Tag Archives: race

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.

The Velocity of Rage

“I decided to purchase the Glock 34 semiautomatic pistol, an efficient and highly accurate weapon. I signed all of the papers and was told that my pickup day was in mid-December. That fell in nicely, because that was when I was planning on staying in Santa Barbara till. After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.”

– from Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” My Twisted World

Early Saturday morning, the headlines were dominated by news of gun violence in the West – a “drive-by” in Southern California. Doubtless the first impression of many readers upon seeing those headlines was that they referred to some horrific episode of gangland violence – maybe a LA drug deal gone bad, with a body count high enough to make national news.

Within hours, though, the coverage morphed. The six dead victims weren’t gangbangers, they were “normal” people, including several students at the University of Santa Barbara. The crime scene wasn’t some bombed-out lot in South Central, it was in the prosperous beachside community of Isla Vista. And the perpetrator, who was also dead, wasn’t some drug-dealing Blood – he was 22 year-old Elliott Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker. Suddenly, the “drive-by” had become a “mass murder.”

As with the coverage of all mass murders, an immediate propensity to label Rodger a mentally ill “spree killer,” was on display, particularly within the pro-gun community.  But the question of Rodger’s psychiatric diagnosis is not just thorny but also fundamentally irrelevant. Determining whether, as his family claims, Rodger suffered from an Asperger’s-spectrum disorder, or, as seems more plausible to me, he was a malignant narcissist, is a red herring. This is not only because such speculation plays into a documented media tendency to over-emphasize mental illness as a factor in gun violence, nor because it ignores the fact those with mental illness are some five-to-six times more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. The real problem is that focusing on Rodger’s individual pathology sidesteps the fact that his actions are symptomatic of sicknesses that are social, on the upswing, and far-too-often ignored.

Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny powerfully identifies Rodger’s actions as acts of terroristic violence part-and-parcel of an existing ideology of misogynist extremism. Penny writes:

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

This analysis is brilliant, and, I think, absolutely right. Echoing Penny’s argument, I would also add that Rodger’s sense of frustrated masculine entitlement very much resonates with the misogyny that seethes just beneath the surface of some of most militant pro-gun extremism, and with issues of racial and financial privilege as well. Like Adam Lanza, the twenty year- old shooter at Sandy Hook, Rodger came from a background of incredible wealth and opportunity. Much as Nancy Lanza purchased numerous guns that she gave Adam as gifts, Rodger’s mother bought him a BMW 328i – the vehicle he used in his rampage – “to give him confidence.”

Just as it is hard to imagine an African-American mother spending thousands of dollars on guns to give her teenage son, it seems equally hard to imagine that a young black boy who had experienced numerous previous encounters with police and who had posted disturbing messages on the internet, as Rodger had, would be free to drive a luxury car around the California boardwalk instead of languishing in Juvenile Detention or worse. By the same token, it seems hard to imagine that, were Rodger black, largely white Men’s Rights advocates would sympathize with his experience of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” for “blonde sluts.” In fact, Rodger himself found it “rage-inducing” to see a “black guy chilling with 4 hot white girls.”

To borrow a metaphor from psychiatrist Daniel Schechter the causes of violence, like extreme weather events, are multifactorial and, to some extent, impossible to predict. The interaction of wind shear and pressure differentials and atmospheric humidity can transform balmy skies into a tornado in a matter of minutes. With societies and individuals, the dynamic systems that produce violence are even harder to track, and acts of violence even more difficult to anticipate. To take but one example: insecure white men can be dominated by fears of black male sexuality, and not infrequently buy guns to defend “their” women against it – although of course the harsh statistical reality is that those guns are much more likely to be used by those men against their wives or partners than defending them against home invaders. Such acts of violence are not directly predictable, nor reducible to any single causative factor, but the bodies are very real all the same.

In the case of Rodger, where details are still being disclosed, things also seem particularly murky. But some of the interlocking, precipitating forces are visible even now, and they are both individual and collective: scorned white privilege and class entitlement in a feedback loop with festering misogynistic rage, for starters. And at the center of this particular storm, the inevitable, precipitating ingredient: guns.

There are few more brutal and irrevocable ways to subject others to your fantasies of power, to make them suffer your rage, than with a gun. Elliot Rodger may not have been as swift or smooth as he might have wished when it came to meeting women – and even his BMW’s top speed of 140 mph apparently didn’t make up for that lack of confidence – but none of that ultimately mattered, because had three handguns and thirty-odd ten-round magazines of bullets that could go 1,500 feet per second into the bodies of people he had never met.

We live in a country where public space can become the stage for some demented person’s acting out their rage, their brokenness, their hate. Although born of impotence, the velocity of their fury is deadly – it can collide with us at any time, in any place. On Friday, that place was Isla Vista.

 

 

Not Just For My Son

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.

Lucia McBath

Lucia McBath

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.”

COPYRIGHT JASON FRANCISCOMy 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.

If you want read more about the NRA Board, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about the geographic breakdown of gun violence in America’s inner cities, I recommend this article.

Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.

On Shellie Zimmerman, the Guns of Patriarchy, and American Double Standards

Via the redoubtable Tressie McMillan Cottom, I came across this phenomenal piece by Robert Reece at Still Furious and Brave. It’s called Shared Victimhood and Redemption Through Racism and is about the similarities between Shellie Zimmerman, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the killer of Trayvon Martin, and Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the murderers of Emmett Till.

Like Bryant, who stood by her husband during his trial, Shellie Zimmerman aided her husband in his — to the point of committing perjury. Also like Bryant, who went on to divorce her husband, Shellie Zimmerman is now seeking separation from hers. And in her bid to divorce him – and presumably also to gain some media exposure – Shellie Zimmerman is invoking his killing of Martin much in the same way as Carolyn Bryant did her husband’s killing of Till: as evidence of her abusive partner’s capacity for violence.

In other words, both represent cases of (white) women leveraging their husband’s killing of  black children — outrages that went shamefully unredressed by the criminal justice system — in bids to claim victim status and exert their own right to vindication and compensation in a court of law. As Reece devastatingly puts it: “Zimmerman and Bryant opportunistically use the boys’ murders as proof of their husbands’ capacity for abuse when they benefit from shared victimhood, but they uphold their husbands in court through their testimony when they seek to defend white supremacy.”

Reece’s piece is absolutely on-point and raises a ton of deeply complicated, nuanced questions. Without gainsaying the legitimacy of Bryant and Zimmerman’s status as victims of domestic violence, Reece forces us to confront not just the irreducibility of different experiences of suffering modes of white patriarchal oppression — violence against women versus violence against non-whites and blacks in particular — but also the ways in which the former exists in relation to the latter. What are we to make of a situation wherein white women — who are undeniably victims of violence and oppression themselves — can capitalize on the undeniable, unavenged victimization (murder!) of black children as a means of liberating themselves from the immediate violence of white patriarchy in their households — while simultaneously doubling-down on and reinforcing its injustice?

The women themselves seem quite aware that this situation is a delicate one. Their tarrying with white patriarchal violence requires what Reece calls a “colorblind abuse picture” – both Zimmerman and Bryant “openly wonder about the details of each event, but they stop short of saying that the murders were racially motivated or that their husbands should have gone to prison.” They must do this not just because the analogies between themselves and the boys their husband killed is deeply faulty — they are alive and advocating for themselves in the court of law, not dead and failed by the justice system — but also because, on a much deeper level, the narrative of the potential victimization of white women is constantly marshaled as a pretext for violence against black males. As Reece puts it, “If they [Zimmerman and Bryant] chose to acknowledge the racialized elements of their husbands’ actions they would be forced to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible as white men’s violent outbursts against people of color are often patriarchal attempts to protect white women.”

I think this is totally right. The narrative of white women qua potential victims of black male violence — a fantasized, imaginary, paranoid fear that says more about the white men who cultivate and are dominated by it than it does about actual day-to-day reality — is indeed deeply ingrained in American history (as Reece himself has chronicled). Moreover, and here’s where my own research interests come into play – this narrative is also, I think, pervasive in much of contemporary American gun culture.*

It is a manifest but frequently under-appreciated fact that the dominant contemporary “Second Amendment advocacy” / firearms industry lobbying group – the National Rifle Association – owes its current, aggressively far-right incarnation to an organizational transformation in the late 1970s that was driven in large part by a rise in crime rates and white fear of nonwhites and of  urban blacks in particular. Moreover, the man who more or less singlehandedly engineered that transformation – Former NRA President Harlon Carter – was himself responsible for shooting and killing a 15-year old Latino boy.

By the same token, much of contemporary gun advertising trades heavily in themes of patriarchal masculinity. Gun ownership is a sign of virility, a way to “Get Your Man Card Back.” The paradigmatic exercise of this virility is for a man to protect “his” womenfolk – wives, girlfriends, daughters – and this represents a constant trope in the burgeoning internet boards devoted to “Defensive Gun Use” stories. Guns are pitched to men as devices for protecting women — from whatever or whomever it is those men fear, rationally or otherwise.

If, in the general American imagination, one of the primary things guns are for is for men to protect women, then it also entirely makes sense that nowadays women can and are encouraged to use them to protect themselves. Guns are ever more frequently marketed to women directly, fashion accessorized and all. And when it came to the (successful) pushback against a possible renewed Assault Weapons Ban only a month after Sandy Hook, it was a female lawyer and activist, Gayle Trotter, who took to the Senate floor to conjure an entirely fabricated scenario wherein a totally hypothetical woman would need a tricked-out,  “scary looking” combat rifle to fend off no less than five “hardened criminal” attackers all at once.

In light of this, I have a question or two. First, some caveats. I am in no way challenging a woman’s right to carry a weapon to protect herself or others. Nor am I denying the existence of entirely reasonable, totally understandable circumstances and experiences that could lead her to make that choice – and righteously so.** Nor still am I challenging the right of anyone – men included – to choose to own a gun to protect themselves or those who need protection. That right is and remains law ratified by the Supreme Court.

But I must ask: When white American men (and, increasingly women) buy guns to protect themselves, what color is the attacker that they fear? What faces do they give the imaginary home invaders when they hear the white Gayle Trotter’s ludicrous story – are they the ruddy Cornish farmhands from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or are they are something several shades darker?

I fear that we already know what far too many of the answers would be. For my part, much of the hate-mail I’ve received from my writing about my personal experiences with firearms – testosterone-fueled, vitriolic tirades that are not just sexist and homophobic but also thoroughly racist – has left me with little illusion on that score.

And I’ll ask something else, even though I’m eager to be proven wrong: Why aren’t there any glossy ads for handguns featuring a black woman – even her hand? And I fear we know the answer to this too: because when a black woman even threatens to exercise the right we so ghoulishly bestow on George Zimmerman, she doesn’t even get the chance of becoming Shellie Zimmerman. She becomes Marissa Alexander.

Here’s the upshot, what I’m driving at, and what I’ve been thinking about since reading Robert Reece’s provocative and brilliant piece. We live in a country where both the claim to victim status and the right to legally threaten and exercise violence are all too often the prerogatives of white supremacy, and are appropriated from inflicted and upon black folks. Denying or ignoring this state of affairs only reaffirms it – and capitalizing on it, as I think Shellie Zimmerman is doing, and also as, in their way, the NRA and many gun manufacturers do – only makes the suffering, and, yes, the violence, worse.

______________________

*I realize that this term is somewhat of a generalization and that “gun cultures” might be more apt. If there’s interest, I can elaborate on this later on.

**I do, though, feel obligated to reference the complex and troubling data on the relationship between the presence of guns in homes where domestic violence has occurred and the likelihood that women will be killed by their partners. See here and here for some information on that subject.