Examining the Role of Community Armed Self-Defense in an Era of Gun ViolenceBy Chris Steele
April 21st, 2018
"I think it's time for all of us within civil society to think about how we want to respond, autonomously and collectively, without waiting to be saved by the same reactionary governments and corporations that have produced the crises in the first place." — scott crow, Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense.
There are as many guns in the US in private hands as the population -- an estimated 300 million guns. Seventy-four percent of gun owners are male, 82 percent are white, and 61 percent of adults who own guns are white men, with white men making up 32 percent of the US adult population. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has pointed out that the top reason for gun ownership is for protection, asking, "What are white men so afraid of?"
Gun control is as old as the US, according to Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. After the Revolutionary War, the framers of the US Constitution determined "untrustworthy" people -- such as African Americans, Catholics and Loyalists -- weren't allowed to carry guns. During Reconstruction, the KKK also acted as a disarmament group targeting, terrorizing and murdering African Americans who owned guns, many of whom were Union veterans. Even in the "Wild West," it was against the law to carry firearms into notorious towns such as Dodge City.
Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense, edited by scott crow, digs into liberatory community armed self-defense strategies, weaving together theory, history and practice. crow himself has engaged in temporary community armed self-defense against racist white militias who bragged about killing African Americans to the Danish press after Hurricane Katrina. Undoubtedly, crow's own firsthand experience -- detailed in his book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective -- has shaped his curation of the anthology.
Setting Sights flips the gun-control debate on its head, citing that even Martin Luther King Jr. had armed guards at times. The book also questions state violence; opens discussions on disarming police; analyzes gun laws, race and how to decentralize power; and diagnoses the macho-patriarchal ideology often associated and romanticized in gun culture.
Setting Sights takes an intersectional approach to community armed self-defense by examining Indigenous resistance in North America; women's suffrage; Black liberation movements; LGBTQIA movements; anti-racist, poor, white movements; and anarchist organizing. The theory section features Neal Shirley, Kristian Williams, Peter Little, Chad Kautzer, J. Clark, Ashanti Alston, the Western Unit Tactical Defense Caucus, Leslie James Pickering, Gustavo Rodriguez and the North Carolina Piece Corps. The history section features Paul Avrich, Shawn Stevenson, Anti-Fascist Action UK, Helge Döhring, Gabriel Kuhn, Lamont Carter, David Cecelski, Kathleen Cleaver, Mabel Williams, Angela Davis, Akinyele Omowale Umoja, Nikki Craft, Gord Hill, Dennis Banks, Michele Rene Weston, Laura Gallery, Subcomandante Marcos, Suncere Shakur, Simón Sedillo, Mo Karnage, George Ciccariello-Maher, Dave Strano, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, Alexander Reid Ross and Ian LaVallee.
Reminiscent of works such as Akinyele Omowale Umoja's We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013), Nicholas Johnson's Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms (2014), and Timothy B. Tyson's Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (1999), the long history of self-defense by communities of color is comprehensively detailed in Setting Sights. In the chapter titled "Self-Respect, Self-Defense, and Self-Determination: A Presentation," Black civil rights activists Kathleen Cleaver and Mabel Williams converse about the Black Panther Party, and Williams discusses her life with Black civil rights activist Robert F. Williams, and how they started a rifle club to combat the Ku Klux Klan in Monroe, North Carolina.
Like Robert F. Williams, Dennis Banks was a military veteran and co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1968, taking up arms in self-defense at Wounded Knee in 1973. In his piece in Setting Sights, titled "We Refuse to Die: An Interview with Dennis Banks," Banks explains that women were armed at Wounded Knee and that AIM's tactic of being armed strengthened their positions when negotiating at Wounded Knee.
On the discussion of gun control, author Neal Shirley points out that white supremacy pervades the right-wing as well as liberal perspective of the debate. Shirley explains that many right-wingers are "notoriously racist" and National Rifle Association (NRA) literature often promotes "fear of people of color," with NRA pamphlets hinting at an impending "race war to come." Looking at the liberal perspective, Shirley notes, "white liberals use gun control to legislate the freedoms of communities of color," which "give racist cops one more thing with which to harass, detain, arrest, and brutalize people of color."
Other histories of armed resistance covered in Setting Sights involve the role of anarchists in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922 by Paul Avrich and anarcho-syndicalist militias in Germany from 1929-1933 by Helge Döhring and Gabriel Kuhn. In Russia, anarchists found themselves at odds with the Bolshevik Red Army as well as the anti-Bolshevik White Army, while the German anarcho-syndicalist group Schwarze Scharen (roughly meaning "Black Droves") continually "engaged with Nazis in street fights and provided security at meetings and events."
The chapter titled, "The People Armed: Women in the 1930s Spanish Revolution" explains the role of Spanish anarchist women from the organization Mujeres Libres (Free Women). Nikki Craft's chapter, titled, "Drifting from the Mainstream: A Chronicle of Early Anti-rape Organizing and WASP" explains that in the 1970s, there was a split from the group Dallas Women Against Rape, which formed Women Armed for Self-Protection (WASP). Craft reveals that WASP routinely held shooting practice for women, made leaflets, supported women "who had killed rapists in self-defense" and helped to get media attention to rape trials.
In Setting Sights, editor scott crow poses tough questions on the philosophy of liberatory community armed self-defense, such as: When is armed engagement appropriate? How would we want it to look? How do we create cultures of tacit or direct support and include people who would never themselves engage in armed defense? How will we keep from centralizing power? When do the consequences outweigh the benefits? As students raise the issue of gun control in mass protests across the US, it is worth considering the lessons learned from history and the questions posed in Setting Sights.
Chris Steele co-authored an article with Noam Chomsky that was published in the latter's book Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity.