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The Internationalist
  April 2018

Cops Kill Far More Every Week

Democrats Exploit School Shooting
to Push Racist Gun Control

“Gun control” in practice: hundreds of thousands of youth, overwhelmingly African American and Latino, were stopped yearly in New York City, searching for illegal guns and drugs. No to gun control, abolish drug laws!   (YouTube)

When on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz took an Uber car to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and proceeded to indiscriminately gun down 14 students and three teachers, while wounding another 14, it set off a national uproar. The horrific slaughter of innocents, particularly teenagers who had their whole life ahead of them, caused anguish far beyond the bereaved families, friends, schoolmates and neighbors of the Miami suburb. It also set off a nationwide mobilization for gun control, with young survivors of the Parkland massacre in the forefront. This immediately became part of the liberal campaign to get out the vote for Democrats in the November 2018 mid-term elections to undercut the Republican majority in both houses of Congress and weaken the hated president Donald Trump.

The shooting was a heinous crime, that 17 lives were lost is an unspeakable tragedy, and the bravery of the students, teachers and school staff who lived through it and still speak out is admirable. Yet they have been enrolled in a reactionary push for gun control aimed at strengthening the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, which will be used first and foremost against African Americans, Latinos and immigrants. Gun control will also not stop a deranged and/or racist mass murderer, who in this case (and in most others) was already known to the police. Any attempt to overturn or gut the Second Amendment to the Constitution securing “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” a key part of the Bill of Rights, must be strongly opposed. Luckily, the U.S. population cannot be disarmed by anything short of a military/police dictatorship.

American capitalism has from the beginning been a violent racist system based first on chattel slavery and since the 1861-65 Civil War on what Karl Marx called “wage slavery,” enforced by the armed guardians of the ruling class, the police and army – those “special bodies of armed men” that Friedrich Engels identified as the core of the capitalist state – along with the courts and jails. Every year, police in the United States kill more than 1,100 civilians, compared to three or four a year in Britain and six to eight a year in Germany. The numbers of lives lost in killing sprees by lone gunmen are dwarfed by the numbers of lives routinely taken by the “forces of order” (2018 death toll as of April 1: 321 killed by cops, or 25 a week). And the marauding by U.S. troops, hit squads and “contractors” around the globe, along with the militarization of police “at home,” has spawned a layer of pathological racist murderers, such as the Parkland killer.

The media is full of glowing references to young people leading the “movement.” There have been numerous youthful speakers on the platforms, waging a Twitter and Facebook campaign on the internet, lobbying Congress, etc. But it takes nothing away from the authenticity of their voices to state the obvious fact that this “movement” for gun control is thoroughly orchestrated by the Democratic Party, just as it has done with the “women’s marches,” as an election ploy against the Republicans. There were ubiquitous voter registration tables at the demonstrations, Democratic Party bigwigs speaking, etc. The web page of March for Our Lives, sponsor of the March 24 marches around the country, is clear: its main call is to “be counted in November,” and to “vote for our lives.” Yet both parties are representatives of Wall Street and the Pentagon, of racist repression and imperialist war.

Voting for the Democrats will not save lives of young people. “Deporter-in-chief” Barack Obama and Hillary “Bomb Syria” Clinton are no less warmongers than Donald Trump and George Bush. Rampant police violence and wanton mass murder are byproducts of a decaying capitalist order, and it will take international socialist revolution to put an end to this plague on humanity. That is the concrete answer to the Parkland massacre. It is not an easy answer, but it is the truth, while talk of ending mass killings by gun control is a lie and a setup for intensified racist repression. Gun control? A killer cop yells “gun,” and seven bullets hit Stephon Clark in the back in Sacramento, or Alton Sterling is shot point-blank in the face in Baton Rouge, or Philando Castile is shot in the side in his car in St. Paul – all killed by cops. That’s gun control.

A Virulent, Kill-Crazed Racist

Militarization of public education: Police greet students returning to school in Parkland, Florida on February 28. Sheriff's deputies now patrol the school with AR-15 assault rifles.  (Photo: Rhona Wise/AFP)

The media attention and political debate have been so focused on gun control and the mental state of the killer that there has hardly been any mention that the Parkland massacre was a racist and anti-Semitic crime. Six of the 17 victims were Jewish, along with two Hispanic students and an Asian student. Forty percent of the students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS are Jewish, according to one report, and a similar portion of the city itself (“‘Gut-Wrenching’ School Shooting Strikes Deep In The Heart Of Jewish Florida,” Forward, 16 February). Parkland was a secular Jewish enclave. The sheriff of Broward County is Jewish. Meanwhile, Nikolas Cruz was a raving anti-Semite, white supremacist and all-round racist bigot.

The magazines holding the bullets Cruz had with him at the school had a swastika etched on them. A student told a social worker at the school that Cruz had inscribed a swastika on his book bag, along with the words “I hate n----rs.” The leader of the fascist Florida Republic group initially claimed Cruz as a member, then later backtracked. But in any case, Cruz vociferously espoused fascist views. On an Instagram chat group, he “wrote that he hated, ‘jews, ni**ers, immigrants.’ He talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks…. Cruz said he hated black people simply because they were black; Cruz hated Jews because he believed they wanted to destroy the world.” He called for shooting gay people in the back of the head, and labeled women in interracial relationships traitors (CNN, 18 February).

Cruz had been transferred between schools six times for behavioral problems. He had made threats against other students, and was banished from Stoneman Douglas High School in 2017 for disciplinary reasons. In 2016, the sheriff’s department received a tip that Cruz might shoot up the school; in November 2017, another said he might be a “school shooter in the making.” In September 2017 a person using his name posted a comment to a YouTube video saying he was “going to be a professional school shooter.” In January 2018 someone close to Cruz called the FBI and “provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting” (FBI report, 16 February). There were plenty of “red flags” that he was a ticking time-bomb.

So the killer was not just someone who walked into a gun shop, bought a weapon and unexpectedly started shooting people at random. The potential danger was well-known: he was driven, a raging homicidal racist of the same ilk as Dylann Storm Roof, the 23-year-old white supremacist who shot nine parishioners to death at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015. Such pathological killers are not going to be stopped by a background check, waiting period or other gun control measure. Nor would the authorities stop him: police at every level received repeated tips about Cruz. Why no action? Trump supporters blame “bungling” by Broward County cops and the FBI. Yet police across the county routinely turn a blind eye to domestic ultra-rightists.

Since before 9/11, the U.S. “war on terror” has targeted Muslims. Although multiple government reports and other studies show that domestic white supremacist, ultra-right and fascist groups and individuals carry out three-quarters of all terror attacks in the U.S. (and cause three-quarters of the hundreds of deaths), far more than do violent Islamists, police and intelligence agencies systematically minimize and pass over the threat of ultra-rightist groups, and sometimes directly cooperate with and overlap with them. This was so even under liberal Democrat Obama. After the Department of Homeland Security issued an April 2009 report linking the growth of “right-wing extremism” to the economic crash and racist reaction against Obama, DHS chief Janet Napolitano disavowed the report and dissolved the team tracking domestic terrorists.

Meanwhile, the way in which U.S. militarism internationally feeds the proliferation of domestic racist and fascist killers was underscored by the fact that Cruz was a cadet in the huge Army Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) club that included 350 students at Stoneman Douglas High. In fact, he was wearing a maroon JROTC t-shirt with the motto “Whatever It Takes” during his February 14 shooting rampage. “Cruz talked of wanting to join the Army after graduation and become an elite special forces soldier,” another cadet told the Associated Press (16 February). The National Rifle Association had given a grant to the varsity marksmanship team of which Cruz was also a member, but at bottom it was the culture of U.S. imperialist world domination that produced this murderous racist, and many others like him.

The Internationalist Group calls for JROTC programs to be thrown out of the high schools, just as we demand that ROTC be driven out of the universities. Beyond that, a country that glorifies “American Sniper” Christopher Kyle with numerous military medals for gunning down Iraqis fighting against U.S. occupation of their country, along with a blockbuster Clint Eastwood-directed biopic movie, inevitably produces a Nikolas Cruz, and many more like him. What else did you expect? It’s the social pathology of Trump’s America … and Obama’s and the Clintons’.

Gun Control Campaign: Democratic Push to Increase Police Power

New York's Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC's Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio in March 24 “March for Our Lives” protest demanding gun control. (Photos: Getty Images)

Following Chicago mayor (and former top Obama aide) Rahm Emanuel’s motto to “never let a good crisis go to waste,” the Democratic Party immediately jumped on the protests calling for more gun control in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting. So did the main gun control lobby, Everytown for Gun Safety. This phony grassroots (“astroturf”) outfit is the creation of, and largely funded by, Wall Street multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg. Of course he’s for gun control. Back in 2011 when he was mayor of New York City, Bloomberg bragged that “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world,” currently numbering over 40,000 officers and another 15,000 police personnel. His army – their army – that enforces the interests of the exploiters against the exploited and oppressed.

The campaign for gun control built up to the March 24 “March for Our Lives” which had a million-plus participants in some 800 events nationwide (an estimated 200,000 in Washington, D.C., 180,000 in New York City, 85,000 in Chicago, 80,000 in Boston, 40,000 in Los Angeles, 30,000 in Atlanta, 20,000 in Parkland, Florida). Earlier, on March 14, there was a national school walkout under the hashtag #Enough that drew an estimated 1 million students from some 3,000 schools. Now another “National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in Schools” is being planned for April 20, on the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Playing on understandable fears after a horrendous slaughter, these are in fact reactionary mobilizations for greater police power which revolutionary Marxists do not support.

Liberal Democrats and Bloomberg similarly tried to whip up sentiment for gun control after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, calling for a universal background check system and bans on certain kinds of semi-automatic arms and on magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition. Today the same demands are being raised. Since it is quite clear that, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House, there isn’t a chance in hell that such legislation would pass, these demonstrations quickly became campaign events pushing to elect Democratic candidates in November (#Votethemout). Students were told that if they were too young to vote, they could still ring doorbells and phone-bank.

In San Francisco, demonstrators on March 24 were addressed by Senator Diane Feinstein. Feinstein was the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and as such repeatedly received briefings about the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other torture techniques and for seven years was silent about (covered up) these war crimes. In NYC, Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio, the boss of the NYPD, and Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo marched (separately) in the front rows. In Boston, liberal Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren spoke before the March 24 march, declaring: “This is what democracy looks like.” And at the March 14 National Student Walkout “socialist” senator and former contender for the Democratic presidential nomination Bernie Sanders showed up to declare that “You, the young people, are leading the nation.”

Such smarmy references to idealistic teenagers leading a movement for change are everywhere. A typical example was a New York Times (5 March) piece on “7 Times in History When Students Turned to Activism,” making comparisons to the 1960 Greensboro lunch counter sit-in and the civil rights movement, the 1968 student revolts on campuses around the U.S., the 1976 student revolt in Soweto, South Africa and the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, among others. But there is a huge difference that goes unmentioned in these comparisons: those were anti-government protests in one form or another, whereas the current movement for gun control aims to increase control by the murderous, racist capitalist state power of U.S. imperialism that sows death and destruction the world over.

If there is any doubt about this, you only have to look at the petition circulated by marchforourlives.com which demands a ban on the sale of automatic rifles like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting, emphasizing that “these weapons of war … should be restricted for use by our military and law enforcement only.” However, it is not our military and law enforcement but their – the capitalist ruling class’ – apparatus of racist repression. If civilians had no access to such arms, cops and troops would be entirely free to run rough-shod over the population like the Israeli military does on the occupied West Bank and U.S. occupation troops do from Afghanistan to Syria. A ban on assault weapons is a green light to indiscriminate terror by a tyrannical state, such as that of present-day U.S. imperialism.

The reference to “our” military and police is not accidental, nor is it something that was imposed by “adults” or others opportunistically trying to latch onto and divert the movement. One of the student survivors and leaders of the anti-gun protest movement who has been lionized in the media, David Hogg, denounced Trump for criticizing the FBI over the shooting. (His father is a retired FBI agent.) Another of the student leaders, Emma Gonzalez, whose father left Cuba in 1968, also praised the FBI (CNN, 19 February). The fact that this movement is not in any way against the police and capitalist politicians was underscored by the fact that in the “March for Our Lives” demonstration in Houston, Texas the mayor, a Democratic congresswoman and the police chief prominently joined the marchers.

Houston police chief Art Acevedo (center) and Houston Democratic mayor Sylvester Turner (right) in “March for Our Lives” protest for gun control, March 24.   (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

The favorable media coverage and promotion by liberal Democrats of the March for Our Lives is precisely because this was a mobilization of white middle-class suburban students and parents to bolster police power, not a protest by inner-city African American and Latino youth against cop violence. The BLM marches were met by a wall of cops brandishing the assault weapons that gun control activists want to limit to “our law enforcement.” There were attempts by some black students to add demands against cop harassment, but these were at best tolerated by the official sponsors. No demand in the March for Our Lives petition addresses cop attacks on black and brown youth.

So who is actually behind this “youth-led movement”? Where do the resources come from to provide the logistics for the Washington, D.C. March for Our Lives which had 20 Jumbotrons (giant LED screens to show the speakers, costing up to $5,000 each), and 2,000 portajohns? The overall price tag nationally was reportedly $5 million. Even with $3.5 million raised in a crowdfunding campaign, someone has to manage all that money. After the hoopla about “Students Lead Huge Rallies for Gun Control Across the U.S.” (New York Times, 25 March), the next day we read “Behind Gun Control Marches, Youthful Energy and Adults With Clout” (New York Times, 26 March). It seems – big surprise! – that “many protests simultaneously benefited from groups with more financial resources and organizational skills than the teenagers had on their own.”

Among those groups is billionaire “everyman” Bloomberg’s Everytown subsidiary, which provided the logo that suddenly appeared on t-shirts and banners coast-to-coast and from Tokyo to Berlin, plus media and gobs of cash. There were the donations by liberal celebrities: actor George Clooney (and his wife Amal), director Steven Spielberg, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and talk show multibillionaire Oprah Winfrey ($500 grand each). Organizational muscle was provided by a host of interlocking foundation-funded NGOs (non-governmental organizations) tied to the Democratic Party. Leading youth speakers were from High School Democrats, marches overseas were organized by Democrats Abroad. Like the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018, the gun control “movement” is part of the Democratic Party’s “resistance” to Trump.

As for the March 14 student walkout, this was organized in cooperation with school officials and Democratic mayors. In New York, de Blasio promoted it and his Department of Education said high-school students could cut classes (but were supposed to come back after the march). At the launch of #Enough/National School Walkout, CNN (18 February) reported that “The event is the brainchild of EMPOWER, the Woman's March youth branch.” EMPOWER is described by www.womensmarch.com as “an initiative of Women’s March Youth” in coalition outfits like Rise To Run (for a Hillary Clinton-style “female political revolution”), Teen Vogue and The Justice League NYC (and its Gathering For Justice subsidiary, which “partnered” with NYC mayor de Blasio in calling off marches against NYPD racist cop murders in December 2014).

Meanwhile, womensmarch.com, which organized the January 21 marches in 2017 (the day after Trump’s inauguration) and 2018, is led by a Board of Directors consisting of Democratic women, although more Bernieite than Hillaryite.

It’s no big surprise or revelation. The starting point of the present gun control campaign, Parkland, is in Broward County, which voted overwhelmingly (67%) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Broward is Florida’s most Democratic county and the home of the “hanging chad.” The county was targeted by a squad of high-priced, high-power, take-no-prisoners Republican lawyers (including the new National Security Advisor John Bolton) that essentially stole the 2000 U.S. presidential election from Democrat Al Gore by, among other ploys, getting ballots declared invalid where punched holes (chads) were left dangling. Broward Democrats have been smarting ever since, and after the hideous slaughter of their daughters and sons, their fellow classmates and teachers, for many families the watchword “never again” has a particular resonance.

The sentiment is heart-felt, but the program of this movement will increase the power of the state over the population, and will bring more death and suffering, particularly in run-down inner cities where “gun control” means racist police terror. Since classes resumed, Stoneman Douglas is being patrolled by sheriff’s deputies with AR-15 assault rifles. Does that make students feel safer? And which students? An extremely wealthy Florida suburb like Parkland (median household income $131,000, 84% white, “known for its zoning laws … to protect the ‘park-like’ character of the city”) is surely awash with guns, but the gun control police won’t be targeting white upscale suburbs. Or Newtown, Connecticut (median annual household income $132,000, 95% white). Instead, the cops will be rampaging in places like Brooklyn, New York (median annual family income $32,000, 66% African American, Latino and Asian).

What that means in the concrete was seen on April 4, when New York City police gunned down a 34-year-old black man, Saheed Vassell, in Crown Heights because they “believed” he had a gun. (It was a metal pipe.) Saheed was widely known on the block, including by beat cops, to be mentally ill. But that didn’t stop the police hit squad (three plainclothes, one in uniform) from the NYPD Strategic Response Group who charged out of their car with guns blazing, pumping ten bullets into him. In response to community outrage over this wanton murder, the NYPD brass said it didn’t matter whether Vassell was bipolar, or that he didn’t have a gun, or that the cops may not have said “drop it,” anyone pointing something at a cop would justify blowing them away. This is the “shoot first, ask questions later” New York model of “gun control.”

Gun Control Kills Blacks

Who has the guns? St. Louis County Police with assault rifles confront demonstrators protesting cop murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Misssouri, 13 August 2014.  (Photo: Whitney Curtis for The New York Times)

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, the media have whipped up a hysteria over school shootings. Young people carry signs saying “Am I Next?” “Keep Your Kids Safe” and “Protect Children, Not Guns.” The use of kids as “poster children” for political and fundraising campaigns is a longstanding publicity device, from Anita Bryant’s 1980s “Save Our Children” anti-gay rights campaign or Sally Struthers’ TV ads with impoverished African children that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Christian Children’s Fund, to the tweets of seven-year-old Bana al Abed (written by her mother) to garner sympathy for Turkey-backed jihadists in East Aleppo, Syria, and the grooming and exploitation of Malala Yousafzai by the BBC and New York Times as an anti-Taliban spokesperson in Pakistan.

The same marketing techniques have been used in the current gun control campaign by the likes of Avaaz, the NGO set up by George Soros which claims to be the biggest “activist network” in the world. While sponsoring climate “protests” to back the U.S. Avaaz agitated for the NATO “no fly zone” in Libya and pressured Obama to bomb Syria over the August 2013 chemical weapons frame-up (see “The Great ‘People’s Climate March’ Scam,” The Internationalist No. 38, October-November 2014). In the lead-up to the recent March for Our Lives, Avaaz choreographed a March 13 happening that went viral and was covered by major media, placing 7,000 pairs of empty shoes on the U.S. Capitol lawn supposedly honoring children killed by guns. March “for kids’ lives,” save the bees and carpet-bomb Syria: that is the program of these cynical manipulators of public opinion.

Along with this there is a deliberate inflation of pseudo-statistics to make it appear that there is a wave of school shootings. Bloomberg’s Everytown gun control lobby claims that as of mid-February there were 17 school shootings in 2018 alone. Yet an analysis of those figures by Time magazine (22 February) showed that only four incidents involved a student or teacher injured or killed on school property. The New York Times (15 February) published an analysis saying that there had been 239 school shootings since 2014 with 138 deaths. Yet Time looked at both the Everytown and Gun Violence Archive statistics and counted 24 killed in addition to the 43 who died at Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas. That in itself is a horrendous indictment of putrefying U.S. capitalism, but the statistical exaggeration serves a political purpose.

The normally staid New York Times (17 February) published an article, “‘Code Red!’ Mass Shooting Generation Raises Voices for Change.” The purpose is to drum up support for gun control. The reality is certainly distressing for young people growing up in a climate of fear. In the 1950s, grade-schoolers were told to hide under their desks from a Soviet atomic bomb (!). Now, ever since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, schools across the country regularly practice “active shooter” drills. NYC schools distinguish between a “soft” lockdown in which sweep teams gather kids in designated locations (like hallways) and a “hard” lockdown in which everyone stays in place (out of sight in a locked classroom with lights out). This goes together with the post-9/11 “anti-terrorism” climate with cops in tactical gear with heavy weapons patrolling public places.

A school active shooter drill. To add “realism,” police sometimes hold drills unannounced, with assault rifles and live ammunition, scaring students and sparking angry complaints by parents. (Photo: Larry St. Pierre/Shutterstock)

The fact is that gun control in the United States has from the beginning had a racist character and purpose. Following Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, influenced by the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 when slaves overthrew their colonial masters, states of the U.S. slave South passed laws that made possession of arms completely illegal for free blacks. An 1834 amendment to the Tennessee Constitution stated that only “free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms.” Along with the Emancipation Proclamation declaring the end of slavery, the arming of 186,000 black soldiers and officers was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Although that abolished slavery, some Southern states still legally banned freedmen from possessing firearms. Shortly after the Confederate surrender in 1865, Frederick Douglass wrote:

“Now, while the black man can be denied a vote, while the Legislatures of the South can take from him the right to keep and bear arms … the work of the Abolitionists is not finished.”
–“In What New Skin Will the Old Snake Come Forth?” The Liberator, 26 May 1865

The Civil Rights Acts of 1868 and 1870 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that the Second Amendment applied to the states and all persons had equal rights of self-defense. As KKK nightriders sought to terrorize the former slaves, many blacks shot back. But with the end of Radical Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877, gun control laws were passed to disarm African Americans. As a Florida Supreme Court justice wrote in 1941 about one such law: “The original Act of 1893 was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State drawn here for the purpose of working in turpentine and lumber camps. The … Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers…. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”

As lynching spread under Jim Crow segregation, African American journalist Ida B. Wells in her pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) documented instances in Kentucky and Florida in which black men took up arms and held off attackers. She concluded: “The lesson this teaches is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.” In the face of a racist mob attack in Atlanta in 1906, armed black people were able to “fight back successfully when the mobs invaded their neighborhoods” (see box).1 In the Chicago “race riots” of 1919, 23 black people were killed but blacks used rifles to repel attackers, killing 15. During the 1921 racist attack in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with over 300 dead, the pro-Communist African Blood Brotherhood reported how 50 black former soldiers repelled a white mob attacking a church.2

Armed self-defense was key to defending black neighborhoods in the South during the 1950s and ’60s. Ex-Marine Robert F. Williams, head of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP, “organized a black armed guard, with a charter from the NRA, that in a 1957 campaign to integrate a public swimming pool held off a KKK motorcade with sandbag fortifications and gunfire.”3 We have reported how in 1958 hundreds of members of the Lumbee tribe of Native Americans in North Carolina showed up armed and smashed a planned Ku Klux Klan rally, sending the Kluxers scurrying.4 In 1965 black trade unionists formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice in the paper mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana to guard civil rights marches and protect black neighborhoods against the KKK and other racist vigilantes, at a time when civil rights workers were being killed there and next door in Mississippi.5

Most notable is the history of gun control in California in relation to the Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defense. The Panthers were founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, forming armed patrols to monitor the actions of the Oakland, California police and fight against racist cop brutality. At the time, it was legal in California to openly carry a loaded shotgun or rifle. But in response to the BPP’s courageous actions to “police the police,” the California legislature drew up a bill to outlaw the public carrying of loaded firearms. Knowing that they were targeted, on 2 May 1967, two dozen Panthers demonstrated on the capitol steps and entered the State Assembly with their weapons. The “Mulford Act” for gun control was quickly passed and signed into law by Ronald Reagan, with the support of the National Rifle Association.

As we and many others have noted, present-day gun control laws derive from the backlash against Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other advocates of armed black self-defense.

Gun Control: A Cover for Police Terror

“Gun control” in practice: Democrat Bill Clinton sent FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to besiege commune of Branch Davidian religious group, supposedly looking for illegal weapons and to prevent child abuse. After 51 days, the feds took the compound by storm, bringing in tanks, ramming the buildings with combat engineering vehicles and pouring in tear gas that set off fire.  82 people were killed, including 25 children.

In reality, both gun control advocates and many opponents on the right support racist police terror against African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. Today, many of those calling for outlawing assault weapons cite the ten-year ban enacted under Democrat Bill Clinton in 1994. They seldom mention that this was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which created 60 new federal death penalty crimes, made gang membership a federal crime, included “three strikes” provisions for mandatory life sentences and provided billions to build prisons. This led to a huge (50%) increase in the imprisoned population, part of the quadrupling of the numbers of people behind bars since 1980 (from half a million to well over 2 million), giving the U.S. the word’s highest incarceration rate, by far. Under this mass incarceration, blacks are nearly six times as likely to be jailed as whites.

The Clinton administration also carried out the 1993 Waco, Texas massacre of the Branch Davidian Christian sect. The pretext was a search by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for “illegal weapons,” even though the local sheriff had inspected and declared legal all of their arms. Portrayed in the media as right-wing “gun nuts,” it was an interracial religious group, including a number of black members from the Caribbean. In an initial attack followed by a 51-day siege and then a fiery assault by the feds, 82 Branch Davidians were killed. To justify sending in an FBI hostage rescue team and the final gas attack, Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, added the charges of child abuse and statutory rape. There never was any evidence of child abuse, and 25 children died in the assault. Like gun control? Then you must love Waco. This was “gun control” and “save the children,” Clinton-style.6

Moreover, there is no clear-cut evidence that the 1994 assault weapons ban reduced gun violence.7 The government’s final report concluded: “we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.” For one thing, such firearms were only used in 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban.8 Nor is there evidence that stricter gun control laws lead to less mass killings. After a gunman killed nine people at a community college in Oregon in October 2015, President Obama declared, “We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths.” Fact checkers disputed this, and a few weeks later two attackers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, the state with the most restrictive gun laws in the U.S.

The various gun control measures all serve to increase police power, and further endanger the oppressed. How about universal “background checks” to exclude “dangerous people who shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns,” as the March for Our Lives petition calls for? Who decides who is dangerous, and by what criteria? Ask yourself, would Black Panther Party members in California under Ronald Reagan’s governorship have been allowed to purchase arms for self-defense? And if the police knew that the Panthers were unarmed, they would have more often gone in with guns blazing. But in the 1969 raid on BPP headquarters in Los Angeles, well-armed Panthers managed to hold off the LAPD kill squad for five hours, “long enough for a crowd to gather and thwarting police plans for a cold-blooded massacre.”9

A universal gun registry? Think what that would have meant in Mississippi or Louisiana in the mid-1960s. That would have allowed local police (KKK nightriders in their day jobs) looking for “illegal weapons” to barge into the homes of African Americans who kept shotguns for self-defense, and who used them to defend civil rights workers. Bans on guns in schools, churches or medical facilities? The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 didn’t stop a shooter from attacking the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. Many black churches, which have often been the targets of fire bombings (more than 800 between 1995 and 1999, after which the government stopped counting),10 wisely keep some firearms handy for self-protection. So do many abortion providers in states where they are under constant attack.

But what about “weapons of war” like assault weapons? Why should civilians have them? It comes down to the nature of the state. Those who want to ban such firearms trust the police and military to have overwhelming firepower. The ruling class wants to enforce a monopoly on armed force for their state. But for those who are on the receiving end of the violence of the capitalist state, such a monopoly is a mortal threat. Workers facing attacks on their picket lines by police and strikebreakers, black people threatened with lynching and racist mob attacks, immigrants deprived of democratic rights know that they cannot rely on and may be targeted by the police. The exploited and oppressed are at risk if the exploiters and oppressors have a monopoly on instruments of violence. And that is exactly what the liberal Democrats seek.

On the other side, what about Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers? We defend the right to have firearms, including for educators. But in present circumstances, Trump’s call is obviously promoting racist vigilantism and further militarization of education. What happens when an enraged white teacher pulls a trigger on an “unruly” (but unarmed) black male student? Moreover, many right-wingers pushing for this on talk radio couple it with police firearms training and even calls to deputize teachers. Again, such an increase in police power is a threat to those who are the usual targets of “law enforcement.” And then there is the inevitable problem: as a custodian at a New York City school remarked: “I can just see it now. A teacher calls down to me saying, ‘Hey Joe, can you come open the seventh-floor bathroom? I think maybe I left my Glock in there’.”

The reality is that there is no easy answer to school shootings in this violent, racist society. Mass shootings of innocent people are pathological and/or ideological actions, and restricting one particular kind of potential weapon won’t end them. Why not ban matches, or cigarette lighters? Or gasoline? When box cutters can reportedly be used to bring down the World Trade Center, determined attackers will find another way. Having firearms widely distributed among the population does not mean there will be more killings. But the goal of a completely unarmed populace under capitalism could open the door to bonapartist dictatorship, which is the only way that could be achieved. The underlying pathology, whether psychological or social, is rooted in a system based on systematic exploitation and oppression.

Internationalist contingent at July 2014 protest in New York City against the acquittal of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman, who murderered Trayvon Martin. Obama called for “gun control." Revolutionaries called for the right of black armed self-defense.” (Internationalist photo)

The Internationalist Group has from its inception opposed gun control and upheld the right of self-defense, and in particular the right of black armed self-defense. As we explained in an extensive 2013 article on the issue:

“In the wake of the horrific Newtown school shooting and a shooting spree at a shopping center in Clackamas, Oregon this past December, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have joined with Republicans like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the liberal media in launching a drive to tighten gun control laws. The main opposition comes from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and right-wing Republicans, as well as some conservative Midwestern Democrats. But while there is a division among the capitalist rulers over gun laws, they all agree on intensified police repression across the board – as well as U.S. imperialist war in Afghanistan and murderous drone strikes in half a dozen countries.”

As for mass school killings, we wrote:

“With the intense media focus on the shooting of 20 children and six adult staff at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, people have rightly begun to question what kind of a society could cause such shocking and brutal violence. But the grief and fear are being used by the White House for a dual campaign of limiting civilian access to guns and increasing the number of police inside of schools. This blatant fear-mongering in order to turn the schools into jails is disgusting, and dangerous. Rather than aiding school safety, it leads to unwarranted and often traumatic arrests of children, including handcuffing and jailing seven-year-olds, as well as imprisoning high school youths for minor infractions. We demand cops out of the schools.”
–“Who Controls the Guns?” The Internationalist No. 34, March-April 2013

We also noted the striking parallels between the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the 1938 weapons law of Nazi Germany, which restricted gun ownership to “trustworthy” citizens and, in a clause added the day after the Kristallnacht pogrom, barred Jews from owning any weapons.

The issue of the right to “keep and bear arms” is not limited to schools. Bourgeois liberals call for gun control at every opportunity. When a Colorado abortion clinic was murderously attacked in November 2015, Obama called for gun control while we emphasized “the need for defenders of women and all oppressed groups to have adequate means of protecting themselves, exercising their right to organized armed self-defense, and for mass clinic defense to sweep away the anti-abortion thugs” “After Colorado Attack: Defend Abortion Clinics!The Internationalist No. 42, January-February 2016). When a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida was attacked in June 2016, we wrote: “Marxists uphold the right of self-defense – notably for black people, and most definitely for gay and lesbian people in a violently homophobic society” (“Horrific Anti-Gay Massacre in Orlando,” The Internationalist No. 45, September-October 2016).

The IG looks to the example of the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis truck drivers Local 544, who when threatened by Silver Shirt fascists formed an official Union Defense Guard in 1938 (above) and ran the fascists out of town. (Photo: Monad Press)

Moreover, the Internationalist Group has insisted, since the day after the election of Donald Trump, that “Class-conscious workers should begin the work now of building workers defense guards, based on the mass organizations of the working class and oppressed,” to counter the threat of violent racist and outright fascist forces. We looked to the example of the Minneapolis Trotskyists who led a Teamsters local union that waged a successful general strike in 1934 and formed a union defense guard that ran the fascist Silver Shirts out of town in 1938. With this perspective, Class Struggle Workers – Portland, a tendency of labor militants fraternally allied with the IG, sparked the first major working-class action against fascists in decades that drew several hundred union members and supporters from at least 14 area unions last June 4 (see “Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation,” The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017).

One of the main appeals of “progressive” advocates of gun control is to cite the large number of African American and Latino youth who fall victim to gun violence in the impoverished ghettos and barrios. At an April 5 protest against the NYPD killing of Saheed Vasell in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there were evocative signs by Save Our Streets (SOS) saying, “Don’t Shoot. I want to grow up.” SOS is an initiative in Chicago, Baltimore and Crown Heights that has been credited with reducing fatalities through conflict mediation. But just listing the locations shows how little such programs can do in the face of a murderous racist state. Chicago? It didn’t stop Laquan McDonald from being assassinated by 16 bullets from a cop’s gun in 2014. Baltimore? It didn’t save Freddie Gray from being murdered in the back of a police van in 2015. And Crown Heights?

Conflict mediation to reduce gun violence didn't stop NYPD from gunning down Saheed Vassell in Brooklyn. Above, protest in Crown Heights against killing of Saheed, April 5.  (Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Frequently protesters have singled out particularly trigger-happy police units to demand that they be abolished. That will have no more effect than banning a particular weapon. A couple of years after the notorious 1999 NYPD murder of Amadou Diallo by the Street Crimes Unit on the doorstep of his Bronx home, the SCU was formally abolished. But in doing so New York City police chief Ray Kelly emphasized: “There is not a change in function. It is a change in title because we no longer have anything called Street Crime. We are very much concerned about guns. It doesn't mean that we don't want proactive programs to take guns off the street” (New York Times, 10 April 2002). So today instead of the Street Crimes Unit we have the Strategic Response Group, the same unit that harasses protest marches.

Peaceful conflict resolution programs or not, with New York City having some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the United States (banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, with universal firearm registry and background checks), the forces of official racist repression keep on killing with impunity. As for the shootings that beset many black and Latino inner-city neighborhoods, this is the result of massive poverty and lack of jobs, as well as lack of adequate mental health facilities and, above all, the U.S. government’s murderous “war on drugs.” The Internationalist Group opposes all laws criminalizing or regulating drugs (as well as alcohol, tobacco or other substances). Repealing drug laws is the single measure that would do the most to end urban gun violence. The symptoms of this sick racist society will not go away unless and until the workers and oppressed overturn it. In the meantime, as we wrote in 2013, “The problem in U.S. society today isn’t gun control, it’s who controls the guns.”  ■

How Armed Black Self-Defense Stopped A Lynching

Courageous black journalist Ida B. Wells documented the barbaric practice of lynching in the Jim Crow South. Her famous precept that a “Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home” was based on hard experience. She noted in her 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, that in that 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.”

In Jacksonville on July 4, 1892, Benjamin Reed, a black teamster delivering beer for Anheuser Busch, was berated by his white supervisor Frank Burrows for a late delivery, which apparently delayed Burrows from closing shop and attending the Independence Day celebrations. Reed told Burrows several times – “don’t treat me like a dog.” The continued racist denigration instigated a fight and Burrows died later that evening from his injuries.

Reed was arrested while on delivery and taken to the Jacksonville City Jail. As word spread of a lynch mob beginning to form, the black working-class population of Jacksonville mobilized armed brigades to guard the jail and prevent Reed’s “extradition.” The response was so rapid because of how well organized the black proletariat of Jacksonville was:

“Lower-income workers were members of groups such as longshoremen’s associations and washerwoman’s unions as well as burial societies. It was not unusual for a laborer in Jacksonville to hold simultaneous memberships in a union (e.g., the Knights of Labor), a fraternal order (Knights of Pythias), and a church.”
–Paul Ortiz, Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (University of California Press, 2006)

Ortiz quotes the Florida Times-Union which reported that “every approach to the jail was guarded by crowds of negroes armed to the very teeth. The city was virtually under their control…Sentinels stood on every street corner....” The defense lasted three days, with the defense guards numbering nearly a thousand people at the height. At the request of Sheriff Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (after whom Broward County is named) Governor Francis Fleming deployed the Florida militia. With a Gatling gun pointed at them, the defense guards were forced to disperse on July 7.

The next year the Florida legislature passed its gun control law in order to deny arms to black people. The show of force proved to the racist white lynchers and their police collaborators that black workers could and would prevent a lynching by force of arms. To those who say that armed black self-defense is ineffective, or worse, a “mistake,” we say: Benjamin Reed lived because of it. The example set by the black proletarians of Jacksonville in 1892 should be a lesson for all class-conscious workers and fighters against racist terror.  ■

  1. 1. John Dittmer, Black Georgia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920 (University of Illinois Press, 1980)
  2. 2. The federal government responded by bombing black Tulsa from the air. See “Black Self-Defense Against ‘Ethnic Cleansing’: Racist Hell in Tulsa, 1921,” The InternationalistNo. 22 September-October 2005.
  3. 3. See “No to Gun Control: Racist Ruling-Class Ploy to Disarm the Population – Who Controls the Guns?The Internationalist No. 34, March April 2013.
  4. 4. See “Imperialist Social Democracy vs. Black Liberation,” in The Internationalist No. 50, Winter 2017. This article is part of an Internationalist pamphlet on Democratic Socialism in the Service of U.S. Imperialism (February 2018).
  5. 5. See “Bogalusa 1965: Deacons for Defense,” in The Internationalist No. 34, March-April 2013.
  6. 6. See “Waco Holocaust: Clinton and FBI Mass Murderers!” in Workers Vanguard No. 574 (23 April 1993). At the time, WV was the voice of revolutionary Trotskyism. For the definitive account of the murderous siege, see Dick Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (Simon and Schuster, 1995).
  7. 7. U.S. Department of Justice, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003.”
  8. 8. FactCheck.org (1 February 2013).
  9. 9.Geronimo Is Out! Now Free Mumia!The Internationalist, June 1997. At the time FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover said the aim of the COINTELPRO program was to produce “ dead revolutionaries." 38 Panthers were killed by cops.
  10. 10. See “Killer Cops, White Supremacists: Racist Terror Stalks Black America,” The Internationalist No. 40, Summer 2015.