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Once again America is mired in a national debate about gun control in the wake of horrific and inexplicable mass-shootings. While this is one of the definitive issues of American political culture, I must admit, I find it more annoying than anything else. I can’t really place myself on either side – I’ve never even fired a gun (city boy…), am no big fan of them and would just as soon see every damned one gone. On the other hand, I hardly trust the state to carry out such a task, and in general find suggestions to that effect a little offensive, like any other kind of prohibition. If, someday, communities govern themselves, and people want to pass the idea of a gun free zone by my neighbourhood assembly, I’ll gladly hear it out. As long as those proposing to enforce such a decree have tanks, cruise missiles and war-planes, though, I’ll maintain a healthy skepticism.
This simple but obvious reality overshadows the entire gun debate. The state is, by it’s very definition, a fundamentally violent institution. It maintains kinds and amounts of weaponry which civilians can only hope to glimpse at from a distance. The irony of debates over “assault rifles”, particularly the AR-15(pictured above), is especially telling. The AR-15, for those who aren’t familiar, is better known by it’s military variants, like America’s famous M16 (along with it’s replacement, the M4 carbine) and Canada’s C7. It’s one of the best-known guns of modern warfare, and the main rifle for nearly every NATO and allied army (including Afghanistan’s “national” army). This weapon is synonymous with western imperialism – if the last fifty years had been viewed by aliens in space, it would appear as largely one giant war between those who carry M16s, and those wielding AK-47s. So, frankly, when the US government wants to talk about prohibiting this rifle, I can’t help but giggle.
If it sounds like I’m siding with “right-wing gun nuts” here, it’s because on this matter, they actually have a point. No privately owned firearms means no Black Panthers, no AIM, and no OKA-style stand-offs. Controversial as these groups and incidents might be, the contribution they made to national discussions can’t be denied. Nor can the fact that they were comparatively very lightly armed (mostly old rifles) and rarely fired shots, even against overwhelming odds, armaments and a thoroughly trigger-happy mentality. In the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff in BC, for instance, the RCMP fired as many as 7000 rounds, but hit only an older woman (in the arm) and killed only a dog. During the only serious firefight, one older man with a rifle managed to drive off two Armoured Personnel Carriers, allowing the above-mentioned woman and another man to escape to safety (he later escaped to the US, and they refused to extradite!). If it weren’t for a few of these small occupations, we probably never would have had the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and it’s hard to imagine what First Nations politics would look like today, to say nothing of what an actually nonviolent Civil Rights movement could ever have accomplished.
A number of recent stories underscore the hypocrisy. First there’s the drones, an issue which is finally getting some official attention, especially after (Republican!) Rand Paul of all people launched a 13-hour filibuster, delaying the appointment of a new CIA director. Paul demanded to know whether Americans could be targeted for assassination by drones, and whether drone strikes are permitted on American soil. To this, the president’s press secretary replied, “the president has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil”, for whatever that’s worth. In the context of a global, borderless policy of assassinations unconstrained by either judicial process or formal declarations of war, what would legal or constitutional restraints even mean to somebody with the authority to declare Martial Law? American and Canadian police forces are already being equipped with unarmed surveillance drones and other robots, how long until “concern for officers’ lives” demands some for a combat role? And, as always, why do the moral implications only become an issue when Americans find themselves in the crosshairs?
Then there’s the obviously-relevant story (now a big Forbes op-ed!) of Homeland Security purchasing 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition. As Forbes points out, this would keep the recent Iraq war effort going for over twenty years, begging the obvious questions of who they plan to shoot with them. Along with these bullets, there’s also the recent DHS mass-purchase of surplus MRAPs (heavily armoured vehicles) from Iraq and Afghanistan, now being put to use by local police forces. This fits perfectly into a growing trend of police militarization in which local law enforcement is granted the tactics and equipment of more formal armies, now the subject of a major ACLU investigation.
If you want to see what happens when a government directs serious military vehicles at it’s own populace, a video is now making the rounds online (allegedly) shot from the perspective of a Syrian tank in action. It shows a largely destroyed and almost entirely depopulated Darayya, a suburb of Damascus and “rebel stronghold”. Shot from the position of the main gun, which fires building-shattering blasts as the tank is strafed with (hopelessly ineffective) rifle fire.
On a similar note, there’s the case of Libya, also struck by civil unrest against a notorious (but formerly somewhat friendly) dictator. This is an important cautionary tale about the dangers of arms-dealing and foreign intervention. First, countries like the US and France made their peace (piece?) with Gaddafi and began selling him weapons. Then the Arab Spring broke out and his harsh response shocked the world. When NATO intervened with air-strikes and flooded the area with military aid, the rebels managed to overcome him, among them many militant Muslims and indigenous people from across the region. After defeating Gaddafi, many, including Al Qaeda affiliates and Tuareg separatists, left Libya in the hopes of returning to ‘liberate’ their homelands – places like Mali and Algeria. With them, they brought the arms stockpiles so generously donated by the west, or liberated from Gaddafi’s armories. Now, France’s army (and others) finds itself embroiled in an African quagmire, dodging bullets their own governments supplied.
Bringing it back home, the neighbourhood of Flatbush, in Brooklyn has spent much of the past week under siege, following the shooting death of Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old (black) neighbourhood resident at the hands of police last Saturday night. Gray was accused of pointing a gun at police (which witness testimony disputes) and shot seven times, three in the back. All week there’s been nightly protests, some of which escalated into fairly intense rioting and dozens of arrests, injuries and have brought an enormous police presence in the area.
More Than Just Gun Violence
For America, this violence is structural, and it often takes lives without firing a shot. While Canada’s still reeling from the shock of our own prison statistics and the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples in our justice system, America still exists in that state of national denial over well-acknowledged statistics regarding their own prison’s racial make-up. Even with a black president, little is said about the sad fact that 60% of their inmates are black, amongst a prison population which alone makes up about a quarter of the world’s inmates. Many more are indigenous or Hispanic, poor and/or mentally ill. This tough-on-crime approach, of course, has yielded few results since prison grown started exploding under Reagan. American is still far more dangerous Canadian cities (or most others in the First World). Even in the immediate absence of guns, you’re still more likely to be murdered with a knife in the US than up here in Canada (where knives are used in around twice as many murders).
Why that’s the case goes back to many of the above examples. Maintaining the world’s largest military budget and prison population isn’t cheap, and it leaves little for social programs, which evidence shows are much more effective at curbing “crime” than any amount of prisons. As a result, despite being the world’s richest nation, it has some of the First World’s poorest poor people in truly staggering numbers. Poverty, as Gandhi says, is the worst form of violence. From it stems countless crimes of desperation, which are met by a “justice system” which tends to be hostile to anybody who can’t afford a good lawyer. Along with this comes a culture of violence and machismo, both a result of the national self-image of “the world’s policeman” and daily needs of survival in crime-ridden ghetto hellholes. News, fiction, music and history all reflect this deep-seated violence, as well as the sexism, racism and classism which drive so much of this carnage. Ever look into how many of the victims of American gun violence are shot by their husbands?
Forget the shallow-but-popular controversies. Forget assault rifles, Eminem, Taratino and even gay marriage. If America wants to get at the roots of this problem, it’s going to have to start having serious national discussions about topics like straight marriage. Guns in homes raise the risk women will murdered, threatened or coerced considerably, and are very used very rarely for self defence, comparably. Focusing on the weapons and not the people, though, distracts from more fundamental problems. Guns or not, you are far more likely to be murdered or raped by a partner or family member than any stereotypical “criminal” shown on the news and in action movies. How’s that for “family values”?
This is a fundamentally sick society, and gun control isn’t going to fix it. Until America takes a hard look at the inequalities which pervade it, this violence will continue.
On the subject of guns themselves, it’s time to break out of the limited frame of “gun control” and talk about actual disarmament. Unlike the statist philosophies of a domestic Pax Romana, this would ask something in return from our government. Disarmament, as anybody who’s followed negotiations from Northern Ireland to Washington and Moscow knows, is a matter where you ‘give a little to get a little’. No more “assault rifles”…alright…how about no drones in domestic airspace? No military-style armoured vehicles policing our streets? Perhaps they could even sign onto some landmine treaties as an act of goodwill…
This is the same government, after all, which spends almost half of the world’s yearly military budget. America is the world’s biggest arms dealer, using them to support numerous tyrannical regimes (like the Saudis) and terrorist groups (like the Libyan and Syrian rebels). It maintains a massive nuclear stockpile, much of it atop launch-ready intercontinal missiles, as well as numerous chemical and biological weapons facilities. It flaunts numerous global arms-control treaties, amongst many other international laws. Against it’s own population, it directs the world’s largest prison system, largely as a method of social control against the lower classes and racialized populations.
If we’re going to talk about this, then yes, advocates of civilian “gun control” have my attention. Bringing the American state’s guns under control would save an almost immeasurable number of lives around the globe. If the registration and confiscation of civilian firearms (especially those of military value) is going to take place in conjunction with the militarization of police forces, extension of domestic surveillance and challenging of every serious restriction from Habeas Corpus to international treaties on torture and nuclear proliferation, then don’t expect my support. Restricting firearms does alter the basic civil balance of power, and it’s yet another worrying sign that states are beginning to seize totally unprecedented levels of power, which is in itself a decent argument for resisting such restrictions.
For those who still wish to own guns, I won’t try to stop you. I will say only that safety means a lot more than gun-safes, trigger locks and simple rules (“never at a person”, “always assume it’s loaded”, etc). The power to kill or maim at a distance comes with an incredible responsibility, and that starts with yourself. It isn’t just guns or people that kill people, it’s hatred, anger, carelessness and ignorance that drives them to do it. It’s the “gunstore cowboy” mentality that consumer culture built up around small arms and the ever-present fear of young, urban, males of colour. It’s notions of “the family” which evoke images of East-Asian “honour killings”, viewing disobedient women and children as fundamentally disposable. And, of course, it’s a product of the poverty and twisted justice system that turn inner cities into warzones and make guns a way of life. None of these problems are limited to guns or gun owners, but they all become much more serious once guns are involved. This makes it more important than ever to challenge your own preconceptions and deal with your own issues, before they drive you and your gun to do something you can’t take back. Really curbing gun violence means addressing it’s roots in our society, but the first step towards that change is taking a long hard look at ourselves.
Just over a year ago, an almost simultaneous set of police raids shut down protest encampments associated with the “Occupy” movement across the United States. At the time speculation raged about behind-the-scenes coordination, but very little substantial evidence had come forward to back up the accusations. Then, just before Christmas, as if as a gift, we suddenly got a glimpse inside the workings of this insidious machine.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, an American civil rights group, released documents they just obtained through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the official response to Occupy Wall Street. These documents, which they’ve provided online, detail hostile and coordinated efforts to portray the movement as a “criminal and terrorist threat” beginning a month before the encampment itself. In a linked effort by the FBI, Homeland Security, police forces, regional “fusion centres” and private security, sometimes united into a single entity: the Domestic Security Alliance Council. The activities of this shadowy alliance included surveillance, meeting with financial industry and school officials and even planning the evictions. One (heavily redacted) page even describes a plot to kill protest leaders with snipers, “if deemed necessary”, though it gives few other details.
As the Guardian’s Naomi Wolfe states, this has reached Orwellian levels. The amount of tracking, surveillance and straight-up brutality involved evokes memories of the Red Scares, Palmer Raids and COINTELPRO. Given how heavily censored these releases are, everyone’s simply using the term “tip of the iceberg”, leaving open the question of how far this conspiracy (yes, conspiracy) actually went.
It’s hard to say whether these evictions were the definite cause of the movement’s eventual decline, but they certainly marked an important turning point. The loss of a physical presence in urban cores was a crushing blow, and not one which could be replaced though a presence online or in the media. What followed was months of decline marked by (now legendary) levels of interpersonal squabbling. Only time and further disclosures will tell if these squabbes, too, were engineered from above (like so many in the COINTELPRO era).
What does this mean for activists, organizers, and anybody who might someday become one?
First, it shows clearly that the government response to political mobilizations is primarily ideological. Occupy was labeled “criminal” and “terrorist” long before any actions took place, to say nothing of actual “crime” or “violence”. Contrast this with any number of white supremacist, pro-life or anti-immigrant groups who not only advocate violence but also actually kill people and bomb things on a regular basis, and the focus becomes pretty clear. Brutal violence against marginalized groups doesn’t threaten the establishment (if done right, it re-enforces it). Legal, nonviolent protest directed against dominant groups, on the other hand, does.
We will never be polite, well-behaved or “nonviolent” enough to avoid these risks. Attempting to be only sets a rising standard of absolutely perfect behavior from demonstrators which ultimately makes it easier to justify attacks on peaceful crowds. No matter how we present it, any serious public discussion of liberation is going to threaten those in power, especially if it “gets popular”. Blaming the victims only pits us against each other and prevents an objective discussion of practical safety precautions.
Second, it makes an important cautionary point about surveillance and security. Long before things “turn ugly” (if they ever do), police and their allies are on the scene. They may claim to be there “for our safety”, to direct traffic to deal with “troublemakers”, but those are only secondary goals. Their primary goal is to film, record and write down every bit of data they can find about those involved, especially the “leaders”, often with the help of naive participants. The information they gather never goes away, and it almost always comes back to haunt people no matter how “peaceful” the campaign. The only way to reduce these risks is to make basic precautions a part of all activism, not just the actions we consider “risky”.
The third and (arguably) most important point is one about “paranoia”. If these documents show anything, it’s that there’s nothing irrational about being wary or cautious of undercover agents and big government conspiracies. I’ve involved with protests for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve seen things I would never have believed existed outside Communist China. “Snatch squads”, agent provocateurs, snipers, beatings and worse. These aren’t just anecdotes, either – they’re verified. Every time protesters are put on trial the state is forced to hand over stacks of “court disclosure” to their legal teams, usually confirming our worst fears and then some. Given that my own name has turned up in trail documents after protests I never so much as passed on a flier for, I always smile a bit on the inside when people tell me I’m being “paranoid”.
Take it from someone who’s had a (very tiny) glimpse – there are few, if any, limits to how far these people will go to keep their wealth and power. If people want to talk about paranoia and “conspiracy theories”, how about we start with a look at the conspiracy charges which are so regularly used against protesters? What’s so interesting in these cases isn’t just what the state does, but the justifications it gives. Always, there’s a presumed threat that protesters are right on the verge of an IRA-style insurrection. There’s always a hidden “arms cache” behind the peaceful blockade, rioters hidden in the march and mad bombers working away in the shadows. For all the threats though, and excepting certain entrapment plots, it’s been a decade or two since any attack of the sort in Canada or America, at least from the likes of Occupy.
These fictitious threats aren’t just symptoms of a hostile and militaristic bureaucracy, they’re an important part of how it works. From self-styled “terrorism experts” to the CIA and top Pentagon brass, far too many are now being paid directly in relation to how dire a terrorist threat they dream up. In many ways (as we saw with the Iraq’s “WMDs”), it becomes like theatre. On the domestic front, these efforts serve not only to promote big budgets for police and other security forces, but also to demonize protesters, the poor, immigrants, natives, people of colour or others while demonstrating a “need” for those who oppress them. Like the divorce lawyer who won’t stop egging you on, it’s a sales pitch and we’d be wise to recognize it as such.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a tale of bureaucrats and cops wasting money on commando gear. Real people are involved, and the consequences for them, their families and communities can be devastating. I’ve seen people followed home by private security consultants, snipers on rooftops, agent provocateurs, even the occasional Kafka-esque arrests and incarceration…and that’s just in Hamilton.
Take it from someone who’s spent a lot of time supporting a lot of friends in a lot of courtrooms – this shit gets real. Nothing makes you look guilty like being the focus of an investigation, no matter how little they find. Binders of pictures and days of recordings show you’re clearly a person of interest. If they cannot find the protesters responsible for a crime, they will arrest the first bunch within arm’s reach. If there are no “leaders”, they will appoint some. If nobody commits any “crime” or “violence”, some will be invented, inferred, or blown entirely out of proportion (like chalking). If you’re poor, you’ll find yourself in criminal court. If you’re wealthier, they’ll launch a lawsuit large enough threaten your home. You’ll probably win at trial, but not before a hellish year or two of bail conditions, legal fees and sleepless nights. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen this happen. Don’t just let it happen to you.
Looking back on my time in early local Occupy assemblies, I was often “that guy” who wouldn’t stop bringing this stuff up. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried harder. I’m sorry to say, if you were publicly associated with Occupy in any way, you’re likely now lists which may never see the light of day. If Occupy suffered more than most, it wasn’t because people were too radical or hostile with police, but too friendly. Everywhere there was a prevailing attitude that “the cops are on our side” and “you only have something to fear if you’re doing something wrong”. Some were even accused of being terrorists or infiltrators for suggesting otherwise. Many seasoned veterans just walked away. This wasn’t just a local issue, it came up almost everywhere, but perhaps not often enough.
In this case, the state didn’t just “take a side”, it launched a counter-insurgency campaign. From the outset, it saw the danger – and open, public critique of the economy backed by a mass, in-the-streets movement. In that instant, things like “free speech” and “public discourse” ceased to matter – it was war, and they couldn’t afford to wait and see how things played out.
The worst possible lesson to take from all this would be to stay home. If we do that, they win by default. Worse yet, we prove that these tactics work, ensuring they’ll be used again the next time people take to the streets. This kind of response from authorities shows we’re doing something right. Nobody suggested that changing the world would be safe or easy, but neither, obviously, is the alternative.