Oppressed communities & self-defense

Feb. 2013 Lowndes

By DANIEL ADAM

The Newtown, Conn., shooting on Dec. 14 has produced a wave of fear. Like other violent tragedies that shake confidence in humanity and heighten feelings of vulnerability, the shooting has widened openings for reactionary politics that threaten the struggles of working and oppressed people.

The two prominent responses to the Sandy Hook shooting appear to be opposed, but are in fact based on compatible political outlooks. Right-wing racists promote the arming of “law-abiding citizens” as the only defense against the “unlawful” and “criminal.” Liberals instead call on the bosses’ state to protect these same “law-abiding citizens” from “criminals” by disarming civilians, or at least by confiscating as many of the more high-powered weapons as possible.

Despite their strategic (and often merely tactical) differences, both perspectives are based on fear of the dispossessed and poor, and lack of confidence in ruling institutions. While right-wingers like Alex Jones may rail against the government, they are very careful to restrict their defense of armed civilians to those holding American citizenship who “abide by U.S. law.”

Anyone familiar with law and the criminal justice system of the United States knows which groups are on and off this list. While the wealthy can steal and murder with impunity, the poor get prison time for unpaid parking tickets, sending their kid to the wrong school, and falling down the stairs while pregnant.

Jones’s formula effectively excludes anyone from the right to bear arms who is targeted for state repression. This of course includes political dissidents, whose activity is periodically outlawed.

Both liberal gun-control proponents and right-wing arms-rights advocates call for the capitalist state to decide who will have arms. This is the political reality underlying the euphemisms of “gun rights” and “gun control.” It’s one reason expanded criminal background checks have emerged as the most politically viable solution: Both sides agree that the oppressed and disobedient are not fit for gun ownership, and that the bourgeois state should decide who is.

To see where these two paths meet, we need only look to Maricopa County, Ariz., where anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio has combined the best of both worlds—an armed volunteer force of 3000 to patrol areas around schools—the same force he uses to carry out anti-immigrant raids.

The left wing of gun-control advocacy may recognize the serious threat that state-backed armed racist vigilantes pose to immigrants, people of color, student activists, teachers, staff, and their unions (to name a few groups). Yet the state that sponsors these vigilantes is the same state that they call on to enforce gun regulations, and with all the force and selectivity and that it enforces other laws.

History shows that the capitalist class and its state apparatus often employ violence to repress militant mass movements for workers’ rights and significant social change. Such repression is generally carried out by police and the military, but when these means are insufficient, the ruling power unleashes racist vigilantes and fascist thugs.

The fascists have little to fear from the capitalist state. On the contrary, they are its most valuable defenders, its defense of last resort. Apart from the capitalist class itself, they are the most loyal social base available. In Greece, where the class struggle is reaching a breaking point, the police have begun openly facilitating the fascist Golden Dawn’s many physical assaults on immigrants, journalists, and others. In some neighborhoods the Golden Dawn appears to have become the de facto police force.

Labor unions and other organizations of struggle have found through bitter experience that they often needed to possess arms in order to survive these attacks. The U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s provides an example that is often overlooked.

Guns and the civil rights movement

In a 1988 interview with Judy Richardson, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), a former leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, explained how SNCC workers persistently found themselves working with local community members who would return fire against white supremacists. One activist, in grappling with this question, asked other members of SNCC, “If they are returning fire, the terrorist groups, what is my position as a SNCC person?”

Said Carmichael: “Nobody in SNCC answered the question. Nobody. And when the question was not answered, it was clear then every SNCC person should make their own individual decision and the decisions were clear … we began to carry guns, ah, probably even a little bit before this statement, which is in the early ’60s, but I’m sure that by 1963, I would say 90 percent of your field staff in SNCC were carrying guns.”

Carmichael related how SNCC organized protection for voters when the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was running Black candidates. In the run-up to elections, white terrorist groups made it clear that Black voters would face serious violence on election day. Recognizing that the Klan was likely to draw on its forces from not just Lowndes County but all across the state, SNCC recruited serious Black youth from several Northern cities to defend voters. Carmichael stated: “They brought heavy guns, much materials. And we also let it be known to the terrorist groups that we were bringing people with guns and we were going to meet fire with fire.”

Like everyone else in the community, the local members of Lowndes County Freedom Organization, many of whom were quite elderly, were already well armed. Carmichael recalled: “You know, the law said, you have to leave your guns X number of feet away from the polling place. So all of them, old women, brought their guns. And this really shocked these young brothers and sisters who were in Chicago and New York and thought, to see these old people carrying guns.”

This kind of practice was hardly confined to SNCC. In “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement,” Lance Hill argues that the appearance of a consistent and pure practice of non-violence was cultivated as part of a political strategy to appeal to white liberals, despite the reality that civil rights activists commonly possessed arms for self-defense against racist violence.

Among numerous other cases Hill cites an account by a visitor to Martin Luther King’s home during the much earlier Montgomery Bus Boycott, who was “alarmed to find an “arsenal” of weapons and discovered that King himself had requested gun permits for his bodyguards.”

Hill’s main subject, the Deacons for Defense, originally formed in 1964 on a low-key basis to defend civil rights activists in CORE and other organizations. Even when they went public in 1965, they initially justified their defense work in the terms of non-violent strategy. This changed as the segregationist forces became more violent. Increasingly, the Deacons made their defense measures more public and turned them into a political issue, even engaging local police in armed confrontations.

Hill shows how the Deacons’ challenge to white supremacists dramatically pushed back vigilante activity and inspired Blacks in a fundamentally different way than non-violent civil disobedience had done. He also makes the case that their public presence as a Black armed group forced the federal government into the first significant steps to neutralize the Klan.

The struggle of the Deacons also shows how gun control is implemented in real life. During a heated struggle in July 1965, the Mississippi governor ordered state police to seize all weapons found in cars or on persons in the city of Bogalusa, saying, “We’re going to run the Deacons out of business and anybody else that’s got pistols and rifles and shotguns.” People knew that this talk of disarming everyone was only a cover to dismantle the one armed Black group in town. And so the Voters League organized a non-violent march on July 14 to oppose the seizure of weapons.

Hill comments: “Nonviolence was ultimately a coalition-based legislative strategy cloaked as religion. In their attempt to assuage white fears of black violence, the national organizations took a stand against self-defense that placed them at odds with local movements besieged by police and Klan violence and hobbled by passive stereotypes. … In truth, defense groups like the Deacons used weapons to avoid violence. And they raised important and legitimate questions about a strategy that pinned its hopes on liberals, organized labor and federal government.”

Politics is primary. No amount of guns can substitute for a clear political program and the ability of a political movement to connect to broad masses. Legal, non-violent tactics are usually preferred when possible. Still, we can learn from the civil rights movement that there are times when the armed self-defense of social movements is not only possible, but necessary.

It is certainly true that much of gun culture in the United States has its roots in white supremacist vigilantism. But the bourgeois state is not an ally that can be counted upon to disarm these groups or defend the targets of their terror. In the final analysis that task is up to the oppressed themselves.

Photo: Lowndes County Freedom Organization ran candidates in 1966 elections but had to counter threats of violence from the Klan.