The anniversary of the Newtown school massacre this month marks a year of intense anxieties around gun violence – now even the suburbs that grew from ‘white flight’ are not safe. The Newtown massacre is perhaps symbolic of the violence codified into the American white men settler mindset, while black children are simultaneously classed as criminal as seen with George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Analysis of failed gun control efforts in 2013 has to factor in the US history of violence and racism.
If class is as important to Britain as wine is to France, then race is the equivalent form of social coding in the US. The US is a settler colonial society defined by the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. Black slaves built the US, but weren’t awarded the citizenship to go with it. Black Americans are permanently marked outside of the American Dream and immigration-based aspirations for capitalist liberty. Middle-class prosperity for black Americans has been driven by government employment through the Post Office and public schools, or the safety net of Head Start and food stamps. It is no coincidence small government conservatives view these programs with such hostility. While President Obama has tacked a moderate line on racism, he recognises it isn’t a ‘distraction’ from other issues: it is the issue, tying up every US policy debate ranging from housing to education.
The 2nd amendment was never meant to protect slaves: it was whites-only, to defend slaveholders and settlers fighting indigenous people. A majority of Americans supported a handgun ban during the 1950s white middle-class golden age. Support for a ban plummeted as the civil rights movement advanced – there was a simultaneous resurgence of pro-gun rights and small government conservatism that privileged white resources and suburbs. NRA rhetoric often reveals a visceral obsession with the Civil War and threats to white Americans’ control. They are not found when Marissa Alexander fires a warning shot to defend herself from an abusive partner, or when Renisha McBride is shot by a homeowner after seeking help.
Why is Marissa Alexander unable to stand her ground, but Zimmerman is? Despite what many liberals believe, civil equality and opportunities for middle-class prosperity cannot dismantle deeply entrenched racism. Slavery and segregation were not anomalies, but a means of continuing white settler control; mass imprisonment of young black men became ‘The New Jim Crow’, a new economy that destroyed black prosperity. It is easier to reduce racism to an individual level, to say Trayvon Martin should have pulled his hoodie down and his pants up to avoid provoking Zimmerman’s ire – to isolate it from the terrorism black communities have experienced. The prosecution did not delegitimise the racial profiling embedded in US society. ‘Presumption of innocence’ for Zimmerman wasn’t enough: Trayvon was given the presumption of guilt.
The Aurora and Newtown shootings were ‘not supposed to happen’ and can be used to endorse gun regulations. But the extrajudicial killings of black people by vigilantes or cops once every 28 hours cannot. Gun control arguments are literally, whitewashed, to not discuss how US police are armed and regularly gun down black people – reminding them of their fragile hold on American citizenship. Gun rights support is deeply rooted in maintaining white men settlers’ control. ‘Standing Your Ground’ as a white colonial settler is how you defend your rights vis-à-vis the government – ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws protecting ‘self-defence’ empower the settler mindset and ‘white-on-black killings’. But the freed slave standing their ground is a sign of impending tyranny – undermining order and property. When Trayvon Martin and CeCe McDonald defend themselves, or Marissa Alexander ‘bears arms’, they’re considered an existential threat. The NRA claim guns are essential against government tyranny, but do not consider extrajudicial killings of black people to be tyrannical. Tyranny is instead ‘European-style socialism’ that increases black prosperity, or Assata Shakur escaping to Communist Cuba in a ‘blow to white consciousness’.
Limiting black gun ownership, rather than the number of bullets a magazine can hold, is an accepted form of gun control. Outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – the leader of national gun control efforts – holds up mass stop-and-frisking of young black men as an essential gun ‘control’ measure. In Chicago, gun violence is a public health crisis: there is a PTSD epidemic among Chicago youth from witnessing shootings. The Democratic leadership’s response to this community breakdown has been to impose mandatory minimum sentences on gun offences, expanding the incarceration feeding the cycles of violence. Simultaneously, they have closed over 50 schools in mostly black areas while criminalisation of classroom misbehavior has created a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’. While resistance to NYPD stop-and-frisk policies – and broader police and extrajudicial harassment – is growing, police militarisation remains untouched.
Regulations are necessary in any system allowing gun ownership. But if gun control legislation advances in 2014, the system will continue to function to criminalise the Trayvons, Renishas, CeCes, Assatas, and Marissas. The Democratic establishment separates gun violence from community breakdown. They commandeered the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary and are terrified of a ‘new’ civil rights movement that could disrupt the status quo, namely black support for the Democratic Party. As with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the current battle is to rebuild communities paralysed by economic divestment and extrajudicial terrorism – inextricable from the cycles of gun violence. The March’s legacy is apparent in the fast food strikes aiming for a $15/hour wage, recognising low-paying jobs as a form of communal divestment: the demand for a $2/hour wage would be worth $14 now. Similarly, the Chicago Teaching Union’s strikes and resistance to school closures are a more effective attempt to stop the cycle of violence in Chicago schools than focusing on preventing one mass murderer getting in.
This peculiarly American form of gun violence is not a disease of the Second Amendment alone, separated from the US history of violent slavery and racism. Gun control can’t be disconnected from police harassment, mass incarceration, school closures, or indeed mass PTSD in Chicago. Disarmament of police requires the emergence of a ‘new civil rights movement’ to tackle the criminalisation, poverty, and extrajudicial terrorism that perpetuate the cycles of US gun violence.