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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Disarming Robert Williams. Re-arming Jim Crow. (Where's John Brown?)

Historically, gun ownership in this country results primarily from two tendencies, both of them racist. The first was the white wealthy elite's requirement that a large body of white men exist to police the slave population and put down insurrections. When the relatively color-blind system of indentured servitude was replaced with racialized slavery, an integral part of that bargain for white male colonists was the obligation to own a rifle and to serve in the militia. Blacks, of course, were denied gun ownership and the right to form militias.

This is where the "pattyrollers," the infamous slave-catchers, came from and, incidentally, the tradition that spawned American policing (that and putting down strikes in the North). The idea was that every white male, armed, had an obligation to put his right to bear arms to work and join slave patrols. In the North, he was obliged to catch and return escaped slaves to the South. Having his gun in his home made him available on short notice, which was important in an age of slow communication, and it allowed for the kinds of decentralized, terrorist violence that the system required to keep things running smoothly.

The second origin of American gun ownership rests with the need to have a white settler class that could dispossess Natives Peoples, eventually including Mexicans, from North America. In the West, this manifested in white supremacist vigilante groups like the White Caps and ad hoc policing organizations like the posse. We see the echo of this in today's Minutemen patrols at the border.


Nowadays, gun ownership has been democratized to a fair extent. Although the racist war on drugs and other state attacks on people of color have served a similar function to a fair extent by making felons of so many folks of color (therefore unable to own firearms), no longer is it illegal for non-whites to own firearms simply because of their skin color. This democratization is a progressive development, however flawed its application, and it is one to be defended and expanded.

But just because gun ownership historically has been racialized through law, that doesn't mean that people of color and their allies have always abided this unjust distribution of guns and rights. Through self-organization, Blacks and other oppressed minorities have often found ways of getting weapons when they needed them for self-defense or to attack the system of white supremacy, sometimes with the help of white allies. Let's remember that John Brown spent a lot of time gathering donations for arms for his raid at Harper's Ferry and the anti-slavery battles in Kansas. The point of the raid - and some of the fund raising itself - was to get guns into the hands of the slave class so that it could overthrow the chattel system in the South. Harriet Tubman led armed raids into the South to accomplish similar objectives, liberating hundreds of slaves. Likewise, as DuBois points out, it was a tremendous victory for Blacks when (a large percentage of them being former slaves) they forced the North to arm them and allow them to march under Union colors into the slavocrat heartland to free their comrades still in chains.

Despite the fact that it is primarily people of color that are historically disenfranchised of their rights by gun control laws, the claim by gun control advocates is often that such laws protect everyone, not just whites. But wasn't America shocked by the Columbine and other massacres precisely because the perpetrators didn't meet their stereotype? White kids killing other white kids? It was as unthinkable as it was intolerable to most of America.

But it's a double standard. Those who remember the case of Patrick Haab's armed abduction of a half dozen migrants will no doubt recognize the different treatment the system offers when whites use guns against people of color. Claiming self-defense against unarmed men, Haab walked free, as did local failed politician JT Ready when he opened fire unprovoked on a group of Latino men. According to the FBI, more than a hundred cases of murder remain without convictions from the Civil Rights struggle between 1954 and 1968. And, as we have seen time and again, even reaching for your wallet can get you killed as a person of color when the police are involved. The system so fears armed people of color that just to be on the safe side it presumes every male of color to be armed. The law may have changed, but the delivery has not.

People of color, particularly poor folks, have always been the most revolutionary class in America and by the same token the greatest threat to white capitalist rule. The maintenance of white supremacy in this country owes a great deal to the imagery and fear of the armed Black man and, here in the Southwest, of the armed "illegal". This fear is what primes whites of all classes to defend the white supremacist alliance and, however well-intentioned they may be, the arguments of gun control advocates play into this unholy cross-class racist relationship.

Tactically, in defending the right to own guns, we radicals ought to avoid the trap of sorting out gun purchases into legal and illegal as if one were appropriate and the other were not. There are a lot of reasons why people purchase guns illegally that are quite justifiable. Cost and availability, to mention two. The legitimate right to self-defense is another. The racist injustice system unfairly and routinely strips people of their civil rights - should they also lose their right to self-defense as a result?

In a country that disenfranchises an already economically disadvantaged minority and ghettoizes them in high crime neighborhoods with limited legal means to protect or support themselves, is it any surprise that illegal gun sales would tend to break down on race and class lines? The legal/illegal debate is in reality a debate about white supremacy and class because it is an argument about how best to target people of color for arrest or disenfranchisement of their Second Amendment rights. Not surprisingly, even the right wing argument that the crime from which folks in the ghetto are seeking to defend themselves comes from "their own" is a racist argument. After all, who determines the conditions in the ghetto? Rich white people.

Repeatedly in American history, the language of illegal and legal, as well as cost, has been used to disarm people of color, or to put legal firearms out of their reach. After Reconstruction, some states passed laws restricting gun purchases to more expensive military models - the kind already owned by Southern white veterans. Similarly, it's no coincidence that the Gun Control Act of 1968 came on the heals of the Black urban uprisings and restricted yet again the sales of cheaper weapons as well as mail order. Eldridge Cleaver, in response to the California Assembly's passage of gun control laws (sparked by the Panthers' party unintentional "storming" of the legislature but reflecting a general desire to strip the Panthers of their weapons), said,
"Some very interesting laws are being passed. They don't name me; they don't say, take the guns away from the n***ers. They say that people will no longer be allowed to have (guns). They don't pass these rules and these regulations specifically for black people, they have to pass them in a way that will take in everybody."
Nevertheless, while the language of such laws may be colorblind these days, the enforcement certainly is not. Further, registration itself cannot be divorced from white supremacy. In a great wave around 1920, much of the South implemented gun registration, intending it to apply specifically to Blacks, although the language itself was more broad. If the police determine who can get a gun, you can bet it won't be people they view as a threat!

For this reason, the implementation of state and civic campaigns against firearms never start in the suburbs. For the suburban white family, gun locks, education and other relatively innocuous solutions are proposed. After all, these people form the terrified reserve army and political base of white supremacy, disarming them would undermine the security of the state. Again, this is what we see with the rise of the Minutemen.

I point all this out because the history of guns in America is more complicated than I think a lot of gun control advocates would admit. While there are many legitimately concerned people of color that support gun control, the gun control movement itself exhibits a racist desire to ignore its white supremacist history, as if its effects were still not with us. This is a mantra we hear frequently from white movements. But assertions of "that was then, this is now" don't carry political weight in a country still suffering so severely from the impact of past and contemporary white supremacist policies.

We should be very wary of disarming the domestic population because the first to be disarmed will surely be people of color, followed by the radical whites that show them solidarity. This is precisely what happened at the end of Reconstruction in the South: freed from Federal occupation, the Klan swept through towns stripping the new Freedmen of their weapons. Where there were Black militias, some resisted for a while. "From the southern white's point of view, a well-armed Negro militia was precisely what John Brown had sought to achieve at Harpers Ferry in 1859," remarks legal historian Kermit Hall.

With the revelation that the most recent school massacre was likely perpetrated by a so-called "resident alien," we can expect the racist program of the gun control movement to harmonize increasingly with the arguments of the racist anti-immigrant movement. Although the shooter seems to have been Asian, disarming the immigrant and resident alien population will surely bring resident and citizen Latinos and other people of color under increased police scrutiny, leading to more oppression and less ability to resist vigilante and police attacks. Gun control will put one more tool in the hands of vigilantes and police, who surely will not find it nearly as hard to stay armed.

Disarming the domestic population leaves the military and the police, the two main purveyors of gun violence in the country and the world a free hand to continue their racist assaults on a disarmed population. As long as the state and the vigilantes have guns, then so should the rest of us - especially those of us who may one day have to defend ourselves from them, as so many have had to do before us.

So, in this spirit, I recommend three readings on the relationship between white supremacy and gun laws in America:

(1) "The Racist Roots of Gun Control" by Clayton E. Cramer
(2) "The Klan's Favorite Law" by David B. Kopel
(3) "Gun Control: White Man's Law" by William R. Tonso

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is slightly off on the facts. The origin on gun ownership had nothing to do with slavery or the Native Americans. Infact, the NRA (while today almost useless) was actually against the very first gun control laws proposed in the later half of the 1800's; which were going to make it illegal for blacks to own firearms.

While I realize the Founding Fathers might not be seen as something to aspire to by most of the Phoenix area anarchists, they were actually much closer to anarchists than anything we have today.

When the British King was told to shove it with the Declaration of Independence, the people of the nation used their arms that they had for hunting and for protecting their homestead. After the war was over the Constitution was written, but before it was ratified, the Founding Fathers urged that a Bill of Rights be added to limit government power and keep it under control.

Thomas Jefferson said:
"The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first."

"The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such rebellion; what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms!"

James Madison said:
"The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms."

Compare that with something Nazi officer Heinrich Himmler said:
"Germans who wish to use firearms should join the SS or the SA - ordinary citizens don't need guns, as their having guns doesn't serve the State."

Our Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that if the freedom of speech was ever violated, we the people could remove our government and fix the problem.

There is no power without control.

Wed May 16, 05:08:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

The origins of gun ownership and gun control in what became the US pre-dated the American Revolution. There is no doubt, however, that gun ownership can serve as a check on government. Whether the Founding Fathers meant it or not is another question, since they pretty much immediately set about putting down other insurrections (Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion) and passing the Sedition Act as soon as they took power.

This contradiction causes one to look elsewhere for explanations. So, the question remains: if the 2nd Amendment were just about defending our rights, why weren't Blacks allowed to be armed as well? This is the crux of what I am getting at in my article.

Wed May 16, 05:34:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well blacks were also seen as 2/3 of a human being back then. I won't argue that "gun control" was racist, but gun ownership and deep rooted passion for the 2nd amendment run deeps for the reasons of limited government....something which has been bastardized with the politicians and the Brady Bunch saying "oh, we support hunting, we don't want your shotguns or bolt actions." I call bullshit. The 2nd amendment has zero to do with hunting. My AR is so no gestapo SWAT team can kick down my door without a fight. The current politicians cannot take government a step further without limiting guns even further. That is why they want to ban "assault rifles". Even though assault rifles are select fire and they already took them back in 1934.
People though are now starting to realize that crime comes from prohibition...be it alcohol of the 1920's or drugs in the modern day America. When a whole market is handed to the black market, prices go up and people commit crime to obtain. But hey, lets just ban the guns right? Its killing two birds with one stone...the people have to depend on government to protect them, and the people can't stop the government when they want to regulate everything up to and including wiping your own ass.

Wed May 16, 06:18:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

In this we agree. There is a connection there, however, between the legal status of blacks and the denial of gun rights. The status of Black and white itself was early on delineated by gun ownership.

I am also for a well-armed society for many of the same reasons you list above. Myself, I have a beautiful and entirely legal AK47 that with a few thousand rounds passed through it has yet to so much as hiccup.

I wrote this piece particularly as an argument against liberals because they tend to be the ones making the law & order arguments when it comes to gun ownership. I wanted to point out that gun control operates (amongst other ways) as a racist program to make more vulnerable an already exploited underclass. One that liberals otherwise claim to support.

On the flip side, however, one of the reasons that folks on the right are so keen on keeping weapons so available (and I say this as someone who does NOT want to further regulate firearms) is precisely because of the racist history. That is, the right is for gun ownership, but mostly for white gun ownership.

Wed May 16, 06:47:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I can definitely agree that those on the left who wish to ban guns are mostly afraid of the common folk having the power to remove them, but I still have to disagree with the racist element on the right. There are bad apples in every segment of society, but the common folk who are on the right, in my view after having been a frequent gun show attendee for years, are by and large not racist. Its a lot of white people, but most are just normal people who like guns. The politicians on the right, well that may or may not be a different story, but I feel they are on the same page as the left...they don't want common folk with guns...at least not guns that are effective, but they say they want them just to win votes. The republicans were in power for over a decade in Congress and they didn't do a thing for gun rights.

In the end there are politicians and the common folk.

Take care.

Thu May 17, 01:47:00 PM 2007  

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