Saturday, December 9, 2023
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Black Guns Matter: Firearm Culture and the Protest Movement

The Black Panthers occupied the California State Capitol building in 1967, armed with shotguns and semiautomatic rifles. While this incident did not result in any violence, it is a large reason why even conservative Republicans in the state advanced what are now considered the most stringent gun laws in the country. Adam Winkler wrote in The Atlantic that “the Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement.”

A few Mondays ago, I attended Detroit’s fourth protest in as many nights. It dispersed with minimal incident. While the police-instigated violence would return the following night, it was a welcome comparison to a prior protest, when the author left with bruises and covered in pepper spray. Rather, the march– which covered some eight miles from the police headquarters on Third St. to Livernois in Southwest Detroit, up to Michigan Avenue, and the whole way back downtown- felt quite positive all-around. There were chants. There were songs. There was a somewhat ragtag, though quite talented, mini marching band. There were also … firearms?

WHO BRINGS GUNS TO A PROTEST?

I wanted to look at this question through a few different lenses. First, there is an obvious question of safety. At a time when the nation faces an unprecedented global pandemic, widespread civil unrest threatens to undermine the work of social distancing and lockdowns that have largely slowed the spread of the novel coronavirus. Obviously tear gas makes this quite a bit worse.

Guns at a protest obviously add another potential layer of danger. But the guns at this protest weren’t a first. According to organizers I spoke with, this isn’t exactly welcome, and it’s certainly not encouraged– but such is the struggle of a democratic society in which guns are, for better or worse, allowed in most places. There’s another issue when we consider that gun ownership rates are still pretty high among the demographic that, protesters point out, account for a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police (on its own, this is a fraught contrast– more on this later). And this becomes even more muddled amid the competing discourses pervading Black Lives Matter protests, which can be, diversely, anti-police brutality, anti-police in general, black nationalistic, anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal, anarchistic, outright-but-general-revolutionary, or encompassing of any other number of ideologies. As there isn’t any one president of the Black Lives Matter movement itself (sorry, DeRay), it’s usually possible to encourage, discourage, elevate, and criticize, but far more difficult prescribe and proscribe.

At the Monday protest, I identified five protesters who brought firearms– including two people of color. (This was out of a protest of hundreds of attendees). One was carrying a handgun, and four were carrying AR15 semiautomatic rifles. For, ahem, liberal readers largely unfamiliar with guns, the Armalite Model 15, or AR-15 (“AR” does not mean “assault rifle,” the common vernacular), is more or less the civilian version of the US military M-16, a modern, highly versatile rifle developed in 1959– largely as a more modern competitor to the Soviet AK47, developed in 1945.

I wanted to unpack a little bit of history behind these “long guns” and how we got to this point of symbolism. I spoke with A. J. Somerset, a Canadian veteran, journalist, and firearms enthusiast told me from his home in London, Ontario. Somerset’s book, Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun, came out in 2015, and is, to my knowledge, the only book currently in print that looks at a Canadian-American comparative analysis of gun culture while taking a deep dive into the question of regulation as a matter of lethal weapons in a civil society.

A .22 caliber version of the legendary, semiautomatic M1911 handgun, or “Colt Government.”

THE AR15 IN THE GUN COMMUNITY

Black rifles, as they are commonly known for their distinctive, matte black powder-coated color, are sort of the flagship gun of the “Secumemmit” crowd. They’re popular with Y’all Qaeda, a.k.a. redneck militias protesting the federal government treading on them, or perhaps demanding that the federal government tread harder on BLM protesters. Generally, the AR15 is popular among gun enthusiasts looking for a reliable, affordable, and easy-to-use gun with interchangeable and dynamic components.

Like a generic pharmaceutical whose patent has expired, AR’s can be manufactured by anyone based on a universal, more or less “open source” platform. A skilled, if even self-taught, machinist can make an AR15 from scratch, from start to finish, in a home garage with machines that can be ordered online. Depending on state law and on which gun parts are which lengths and connect where, this can be illegal, so it is largely in less savory corners of the internet that circles of dilettante machinists talk about their adventures with such projects 3D printing of guns with highly interchangeable, nearly open-source parts has also become a huge regulatory question in recent years. Machining a bolt assembly for automatic fire is generally illegal, and, as a matter of safety, inadvisable. In general, though, the gun is just a quintessentially modern American gun.

It has that patriotic value associated with it, and so we often see them sold or marketed with very nationalistic imagery associated with them,” A.J. Somerset tells me from London, Ontario. Owing to the use of the gun in some notable mass shootings, the AR15, Somerset says, “has this sort of mythos associated with it. It’s this mythically powerful rifle. It has this magical ability to do harm. People hear ‘AR15,’ and they think, ‘oh, that’s the evil rifle that does all the mass shootings’— the media fixates on it.”

And, opposite this noble tool of Secumemmit Lib-ur-tee Lovin’, is its archnemesis, the AK47.

Though still quite popular among gun nuts, the AK47 stands opposite the AR15 as the revolutionary rifle versus the freedom-forged, quintessentially American rifle.

AK47, THE LONG-LOST, COMMIE COUSIN OF THE AR15

If the AR15 is the preferred gun of the modern American militia by way of the US military’s M16, then the AK47 is the preferred gun of revolution. This identity is thoroughly tied up in that particular Proletariat Red backdrop of Soviet revolution. AK47’s were used in proxy wars of the Cold War, fought in jungles and deserts, by mujahideen, rice farmers, and Latin American guerillas.

As a symbol of resistance, therefore, the gun is iconic. It fires a larger, more powerful round than the M16. It is heavier. It delivers more lethal ballistic performance, but is less accurate. Said Nicholas Cage’s character in the well-reviewed 2005 film Lord of War, a fictionalized critique of the global arms trade:

“It’s the world’s most popular assault rifle– a weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple, nine pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood, it doesn’t break, jam, or overheat. It will shoot whether it’s covered in mud or filled with sand. It’s so easy even a child can use it– and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin, Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people’s greatest export.”

In one episode of The Wire (2002-2008), drug empire kingpins Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) reminisce about the good old days of their contrasting, youthful dreams. Avon wanted an AK47 to rule over the neighborhood, while Stringer had entrepreneurial ambitions.

Nor is the gun lost in the mythos of hip hop, which variously glorifies, satirizes, admonishes, and generally characterizes, at large, the prevalence of inner city gun violence. 2Pac sang about the weapon: “With my AK, I’m still the thug that you love to hate.” “Pick ’em with the AK-47,” Lil Wayne raps. The gun is so popular as an icon of the hip hop canon that even German and French rappers sing about it– though the gun is highly illegal in both countries. “AK-47 is the tool,” Ice Cube raps in the original N.W.A.

In contrast, though, I have not been able to track down a single rap reference to an AR15. Country music, popular among the pro-gun, pickup truck crowd, largely avoids mention of guns– unless you count the orientalizing, romanticizing, and revisionist histories of old country. Gene Autry’s cowboy persona sang, “riding the range once more / Toting my old .44.” Or Marty Robbins, who regaled us with a fictional tale about losing a duel with a dude in a bar who was macking on not-even-his-girl in the 1959 classic El Paso. This was released a couple of decades before Edward Saïd. Ya know. (Saïd wrote about the West’s relationship with the far east, but his critique has broad application in understanding the relationship between the white West and “exotic” cultures).

WHITENESS VS. BLACKNESS IN FIREARM CULTURE

So, interestingly, there is not, to the best knowledge of the author, a genre of militant white people music that emphasizes the role of the gun as such. While country music of the 20th century variously comprised vicarious, performative, picaresque tales of old, hip hop emphasizing guns was often a characterization, if sometimes a similarly performative exaggeration, of inner city violence. (I mean, really. Did Marty Robbins himself draw that gun? Did a triple homicide really put 21 Savage in a jail? Is Hank Williams having a “hot rod Ford and a two-dollar bill” really so different from Lil Flip having “twenty inch spinners on his drop” and “nothin’ but white and yellow rocks” in his watch? But I digress).

Somerset remarks on the performative nature of the gun movement as being “very wrapped up in whiteness, because [there is a] contradiction of [white] people saying they want to resist the government, but then thinking it’s illegitimate [for Black Lives Matter] to protest the government in a certain way.”

A Militia of Love: This unnamed protester, who is sporting a Gadsden flag scarf and a tactical vest, is carrying an AR15 and an American flag.

A. J. Somerset has spent a great deal of time studying the culture of firearms as it permeates questions about this uniquely American culture of violence. He notes the presence– and lethal use- of firearms in numerous historical American conflicts and protest movements, including an especially violent spell in the early 20th century labor movement. But he doesn’t necessarily see parallels between the recent protest in Lansing, in which heavily armed protesters fighting the governor’s stay-at-home orders stormed the capital, and the historical American struggles for civil rights or labor protections.

“A lot of people have commented on the disparity between the police responding to a bunch of mostly men armed with AR-15’s, stomping into the Michigan Legislature to demand a haircut, or whatever, on the one hand, and how the police respond almost immediately with tear gas when this current wave of protests started. Why did one group get treated so differently?”

So much is obvious. Critics have pointed out the irony of the fact that protests against police brutality have been met almost immediately with the very police brutality being protested.

“One of the cynical thoughts is that if [Black Lives Matter] protesters had been armed, the police might not have shot tear gas at them,” he says. “The police know they cant open fire at these people so they are able to argue for their rights– or what they perceive as their rights, at least. They’re able to make those arguments, and [when armed], police are much more inclined to let them be heard.”

A MILITIA OF LOVE?

The strapped protesters declined to give their names, but agreed to speak with me as we walked. Asked if they represented any specific group, the de facto head of the group mused that he represented a “militia of love,” to which a couple of bystanders chuckled. Pressed about politics, though, he again dodged, saying that he was interested in standing up to defend the rights of oppressed citizens.

I then asked if he had gotten any pushback.

“I’ve had a couple people come up and say, you know, you’re flexing your white privilege, or whatever,” he said. “But it’s not like even all of us are white, right?”

And so it was true. One protester of color was open carrying a semiautomatic pistol, while another black protester was similarly carrying an AR15.

I asked the latter his thoughts on that question of white privilege and guns.

“They don’t really talk about this in the media, but it’s a lot of different kinds of people who own guns,” he told me. “Like, I’m black. I own a gun. My boss is Mexican, he owns a gun. The owner of the store I work at, he’s Lebanese. We all own guns. It’s a ton of black people who own guns, too– it’s not just some thing that’s only white people in the country, or whatever.”

Somerset noted that this disparity was also wrapped up in the dominant narrative of guns being a “white” phenomenon,” which is largely borne of historical inequality. “That the hammer of enforcement comes down harder and disproportionately on black people also means that black people cannot [as easily] visibly own guns in many cases,” he explained. This manifests in a highly visible white gun culture versus a black culture that is far more reserved by virtue of necessity. Philando Castile was carrying a legal firearm when he was murdered by a police officer, and we have numerous other examples of “owning a gun while black.” Contrast this today with the late 19th century Reconstruction-era South. Some Republicans in those days were so fiercely committed to the civil rights of freed blacks that they actually used force to defend armed freedmen from roving bands of KKK militants and the like, who sought to disarm blacks.

Fast forward to the modern day. We don’t necessarily have a healthy culture around gun ownership, gun violence, or gun rights. We have more guns than people, we have the highest rate of gun deaths in the world, and we have groups that spend millions of dollars to defeat any attempt to regulate guns. Meanwhile, there are still Philando Castiles, and the NRA isn’t exactly rallying to the cause of armed contingents supporting Black Lives Matter.

NOT A UNIVERSALLY POPULAR PROTEST PROP

Reactions from the crowd were mixed, mostly leaning negative.

“Oh, I’m not getting anywhere near that shit,” said one woman, who identified herself as a Detroit resident, when I asked her about her thoughts on it.

“That makes me really uncomfortable,” said another.

Another protester I spoke with from an inner ring suburb, agreed that “it is a matter of white privilege,” but turned the notion on its head. “If you have that privilege, why not use it to support a good cause? If you know you’re not going to get shot by the police by virtue of just being white.”

Somerset is optimistic about the dialogue opened up by the protest movement. He is perhaps less optimistic, however, about the conditions of American democracy and wealth disparity that led to this point. He doesn’t by any means view guns as a solution to the problem, but thinks that the history of armed protest movement merits consideration– as a matter of not only this uniquely American breed of violence, but also as a question of what a heavily armed society wants to look like.

“People are more likely to be heard if they’re armed, which speaks very poorly to the condition of American democracy,” he said.

Asked if any of the group were military or ex-military– the pictured gentleman boasted an impressive musculature and composure exuding that particular martial quality- one declined to answer, while the other conceded a definite negative.

“Hell, no,” he laughed. “I’m way too fat for that.”

The march continued on downtown and the crowd eventually dispersed, with no tear gas fired.

Check out A.J. Somerset’s book here. Much as we are loath to admit, The Handbuilt City receives a referral fee if you buy stuff via the Amazon link. We reached out to the Detroit chapter of the National Association of African-American Gun Owners, but were not able to set up a conversation. A correction was added on June 19th to clarify the use of the word ‘Orientalism’ and to clarify that it is only sometimes, but not always, illegal to make your own guns.

The AR15, the most American gun?

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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