The police will show up in riot gear. Rights are not held but hard-won.
(Warning: content depicts violence, viewer discretion advised; photo sources: source 1, source 2, source 3)
Who gets to survive– I mean, exercise– the Second Amendment is not colorblind. In the 1960’s, the NRA agreed with disarming African American activists who protested on the California statehouse steps with arms, the NRA pushing for legislation to keep guns out of their hands. Fifty years later, the NRA refused to defend Philandro Castile, who legally possessed a licensed firearm was shot and killed by police during a routine traffic stop (in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old-daughter), moving from open opposition to willing silence on the right of African Americans to legally own firearms. Eventually, the NRA would call the murder a “tragedy” but say little else. Black NRA defender Colion Noir called the murder and the officer’s acquittal what it is: racism, stating, our country has a “problem with . . . dismissing racism wholesale when it isn’t overt racial slurs or crosses burning on front lawns.”
Meanwhile, the rates of police violence against people of color means African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police–– at a rate of 1 in every 1,000 African American boys or men killed by police, compared to 39 in every 100,000 white boys or men. According to another study, African Americans are afraid of the police and view police violence against civilians as very serious; whites, on the other hand, trust the police and see violence against civilians as, just, moderately serious or not too serious at all. The reality is, police terror is felt by and falls disproportionately on people of color.
What does that mean for legally owning or carrying firearms? In a famous YouTube video experiment in 2015, a white man open carried an AR-15 down the street and was peacefully questioned by an officer but allowed to continue; a black man open carried an AR-15 down the street and was met by a police officer with a drawn firearm, shouting at him to get down on the ground, the officer called for back-up, four police vehicles spun up within minutes, and the man was arrested.
In 2019, Jordan Klepper and Kobi Libii hosted an episode documenting an armed group of white protesters (Open Carry Texas) and an armed group of black protesters (Guerrilla Mainframe) at two public protests in Texas. The white group carried arms along a parade route where police smiled and shook their hands. The black group carried arms down a sidewalk to outside a football stadium where police shouted confrontationally, yelled, and followed them with cruisers, the situation visibly tense (no smiling or shaking hands).
The episode continues: the white leader of Open Carry Texas discusses his anti-police social media posts, stating he’d love to see some bloody cops, and agreeing that he supports, “Violence toward people who are violent” (alluding to violent police officers). The black leader of Guerrilla Mainframe states, similarly, that he posted on social media that a police shooting was “deserved,” but he was subsequently arrested and prosecuted as a “black identity extremist” (the first time the FBI ever arrested and prosecuted someone for being a so-called “black identity extremist”). The juxtaposition– while just two examples– shows two very different lived realities. While encouraging violence against anyone, including supporting the tragic shooting of police officers, is wrong and horrific, what this story shows is that a white man posted about killing cops and lived to laugh about it; a black man posted that cops deserved to die and was arrested and prosecuted by the FBI. While we can debate whether either of the man’s words were protected or unprotected speech, the fact is, they expressed the same extreme view, both support and carry arms, actively protest carrying guns, and one has experienced a state crackdown on his words and behavior. The other hasn’t. This isn’t just about the Second Amendment. The First Amendment is not free either.
When I ask my friends generally if people of color can exercise their First and Second Amendment rights together and with equal rights as whites, without fear of violence or retaliation, they point me to the water canons, tear-gassing, and pellet bullets used against Native Americans protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, a site that maps police killings (African Americans representing 24% of killings in 2019 but only 13% of the population), and federal policies systematically marginalizing, impoverishing, and disenfranchising people of color in this country throughout the past century. I personally remember a friend being maced in the face during peaceful protests in St. Louis in 2017. Some of my friends message me back, shaking their heads: Isn’t it obvious that the First and Second Amendment aren’t experienced the same? These truths are self-evident.
But this year, when (mostly) armed (primarily) white people storm state capitol buildings to rally for gun rights, or to protest coronavirus shutdowns, the privilege of an armed public protest does not seem self-evident to some. The King Center tweets that the same protest by blacks would have been deadly; some respond with incredulity at the tweet. It is the incredulity that shakes me when I see it. How can people not see– at the very least– the possibility that this protest would have been treated differently if the group of protesters going up the steps of public buildings en masse and with arms were black? Black men are afraid to wear masks in public for their own health and the safety of others during a pandemic, much less gather up firearms and storm public buildings right now. It turns out, this truth I hold to be self-evident–that racism affects the ability of people of color to exercise their First and Second Amendment rights in the way that whites exercise it– is not a self-evident truth.
While I wanted to retaliate, force feed the doubters what I see so strongly to be the truth, I realize that I cannot save those who cannot see it. I can only ring out the evidence, gather it, display it, where I can– to say, I believe it, I see it, not all whites are blind. Not all of us have our heads in the sand. We know. We see the system and its inequities and while we may not win every Twitter argument with someone who doesn’t, at least I can speak for myself, I will beat on the gong until I’m blue– this country and its rights were made for all but have not been given freely to all. Until they are, we protest (but maybe leave the firearms at home).