Arm Thyself

Samuel Mosteller, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said it right: “Nobody is protecting the black community.” He also seemed to say that black Americans may need to arm themselves to protect themselves from the police:

“You stand there, (police) shoot. You run, they shoot. We’re going to have to take a different tack.”

This may seem surprising coming from the head of an organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr., an organization with a significant focus on nonviolent action. King was certainly dedicated to nonviolence for the latter part of his life. Previously, he owned firearms for self-defense. But this is neither here, nor there. King did his part of the civil rights movement, nonviolently, but so did the Black Panthers and the Deacons for Defense. It was ultimately a combination of tactics from assorted groups, “violent” and nonviolent, that forced a change in the political environment.

Unfortunately, change in the social environment does not always follow on the heels of legislative change. Just as freed slaves – men and women previously deprived of education, family, life experience and all advantages of free society – were not able to participate on an even ground, the civil rights movement did not rectify all inequality in American society. We see that today, especially, in the black prison population and police violence against black individuals. (Not that everyone isn’t liable to be a victim of police violence. But the odds are higher if you’re also a member of any group the police target with special vigor.)

I imagine Mosteller’s statement will be followed up with some condemnation for the mere hint that we dare to protect ourselves from the police. And perhaps that anyone would dare to fight for their rights outside of a politically-approved form of nonviolence. We’re fortunate that individuals and communities, including those absolutely dedicated to pacifism (e.g. Quakers), were not so rigid in tactics during the days of slavery. We’re also fortunate that abolitionists in Bleeding Kansas didn’t submissively submit to the whims of a more aggressive opposition.

Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by a reading of Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience). In this tract, Thoreau shared his own experience of refusing to pay taxes and he made an argument for civil disobedience. (That’s breaking bad laws, in fancy talk.) This is one of my favorite writings of all time; it’s easy to understand the impact it had on King.

But we’d be wrong to derive pure pacifism from this. When we read Civil Disobedience we can’t lose sight that Thoreau also wrote A Plea for Captain John Brown. This was Thoreau’s defense of a man who led a guerrilla attack on a federal arms depot to secure weapons for a slave revolt. The shared message of both is resistance. That’s the message we should not lose sight of: resist in any way.

The article More African-Americans Support Carrying Legal Guns For Self-Defense reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr. A black pastor in Detroit, Haman Cross Jr., told his congregates to consider carrying concealed handguns. When Martin Luther King Jr. began civil rights activism, before he shifted toward strictly nonviolent resistance, he also applied for a concealed weapon permit. He was refused at first because the white police force didn’t like the idea of a black man carrying a gun.

Unfortunately, Cross may not grasp the big picture:

“I love the Lord; I’m a Christian,” he says. “But like I told the congregation, let’s send a message right in front. I want the word out in the community, if you steal any of our cars, I’m coming after you.”

Jesus wouldn’t have approved of your concealed carry. He especially would not have approved of carrying a handgun to the purpose of protecting your financial assets and private property. This is the Jesus of “resist not evil,” “turn the other cheek” and “give whomever compels your cloak your shirt as well.” Moreover, any black man in Detroit who tries to track down a car thief with a gun is going to end up in prison. You’d be lucky if you weren’t charged with a crime even in a life or death self-defense situation.

In the same article Ron Scott, a former Black Panther, seemed to get the idea better:

“I’ve been shot,” he says. “And a gun would not have saved me.”

Ron Scott says a generation ago, Black Panthers like him used guns as a symbol of resistance against an oppressive government. And he still supports the Second Amendment. But he says these days, his activism is more about bringing peace to black neighborhoods. He thinks concealed guns are making that harder.

Think carefully about the implications of this. First, it’s usually too late for the person who is attacked to defend themselves. We hear the occasional story of someone with a weapon stopping a violent crime – and that’s just fine – but more often than not if someone is coming for your life with a gun you’re not going to get a chance to shoot first. A firearm really isn’t designed for that kind of defense. It is useful as a broader defensive strategy, but not so much in individual disputes.

Firearms are designed for offense. When Scott says that Black Panthers used guns as a symbol of resistance against an oppressive government he hit the nail on the head. That is exactly what firearms are for. In fact, that is what the Second Amendment was written for. It wasn’t so you could shoot a bear. And it wasn’t so you could stop someone from stealing your car. It was to form independent militias that serve to check the power of the state – and to use violence to intervene when the state oversteps it boundaries.

I am sure it is frustrating to have your car stolen. Nonetheless, a gun is not the tool for that problem. If we want to end car theft (or any form of property crime) we need to focus on the root issue: why people are forced to steal for sustenance in the first place. If you want to hail back to the Second Amendment, don’t forget what firearms were used for when it was written. And if a gun shows up on the scene let’s at least hope it is pointed in the right direction – not at a car thief, but at the political and economic forces that create thieves.


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