This open carry video has gone viral – you may have seen it. A white man walks down the street carrying a legal AR-15. A police officer stops and questions him. It’s a typical example of open carry activism. The video then cuts to a black man in the same circumstance, with the same weapon. In the second example, police officers draw weapons and put the man – as well as his pregnant friend who is filming – on the ground. Both end up being released without charges, but the difference in how black and white open carry activists are treated is clear.
There is an element in all of these open carry videos, be they black or white individuals, that people miss. It’s the fact that we’re forced to submit to police intimidation regardless. The way many people comment on these events you would think that the open carry activists “get away with” something. The fact is that every one of them is being intimidated and persecuted by police for doing something that is not even against the law.
Imagine if law enforcement felt uncomfortable about some other legal object or attire. Let’s say that the police didn’t like hats worn backwards. Those persons who wore backwards hats were, invariably, contacted by law enforcement as they walked down the street. They were asked why they wore their hats backwards, made to identify themselves, and had their interaction with the police logged. If this happened to you then you might think twice about wearing a hat backwards the next time you went outside.
In short, you’d be intimidated into a specific kind of conformity.
The law itself means little. What I refer to is the words on paper. The law only begins to matter when it is enforced. And the way it is enforced – if it is enforced at all – becomes the true nature of the law. This can be seen in the many laws on the books no longer enforced. It can be seen in police discretionary policies, when departments choose to arrest individuals when they could write a citation instead (e.g. for possession of marijuana). And it can be seen when law enforcement is used, even unintentionally, to harass individuals who haven’t violated the law at all. In all cases, individual police officers shoulder the burden of the law itself and its application.
Open carry activism also demonstrates this: police officers do not want you to be armed. That individuals can carry a weapon, not just in theory but in practice and within a legal context, means we all have a means to protect ourselves. If we’re able to protect ourselves, a large portion of policing services are no longer needed. Indeed, the most crucial, the least controversial – protect us from violence – is made obsolete. We can protect ourselves, thanks.
And that’s a threat to policing. It’s a slap in the face to law enforcement, because it indicates how a major element of law enforcement has already been made obsolete.
Do police officers consider this? Probably not as I’ve stated it. I doubt many police officers think “we must crack down on firearms, because they pose a technological threat to policing and thus to my employment.” But what they do think is, “man with gun, scary to me.” Law enforcement perceives armed, peaceful individuals as a threat. And they are, though not in the spree-shooter, cop-killer sense.
I’ll close with two examples: Bundy Ranch and the Black Panther Party. When armed officials of the US federal governments showed up in the former example, they were forced to back down by a militia. When the Black Panther Party, just a couple of months ago, staged an armed open-carry march through the streets of Texas, the police did not even show up. Armed groups, even small ones, pose a legitimate threat to the very foundations of power. The state is left with little recourse in the face of armed resistance groups, because the fallout – even if the state were to win a live fire conflict – would be a problem. It would undermine the illusions of legitimacy the state has. That’s the greater loss, so the state is forced to take alternate routes: to intimidate individual open carry activists before they engage in collective action, to ignore collective demonstrations completely in an attempt to marginalize them (e.g. with the Black Panther open carry march), or to back down completely (e.g. Bundy Ranch).
All of that taken in context, it is easy to see why firearms have become a crucial aspect of struggle, from George Washington to Karl Marx.