carry state of Vermont has elected Bernie Sanders to the US congress for twenty years. The autonomist Kurds of Northern Syria, “the most revolutionary women’s rights movement in the world,” according to The Independent, are explicitly armed.

The Left’s gag reflex at the Second Amendment is a Pavlovian one, conditioned by mainstream liberals’ association of gun rights with conservatism. But the unilateral disarmament of the American Left is a recent development. Eugene Debs, reputed to be the hero of Bernie Sanders, responded to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre by urging labor activists to acquire “enough Gatling and machine guns to match the equipment of Rockefeller’s private army of assassins…The constitution of the United States guarantees to you the right to bear arms, as it does to every other citizen…” Howard Zinn wrote that “Thousands of dollars were sent for arms and ammunition,” to the Colorado miners from union halls across the country. The post-World War I era collapsed the labor movement across the board, but when it roared back in the early 1930s, it was ushered in by armed miners in campaigns like the Harlan County War (Urban unions hired mobsters to do armed defense against strikebreakers in this period, most likely because gun control laws prevented them from doing it themselves). It was this militant labor resistance that created the New Deal.

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At the climax of the razor-close presidential contest of 2000, the Florida Election Commission ordered a hand recount of Miami-Dade County to decide between George W. Bush and Al Gore. As the election workers attempted to begin their task, a mob of Bush supporters stormed into the  offices and physically shut down the recount. This episode was dubbed “The Brooks Brothers Riot” because it involved a straight-laced group later revealed to be Republican Congressional staffers. The recount was never restarted, and we wouldn’t learn until after W.’s inauguration that Gore had actually won the decisive state of Florida. As Rachel Maddow once acknowledged, “The single most important piece of the history of the Brooks Brothers Riot is that it worked.” Participants weren’t prosecuted, and some of them later listed the mob action on resumes to conservative institutions.

We can expect many more Brooks Brothers Riots in the coming years. The Florida episode was organized by thuggish GOP operative Roger Stone, who is now one of Donald Trump’s confidantes and campaigners. But it’s unlikely that Trump’s mobs will be as button-down as the Bush brigade, and it’s also unlikely that they’ll be unarmed. An atmosphere of gun-toting far-right intimidation hung over the Republican National Convention and even Election Day itself in 2016.  In the lead-up to the RNC, Roger Stone rallied supporters of the real estate mogul to provoke personal “confrontation” with anti-Trump delegates. During the convention, armed proto-fascist protesters stalked the streets. As the November election approached, Trump made veiled threats of assassination in the event that he lost, while his supporters, including Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, were more explicit, directly calling for bloodshed if Clinton won. These credible threats of armed rebellion may well have been a factor in low voter turnout and the final decision of the Electoral College.

Meanwhile, the audacity of right-wing militias continues to grow. The Bundy family’s movement has now marched through multiple states undermining hard-won environmental protections. They’ve faced relatively little resistance from government, with Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s charges for taking over a federal building at gunpoint ending in acquittal. The New York Times writes that this outcome “puts a target on the backs” of conservation workers. We can expect lots of targets on people’s backs in the coming years: The level of neofascist impunity is now at a point where Jon Ritzheimer, the most openly racist player in the Bundy circle, is withdrawing his guilty plea for armed extortion in spite of the immense amount of evidence against him. With Jeff Sessions set to be confirmed as Attorney General,  why should white power terrorists have anything to fear from the government? As Masha Gennsen famously wrote of a Trump presidency, “Institutions will not save you.”

If leftists believe they are accomplishing anything by personally boycotting guns, it’s not working either politically or culturally. Whether pacifists like it or not, bearing arms is a US citizenship right—and has been a citizenship right for most of our history. If conservatives have successfully claimed this privilege, then it makes no sense for the Left to disarm itself and unilaterally renounce the Second Amendment. The Right won’t follow their example, but will instead briskly proceed to consolidate their monopoly on non-state force. There are ample signs that progressives are coming to understand this. The Liberal Gun Club, a national organization with nine chapters, reports a surge in membership since the election; a more radical local group, the Phoenix John Brown Gun Club, has a long track record of promoting armed defense against white supremacists in Arizona.

While left-wing self-defense won’t make the country any more dangerous, it is likely the only hope of making it safer. The genie of violent neofascism is out of the bottle. It’s an outgrowth of the shrinking of old economic horizons, which in turn is partly a result of now-irreversible climate change. The years of living dangerously are here to stay. The only question is will those of us who value an egalitarian internationalist community survive them. This doesn’t mean that leftists ought to shoot at common racists, much less at authorities, merely because of political differences. The majority of activity should continue to be nonviolent direct action. But as social movement analyst Francis Fox Piven has noted, guns can “be used strategically, and often defensively to permit the disruptive action, the withdrawal of cooperation, to continue” in the face of right-wing vigilantism.² This is how the Black freedom movement of the Deep South faced open white supremacy the last time. Contrary to the warnings of mainstream liberalism, historian Robin DG Kelley found that “armed self-defense actually saved lives, reduced terrorist attacks on African-American communities, and laid the foundation for unparalleled community solidarity.

The Left is correct to denounce the right-wing’s fetishization of brute force, but we are getting nowhere mirroring it with an equally crude fetishization of vulnerability. We can no longer dream that the Electoral College, or a CIA coup, or a safety pin, is going to save us in the age of brutal white power reaction. We must recognize that dissidents and oppressed people are on their own for the next four years—and possibly longer—and must take defense and security into their own hands. When racists and fascists declare “open season,” we will not allow innocent people to be the prey. We must vow to protect each other by any means necessary.

  1. Kwame Ture and Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Simon and Schuster, 2003), pg 339-340
  2. “Local activists in the South armed themselves to defend the nonviolent disruptions of the civil rights movement,” Piven notes in her next sentence. Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pg. 25

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