Ferguson, Open Carry, and the Ghost of Huey Newton

Two encounters on social media, and one news item; together, a bleak picture.

On Tuesday, there was a post in my Facebook feed, written by a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, a white man. In a few brief, blistering lines, he shared an article about supposed New Black Panthers directing traffic in Ferguson, denouncing them as being “governmental,” and insufficiently “revolutionary.” A few moments later, presumably realizing that this perhaps crossed a line even by his own bilious standards, he deleted the post, replacing it with a borrowed quote from a black anarchist writer, former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, calling upon black people to arm themselves and meet police in Ferguson with a show of force.

A few days earlier, in my Twitter feed, there was an announcement from CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, that his group would stage an armed march in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly black neighborhood, and members of the community there had not only made clear that OC Texas’s presence was unwanted, but that, if they were to show up, they should be prepared to encounter residents also bearing arms. When I asked Grisham whether, in light of events in Ferguson, he was reconsidering his group’s sortie into a largely black neighborhood, he replied: “What happened in Ferguson is exactly why People should be armed.” He then doubled down on questioning what I was referring to by events in Ferguson in the first place, asking: “You mean where a thug and criminal was killed after robbing and threatening a store owner?”

At that point it seems worth observing not only that what exactly happened in that store is now very much in question, but also that while Michael Brown had no criminal history whatsoever when he was shot dead, Grisham himself does have a criminal conviction, from a 2013 incident involving an altercation with law enforcement. Moreover, this episode arose while Grisham was carrying a weapon – unlike Michael Brown, who no one disputes was entirely unarmed when he was shot to death (or even during that alleged “strong arm” robbery). And yet Grisham, who is (no matter what you think of him) a criminal in the most precise legal sense of the term, appeared to see no contradiction in slandering the dead young man, who had no rap sheet or convictions to speak of. Grisham then proceeded to insist,“We won’t bow to the Black Panthers or Quannel X. We won’t be intimidated by bullies. This is America…All of it.” And then, a few days later, OC Texas called off its planned march in the Fifth Ward in favor of a “book drive” to benefit young students there.

Wednesday, news broke of a planned event by an organization in Texas calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. This group, made up of “black and brown residents of the city of Dallas” is named after the Black Panther leader who famously observed that “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” The Huey P. Newton group is planning an “armed self-defense patrol” along Dallas’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, standing against police brutality and in support of its members’ own right to bear arms.

Stipulating – explicitly – that I do not begrudge the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms, I admit that this development, like Grisham’s planned march, has left me deeply troubled. On the one hand, this escalation has a feeling of inevitability to it: as I have written elsewhere, once guns enter the public arena as a means of protest, once they are deployed as a kind of speech, it is arguable that the only equally powerful response is a countervailing display of arms. But the thing about shows of force is that they have a tendency to escalate without warning or plan. And I fear that, as events in Ferguson suggest, any intervention on the part of law enforcement in a confrontation involving armed black protestors will not favor the latter, no matter how well equipped or righteous they may be.

But I admit, too, that these developments also have a kind of all-this-has-happened-before, all-this-will-happen-again dimension to them. Indeed, the open carry protests of Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were themselves largely responsible for a political backlash that more or less determined the shape of gun control politics going forward. Likewise, the role of guns in what many frequently remember as a solely non-violent Civil Rights Movement is also paradoxical and complicated (for an excellent history of this, see the work of Charles Cobb, Jr.). But much as differing voices today will by turns vilify and praise Black Panthers movements both New and Old, so too are the memories of black luminaries of the earlier Civil Rights Movement co-opted by unlikely, ideologically motivated figures, including Glenn Beck, who dedicates his book “Control” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. … who owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control—and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family—when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.” Never mind the fact that I suspect that even Beck himself would admit that a concealed carry handgun license would likely not have saved Dr. King from James Earl Ray’s sniping at him from across the street with a .30-06 Remington rifle. For all these figures – for the anarchist professor in my FB feed, for CJ Grisham, for Glenn Beck – the image of armed black activists represents a malleable target to appropriate for their own dubious ends, whether they be furthering Leftist revolution, justifying threatening, racially coded displays of Right-Wing aggression in a black neighborhood, or just simply selling books.

But not only are these images of actual people, people who can speak and do speak for themselves, and who don’t need white people to ventriloquize them, the power of those images in the media derives from a history that is very real and far from settled. Indeed, one way or another, it is the events of the 1960s and 1970s, and their consequences – from race riots to white flight to police militarization to mass incarceration to the war on drugs – that have led us to our present situation. And that present situation is a continually unfolding tragedy that encompasses, among other things, what is happening in Ferguson, pervasive racial violence, uncounted and overlooked acts of police brutality, and a nationwide body count due to gun violence that reveals stark racial disparities, particularly among children.

And so while I do not know what happens next, I do not see how repeating the same brew of escalating gestures of further political violence can lead any of us anywhere good. I hope that in spite of the joy that trigger-happy radicals of whatever persuasion may take in the increased presence of guns in our political landscape, we can de-escalate, step back, and find another way forward.

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