Disarm Cops First. Reflections On Narratives Of Exceptional And Systematic Violence After Parkland Shootings
Above Photo: “Activist Matthew Kincaid holds a sign that reads “Disarm the cops” as he protests the killing of Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge.” Image found here.
This is a discussion paper written by a member of the Twin Cities General Defense Committee, Local 14. It therefore does not represent the official positions of the Twin Cities GDC, the General Defense Committee in general, or the Industrial Workers of the World.
Introduction – We Must Connect The Struggles for Peace
On February 18th, 2018, A nineteen year old white man entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with his rifle, and murdered 17 people. He was later arrested peacefully by police. The shooter’s social media profiles indicate a racist obsessed with white nationalism and a hatred of women, and a promoter of fascist messages and imagery. He was reportedly obsessed with guns, and his behavior had been reported to law enforcement repeatedly. Law enforcement never took action, which has itself been widely criticized. The reasons for this inaction are not hard to pin down for those willing to look: Cruz, the shooter – was a white man with a gun, and therefore not a threat. In the aftermath, a Neo Nazi organization calling itself the Republic of Florida claimed Cruz as a member. This was quickly refuted when it became clear that their troll leader was merely seeking attention. Many stopped paying attention to that aspect of Cruz’ history as a result. But a peek at Cruz’ social media history demonstrates his independent hatred of black people and women. Or the swastikas he etched into his firearm ammunition magazines.
In the aftermath, student survivors have successfully seized the national spotlight for the moment, and are demanding steps that will end the shootings that they have grown up with. This is a quest – to stop the violence in our society – that must be supported, and accomplished. But in order to accomplish it, we must be frank with ourselves about the causes of these shootings. The causes are white supremacism, male supremacism, and the history and present of firearms in the USA.
Compare the spotlight these high school students have successfully seized with the response of mostly black women and men, including many youth, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Mike Brown, Jamar Clark, Sylville Smith, and so many others. The “Ferguson moment,” started with the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, transformed into a national movement against police murder of black people in the US by law enforcement. In contrast to the brave students of Stoneman Douglas High, the brave youth declaring that Black Lives Matter were demonized, and the militarized weight of the state was brought to bear against them repeatedly.
If our goal is to eliminate or at least massively reduce the epidemic of violence in our country, we must connect these struggles. Without connecting their gun control efforts to the concerns and needs of the Movement for Black Lives, the Stoneman Douglas students will substantially fail. Perhaps more ominous is the probability that they win some of their their demands without connecting them to the systematic violence that underwrites our entire country’s history and culture.
The problem is not mental illness
A major concern in the post-massacre coverage has been the near-universal discussion of the shooter’s mental state. Many assume that merely because someone engages in an aberrant act, they are mentally ill. This is very far from the case. Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who in 2011 murdered 77 people – mostly leftist youths – was clearly not mentally ill. Neither was Dylan Roof, when he sat through a prayer meeting at the historic AME church founded by the great Denmark Vesey, and then opened fire, murdered all present except one person, whom he intentionally left alive as a witness. Neither were the Columbine shooters – those who are often held up as the originators and paradigm of modern school shootings in 1999.
What they all had in common was not mental illness, but a hatred of non-white people and women. This is a through-line so consistent in mass shooters that it is very difficult to find exceptions. Those few apparent exceptions, such as Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista mass murderer who targeted women, and whose mother is Asian, nevertheless adopt the particular hatreds of the masculinist and white supremacist culture in which they are raised. Rodgers frequently made racist and sexist statements, including specifically against Asian people.
The school shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, was not the consequence of mental illness. It was the consequence of white male supremacy, the one characteristic that truly seems to link these shootings. White male supremacy here is an attempt to indicate that both whiteness and maleness are foundational aspects of the culture of violence under question, and are therefore linked to the systematic violence of racism and sexism. Whether done by a survivor, witness, or new pundit, characterizing the shooting as the result of mental illness is harmful, and obscures the real cause of these shootings (this is in part its intended effect).
As is widely discussed and shared after every mass shooting by experts, but almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media and culture, people living with mental illness are far less likely to be violent to others than those without mental illness. More significantly, those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence. The current discussion, with its lazy invocations of mental illness, ignores the causes of mass shootings in favor of further stigmatization and endangerment of those with mental illness (See this 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health, as only one example of the extremely-well studied relationship between mental illness and being a victim – not a perpetrator – of violence). The constant and systematic violence against people living with mental illness is being erased in this current discussion, in favor of a discussion which posits mental illness as a cause of exceptional violence.
When we discuss ‘solutions’ to prevent school shootings in the future by including discussions of ‘mental health,’ we obscure the real causes of such shootings – white male supremacy, and redirect the repressive power of the state against those living with mental illness, instead of against those who enact this violence. (See for instance, Sparrow’s “When the burning moment breaks: gun control and rage massacres.”)
The Problem is authoritarian violence from white male supremacists
Our society has a general problem with authoritarian violence. It generally approves of solving all sorts of conflicts with violence, and considers such solutions ‘clean.’ From violent parenting to intimate partner violence to workplace and school shootings, our society frequently encourages particular people to solve their conflicts with deadly force.
Not all sections of our society have the same problem with authoritarian violence. In fact, it is one section in particular – white men – from whom spectacular violence can be regularly predicted. They enact their violence against others in our society.
The most significant institutionalized violent force in this country is the police. As of this writing (early March, 2018), the police have murdered 198 people in the year’s first two months. They murdered at least 223 black people alone in 2017. They murder and harass with impunity, serving the functions for which they were founded: the creation of terror among working class people.
The origins of the police are in forces of violent repression of enslaved and free Africans in America (especially in the South), and in the repression of rebellious white workers in the North.
Once you examine the context and practices surrounding the development of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, it becomes impossible to deny the truth – the Second Amendment was not created to ensure universal access to firearms to protect against potential state tyranny, but was created for two interlocked reasons: to murder Native Americans and seize their land, and to terrorize and retain in enslavement (or to kidnap and force into enslavement) Africans who had been kidnapped and brought to work as slaves for the white supremacist project of American settler colonialism. (See Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded)
The modern police begin their history as formalizations of these early slave-catching and Indian-killing ‘militias,’ both in Charleston and in Northern Industrial cities (in both the US and England at roughly the same time e.g.). At roughly the same time that police forces were being created, and with the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, white supremacy also required that all white males arm themselves, and be held responsible for the enforcement of enslavement and terrorization of black people. (See Kristian Williams’ Our Enemies in Blue)
This has had enormous consequences for the interactions – normative and otherwise – of whites and blacks in America, in which the recourse to violence and firearms has been not only encouraged, but often even mandatory – for whites against blacks and other non-white threats. Lately, they’ve added Muslims, ‘antifa,’ and others to their list of preferred victims. White vigilantes – like George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin – are almost never charged or found guilty of murdering black people. (See Bree Newsome’s Tweet thread)
Because of this history, the practices of the present may feel normal to many – especially white people – but the unequal access to firearms has been one of the most important causes and forms of preserving white supremacy in the United States. It is considered natural and normal that white men arm themselves, and abnormal and unnatural that anyone else do so.
Liberation movements in the USA and around the world have had to organize self-defense as a matter of course. In the United States, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland was forced to create armed patrols of their own neighborhoods to defend against both police and elective white supremacists entering their neighborhoods to murder, rape, assault, and terrorize black communities. When the Black Panthers legally entered a California Senate session with loaded firearms, the entire white establishment – including the NRA, then-governor of California Ronald Reagan, and both political parties – immediately engaged in a massive push for gun control. They don’t believe in firearms for anyone other than white men or those they think are loyal to white men.
Fantasies of completely pacifistic liberation aside, no people have been liberated from structural and systemic oppression merely by demanding their liberation. Someone reading this will raise the example of Gandhi. I encourage them to consider the massive violence of World War II, and how the British losses in that war prevented them from being able to bring that same level of violence to bear on the Indian Independence movement. Indian Independence was not a pacifistic campaign, unless we allow ourselves to ignore the most relevant context. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, often held up as a paragon of Gandhian non-violence, was often surrounded by firearms for self-protection. This is because, as a public figure advocating for black self-determination, he was routinely attacked and terrorized by the state, law enforcement, and white vigilantes. (See Charles Cobb’s This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed, Akinyele Umoja’s We will shoot back, Lance Hill’s Deacons of Defense, and Robert F. Williams’ Negroes with guns.)
It is vital that we understand the context of gun control discussion in this country is the context of genocidal white male settler-colonialism. Discussing gun control without reference to that context is nearly the same as lying. There is a centuries long systematic practice of arming white men, and disarming others, in order to use the armed white men to perpetuate the subjugation of all others. Those who benefit from oppression will use their superior access to violence to enforce oppressive systems. The armed violence of white men is constant and systemic, and is systematically executed against non-whites and women.
This is already the case, in a racialized system of policing which results in security forces (including police, security guards, etc.) murdering a black person on average every 28 hours (See the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement study “Ghetto Storm“).
Therefore, while ease of access to firearms is undoubtedly a serious contributing factor to mass shootings, these shootings are not reducible to a ‘access to guns problem.’ If it were merely an access to guns problem, then we would see equal numbers of black female school shooters.
As with mental illness, framing ‘solutions’ to prevent future school shootings in terms of ‘gun control’ alone risk obscuring the real problem. The rhetoric of gun control allows those responsible for mass murders such as took place in Parkland to evade responsibility in the public eye, and instead for blame to be placed on a generalized social problem. But again – this is not a problem distributed evenly across the population.
Disarm the police first.
Any ‘gun control’ that aims to reduce the systemic violence in this country will have to begin with disarming the most violent organized force in this country – the police.
If we proceed to a discussion of gun control without connecting the demands of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to those young people who, (not only) beginning with Ferguson, demanded that police stop shooting and murdering black people in America, then we allow a major misrepresentation of the crisis of violence in which we find ourselves.
Indeed – it’s almost as if the current push to gun control is specifically uninterested in preventing systemic and structural violence; it is instead, focused on the violence it sees as exceptional: violence at schools with mostly white kids (even this whiteness has been insistently uniform, such as when the victims were uniformly memorialized with crosses, despite the fact that five were Jewish, at a school that is 40% Jewish).
But even if that goal were accepted, there can be no reduction of such “exceptional” violence without dealing primarily with the systemic and structural violence that is the foundation for other types of violence. There can be no genuine and effective reduction of firearm violence in this country without examining its real causes: white male supremacy, institutionalized in the police forces, and exemplified in exceptional cases by angry, resentful, embittered, and entitled white males who feel they have been promised more in life than has been delivered to them, and who resolve this conflict with murder.
You can’t solve a problem of authoritarian violence by empowering cops – the most violent and authoritarian group in the country
But let’s be clear: those who think a ‘solution’ to the landscape of firearm violence in the USA is merely ‘gun control’ are pushing for a world in which the police are further legitimized in their racist attacks on poor and non-white communities in America. Intentionally or not, they advance a world in which it is acceptable to murder black Americans, but not mostly white high school students. They push for a world where it’s acceptable to murder children, as long as you do it abroad in the service of the military, which has been at constant war for the duration of these high school students’ lives.
This is perhaps most tragic and angering in the discussions about increasing the number of armed police officers at schools, so-called “School Resource Officers.” The number of armed police officers has risen dramatically at schools since the Columbine massacre in 1999, from 10% prior to that, to 43% in 2018. There were armed officers in place at Columbine and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, regardless. To date, not a single shooting at a school has been prevented by a School Resource Officer. But armed law enforcement in schools has dramatically increased the amount of violence non-white and non-conforming students experience, and has strengthened the racist school-to-prison pipeline. In other words, increasing the number of armed cops in schools is not a solution to violence, but a predictable increase in systematic violence, presented as a solution to white fears of black insubordination.
Those pushing for “Gun Seizure” laws – such as already exist in five states – are ignoring the overwhelming history of the application of such laws. These will not be used to ensure safety. Just as with Cruz, the overriding assumption that an armed white man is legitimate and natural will prevent most law enforcement officers from even registering a threat. But you can be certain that the FBI’s current number one priority – the targeting, harassment, and trials of so-called “Black Identity Extremists” – will be subject to the enforcement of this law in enormous numbers.
Malcolm X once horrified white Americans by commenting that the assassination of a sitting US President was an example of the constant violence of the US system “coming home to roost” as chickens do: a natural thing that should not cause surprise. We cannot allow ourselves to be surprised that a nation that sacrifices so many human lives, and devotes as much money, time, cultural capital, and entertainment to the art of war and violence, and which has been constantly at war for decades, should have violence return to strike where it is unexpected.
We must connect the critique of the systematic violence of the police and security forces with the critique of exceptional and dramatic acts of white male supremacist violence, such as school shootings. Most importantly, we must tell the truth – the shooting at Parkland was the result of a white supremacist man with firepower. He was not recognized as a perpetrator primarily because he was a white man, in a society that has, for centuries, associated the power and status of white masculinity explicitly with the use of firearms to terrorize and murder black people, native people, and anyone white supremacy permits them to marginalize and exploit. No serious effort was made to determine if he was part of a white nationalist terror network. No one suggested that Christianity drove him to kill. Instead, his murderous act was explained in terms of his individual biography and psychological pathologies. His access to firepower, hindsight aside, was not questioned because it is a natural thing for white men to expect of themselves and each other in a society conditioned by an armed racial hierarchy.
There’s no way to say ‘never again’ about school shootings without starting by disarming the police, and dismantling the poisonous associations between white supremacy, male ideals of accomplishment and privilege, and the racial and sexual hierarchy that makes firearms a predictable way for angry white men to resolve their conflicts.
To do that – to begin a process of genuine liberation resulting in safety and freedom for all – we need to honestly examine the problems we face. Eliminating the weapons of death in which our culture is soaked will be part of that solution, I have no doubt. But without targeting the cops for disarmament, and without admitting the deep emotional and cultural relationship between white male supremacism and firearms, we will not only fail: we will make things worse.
If you are interested in learning more, or want to get involved in creating a peaceful world without police, systematic violence, racism, sexism, ableism, or any other oppression – read more at aworldwithoutpolice. If you are near a General Defense Committee Local, consider contacting us and getting involved. We can build a free world. But we have to build it. And in order to do that, we must face the facts of our world.