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Dead Man Running

Reading the official St. Louis County Michael Brown autopsy, it’s hard not to feel the limits of what laypeople can glean from a forensic pathologist’s report – and to feel a corresponding temptation to rely instead on vague memories of CSI episodes and to tweet about gun shot residue and powder burns as though we knew, for sure, what we were talking about. It’s also hard not to feel that many of the talking heads on TV springing into action either to give credence to or discredit the report are speaking first and foremost to audiences who have already made up their minds about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I imagine, too, that for some, it’s likewise hard to avoid the temptation to let the whole mess of competing voices drown one another out, shrug, and write off the entire affair as somehow inscrutable, turning whatever actually happened on that Ferguson street this past August into a 21st Century St. Louis Rashomon. This last reaction would, I think, be a tragedy – and I hope that pressure from both media and protestors will lead to substantive, public inquiry and to an open, transparent treatment of Brown’s death in a court of law (beyond the ongoing Grand Jury proceedings).

But still, we have this new autopsy, newly and dubiously leaked, as have been so many other elements of this case. I’m not a forensic pathologist, and so will leave its more technical nuances for others to pick apart, although I will eventually give it a more thorough reading alongside the findings of the family-requested autopsy and with my copy of Brian Heard’s Handbook of Firearms and Ballistics in hand (and will do the same if and when the Department of Justice’s autopsy is released).

For now, though, since I am trained to read texts closely, to pay attention to how we use words to describe events, and to reflect on how descriptions of one event resemble those of others, I do have some thoughts on this document. Specifically, I hear echoes of two other texts in it: first, Radley Balko’s excellent Op-Ed, “The Curious Grammar of Police Shootings” and second, Rei Terada’s brilliant reflection on the “superhuman strength” (so-called “Excited Delirium syndrome”) that police and media reports regularly attribute to unarmed people whom cops shoot dead.

Balko’s piece makes clear how official documents regularly obscure the agency of individual police officers in favor of bloodless, passive constructions. One episode Balko relates is officially described as follows: “Sheriff Wooten said a deputy, who was not named, was approaching the property when a dog ran up to him. The deputy’s gun fired one shot, missing the dog and hitting the child. It was not clear if the gun was accidentally fired by the deputy.” The contorted passive construction here not only renders the killing of a living, breathing child into a hard-to-parse syntactical trainwreck, but also works to absolve the individual (unnamed) officer of even grammatical agency, not to mention moral culpability. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, we’re so often told – except, it seems, when it’s a police officer’s gun that does the killing. Then it’s just the gun.

It’s impossible not to think about such Orwellian ethico-linguistic obfuscations when, reading the Mike Brown autopsy report, you come across sentences like this: “During the struggle the Officer’s weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle. The deceased then ran down the roadway.” The weapon discharged. The deputy’s gun fired one shot. Mistakes were made. A child is being beaten. The torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

“The deceased then ran down the roadway.” What a strange sentence this is. A dead teenager runs. Although already shot at least once, he is still alive, and running. But he is also already deceased. Dead man walking; deceased teenager running. Michael Brown was dead even as he was stepping back from the car, already dead even as he was running. Of course, while witnesses claim that Brown ran away from the car, and then turned to surrender (an account which the previous autopsy arguably supports), the official narrative accompanying the new autopsy claims that “Officer Wilson then began to chase the deceased…. [and then] the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer Wilson.” This reading of events, of course, jibes with the argument of Right-Wing pundits who have argued that Brown was not actually unarmed, because in fact his very body was somehow a lethal weapon. It’s here that I think of Rei Terada’s essay, on so-called “Excited Delirium Syndrome” – the “superhuman strength” exhibited by unarmed people who can (supposedly) only be stopped by deadly force. These people, we are told, are mentally ill, perhaps high on drugs of some kind – PCP, “bath salts,” LSD, what have you. They are irrational, “impervious to pain.” As Terada writes:

“The phrase ‘superhuman strength’ reflects police discomfort with mental illness–or even just ‘irrationality’–on the one hand, and with the unaccountable phenomenon of resisting arrest on the other…Superhumanity is invoked to explain their choice not to give themselves up, making it sound less like an ability and more like an involuntary condition. (Police officers themselves never show superhuman strength, even when they’re agitated by adrenaline in struggle; they show fortitude and tenacity—at least when they don’t cut matters short by shooting.) From the perspective of the police, resisting arrest is necessarily irrational: they perceive irrational people as resisters, even if that isn’t their intention, and resisters as definitionally crazed… You don’t have to be Foucault to see that superhumanity functions as subhumanity; it allows the nonhuman to be eliminated while releasing the perceiver from having to answer for seeing someone as nonhuman.”

One could note here how much coverage of this latest autopsy emphasizes that Michael Brown had marijuana “in his system” when died. One could also note that Officer Wilson was not drug tested after killing him. One could further remark on the similarity between these circumstances and those surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin – whose body was tested for drugs post-mortem even as George Zimmerman (who appears to have been regularly taking a cocktail of amphetamines and benzodiazepines) was not. But instead, let’s focus on what I take to be the upshot of Terada’s piece. In many cases, the institutional logic runs as follows: if you were shot, you must have been resisting – and if you were resisting, you deserved to get shot. It’s a perfect, hermetically closed circle.

But what is “resistance”? What does it mean to “resist”? In many technical vocabularies (in physics, electrical engineering, etcetera), resistance means blocking the flow of power, impeding its free operation, obstructing it. Recall why Michael Brown was accosted by Darren Wilson in the first place – for (supposedly) walking in the street, obstructing traffic. In other words, by simply walking where Wilson didn’t want him to, he was resisting. Now, I’ve never been called over to a cop car for being in the street, and I’ve jay-walked right in front of dozens of them. But Michael Brown’s mere presence in the street – that was resistance. Not coming over promptly when Darren Wilson told him to? Resistance.

What does it mean when simply walking about, minding your own business, and not coming-hither immediately when ordered to do so, equals “resistance”? It means that just being in public space can be construed as an obstruction, a resistance. Resistance to what? To power. To white supremacy. In other words, for some people, simply existing equals “resisting.” And it’s very clear what happens when those folks “resist.” They wind up arrested, beaten, or worse. For them, the demand, “Stop resisting!” is more or less the same as the injunction, “Stop existing!” and that injunction produces, very frequently, the outcome of their no longer existing at all.

There are some things the autopsy can tell us, some things it can’t, and some things we will hopefully learn more about down the line and in a more public way. But for now, I can’t help but dwell on this scene: “Stop resisting!” yells the police officer, a man with a badge and a gun, at a teenager. And Michael Brown runs, very much alive, and yet already deceased – it’s just that the adjective hadn’t caught up with him yet, erasing his name, much like the remainder of Darren Wilson’s bullets hadn’t yet caught up with him, obliterating his body.

Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and Anita Sarkeesian

On Friday, Florida judge Russell Healey sentenced Michael Dunn, the murderer of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Healey also gave Dunn an additional ninety years for three thirty-year counts of attempted murder (against the other occupants of the vehicle into which Dunn emptied his handgun), and a further fifteen years for “for shooting or throwing deadly missiles.” This sentence is richly deserved, and I hope it brings Jordan’s family, including his mother, the remarkably brave and dedicated Lucia McBath, some measure of peace.

In the wake of this verdict, I want to say two brief things.

First, despite the pervasive coverage of the Davis killing as the “loud music murder,” it is imperative that we not let this use of language cloud our actual understanding of Davis’s tragic death. Jordan Davis did not die because his music was too loud. He died because Michael Dunn, a 46 year-old man who appears to have been drinking heavily, decided to empty his handgun into a car with Davis and three of his friends inside. Michael Dunn – an adult man – chose to murder a child because he was on a power trip, decided Davis’s life was worthless, and snuffed it out. Davis was no more killed by his music than Trayvon Martin was killed by his hoodie, and using language that suggests otherwise, as so often when it comes to how we describe violence, diminishes the responsibility of those to blame and perpetrates a very real kind of violence in and of itself. We can hear a similar shirking of responsibility in Dunn’s own words at his sentencing hearing, when he stated, “I am mortified I took a life, whether it was justified or not.” Setting aside the fact that his gesture toward justification, much like his initial attempt at a modified Stand Your Ground defense, is offensive on the face of it, it’s interesting that he chose the word “mortified.” Nowadays, people use the word “mortified” more or less to mean that they’re deeply embarrassed and ashamed (“My fly was open during my speech? OMG, I’m mortified!”). But the word originally derives from a Latin verb that means “to put to death.” And let’s be clear – only one person was put to death here, and that was Jordan Davis. In fact, Davis’s parents specifically asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for Dunn.

Second, let’s recall that when Dunn killed Davis, he used a gun which he was legally licensed to carry concealed. Earlier this week, after receiving assassination threats, feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a planned lecture at Utah State University in light of Utah’s ultra-permissive Concealed Carry laws. In response to her decision, there was a backlash against her in some sectors of the gun rights community. Much of this response hit predictably sexist notes, and one major outlet even featured a piece based entirely around unsourced slander. The recurrent theme in this criticism, as in some of the feedback I’ve gotten about this blog, is that it is “irrational” for people like Sarkeesian to fear people carrying concealed weapons. Although my attitude towards concealed carry is not entirely negative, I want to stress how frequently  these accusations of Sarkeesian’s being “irrational” recycle predictable, sexist tropes of women as overly emotional and incapable of logic (as though being afraid of people bringing guns to an event at which you had been told you would be shot was somehow unreasonable!). Moreover, they are also frequently voiced by the same folks who oppose gun restraining orders for those accused of domestic violence, and who otherwise are inclined to pre-emptively dismiss the experiences of women who come forward about domestic abuse as “false accusations.” And even if we were to temporarily bracket the grim data about women and gun violence in this country, I think it’s about time that we banish the canard that Concealed Carry permit holders are somehow inherently reasonable and responsible. Being a bigoted, frequently-intoxicated rageaholic or psychopath who feels entitled to murder children whom you decide are “thuggish” or to assassinate women whom you feel “have it coming to them” isn’t something that we can detect when issuing a Concealed Carry permit – and being afraid of such people is eminently rational. So let’s dismiss the knee-jerk #notall-ism, and recognize that default presumption of maturity and responsibility to all permit holders for the wishful thinking that it is. There are intelligent conversations to be had about Concealed Carry, but dismissing as “irrational” or otherwise mocking the fear of people who regularly face threats to their well-being – or who have to wonder daily whether their kids will come home alive or instead wind up dead at the hands of some trigger-happy vigilante – is not a way to start them. If you think otherwise, well, maybe you should try walking a day in Anita Sarkeesian’s shoes – or asking Jordan Davis.

 

 

 

Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.

As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.

Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.

Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?

All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.

Playing the Fictim: Identity Politics and Being a “Gun Owner”

Unlike some other posts, this one is going to be a little more free-form and abstract. It’s something I’ll expand further as part of a longer project, but, for now, I just wanted to put this out here.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how in American political media we frequently hear denunciations of “identity politics.” According to one of the dominant narratives, people “play” identity politics when they either implicitly or explicitly invoke their demographic affiliations as a kind of token in a political game. For example, politicians play identity politics when they appeal to where their constituents were born and live (“Unlike my opponent, I grew up in this district! – I’m no a Washington outsider!”) or gesture to their gender and class status (“As a working middle class mother, I know what it means to raise a family, and care about what happens in our schools!”). Playing identity politics in this sense means making a claim to a specific identity in order to signal that you share a particular perspective and set of concerns with your target demographic. That identity claim serves as a touchstone for building coalitions, cementing solidarity, and turning out votes from people who identify with you.

But identity politics don’t just involve a politician making claims about their own authenticity – they just as frequently involve branding their opponents as inauthentic, or branding them as stigmatized. Unsurprisingly, then, in the contemporary landscape, the idea of identity politics as a “game” that is “played” is thus most often encountered when it comes to race. On the Right in particular, where condemnations of identity politics, like denunciations of “Political Correctness,” are most frequently encountered, this phenomenon paradigmatically takes the form of accusations of “playing the race card.” The game here, though, always seems more than a little bit rigged – Barack Obama and Eric Holder are perennially accused of “playing the race card” when they talk about events involving race, as they were in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, or in response to events in Ferguson. But while when black Democrats simply talk about race or class, they’re “dividing the nation,” when Karl Rove blasts Obama for being “a Chai-swilling, golf-playing, basketball-trash-talking, leading-from-behind, I-got-no-strategy President” or when Newt Gingrich calls him the “Food Stamp President,” they’re not “playing the race card” at all, they’re simply calling things as they see them – which of course involves no race-based blind-spots or craven identity-politics dog-whistles whatsoever.

But unpacking the nuances of “identity politics” in its various configurations in the American political landscape is far beyond the scope of this blog. What I want to reflect on is something else: the increasing prevalence of the term “gun-owner” as a term of identity politics in its own right. Americans self-identify as “gun owners” in polls and frequently vote for or against politicians based upon their supposed affinity for that identity, with numerous organizations claiming to represent “gun owners” the way organizations like La Raza or the NAACP claim to represent their constituencies. Indeed, not only does the NRA describe itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization,” but Gun Owners of America, which stands to the right of the NRA as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” proudly proclaims “a record of helping pro-gun candidates defeat anti-gunners in hundreds of races across the country over the past 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as our supporters provide the necessary financial resources.” “Pro-gun candidates,” “anti-gunners” – all these terms function as identity politics labels, without question. Likewise, Democratic politicians, particularly rural “Blue Dogs,” will regularly claim to be as “pro-gun” and even personally identify themselves as gun owners, often in order to avoid alienating their gun-owning voters.

But does possessing a gun automatically make you a “gun owner” in the way that a group like Gun Owners of America says it should? That is to say, does it necessarily mean that you are a member of an identity-based coalition, or even, as the NRA or GOA might suggest, that you suddenly become a member of a minority whose civil rights are under threat? Let’s set aside the complicated data on who owns guns and why, and likewise bracket the fact that many political figures who are accused of being “anti-gun” actually own guns themselves – including Joe Biden, who’s encouraged people to buy shotguns to defend themselves, and Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who owns several guns. The question I’m asking is this: what is the status of “gun owner” as a term of identity politics? Is “gun owner” an identity in the same way as being black, female, Hispanic, or gay is?

Recently, Open Carry Texas tweeted that “owning guns is the ultimate respect for defending life” Think about that for a minute. Owning a product represents the ultimate respect for a value. Not just that, but owning a weapon (not, say, a defibrillator, or an organ donor card) represents the ultimate respect for human life. Likewise, for many folks, owning a gun represents a patriotic duty – a synecdoche for authentic Americanness. But how many other powerful political interest groups and voting coalitions are defined by the mere fact of owning a particular product?

Here’s the thing. “Gun owner” as a phrase is clearly a term of identity politics. But unlike being black or lesbian or poor or from West Virginia, being a gun owner is an identity you can buy. Only in America does spending $1000-plus on an AR-15 or $75 on a Bryco .380 not just equal expression of respect for a sacrosanct value – it gives you a claim on an identity, and not just to being a patriot, but, as we’ll see in a moment, to something much more. But buying a product does not make you a thing. It just means you bought something, laid down cash, swiped your credit card, wrote a check, whatever. You became an X-owner. If manufacturers of X branded it as whatever, and you embrace that identity, then good for you, I guess. You bought in. But the truth is that buying a gun makes you an American patriot about as much as buying a tiara turns you into a princess. This should be obvious, but just because you bought something doesn’t make you somebody. It just means you gave else someone your money.

Then again, from a certain perspective, I suppose, an identity-you-can-buy represents perhaps the most quintessential example of identity politics, American-style, that I can imagine. But there’s a rub here, too. Because although Americans arguably brand more products with patriotism than any other culture out there, half the time, gun manufacturers aren’t even American themselves – they’re multinational corporations, Italian, Russian, Austrian. Chatting with me about this over the weekend on Twitter, Ross Golowicz pointed out that Chrysler brands itself as “Imported From Detroit.” Imagine the same phrase, advertising a gun: “Imported from Detroit.” Of course, in reality, it should be more like “TEC-9. Imported from Miami. Bought at a gun show in Alabama. Smuggled to Detroit.” Or even: “The SKS. Imported from Tito’s Yugoslavia. To South-Central LA. The Ultimate Respect for the Value of Life.” But, sure, brother, that $700 you dropped on that Bulgarian AK, the $500 you spent on that Austrian Glock, that makes you a true American. And it means you respect life more the value of life than the person who didn’t, or who maybe spent that paycheck on rent or a trampoline or cocaine or a sofa instead.

And here’s the last bit – more often than not, condemnations of playing identity politics from the right are coupled with an accusation of “playing the victim.” Consider how often figures on the Right blame African Americans in particular for being duped into a culture of “victimhood.” But despite the fact that the personal right to bear arms is more secure under the Supreme Court than it ever has been in American history, the defining feature of both the NRA and GOA’s activism on behalf of American gun owners is “protecting” them – as in serving them in a civil rights struggle wherein their constituents are a deeply imperiled minority: in other words, where they’re victims. And the language of victimhood isn’t even subtle. In response to efforts in Massachusetts last year to impose legal limits on magazine size, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a press release to state residents entitled “Your Governor Wants to Personally Victimize Law-Abiding Gun Owners.”

My friend Jennifer Nelson, who’s a brilliant scholar out in Michigan, has a word for tone-deaf, misguided folks who seek to position themselves as the “real” victim of imagined wrongs – they’re “fictims.” I think it’s a simply genius turn of phrase – they’re fictitious victims, with their fictimhood serving not just to deny the actual victimhood of others, but to actively prevent reflection on their own complicity in that suffering by pre-emptively co-opting it. The Men’s Rights Advocates out there who decry sexual harassment laws and complain that they’re the “real” victims of sexism when 20% of women in this country are likely to suffer a sexual assault? Fictims. The angry white folks who deny the existence of structural anti-black prejudice and bemoan “reverse racism” while never having had to have “the talk” with their kids? Fictims, the lot of them.

Frankly, I can’t think of an identity-politics based group more prone to the shrillest flights of fictimhood than some segments of the militant pro-gun movement. To take but one example – I once got some threatening mail from a man I believe to be associated with a specific extremist group, a guy who, among other things, made it pretty clear he wasn’t fond of black folks since, in his words, they represented a “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class.” He also wasn’t that fond of me since, according to him, the simple discussion of any regulation of the right to bear arms – not just a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (which, again, I don’t support), but universal background checks or any limitation on what any civilian could conceivably own in any possible world – not only represented the “complete and total rape” of his “human rights,” but also made anyone who might initiate such a discussion, in his words, a “slaveowner.” As he wrote:

“You’re a slaveowner because you believe the rights of others falls under your control… I just want you to know, I fucking hate you and everyone else like you. You are pure fucking slaveowning scum and I am so very, very tired of having to tell you to stop presuming you can speak about the rights of free men and how best to violate them…I hope you understand, if you and your kind keep pushing for this, it’s a war. A real war.”

This strikes me as gun ownership identity politics in its most distilled fictimhood. There’s such a huge cognitive dissonance operating here – a self-righteous and histrionic attempt to co-opt the role of righteous victimhood attributed to slaves underwriting an appeal to violence against the alternate evils of the Federal Government and government-dependent criminals and social parasites who are, inevitably, stereotyped as black. Having a black man as President, of course, allows for these two threats to fold together into a kind of perfect nightmare for these people – the ginned-up fear of roving hordes of urban blacks merges with paranoid, insurrectionist fantasies of going full-Wolverines against home-invading Federal jackboots. And all this histrionic, fear-driven distortion – a grossly warped view of the history of slavery, a skewed understanding of our current economic crisis – perpetrates yet another distortion. It frames the “real” victims of our contemporary national struggles with gun control and gun violence as those primarily white gun owners who may potentially have their consumer choices somewhat more regulated, instead of the actual victims of gun violence, who are disproportionately poor, young, and black.

One last thought. In some ways, the idea that becoming a true American hinges on owning a piece of property (in this case, a gun) seems obscene in a very modern way – hell, from a certain cynical perspective, it’s part and parcel of life under globalized capitalism, a state of affairs in which being an American is itself a brand identity, something we like to think we can export, like democracy and McDonalds and Google and Law & Order spinoffs. But on another level, if we go back to the beginning, to the documents composed at the founding of this country, we have to acknowledge that, for the framers, the ownership of property was the criterion for being a true American, for being a “free man.” And we have to admit, too, that in many cases that “property” in question included other human beings. Whom “real” Americans, “free men,” kept in line at gunpoint.

At which point, then, I have to ask, if, by buying a weapon, you buy an identity, and that identity comes marked with an attitude of co-opted, histrionic fictimhood – who’s playing identity politics now? What identity, ultimately, are you really playing at – and what are you buying into?

Confidence in the System

Image via KTLA

Image via KTLA

Back in August, a pair of men in an SUV were being pursued by the LAPD, allegedly for reckless driving, when they decided to pull over onto a highway onramp. One of them got out of the car and opened fire on the police cruiser behind him with what the LA Times describes as a “high-powered, assault-type rifle.”

The men then sped off, trading gunfire with police in a mile-long “rolling gun battle” along the freeway before ultimately abandoning their vehicle and fleeing into an industrial area of South-Central. The LAPD called in a SWAT team, a pair of helicopters, and K9 units to hunt for them. After two hours, dogs found one man, unarmed and hiding in a dumpster; officers arrested him after disabling him with a flashbang and pepper spray.

As for the other suspect, who was still carrying his assault rifle, the LAPD found him, too, and moved to intercept with a BearCat armored personnel carrier. According to the LA Times, the man then “peppered the BearCat with bullets, striking [a] SWAT officer, before he was killed by return fire.” According to a police spokesperson, “Thank goodness we had that armored vehicle as a shield because a regular police cruiser would have been Swiss cheese.” Thank goodness – and thank the taxpayers, too, since that BearCat (one of the LAPD’s two) cost them $150,000. As for the make and model of the “rare” gun carried by the alleged shooter (since identified as Andre Maurice Jones), I can’t find an exact description in any reports, but if I had to guess I’d say it was a heavily modified SKS outfitted with a 75-round magazine, a weapon configuration that’s illegal under California law but which you can acquire easily enough, magazine included, for under $400.

Anyway, all this happened over a month ago, so why is it in the news today? Well, it seems that all those drivers whose commutes were disrupted by that gun battle and hours of subsequent evidence collection were re-routed through automated ExpressPass lanes – and then billed for it. Although the company which administers ExpressLane billing, Xerox Service, is working to undo the tolls, and is deeply apologetic for the inconvenience, people are nonetheless quite out of sorts. Said one commuter, “I know it’s just a buck, but it’s the principle of the thing. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the entire system.”

Yes. Of all the parts of this story, that one-dollar fee really is the thing that should inspire a crisis of confidence in “the entire system.”

Call of the Uncanny

“That particular variety of terror that leads back to what has been known of old, that has been familiar for a long time.”

callofduty_black-ops

Two things. First, something I wrote exactly a year ago. At the time, I was living in a different city, and my day-to-day life was pretty different from what it is now. It’s impressionistic, not analytical, but I wanted to share it here, today, and then pair it with something else, a more critical reflection in light of President Obama’s speech to the nation this past evening.

9/11/13

I worked all day – really hard, all day long, and I am finally settling down for the evening. Nobody’s home yet, and so I’ve got the place to myself. Teaching, work, a little writing, shopping errands, a doctor’s visit, cooking, I’m exhausted. The anniversary was rough as always, but not as bad as it’s been previously, although realizing that my students were all five or six when 9/11 happened was weird – especially since I opened class by asking if people wanted to talk about the anniversary and no one had anything to say. If I’m still teaching five years from now, any students I might have then will have been born well after it – and hell, for my kids now, all they’ve known, given how memory works, is this world. But, whatever, class was good, and even reading various remembrance articles and the Paul Battaglia guestbook, which I read every year on the anniversary, didn’t fuck me up as much as it normally does.

I lie back on my couch with a drink and a smoke and I fire up Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the Xbox. My roommate and I just got it to play together. It’s not the newest iteration in the franchise, but it’s good co-op fun and solid to play solo online, too. I’m playing multiplayer, and we’re on a level that I guess is like Central Asia or the Caucasus or something in the wake of a Russian invasion. A bombed out medieval village with signage in Arabic script and Cyrillic. It’s the usual bullshit – I’m running around with a tricked-out silenced submachine gun dodging snipers and getting blown up by remote-controlled explosives, when I start hearing voices over the mic. You can hook up a mic, you know, to trash-talk or strategize with your team, but I usually turn it off unless someone I know is playing, since otherwise it’s a lot of kids – really young kids – giggling and cursing, or blasts of feedback from idiots who don’t know how to set their audio pickup properly. Occasionally you hear a mom call someone to lunch. But this time I’m also hearing adult voices, talking back and forth to each other, and it’s totally eerie and they sound shocked and deadly serious.

“I’ve seen at least fifteen so far.”

“It’s like a tornado of bodies.”

I know I’ve heard this somewhere before.

The match is in full swing. The game sound effects keep coming, badass voice-actors yelling macho SEAL bullshit: Enemy Care Package incoming! Flashbang out! Smoked ‘em! Air support on the way! Bag ‘em and tag ‘em! These clips mix in with the dorm room banter and pubescent laughter and bong rips, the usual chaos. But those other voices just keep getting louder.

“I don’t know what happened with the pilot, if it was mechanical error –”

“There’s so much smoke.”

Kids are laughing grenades are going off a machine gun nest has opened up and mic feedback is blaring but these voices are all I’m hearing. I’ve dropped the controller and my character keeps respawning, standing still, a sitting duck, getting shot in the head and resurrecting, over and over and over.

“Oh, oh, oh no oh no.”

“People are jumping again…They’re holding hands.”

“Oh God. Oh God.”

Someone is watching news footage from 9/11 while they play, and their mic is picking it up. Or they’re deliberately piping it in with a soundboard. Either is quite possible. Meanwhile the carnage continues, kids laugh, and someone has started talking to someone else in Spanish.

Twelve years out and the world only gets more out of joint. Nothing made sense then, and nothing makes sense now.

9/11/14

A year later, and still nothing makes sense. I’m still teaching, in Philly now, and my class, a course on Communication Ethics, is full of young men and women, most of whom were toddlers in 2001. Later this semester, we’ll read Eric Fair’s “Orders, Truth, and Torture at Abu Ghraib.” I’m curious what they’ll think of it. I don’t often feel much of a generational divide between myself and my students, but whatever gap there is, this anniversary attenuates it.

Although there’s some material about the War on Terror on my syllabus, I don’t usually write  about international affairs. The scope of this blog is writing about guns, gun violence, and the role guns play in the media, popular imagination, and lived experiences of Americans. Despite the temptation the anniversary presents to write a “My 9/11 Story”-style journal entry, and despite the fact that, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I could say a lot of things about how 9/11 impacted my life and those of the people I love, I instead want to hew to this space’s more narrow purpose and make three observations, the first two involving objective data, and the third of a more personal character.

First, I’d like to call your attention to a fascinating interactive tool produced by Google as part of the Illicit Networks, Forces in Opposition Project (INFO). It uses customs data collected by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) to visualize trends in the international trade of small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. You need to use Chrome or Firefox to see the visualization, but it’s worth installing the plugins to play with. The PRIO dataset covers some 250 countries, but I’d like to call your attention specifically to the figures for the US. In 2000, America imported $353,618,432 in ammunition and military and civilian small arms; it exported $542,735,831. In 2005, the figures are $495,869,1120 and $287,041,040, respectively; in 2010, they are $996,769,657 and $606,577,243. In 2000, Americans imported $0.24 billion in civilian weapons; by 2010, that figure more than doubles to $0.55B. It is important to note that the Google INFO data only extends to 2010, and that it does not take into account the substantial black market for US weapons, particularly that in Mexico. In any event, as of 2014, the US small arms and manufacturing industry employs nearly 50,000 people and generates revenue in the range of $13 billion a year.

The upshot is that, since 9/11, America has produced, imported, and exported more guns than ever before (or at least since WWII). The connection between this uptick in exports and post-9/11 American military interventions abroad is obvious. In terms of imports, there’s of course always been a steady demand for high-quality AK-style long guns and pistols from manufacturers in Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia (with imports from the latter becoming particularly hot commodities given recent sanctions). On the domestic front, though, when it comes to why Americans buy guns (imported or otherwise), their stated reasoning for doing so has undergone a substantial transformation over the course of the past fifteen years. According to PEW research, whereas in 1999 49% of people who owned guns said they did so for hunting, and 26% did for self-protection, by 2013, 48% of poll respondents said they owned guns to protect themselves, and only a third did for hunting. Given the fact that violent crime rates actually went down throughout the 2000s, the impulse to buy a gun to protect oneself seems, at first blush, perplexing. I suspect, however, that this trend speaks to a climate of fear that arose significantly prior to the election of Barack Obama and the subsequent, incessantly-hyped prospects (however dubious) of new gun control legislation. That climate of fear is, I think, part-and-parcel of the knee-jerk response to 9/11 itself. Simply put, Americans got scared, and have been arming themselves accordingly ever since.

Second, I’ll observe that quite a few die-hard pro-Second Amendment militia websites and Oath Keeper social media accounts make frequent use of this image in their banners, memes, and avatars. This painting of a ludicrously over-armed Special Forces soldier with terrible trigger discipline is actually taken from the first Call of Duty: Black Ops game. Likewise, it’s worth observing that direct product tie-ins between arms manufacturers and First Person Shooter games like Call of Duty – including the use of licensed weapons photos and name-brand virtual guns that players can use in-game – are common. In fact, according to Reuters, developer Activision-Blizzard “gives ‘special thanks’ to Colt, Barrett, and Remington in the credits for its “Call of Duty” titles.” And even a casual observer of the trajectory of both the Call of Duty franchise and its competitors (the Medal of Honor and Battlefield series) can’t fail to be struck by how they now involve modern or near-future settings in the Middle East, the former Soviet Bloc, and China, whereas during the 1990s and early 2000s, most of these games were set during World War II, and overwhelmingly in the European theater. The popularity of these games is hard to overstate: the Call of Duty franchise alone has sold nearly 140,000,00 copies, and, as of 2009, had generated nearly $3 billion in revenue worldwide. The point is that, much as we’ve upped our game since 9/11 when it comes to importing, exporting, and buying real guns, America has gotten a lot better at marketing virtual ones as well, at home and abroad.

For my part, personally speaking, I still play the occasional video game, but I haven’t touched Call of Duty or anything like it since I left Atlanta. Maybe it’s because my memory of those levels now look like scenes of breaking news from Novokaterinivka, where the Russians are invading, or from Zumar, Northern Iraq, where, despite all contrary protestations from the administration, we do, allegedly, have Black Ops-style “boots on the ground.” Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to hear voices from the real news piped into my headset while I’m pulling the trigger on a controller and firing virtual versions of weapons that I know are all too real, particularly as our President condemns Russian aggression, vows to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” and commits to further arming both opposition forces in Syria and the faltering Iraqi government. Maybe it’s because the prospect of playing a game like the upcoming installment of the Battlefield franchise, which shifts the scene of action from a foreign war zone to a US city, and which changes the role of players from Special Forces commandos to militarized police and SWAT teams seems particularly twisted in the wake of events in Ferguson, where Homeland Security-supplied military gear was deployed against protestors. Maybe, in other words, it’s because the collapse of the virtual realm of militainment into an omnipresent real-world battlespace now feels more complete than ever. Maybe, in yet other words, it’s because the map has become the territory, and that landscape is the world we’ve made, a world filled with more guns than ever before. It’s all just too uncanny – which is another way of saying that, now, thirteen years out, nothing makes sense, but also, at the same time, that everything, all of it, seems perfectly logical, even inevitable, in its terrifying senselessness.

On Not Being an Angel

“Let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.” – Pat O’Brien, as Father Jerry Connolly, in “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938)

Today, Michael Brown, eighteen, was laid to rest in a closed casket ceremony. This morning, the New York Times seized the occasion to piss on his grave. You can find the piece in question online easily enough. I’m deliberately not linking to it, but I will paste the following paragraph, which you’ve probably already seen.

“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor. At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.”

Setting aside the dubious release of the video in question, or the status of the incident it allegedly depicts, the Times piece then goes on to list a whole bunch of ways in which Mike Brown “was no angel,” tracing his delinquency to his earliest years, where he climbed over a toddler gate separating rooms in his house, banged loudly on things, and drew on walls with crayons. Clearly, these behaviors, utterly unthinkable for a normal child, all marked young Mike from the start as a troublemaker. If you don’t believe me, check the DSM: being a “handful” as a toddler and drawing on your home’s walls appear right alongside torturing animals, bedwetting, and compulsively setting fires on the differential diagnostic checklist for malignant psychopathy. In fact, if you draw on the walls with a Sharpie instead of something that can get scrubbed off with a Magic Eraser, the DSM’s recommended interventions are either immediate administration of 100 CCs of Thorazine or a Glock 17 full of hollowpoints, depending on your Health Plan, the child’s melanin pigmentation, and whether or not it’s a psychiatrist or police officer administering treatment.

What’s particularly striking about the Times’ level-headed assessment of the factors that led to Mike Brown’s so clearly deserving to die is its juxtaposition alongside a profile of the police officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, which I’m also not linking to. In that piece, we learn a great deal about how Officer Wilson is by all accounts a quiet, respectable, and low-key man (did we mention quiet? and gentle? and soft-spoken?). Strikingly, this profile offers precious little insight into the type of information that the Times seems to think it’s so vital for us to know about Mike Brown. For example, we are given no glimpse into Wilson’s behavior as a toddler, whether or not he got into any fights in high school, what his grades were, whether or not he had college ambitions, what type of music he may have listened to as a teenager (let alone how violent its lyrics might have been), or whether or not he may have – gasp – drunk alcohol while underage or even – the horror – smoked weed. While the Times can doubtless be forgiven for passing over trivia like whether or not Officer Wilson received training on racial profiling, or what his marksmanship test scores were, I have to admit that I’m shocked, simply shocked that these other critical issues remain unaddressed.

One thing does come, up, though. You see, Officer Wilson had an “unsettled” childhood, insofar as his mother, it turns out, was convicted of felony theft and forgery for stealing the identity of a neighbor in order to purchase “tens of thousands of dollars of candles; home decorations; furniture; clothes, including some from American Eagle Outfitters, which [the neighbor] says was Officer Wilson’s favorite store at the time; and hockey gear.” But whereas Mike Brown was falsely accused of possessing stolen property while in High School – an iPod, the receipt for which his mother had to bring to school in order to exonerate him – the fact that Officer Wilson appears to have spent many of his teenage years wearing stolen clothes makes him an object of pity.

I have no doubt that Darren Wilson’s childhood was hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your mother die young, let alone die in infamy. But contemplate the counterfactual here. What if Brown’s mother had had a similar record to Wilson’s? If it suffices to elide Mike Brown’s residence in a “community that had rough patches” into the broader narrative of his own being insufficiently angelic to be worthy of human life, can you imagine the headlines if his mother had stolen tens of thousands of dollars to spend on bric-a-brac? But we don’t have to imagine the counterfactual – we can just contemplate what’s in front of our faces, printed in our nation’s paper of record. In the case of Mike Brown, his parents’ disciplining him to keep his grades up was a sign their son was out of control, a loose cannon – no angel. Meanwhile, Darren Wilson’s mother’s multiple felonies are none-too-subtly suggested to be what inspired him to pursue a career of quiet, selfless service as an exemplary police officer. In other words: when a black family shows care and discipline toward their teenager, it’s an indictment of his character – he’s no angel. When the white officer who killed him turns out to be raised by a career criminal, it renders him an object of pathos, a paragon of respectability and angelic restraint. Simply being a human being isn’t enough for Mike Brown to deserve life, or respect in death – he has to be angelic to qualify. Meanwhile, every time a black kid is shot, a white cop or vigilante gets his wings.

Smart advice is that you shouldn’t write publicly when you’re angry. But reading these pieces side-by-side I can’t shake it off, and I just have to say it: fuck being an angel.

If being an angel is the bare prerequisite for deserving the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, then we’re all write-offs. If being an angel is the minimum condition for being worthy of mourning instead of slander after you’re gunned down like an animal in our streets, then we’re all fair game.

But of course, and this is the rub of it, it’s only open season on some of us, on the streets and in the press.

When I was a toddler, I was a handful. I’m told that, once, when I was maybe five, sitting in a parked and playing “cops and robbers” with my Dad, I asked him to close his eyes, which he did, and then I promptly hit him over the head with a small fire extinguisher. He needed stitches for that. At summer camp, when I was eleven or twelve, a couple of times, when I got hit by bullies, I pushed back – and I’m ashamed to say I also shoved another kid who hadn’t done anything wrong to me at all; it was just because I was angry and thought that that display would result in my own getting pushed around less (it didn’t). When I was a teenager, I listened to Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Snoop, Busta Rhymes. I shot thousands of digital monsters and Nazis and generic enemy commandos playing computer games, and watched dozens of ultra-violent action movies (John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” was a particular favorite – 307 people are killed on screen in 92 minutes). I snuck into Central Park at night to drink with friends and smoked the occasional joint at a concert. Like pretty much every young boy in this country, I suspect, I showed a “rebellious streak.” Hell, at one party, when I was nineteen, I distinctly remember a cop pulling a gun on me, and that looking down the barrel of that Sig Sauer .40 was like staring down the longest, widest tunnel in the world. When you’re a young boy – a young man – you try on personas. Sometimes, you get into trouble. Sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, you just get lucky – like the character played by Pat O’Brien in the 1938 James Cagney gangster flick (whence the quotation that begins this piece,) sometimes you just run faster than your buddy.

Or sometimes you’re white. Call me crazy for the speculation, but if my 18-year old self had somehow wound up dead in the street under uncertain circumstances, with at least half of a police officer’s sidearm emptied into my face and chest, I suspect that the New York Times wouldn’t have published a bio of me invoking my teenage angst and toddler hijinks to draw the conclusion that I was “no angel.”

The word for “angel” comes from a Greek word for “messenger” – somebody who brings news. Reading the news this morning, on the day a young man is laid to rest, the day a mother and a father bury their child, I have to observe that while a St. Louis police officer’s Beretta can carry 10-15 rounds, more than twice what Darren Wilson pumped into Mike Brown’s body in order to leave him perforated and dead in the street, and although breaking news suggests Wilson fired a full eleven rounds, it took the New York Times only 1,100 words to assassinate Brown’s character in print.

Fuck being an angel, and fuck these messengers.

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.

Ferguson and Bunkerville

It’s a full day of driving from Ferguson, Missouri, to Bunkerville, Nevada. As the crow flies, it’s just over 1,300 miles. But watching what’s been happening in Missouri these past few days, and comparing it to what happened in Nevada just this past April, suddenly a chasm yawns between them.

In Ferguson, a young man is killed by a cop in unclear circumstances, shot at least six times after fleeing and, according to witnesses, despite raising his hands in the air to surrender. The subsequent protest is met with militarized response. The situation escalates, violence ensues. There is looting. Members of the press are arrested. In some quarters, people insist that the young man deserved to die because he allegedly stole several dollars worth of cigars. Never mind that the footage of the alleged theft was leaked by the local PD against DOJ instructions; never mind that the cop who shot him didn’t know that Brown was a suspect at the time of their confrontation; never mind that Brown apparently only came to his attention because the cop had a problem with him walking in the street.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Cliven Bundy, a man whom courts have repeatedly convicted of owing over a million dollars in unpaid taxes, calls for an armed insurrection against a government whose authority he refuses to recognize. Armed activists and militia members flock to his side, blockade a Federal Interstate, train their weapons on police, and proudly self-identify as “domestic terrorists.” But instead of cracking down with their stormtrooper jackboots, authorities withdraw. And the man goes free. He is praised by a Senator and lionized by the right wing media. Only after he crosses the bright-line of publicly yearning for the bygone glory days of the antebellum South and sharing his “thoughts about the negro” do some – but not all – of his supporters back off. And to this day, Cliven Bundy walks free and stands tall, pockets full and sidearm at his hip.

Waiting, tonight, for news from Ferguson, the contrasts sicken me. Of the many ironies, I cannot but think that this is one of the most hideous: last April, Bundy and his ilk curried paranoid fantasies of suffering from the militarized oppression that happens daily in this country to the African-Americans they not-so-secretly despise. Yet it’s Ferguson that burns; Bunkerville hosted a barbecue.

Cliven Bundy makes off with over a million dollars, threatens law enforcement, calls for violent uprising, and is praised as a patriot.

Michael Brown surrenders to a cop, is shot dead, and then is written off as deserving of death for allegedly stealing a pack of smokes.

It’s dark where I’m writing now, in Philadelphia. In twenty minutes, the sun will set over Ferguson. About an hour and a half after that, two time zones west, the sun will go down over Bunkerville, Nevada. What tonight will bring in Ferguson, or the night after, I do not know. I have hopes for peace, for quiet, and, ultimately, for some measure of justice. But while I wouldn’t bet on any of these things for Ferguson, I can guarantee you there’s peace and quiet tonight out there in Bunkerville, and there will be for the foreseeable future. And that fact alone says as much about the realities of American justice as what’s been happening in Ferguson and whatever is to come.

It’s the same sun setting on both places, in the same country, but they might as well be different worlds.

How Not to Respond to Open-Carry Activists

Over at PQED, there’s a post entitled “How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?” The piece is definitely worth a read, and offers some excellent reflections on the quandary of how to interpret what, exactly, someone toting a long gun at the ready in a public space intends to do with it (a dilemma captured succinctly in this cartoon by Ruben Bolling).

But the advice the piece gives as to how to respond to Open Carry activists strikes me as deeply problematic. It reads:

“My proposal is as follows: we should all leave. Immediately. Leave the food on the table in the restaurant. Leave the groceries in the cart, in the aisle. Stop talking or engaging in the exchange. Just leave, unceremoniously, and fast. But here is the key part: don’t pay. Stopping to pay in the presence of a person with a gun means risking your and your loved ones’ lives; money shouldn’t trump this. It doesn’t matter if you ate the meal. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just received food from the deli counter that can’t be resold. It doesn’t matter if you just got a haircut. Leave. If the business loses money, so be it. They can make the activists pay.”

Although the author states that this course of action “will protect people,” I think the opposite is the case. While settling your bill and leaving after telling a manager why you are doing so and then boycotting might be a good response, I do not think that actively fleeing a place of business without paying is prudent, especially if it has just been flooded by a group of armed people, some of whom may take it upon themselves to confront you, self-styled vigilante-fashion, for what they might perceive as an act of theft or robbery. After all, part of the very reason Open Carry activists patronize such establishments is because they claim their presence there stops crime – so why wouldn’t they try to stop you?

It’s especially worth stressing here, if court case outcomes are any indication, that in many states with Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws – all twenty-three of them – someone can arguably shoot you dead for stealing from someone else – even if that someone else isn’t present at the time and you yourself are unarmed. Don’t believe me? Here’s audio of 61-year old retiree Joe Horn of Texas shooting two men in cold blood from across his lawn because he saw them burglarizing his neighbor’s home. As Horn told the operator at the time, “I have a right to protect myself too, sir. The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it.” A grand jury declined to indict Horn. Also, please bear in mind that per SYG you can, in some states, be pursued and killed even after you leave the scene – and your killer can apparently do so with impunity.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Open Carry protestors are emboldened by a particular and deeply troubling relationship of entitlement when it comes to imbuing public space with the implicit (or often not-so-implicit) threat of violence. So, yeah, don’t dine and dash or run out of your barbershop without paying around people with guns. The possibility that someone who’s decided to walk into a restaurant or other business carrying an assault rifle at the ready might then follow you out and confront you if you flee after committing an act of theft – particularly if the already agitated staff or other patrons don’t know what you’re doing – isn’t implausible in the least. Confrontations like that tend to escalate quickly, particularly if you code as someone the armed person is already liable to find threatening in the first place (IE, if you’re non-white). The problem of other minds cuts both ways. And when the person who’s puzzling over your own intentions is already primed to perceive other people as likely to be as ready for violence as they themselves are, the fact that they may perceive you as threatening based upon factors ranging from the speed of your exit to the color of your skin, combined with the fact that they’re packing heat and may have the law, however misguided, behind them, means that you might just wind up dead for trying to prove a point. That’s one of the double binds of Open Carry guntrolling: for now at least, folks have a right to do it, and it can feel intolerable to be held hostage in your daily life by them, especially since if you stick around they’ll claim you support their behavior. But the presence of guns on the scene changes the calculus such that fleeing is possibly the worst idea. Instead, better to be vocal in your counterprotest, settle your bill, leave, boycott – and then pressure your legislators to change the law.