Tony was the first gun-toting revolutionary I ever met. A Jewish African-American studies major, he quoted Frantz Fanon in the twilight of the Reagan era. When he popped by the school cafeteria, he was usually upset about something – the frat-boy student government, the state of Black America, a shop owner admonishing a customer, “Don’t Jew me.” Tony once vowed if a revolt suddenly “went down” in Baltimore, where we went to college, he would join in. “It would be premature,” he said, but he would nonetheless grab his assault rifle and give his life fighting alongside the rebelling urban underclass. I thought, “This guy has a death wish.”
I didn’t realize how right I was. One day in the cafeteria, someone said, “Did you hear about Tony? He killed himself. Gun to the head.” Rumor was his young wife and baby daughter were at home when he did it.
I’ve been thinking about Tony and what he represented in terms of the left’s relationship to guns. Namely, why is it that so many leftists – and by leftists, I’m referring to self-described radicals and revolutionaries, not liberals – are against gun control?
Despite the Aurora and Newtown massacres, it’s almost impossible to pass effective gun-control measures. It’s not enough to attribute lax gun laws to our founding mythology, a violent culture or the power of the gun lobby. After all, same-sex marriage has triumphed, and reproductive rights still exist, despite the same mix of power, money and culture in the opposition’s corner.
What’s missing from the pro-gun-control camp is a genuine grassroots campaign, and that’s where the left comes in. Pick an issue and the left is organizing around it – climate justice, labor, rape culture, immigrant rights. But why not gun control? Because, most leftists, myself included, agree with the principle Tony advocated, which is political violence – meaning collective self-defense – is a necessary though not sufficient means of securing freedom from a violent state.
Before you equate radical with bomb-thrower, realize Americans, with few exceptions, support state violence. Yet some support gun rights and some oppose it. Many leftists are in the former camp. To confirm this, I asked a couple thousand Facebook “friends” if they opposed gun control and their reasons why. The responses came pouring in:
“Is a state monopoly on arms in the best interests of the working class?”
“Gun laws, much like drug laws, are used to oppress the poor and people of color.”
“We can’t have a revolution without them.”
“Governments already have too much of a monopoly on violence and we will one day have to bring this one down.”
“I’ll be damned a cop can have a gun but I can’t.”
“Gun control laws … are another step down the incline to a full-fledged police state.”
“[I support] the right to bear arms – because I’m horrified that racist whites are heavily armed in areas of the country that oppose democratic rights.”
Judging from these comments, many leftists agree with the right that the biggest threat to society is not mentally ill shooters like Adam Lanza. It’s the state. The implication is that the solution to a society with too many guns is more guns. That’s why leftists tend to shrug off gun control. They see it as impinging on their freedom, or at least as something that doesn’t affect them.
But I’m rethinking this position and now conclude that a society awash in guns is more of a detriment to the left project of emancipation than a means to secure it.
This is not an abstract argument. Obama’s gun-control push is on the ropes after the bill banning semi-automatic pistols and weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines, died in the Senate. Remaining measures include providing resources for school “tip lines, surveillance equipment, secured entrances” – such as metal detectors and armed police – and enabling the use of National Guard troops to “ensure schools are safe.” That’s right. The response to guns in schools is to put soldiers cradling machine guns in schools.
Without bottom-up pressure, like the campaign that’s blocked the Keystone XL pipeline thus far, legislation is beholden to those with the most money and lobbyists, in this case the NRA and gun manufacturers. As liberals and gun-control NGOs play an inside game, they lack the skills, base and inclination to organize the kind of movement that can disrupt the balance of forces.
Loathe to grant the state more power, leftists have sat out the gun debate. However, every Aurora and Newtown convinces a terrified public to trade civil liberties for security, allowing the police, already equipped with tanks, armed helicopters and drones, to gain more weapons, more powers, more surveillance and less oversight. Ironically, much of the left’s energy is focused on reining in police powers, such as campaigns spearheaded by Cop Watch, Stolen Lives, INCITE!, and Critical Resistance, and extending to projects led by liberals and libertarians in the NAACP, ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Thus, the left should connect the dots by framing gun restrictions as part of the effort to limit police powers, abuses and surveillance. Unlike the right, the left does not believe the state of nature is a war of all against all. Central to the left project is demilitarizing society, and by using this as the umbrella, gun control can provide an opening to shackle the state instead of the people. But first, the left needs to rethink the role that violence plays in social change.
Let me explain. My journey was different than Tony’s (he was an ex-Marine), even though I arrived at the same conclusion, that violence from below is often legitimate. I began my political education devouring works by Gandhi, King and Gene Sharp, solidifying my belief that nonviolence alone would triumph. Reading the Managua Lectures by Noam Chomsky shattered my naiveté. In his signature style, Chomsky mined the official record to demonstrate how the US government greets peaceful change with violent terror. President John F. Kennedy admitted as much in 1962 when he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” With shamefully few exceptions, conservatives and liberals, corporations and unions, pundits and intellectuals, supported the cold war.
Soon, I was marching in support of armed revolutionaries in El Salvador and South Africa. At the same time, I was being arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, alongside storied Catholic pacifists like Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, to oppose US policies repressing these movements.
There is nothing contradictory about the two approaches. The Farabundo MartíNational Liberation Front in El Salvador and the African National Congress in South Africa calibrated the mix of violent and nonviolent tactics that would best advance their struggles according to “the constellation of forces.” Movements turn to violence after nonviolence alone proves futile, as in Southern Africa, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iran, Palestine, Guatemala and Syria. Of course, popular violence is often defeated, and some violent tactics, like suicide bombings, are self-defeating. A New York Times article on nonviolent resistance in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh observes that Palestinians there “insisted they had the right to armed resistance; they just don’t think it works.” As such, they viewed suicide bombings not as “a moral error so much as a strategic one.”
Nonviolence can work for limited campaigns or to change the political class, as the civil rights movement and Egypt’s democratic revolt did. But rarely, if ever, does nonviolence uproot the old order. Governments crush nonviolent movements all the time, as in Czechoslovakia and Mexico in 1968, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Bahrain in 2011. Nonviolent resistance alone is futile against the Pentagon, as proved by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As for the Indian independence struggle, it left relatively untouched caste divisions, the grip of rural landholders over the peasantry and the capitalist economy.
One has to dissect the social context: What are your vision and goals? Who is in your camp? Who is sitting on the fence? Who opposes you? Only then can a movement determine which tactics are likely to build support and power that can undermine their opponents while bringing their vision to fruition. This analytical process becomes evident in when and how leftists decide which armed resistance movements to support.
For example, when Israel, the US muscle in the Middle East, pummeled Lebanon in 2006, leading left-wing intellectuals, including Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, Judith Butler, John Berger, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali and Ken Loach, published a “Statement in Solidarity with the Peoples of Lebanon and Palestine.” It decried “The deliberate and systematic destruction of Lebanon’s social infrastructure by the Israeli air force [as] a war crime, designed to reduce that country to the status of an Israeli-US protectorate,” and offered “our solidarity and support to the victims of this brutality and to those who mount a resistance against it.” On one level, it’s an unremarkable statement, as the right to resist illegal wars and occupations is enshrined in international law. But they were also boldly acknowledging that only Hezbollah’s trained army, not protests, tweets or petitions, could counter Israeli aggression.
The domestic situation is more complex. H. Rap Brown hit the bull’s-eye when he quipped, “Violence … is as American as cherry pie.” The mile markers of US history are colonization, genocide, slavery, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, World Wars, cold war, Korea, Vietnam and globe-spanning coups, counter-revolutions, drug wars, proxy wars, secret wars, drone wars and the war on terror.
The public, liberals included, reflexively backs state violence. Only in America is a state headed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s bombed seven countries and asserts the right to globalized kidnapping, torture and secret kill lists not seen as the grotesque absurdity it is. On top of that, Americans gorge on violent movies, television, video games and sports, as they blindly support state violence – a mere 4 percent of the public “strongly opposes” drone strikes against terrorist “suspects” – but they will denounce “violent anarchists” if a scrawny black bloc protester smashes a Starbucks window. The left wants to overturn this order, but it knows the hammer will come down on it for anything but peaceful dissent. So the left has shunned violence for years. Some hapless youth might get ensnared in FBI terror plots, but left-wing leaders aren’t making threats about “Second Amendment remedies” or brandishing guns and placards invoking the warning, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Despite living in a deeply violent society, armed resistance is suicidal, as even Tony recognized. So I call myself a “strategic pacifist,” meaning violence is counterproductive under present conditions. Even property destruction has become self-defeating, as shown last year on the West Coast, where prosecutors jumped on incidents of window-breaking to repress Occupy Wall Street-related movements. At the same time, I argue that categorical pacifism – secular advocates of which are about as common as green penguins – is ahistorical and apolitical because it imposes a one-size-fits-all ideology, denying the specifics of history and the political constraints every movement faces. It’s so rare, in fact, that a few years ago, while talking with fellow activists at the War Resisters League, it dawned on us that not one was an absolute pacifist. Many people claim to be antiwar, but a little prodding will get them to admit World War II or the American Civil War was justified.
This is the contradiction at the heart of the left’s relation to guns. Despite its peaceful character, the left is unwilling to abandon the idea of violence. As Malcolm X put it: “By any means necessary.” Therefore, allowing the state to circumscribe gun rights means surrendering power.
There is a flaw in this formula, however. Popular violence is merely an instrument to bring about an ideal society free of violence. While violence against the US government is inevitable abroad, does it make sense here? One of the few public intellectuals to engage with popular violence is Slavoj Žižek, who writes: “every act of violence against the state on the part of the oppressed is ultimately ‘defensive.’ … for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it will always be a matter of strategy whether or not use violence against the enemy).”
That’s the rub. The main strategic concern for social movements is not to declare war on the state, but to create broad-based organizations that can first resist through every peaceful means possible. That involves maximizing public space in which to organize while minimizing state repression. Public space was essential to Occupy Wall Street’s success, and OWS still hasn’t recovered from the violent evictions. But it’s a fallacy to equate violence as a means to one day overthrow the state with violence as a means of protection for movements to claim public space.
This is why many leftists fetishize guns as Tony did. It’s easier to feel the power in the cold steel of a rifle barrel than to trust the arduous path of building a collective movement that may yield social power years down the road, if you’re lucky.
I got a taste of this false sense of power during ex-cop Chris Dorner’s war against the LAPD. The paranoia in Los Angeles was palpable, with the incessant thump of choppers, jumpy cops and locked-down schools. The police verified Dorner’s bitter manifesto by shooting up innocents and neighborhoods, and engaging in what appears to have been his pre-meditated murder. Dorner was lionized as a folk hero – with tens of thousands of people liking dozens of Facebook pages – and one commentator comparing him to a real-life Django Unchained. But Dorner’s rampage also bolstered support for the police, and you won’t build a movement by celebrating mass murder.
In this light, support for Dorner, as well as for gun rights, is a sign of social impotence. I think Tony gravitated to guns for that reason: weakness, not strength. They were his solution to a troubled society and his own troubled life. Likewise, the left looks for silver bullets to its predicament of powerlessness. Refusing to engage with the state doesn’t make it disappear; it just becomes a bigger threat. Trying to use the state apparatus to constrict the state is tricky, but many cherished freedoms – from habeas corpus to abortion rights to freedom of speech and assembly – involve precisely that. Otherwise, we sit back and watch as the state grows more powerful and society grows more violent.
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