Members Only | January 20, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The Black-and-White Truth about the Virginia Gun Rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
It's not about the right to bears arms.
There’s a gun rally going on in Richmond, Virginia, today. It’s not about guns. Thousands, I suppose maybe tens of thousands, of Americans have gathered in defense of the Second Amendment. It’s not about the right to bear arms or self-defense.
The rally is about the freedom of some Americans to carry lethal weaponry in civil society for the purpose of intimidating humans being “deserving” of intimidation. More importantly, the rally is a representation of the bifurcated nature of our moral and legal system in which white men are protected by the law while everyone else is punished. There is one set of rules and norms for “us.” There is one set for “them.”
They are separate, and unequal.
There is ample documentary evidence to underscore my point. Hop on Twitter to see gangs walking around the former capital of the Confederacy wearing combat fatigues and carrying semi-automatic rifles, some of which are the same AR-15s used in one mass murder after another. The truth is obvious. Virtually all of them are white men.
That the rally is occurring on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is no accident. Indeed, it’s appropriate given the point is intimidating human beings “deserving” of intimidation. King and his allies fought to democratize America fully. They struggled to complete a 100-year process of liberalization that began with the Emancipation Proclamation.
But for many Americans, democracy isn’t for “them.” Democracy is for “us.” Equality isn’t an ideal to aspire to. Equality is a transgression worthy of punishment. People demanding things they don’t deserve get what’s coming to them. In the distant past, it was enslavement. In the near past, it was mass incarceration. On MLK Day 2020, it is the feeling of terror in knowing the state might not protect them from white violence.
The irony is King was a gun owner. He owned lots of guns. “An arsenal” is how a visitor put it. King came from a conservative black tradition in the Jim Crow South borne of practical need. If a white man pointed a gun at you, you pointed one back.
King is remembered now for his faith, liberal values and commitment to nonviolent protest. But that commitment arose from a context, and that context was a fierce debate between opposing camps in the civil-rights movement. One camp favored nonviolence. One favored armed resistance. King and others made a pragmatic choice.
Why pragmatic? Because armed resistance was a good way for black activists to get killed. (Chicago police, after all, murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton. The Black Panthers broke from King’s movement. They advocated armed resistance.) More importantly, choosing armed resistance was accepting “the demise of civil society, to admit that we have no better solutions, and that we are little better than our past,” wrote Simon Balto in 2013. Balto’s essay for the Washington Spectator, back when I was its managing editor, was so powerful and so moving, I have never forgotten it.
At the time, some white liberals argued the Trayvon Martins of the world are going to be accused of carrying guns even if they are not, so they may as well carry one for self-defense. But that idea was missing something huge, Simon Balto wrote. “There is no salvation, no endgame, in the proposition,” he said. “It leads nowhere but a society of seemingly infinite arms and limitless danger. Much of black America recognizes this.
There’s a reason that, in spite of the fraught and often racist history of gun control, African Americans still overwhelmingly support it. It is because black communities know terribly well the burden of life in a society premised around fear, and in which the state vacates or fails in its responsibility to keep its citizens safe. That is, after all, a significant thread of our country’s racial history—one that’s been weaving for many generations now. … To accept that idea would be a monstrous, awful thing.
King chose nonviolent protest, but it must be said armed resistance was resisting something, primarily a state unwilling or unable to protect black people from white violence. Today’s gun-rally participants say they are resisting too. They are not. The state not only protects white people from violence, but it protects white people’s “freedom” to commit violence. That’s what so-called Stand Your Ground laws are.
Gun-rights advocates say they are resisting the tyranny of the state, but that rhetoric masks a simpler and truer purpose. If “gun control is Jim Crow,” they are the victims. If they are the victims, who is doing the victimizing? A state that’s no longer the exclusive preserve of white men, a state fully and faithfully committed to King’s dream. Equality isn’t an American ideal to aspire to. Equality is a transgression worthy of punishment.
It’s no surprise a gun rally is happening on MLK Day.
It’s no surprise, because that’s the point.
*Photo courtesy of my Substack mate, Jonathan Myerson Katz.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.