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A Call for Self-Defense in the Face of White Supremacy

Being more moral is no defense against bullets.

White nationalists and neo-Nazis exchange insults with anti-racist counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

White nationalists and neo-Nazis exchange insults with anti-racist counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the 'Unite the Right' rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)White nationalists and neo-Nazis exchange insults with anti-racist counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the ‘Unite the Right’ rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

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“Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky., and prevented it. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.” — Ida B. Wells

“The stranglehold of oppression cannot be loosened by a plea to the oppressor’s conscience.” — Robert F. Williams

In order to self-defend, groups targeted for violence by white supremacists have to first acknowledge in ourselves that we are worthy of defending. Those of us who experience the daily damages of white supremacy and desire its end deserve a world without it.

Our beings and our bodies are not empty things intended to labor in service to a nation that refuses to protect us. A rejection of liberal mythology — the untruth that those who have fallen victim to the atrocities of this nation’s past and present were simply necessary fodder — is an act of preservation and protection for anyone who chooses to strive for liberation. It’s an act that has been increasingly necessary for some time in an increasingly hostile United States. Our future depends on our understanding of self-defense and how it’s applied to the constant crises unfolding around us.

The failures and asininity of party politics should be plain to an exhausted movement against white supremacist violence. Accommodationist brands of politics like centrism and moderatism, which are seen as occupying the “left-leaning” flank of the right-centered political spectrum, have defined themselves by their inability to accomplish progressive change. Politicians in these camps promote themselves through expressing a hollow desire for “equality,” while their neutrality in the face of threatening violence allows the very oppressions they supposedly oppose to thrive. For this reason and more, liberal politics have largely become about the symbolic. Since liberal politicians haven’t been able to consistently secure material improvements for their more vulnerable constituents amid a growing right wing, the need to overemphasize attributes like being better educated and more moral than the far right has grown. Unfortunately, these sorts of things don’t stop bullets.

Centrist liberal politics helped create the situation we’re currently seeing around the US, because of its adherence to the status quo and failure to advance real transformation. A dominant far-right administration is leading a movement toward a more classical, blatantly violent white supremacist US tradition. The hope for a return to the “great” America — one that was more blunt about its white supremacy — is being secured by a malevolent authoritarian presidency that puts the entire country at risk for the sake of white paranoia. For the reinforcement of the white imaginations of those who have been increasingly fearful they’re losing their societal dominance, all lives must be risked. The entire empire was put into the hands of a known egotistical, ignorant political actor simply because he was willing to go the furthest to prove his loyalties to his whiteness in the presidential office. This is where we all are, regardless of how we voted (or didn’t vote), because the US political system is structured not around reflecting popular demand, but around continuing updated iterations of the same old abuses.

The status quo is this capitalist white supremacist empire and the violence that it inflicts daily. “Law and order,” the court systems and all of the white supremacist institutions that forgive vigilante white supremacist movements are aided by liberal politics. Not only have these institutions been founded, operated and infiltrated by white supremacists since the moment the US existed, they are further empowered by them. Dr. King, whose legacy is regularly misappropriated by liberal dishonesty, mentioned this in his letter from the Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

It’s a shame that the insights of this letter, endlessly taught in schools, reposted and reread, bear the need for repeating, but this clear message — that liberal moderatism is inherently flawed — is often ignored. Moderatism aids the damming of social progress, as King stated. It actively deters actual progress by compromising with violence as if it’s tolerable for the sake of progress.

So, many of us must resolve to not depend on the state, liberal idealism or any other unfulfilled promises. We must be prepared, ready and willing to defend ourselves with whatever means we have to do so.

Unfortunately, those who would identify as liberals, progressives and even some leftists in opposition to the right are egregiously behind when it comes to self-defense. The right has largely been allowed to dominate conversations around arms as a means of self-defense through the likes of the Republican Party, NRA, military and policing institutions. Many within these elements have long been stockpiling weapons, which is a regular occurrence. The Guardian reports the “top 14% of gun owners — a group of 7.7m people, or 3% of American adults — own between about eight and 140 guns each. The average is 17.” Allowing this to continue to the extent that it has without any organization is a misstep because of our pressing need to educate, prepare and inform our communities about organized self-defense.

Despite a general reverence among many progressive activists for historical armed rebellions led by Black people, Native people and many other people of color, there’s often a disconnect from arms themselves. The commodification and sterilization of armed Black revolutionary historical leaders like Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Assata Shakur, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois and countless others disarms them in the public imagination. Sometimes they are even remembered in the context of a false, violent-versus-nonviolent (Malcolm X versus King) binary, which employs liberal and white supremacist myths about what violence is. In all actuality Dr. King and Malcolm X were both nonviolent. Anyone who defends themselves by any means necessary when they are being attacked is not the one bringing violence into the world. There is nothing violent about defending your life or the life of your loved ones. The oppressed are not and have not been the aggressors in this white supremacist society, and we should never allow untruths that label us so.

Those who oppose white supremacy and the violences it distributes out in the world should begin arming themselves if they are not already. Kind words, liberal idealism and the state are not guaranteed to protect you. In an escalating bigoted environment where the president refuses to denounce white supremacists, because he is one of them and encourages their violence, many of us are prepared to protect our lives with the same weapons that aggressors would use to attack us. Those who seek to do us harm (regularly including the police) will do so whether we’re unarmed or armed, even with gun permits. Police and other state enforcers should not cause us to willingly make ourselves more vulnerable for the sake of looking more innocent or less guilty in their eyes. Many of us carry the presumption of guilt merely because of our skin color, so we might as well carry the means to safeguard our lives as well. The question of if passivism and respectability can save us has already been answered by the countless killings of Black people who were following all the supposed rules of perfect victimhood. Abandoning some of these rules doesn’t mean that we’re bad, nor does it mean we’re violent; it means that we’re prepared.

Many liberal nonprofits, academic institutions and politicians tell us to engage in civil debate with extremists who want us dead. But for a process like this to work, our opponents would have to see us as humans worth debating in the first place, which they do not. Therefore, pleas for us to depend on the courts and the logics of white society, like prisons, police and prosecutors — institutions that oppress us — means more dying. Yet again, we’re supposed to continue being human sacrifices for the sake of “progress.” However, many of us know that we are more than readymade martyrs who should be willingly brutalized and murdered so that, in the future, self-satisfied people in power can look back and feel all right about taking their time to possibly implement change. We are not logs to be thrown on the fire whenever the US needs to soul search.

We need the resurgence of a sustained understanding of self-defense. This means a movement that doesn’t praise the historical heroics around armed struggle and its revolutionaries while rejecting arms as unnecessary in these times. We need a firm understanding of self-defense as badly as we need a real political opposition and a true anti-capitalist left movement in the United States. Without this, an empowered right is free to go about securing its most terrible desires through open conflict.

Preparedness here may decide if one lives or dies in the worst of scenarios. These horrible possibilities are not unrealistic to consider. There are many graves that serve as a testament to naivete and overly optimistic denial in the face of an empire built on oppression. As much as some would like to think that past atrocities can’t happen again, or that atrocities happening elsewhere can’t happen here, they always can. What makes disaster more preventable is the active mobilization of those willing to make sure it doesn’t reoccur.

Self-defense is survival. We can learn this from the survivors of domestic violence, rape and other forms of gender violence who are criminalized for protecting themselves. Women and girls in our communities who have fought to declare their right to exist are some of our most exemplary models of self-defense. Women who have to defend themselves from violence regularly at work, in their neighborhoods and in their own homes provide us with a model that doesn’t restrict our understanding of survival to one style of defense or weaponry.

Women-led movements to form defense organizations and resist abuse at the hands of anyone — including harmful community members, extremists and the state — provide us with a model of determination we can all learn from. Guns and violence regularly torment many of our communities and turn many people off at just the thought. However, what we’re facing will not hesitate or wait for us to regain control over the daily tragedies of gun violence that feel like a lost cause to many.

The effort to protect what we care for most starts with a revolutionary love that prioritizes, stands by and supports the ones we cherish even amid the violences we know most intimately. That love is the work of overcoming to get closer to collective liberation despite what feels like endless struggle and disappointment.

Ida B. Wells once wrote:

A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.

There’s a rich tradition in many Black families, resistances and communities that embraces armed self-defense. Black defense provides us with a historical handbook. This stretches back to the earliest moments enslaved Africans were brought to this country. Ever since then, many Black Americans have cherished the ability to defend our loved ones from the violences they’ve faced. It’s this history that established the Black American gun clubs and organized movements for self-defense we shouldn’t be pressured to disassociate ourselves from today.

The Black Panthers, whom many of us have looked to as inspiration, once sang a song that instructed, “The revolution has come / It’s time to pick up the gun.” While it’s not necessarily a revolution we’re currently facing, we are still faced with a similar choice: we can continue to risk being killed to somehow prove our lives are worth something, or assert they are through our dedication to defending ourselves and each other.

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