Earlier this week, I attended a Town Hall event in East Atlanta organized by State Senator Vincent Fort and a suite of community groups. The event focused on repealing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground legislation (SYG; GC 16-3-21) and was a deeply powerful experience.
Of the many phenomenal speakers that night, one in particular downright tore the roof off with her heartbreaking story and raw power: Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year-old boy who was shot to death while sitting in a car with some friends in a gas station parking lot in Florida. Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white man, apparently felt that the boys’ “thug music” was threatening, and when the boys refused to turn it down, he emptied the clip of his handgun into the vehicle. Dunn, who had allegedly been drinking heavily at the time, is pursuing a modified SYG defense because he claims he believed he saw one of the boys inside the car reach for a shotgun. Dunn immediately fled the scene; no such weapon was ever found.
McBath, whose father was for two decades the President of the Illinois NAACP, spoke movingly about how she had raised her son. “My son was taught and trained to stand up for himself, and he told Dunn they weren’t bothering anyone and that if he had a problem he could just roll his windows up… And Dunn, because they didn’t do what he told them, empowered by his gun, he fired ten rounds into the car and three of those bullets instantly killed my son.” McBath – whose bravery is humbling and inspiring and profound – ended her speech with a plangent appeal for recognition, for action: “I feel in my heart at times that I am a lonely warrior. That no one hears me. I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”
As McBath spoke, people yelled back – “We hear you! We hear you!” – and when the speaker asked for folks to pledge to sign petitions and march and call the Governor the audience response was tremendous. We held hands and prayed and sang and I for one walked out with faith in the capacity of righteous people in numbers to do good, to effect change. And I think these people will.
But then I got home and read an article in Mother Jones and it made me ill. It’s by a reporter named Josh Harkinson, and you should read it – it’s not long. In quick summary: Bushmaster Firearms International, the company which makes the XM-15, the AR-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre last year, is a subsidiary of a company called the Freedom Group (AKA Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), which is in turn a property of Cerberus Capital Management, LP, a private equity firm that possesses nearly $20 billion in assets. Immediately after the shootings in Newtown, and in the face of public outcry, Cerberus pledged to liquidate its holdings in Freedom Group. A year later, it still hasn’t. Why not? Well, in large part, it’s because Freedom Group and Bushmaster are making more money than ever before. As Harkinson explains: “Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012… According to the Freedom Group’s third quarter report, this year’s earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of “centerfire rifles,” a category which includes the XM-15.”
There is so much wrong here. Setting aside some of the more obscene ironies that Harkinson’s on-point reportage highlights (for example, the fact that the California State Teachers Retirement System continues to hold a $750 million dollar stake in Cerberus) the picture that emerges is of deep structures of power and embedded interests that stretch across multiple institutions, private, public, non-profit, and more – with the NRA serving, as it so often does, as the nexus at the heart of things. Because, of course, the folks who call the shots – so to speak – at Freedom Group are heavily represented on the NRA’s Nominating Committee, arguably the most important decision-making body in that institution, and as individuals are major donors to the NRA (in fact, they’re in the “Golded Ring of Freedom” club of million-dollar-plus contributors). And it’s not a far step from that, either, to note the confluences of interest and lobbying activities that link the NRA and the right-wing, corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose activities in promulgating SYG laws in conjunction with the NRA are a matter of public record.
My goal here isn’t to sketch out an org chart, nor to sniff out (not-so) secret pathways of converging interests, nor to finger individuals for blame – although there are plenty of folks in this story who deserve public shame (not that they give a damn about it). Instead, I want to make an observation, at once structural and personal, about our contemporary moment.
The continued, outrageous profits raked in by Bushmaster and the insulation of Cerberus in its hypocritical efforts to placate public scorn, combined with the successful legislative advocacy of industry-sponsored groups like ALEC – including but not limited to SYG – represent a twisted state of affairs that is at once classic American capitalism at its worst but also something uniquely of our 21st Century moment. Industries manufacturing products that hurt people, making money hand over fist in the process, and then successfully protecting their interests through shaping legislation are as old as this country itself, as is the pervasive enmeshment of all our financial activities, however ostensibly benign they may seem, in such activities. But the degree of legislative power today’s firearms industry wields – power, I think, rivalling that of players in the financial sector – has no parallel with any other group thanks to the added element of its frankly ludicrous claim to uniquely patriotic standing and a misbegotten Constitutional warrant that has been twisted and deformed beyond all recognition by those with a financially motivated interest to do so.
But of course that’s not all of it. It’s not just about lobbyists and lawyers and businesspeople gaming the legislative system, shamelessly declaring their best intentions, and piously gesturing at doing the right thing even as they continue to enrich themselves. It’s about selling people fear, about cultivating their fears to stoke marketplace demand, and about enabling their clientele to act those fears out in the most violent ways imaginable.
Let’s get real: there are gun manufacturers and retailers who don’t mind mobilizing insurrectionist fantasies and white supremacist irredentism to move their product. That’s part of their business model. And not just that: they’ve acted, successfully, to change our legislative landscape so that when their clients act on those fears and kill others – children, even – both the killers and their enablers face no blowback whatsoever. Instead, they profit.
And let’s get even realer: if our society – with all its hideous double standards – does nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – when twenty toddlers, nearly all of them white, and in a wealthy community in the Northeast to boot, are slaughtered, mercilessly – what in the name of God would ever drive us to action?
“I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”
My friend and frequent collaborator Jason Francisco does work photographing graffiti memorials to murder victims in the most blighted parts of North Philly – walking so-called “murder corridors” with his Leica. New memorials go up every week, sometimes, every day. So many. So many kids. Last year, he took a picture of a massive one, on the Corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore. The mural stretches up and down, easily six feet tall, sprayed lovingly on a cinderblock wall mounted with barbed wire. A childlike angel, faceless, its hands clasped in prayer, floats next to the epitaph: “Dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary School.” Sending the photo to me, Jason remarked: “I hope there is an equally enlightened graffiti writer in Newtown, CT who remembers the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia.”
I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to make my bets on that one.
That Town Hall event earlier this week was powerful. It left me feeling hope and conviction. I still feel those things, and believe that SYG can be repealed, and my heart and solidarity is with those who fight towards that end. But against forces so powerful, against exploitation and oppression so thorough and vile and total – beyond simply repealing laws but to changing attitudes, to changing our culture, to changing our way of life – what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I do know that we have to try.
Note: I didn’t bring an audio recorder with me to the SYG event, and am working from my handwritten notes. If I’ve gotten any of the quotes – or any other details wrong – please let me know, and I will amend this accordingly. As always, the same goes for the rest of the content in this piece.
Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.