Monday, March 7, 2016

Gun rights in Ferguson?

It's been about a year and a half since Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, and we don't hear much about him anymore these days.  I wrote a blog post a while back about certain issues that I felt were brought up by Brown's death and the subsequent protests and repression of protests.  In that post I hinted that a big concern for me was the increasing militarization of the US, particularly the forces of law and order.

In that vein, I often asked myself, "Where are the NRA and the other militia-type whackjobs guys now?  They are always braying about the coming repression of civil liberties in the US, scifi visions of a Big Brother state in the near future, and defending rather fringe causes like the right of private individuals to abuse public land however they see fit.  But in the real, unambiguous, present-day police state that murders unarmed black youth with impunity, there's nary a peep from these self-styled defenders of freedom.  What gives?"

At some point last year I began cynically answering my own question, "Oh yeah, they're busy shooting up unarmed people in churches in South Carolina, or defending the perpetrator of same."  But my interest was piqued when I saw that there seemed to be at least one gun-rights and civil-liberties group that was walking the walk in Ferguson.  It was called the Oath Keepers.  Initially they seemed in fact to be there as part of the police repression of blacks exercising their First Amendment rights,  But this follow-up article made it seem as if, whatever their initial intent, they were realizing that yes, oppression of blacks is a real thing, and that if the Oath Keepers are serious about defending the Constitution, they need to take up the cause of Black Lives Matter.  I understand the spirit of the Second Amendment, that an armed citizenry is a natural last line of defense against government tyranny.  But it's obviously not so simple.  Should we all have the right to hunting rifles?  AK-47s?  Nuclear bombs, one for each family?  While the intent of the Second Amendment is a conceptual check on the government's monopoly on violence, it becomes totally dangerous and untenable if taken to its logical conclusion.  So I wasn't on board with the Oath Keepers detachment in Ferguson, but I admired that they were being coherent, and not using gun rights and libertarian rhetoric as a veiled way of exercising terrorist control over black people.

Then I didn't hear about them anymore.  The grand rally planned for Ferguson, in which armed blacks and whites would take the streets in a peaceful, armed protest, never seemed to happen.  I recently looked into it again, and found this fascinating account of the whole affair.  It seems that the coherent take on black rights and gun rights was not a position shared by all of Oath Keepers, just one guy within the group who was crazy enough to believe that the Second Amendment should also apply to poor black people (the guy has since resigned/been expelled from Oath Keepers).  Apparently there was a huge internal conflict within Oath Keepers, and the organization came out as most NRA-style groups do.  They are worried about a hypothetical future violation of white civil rights, but don't give a damn about real, present-day violation of black rights.

A few insightful quotes from the Rolling Stone in-depth article, and my comments thereafter:

"I told them, 'As long as you don't point the thing at anyone, nobody's going to shoot you,'" Andrews says. But the protesters were unconvinced. No matter what the law maintained, they argued, the reality was different: if one of them walked along West Florissant with a rifle on his shoulder, he'd be dead. "I must have heard it a hundred times that night," Andrews recalls. "And that's when I thought, 'Whoa, we've got a problem here.'"
It seems Andrews had an epiphany.  If only every militant white guy could go personally to the ghetto and hear firsthand from hundreds of black people about the challenges they face.  Or maybe white folks in the US could just read and listen to the plethora of black voices out there in readily-available media, and believe what they say, instead of automatically assuming that blacks are shiftless, lying criminals operating in bad faith.

"I've got more gun licenses than most two-star generals," he tells me as we eat. "So when the cops said that I couldn't carry a gun, what do you think they're doing to a bunch of black kids, in an alley, at two in the morning, when no one is around?... I am just sick of watching black kids getting killed by the cops for fucking misdemeanors."

Despite my above criticism of Sam Andrews's path to enlightenment, he really does seem to get what's at stake in Ferguson and other places like it.  He has realized that "black problems" are really "US problems", and we all need to take heed and work to solve them.  However, his efforts to get black citizens to open carry en masse in the streets of Ferguson meet with failure.  Most community members he talks to assert that, whatever the Constitution may say, they will get shot if they walk armed in the streets.

I think the best, most nuanced insights in the article come from Paul Berry III, a black gun rights advocate.  The article closes on his more considered assessment of the situation.
Ferguson's ailments go far beyond a fear [among black residents] of legally carrying guns; the local residents, especially the black ones, have been preyed upon for years, he says, by the courts and criminal justice system. Though he applauds Andrews' commitment to the Second Amendment, he is more concerned about a broader erosion of constitutional rights. ..."I don't know if Sam understands what he's asking black people to do," Berry tells me over lunch at a Subway. "Basically, the laws in affluent neighborhoods, the white ones, just don't apply the same way if you're a black person living a poor neighborhood."  ... "While the Second Amendment is important, it is only one piece of a much bigger picture," Berry says, one in which local kids cannot get lawyers and impoverished blacks are being locked away in the equivalent of debtor's prisons.

"I respect Sam and I think his heart is in the right place," Berry says, "but the issues here are way, way deeper than guns."

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