Tag Archives: gun violence

Of course America has a gun violence problem. We always have.

vegas-shooting1-gty-ml-171002_4x3_992

A man covers a woman during the shooting in Las Vegas on 1 October. Photo: ABC/David Becker/Getty

Another week in America, another mass shooting. This time, at least 59 people have lost their lives following an attack on a country music festival in Las Vegas. The perpetrator was a wealthy, white sexagenarian, the latest in a long line of mostly white males who massacre their fellow Americans. This is, sadly, a regular occurrence here in the United States.

I write for a mostly international audience, and several people on Twitter have asked why this seems to happen in America more frequently than anywhere else in the Western world. I’ve spent much of the past week grappling with this question, trying to figure out a way to summarise exactly what makes America so exceptional when it comes to massacring our own.

The answer, it turns out, is both simple and complex – one that is both born of the present and rooted deep in America’s past.

There’s the obvious: we have the most guns, and the most lax gun laws, of any developed nation. Following the Port Arthur massacre, Australia banned automatic and semiautomatic weapons, instituted a gun buyback scheme, and hasn’t had a mass shooting since, save for the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis which saw 3 people killed and 4 others wounded. That’s small potatoes compared to an average American mass shooting – and certainly compared to Las Vegas, where over 500 people are reportedly injured, many critically.

Of course, Australia doesn’t have a Second Amendment, which enshrines “the right to bear arms.” Leaving aside the semantic and constitutional arguments about whether the Framers ever intended for that to extend outside state militias (the equivalent of which is modern-day state National Guards) or whether they anticipated the advent of modern weapons of mass murder, this law does seem to give Americans an inalienable right to own firearms. And it’s one that many people take very seriously.

To understand why, you have to understand something about the American character. In a 2016 speech, former president Barack Obama said that Americans “are not inherently more prone to violence.”

He was wrong. Americans are more inherently prone to violence. Violence is ingrained in our national DNA.

The United States of America was born in violence. We gained our independence through a bloody revolution in which we waged war to throw off the yoke of British rule. But before that, we were founded on white settler colonialism which saw us enslave Africans to work our plantations and exterminate the Native Americans of the Eastern Seaboard, Southeast, and Midwest in order to “settle” those lands.

This continued when we pushed westward. A cultural narrative of “us-versus-them” sprung up vis-a-vis white settlers and Native Americans. From the Bear River Massacre, where nearly 250 Shoshone Indians were killed to Wounded Knee, where close to 300 Lakota were slain by the US Army, the story of the West is one of violent conquest.

The imperial colonisation of the West also gave rise to the belief in “rugged individualism,” which has permeated the American psyche ever since. At its most basic, “rugged individualism” is almost anarchist in its belief that the state won’t take care of citizens and so citizens must take care of themselves.

In the Old West, this was somewhat true – settlers were often far from the protections of the state and had to fend for themselves against the elements and outlaws, and yes, Native Americans who were trying desperately to protect their homeland against the invading colonists (and make no mistake, that’s what white settlers were). But somehow, as the West was tamed by federal and state law enforcement, Americans never gave up their guns.

This is hardly surprising. Slaveholders in the south needed guns in order to keep enslaved African-Americans in line and avoid slave insurrections. One of the only things that kept slaves – who greatly outnumbered slaveholders – from rebelling en masse was that they did not have firearms whereas the masters did. Then came the Civil War, where the South took up arms against the federal government in order to preserve slavery. After that failed – in what is to date the bloodiest war in American history – they used guns to help enforce Jim Crow laws, which subjugated Black Americans for another century.

There is another lesson to be drawn from the Civil War, though – one that many left-wing Americans won’t accept but that is extremely important to consider. The reason the South was able to so quickly raise an army to fight the federal government was that they had guns. And for many, many Americans – especially white Americans – this is a primary reason for clinging to their guns.

They see firearms as a fail-safe against a potentially tyrannical government which would usurp their liberties. This is certainly how many racist slaveholders saw the election of Lincoln, and it is how many – again, mostly white – Americans view guns today.

After all, as I said, this was a country born in violent revolution. From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Civil War to the Miners War, the right to bear arms has been something the citizenry has used to fight back against what they’ve felt is government tyranny.

Of course, this right has only ever extended to white people. Prior to the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s gun lobby, had broadly supported gun control measures. This began to change in 1967, when gun control measures supported by then California governor Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) would have banned Black Panther members from carrying arms.

Opposing the law, members of the Black Panther Party carried their guns into the California capitol demanding their right to bear arms. Reagan commented at the time that “there’s no reason why, on the street today, a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon.” He changed his tune by the time he ran for president in 1980.

Following the turmoil of the late 1960s, in which urban Blacks – in particular the Black Panther Party – began arming themselves against violent white oppression, the NRA saw an influx of rural members who quickly turned the organisation from a gun training organisation to a strict defender of the Second Amendment – and of gun rights laws.

They didn’t do it because of any desire to support the rights of Black urbanites, though. They actually felt that gun control laws on Black people were unduly affecting them. Over the past four decades, the NRA has routinely failed to protect the Second Amendment rights of Black Americans, most markedly in the case of Philando Castile, a Black Minnesotan who was shot and killed by police when he acknowledged the presence of a legal firearm in his car. The NRA said nothing.

That’s the long way around. But if you want the abstract of this piece, it’s this: America was born in violence, and that violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is a belief in individual liberty. Indeed, they’re inextricably connected for many Americans.

This isn’t just about the War for Independence. The way we settled this continent  was, to be frank, a genocide against the Native population. We did it with the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants. For 400 years white America has used firearms to defend themselves, yes, but more to the point, to subjugate people of colour in order to conquer the North American continent.

The belief that government is tyrannical is still rife within our populations. This is born from the Calvinists who fled England in the 1600s and continues to this day, with Americans who have an innate distrust for authority. Many Americans still feel that there will be a second American Revolution – just look at the likes of the white nationalists who died at Ruby Ridge, or Timothy McVeigh, who committed the deadliest act of domestic terror in US history when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Look at the militia movements around the country. Look at the people who elected Donald Trump who were ready for battle if Hillary Clinton won and tried to take their guns (which she never planned to do).

Some have countered that these mass shootings, with “lone wolf” white men killing scores of innocent people don’t fit into this narrative, as there has been no political motive. But the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech both left manifestos. The shooter at Pulse seemed to have a motive – whether homophobia, Islamic radicalism, or both – as did Dylann Roof when he killed Black churchgoers in Charleston. Elliott Rodger, who killed six people in the 2014 Isla Vista, California massacre, was motivated by deep misogyny. The Umpqua Community College shooter was described as a “hate filled” white supremacist. And no one can argue Jared Laughner didn’t have a political motive when he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011.

The truth is, contrary to what Barack Obama said, America is more inherently violent than other Western countries. Our nation, perhaps uniquely amongst the Western democracies, was forged in violence – both against the colonial motherland and against the indigenous and enslaved populations.

America has never reckoned with its violent character and utter distrust of government, and until it does, gun violence will continue to be a problem we cannot avoid – one that will continue to claim countless innocent lives this country is ready to sacrifice on the altar of the Second Amendment.

Advertisements

Yes, right-wing extremism killed Jo Cox

27118008193_7d2ef67ccc_k

Image: Flickr.com/ Garry Knight

This has been our septimana horribilis. On Sunday, we paused to mourn 49 victims of homophobic, Islamist terrorism in Orlando. As I attempted to work through my grief and put the hate in context, never did I imagine I would end the week doing the exact same thing for another brutal attack on freedom and democracy.

Yet here we are. “Oh God, no,” were my exact words when news broke that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, died following an attack by a far-right terrorist whom eyewitnesses claim shouted “Britain First!” Since then, people from across the political spectrum have eulogised Jo for the stalwart humanitarian and outstanding parliamentarian she was, and could have been.

It was hate that took 49 lives in Orlando, and it was hate that killed Jo. In the immediacy after her attack, many on the British right cautioned us not to jump to conclusions. “We don’t know why he did it,” they said, “nothing has been determined.” A man shooting a left-wing politician while shouting a far-right slogan could be purely coincidental and not at all political, they insisted, instead focusing on the alleged gunman’s mental health.

They can’t do that anymore. Yesterday in court, the suspect himself made that painfully clear. He gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Whelp.

After the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby, the right-wing press, and indeed many on the British right, were quick to condemn it for what it was: an Islamist terrorist attack. The murderers made no secret of their motives, even on the witness stand. Rigby was killed by two men, at least one of whom had a long, documented history of mental illness. Coverage rarely, if ever, focused on that. Instead, “moderate Muslims” were called on to condemn the attack and to do more to root out the scourge of radicalism from their communities.

Now, in circumstances that eerily mirror Rigby’s murder, the British right finds itself in an incredible act of political contortion, trying to avoid the same treatment it gave Muslims three years ago. The fact is, the British right, particularly the Brexiters, do have something to answer for here. And it needs to be said.

No one who observes British politics, whether from within the Westminster bubble or from across the Atlantic, can sincerely say that the EU referendum hasn’t brought out the worst in people and politicians. The Brexit campaign has, from the start, been framed as a fight for the very survival of the British nation and people. “Take our country back!” they exclaim, lamenting the “swarms of migrants” coming over from Europe and beyond. To be pro-Brexit has been equated to being pro-British, and to be pro-Europe is unpatriotic.

As someone who has remained neutral in this campaign (though did argue an American and socialist case for Brexit on Radio 5), I have been appalled at the dog-whistle politics and even overt racism that has come from the Leave camp. From Farage’s “BREAKING POINT!” poster to Boris Johnson’s racist comments about Barack Obama, the Leave campaign has used white nationalist imagery and coded language throughout. Indeed, Boris’ comments about America’s “part-Kenyan” president echo those used by racists such as Donald Trump to insist Obama’s ancestry makes him un-American. Unsurprising, really, given that so many of the Brexiters feel that people with ties to foreign lands aren’t proper Brits. Not really.

This talk of losing control of the nation, of losing sovereignty, of losing national identity and security and border control, has been as jingoistic as it has been fascistic. It is a climate in which to be anything but a strident Leaver has been to be a traitor to Queen and Country. None of us exist in a bubble. You can only scare people for so long before some rogue agent takes matters into his own hands.  The tone and tenor of this campaign has led to a vitriol previously unimaginable. I’ve written about British politics since 2009. I’ve seen more racism, more xenophobia, and more bigotry in the past seven weeks than in the past seven years combined.  The hatefulness of the far right has hit a boiling point, and it was inevitable that someone would boil over the pot and into gunfire.

The right needs to own this. The Leave campaign needs to own it. No, not everyone on who is for Brexit is a bigot. Just as there is a difference between Islamism and Islam, or Judaism and Zionism, there is a difference between Brexit and bigotry. I have many people I love dearly who sincerely believe Britain will be better off outside the EU. But the Leave campaign has not only tolerated, but embraced, this nationalistic fervour in both the cynical hope that the public will be scared enough to vote Out, and in some more nefarious instances in the sincere belief that actually, immigrants are the devil.

Some of my right-wing friends have claimed Jo Cox’s assassination is being tastelessly exploited for political gain. This is simply not true. Pointing out the political nature of the attack is not political point scoring. Correctly stating facts is not propaganda. Jo Cox was killed because she is—was—a left-wing, pro-Europe internationalist. She was killed by a far-right, anti-immigrant nationalist. These two things are not mutually exclusive. They are intrinsically and inextricably connected.

This isn’t to let my fellow leftists off the hook, either. For years we have sneered at white working class concerns, particularly over immigration. From Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” to true-but-tired memes castigating rural communities and small towns with few immigrants for being anti-immigrant, we’ve ceded the discourse to Nigel Farage and the far-right. If the traditional home of the working class is no longer hospitable, of course they’re going to look somewhere else.

If we dismiss their concerns as pure ignorance instead of acknowledging them and explaining an alternative view—that it’s not immigrants what done it, but years of austerity and globalisation bolstered by unmitigated free trade and lack of economic redevelopment—then it only makes sense that they would look elsewhere. It is not necessarily bigoted to be concerned over immigration, but if we don’t say that, it’s no wonder that those concerned over immigration turn to bigots.

We have poisoned this well too. From calling Tories and Tony Blair fascists to claiming Iain Duncan Smith is a murderer to the hateful misogyny directed at everyone from Stella Creasy to Liz Kendall to Priti Patel, we need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with ourselves as well. I’m including myself in this. I have not always lived up to my own standards, something I’m quietly reflecting on. We’re not perfect. We’ve reached fever pitch, too, and it’s time for all of us to simmer down.

There’s a reason the second largest party is called the Opposition and not the enemy. As Jo herself said in her maiden speech, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” This week has been a tragic reminder of how fragile that unity is, and how British democracy only functions if we all approach political discourse with civility, respect, and the humanity of our opponents squarely in mind. Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that, and a brilliant young MP is dead because of it. We can’t get Jo back, but I hope to God we can get our decency back.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is journalist and cultural critic who writes about British politics and LGBT rights. His work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, Pink News, and elsewhere. He founded The Curious American in 2013. He lives in Chicago.

 

Orlando was a homophobic terrorist attack. Let’s own it.

pray for orlando

Image: heavy.com

 

I am heartbroken, and I am weeping.

This has been one of the hardest days of my life, on par with the day my friend Garic (a proud gay Marine) died, and 9/11. As a gay American, this assault on our freedoms and very right to exist is in many ways too much to bear. The only things that have gotten me through today are the outpouring of support from friends and family, my bae, and my neighbour’s five-year-old son whose innocence and precociousness was a welcome respite from the nonstop coverage of how someone wanted to kill people like me just for being people like me.

That’s what sets this massacre apart from Columbine, or from Virginia Tech, or from even Newtown. Those were indiscriminate killings. This was not. It was targeted, like Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, not randomly, but specifically. Emmanuel was targeted because its congregants were Black. Pulse was targeted because its patrons were queer.

So imagine my horror when, watching Sky Papers, I saw Julia Hartley-Brewer and presenter Mark Longhurst berate out-gay columnist Owen Jones for calling the attack what it is – a homophobic terrorist attack. They talked over him and spoke down to him whenever he tried to raise the homophobic nature of the massacre, insisting it was on par with what happened at Paris’ Bataclan. To Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst, this was just an attack on a Western club. To Jones and the rest of the LGBT community, it’s much, much more.

Straight people, I get it. You’re feeling this loss deeply. You’re appalled by what happened in Orlando. And you should be. Only a truly evil human being wouldn’t be mortified and distraught by this carnage. But, if I may, let me explain to you why LGBT people are feeling this much move viscerally than you ever could.

Gay clubs are our safe spaces. No, not safe spaces in the way they’re employed at universities, but literal safe spaces. They’re places we can go and be unabashedly ourselves without fear of reprisal or straight gazes judging or gawking at us. It was an LGBT bar—the Stonewall—that birthed the modern LGBT rights movement. It has long been a place for us to congregate, find and build community, and mobilise for our civil rights. There’s a reason Boystown was my first stop when I moved to Chicago. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world, my London family, in Soho. Gay clubs aren’t just safe spaces, they’re sacred spaces.

Yes, we know Daesh (aka ISIS) has targeted other venues before. We know they hate our nightlife, our freedoms, and our culture. But this wasn’t a random choice. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio, no friend to the gay community, has acknowledged that we were singled out and specifically attacked because of who we are. This was an attack not just on liberty, not just on democracy, but specifically on LGBT people. Our hard-won rights, our cherished spaces, and our very identities were targeted. And 50 people lost their lives not because they were Americans, but because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or an ally.

This was an attack on who we are. It was calculated. Specific. Intentional. Someone wanted us dead because we’re LGBT. Straight people, I’m sorry, but you can’t understand the immense sadness and vulnerability we are now feeling. No one has ever targeted you because you love the opposite sex. Maybe they’ve targeted you for other reasons, so you can sympathise, but they’ve not targeted you for this. While this is your tragedy because it’s all our tragedy, it is specifically my tragedy. It is specifically LGBT America’s tragedy. And you need to recognise that nuance.

Calling this a homophobic and transphobic terrorist attack does not detract from the tragedy. It enhances it, because it shows just how vile and truly bigoted the shooter was, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society. It doesn’t detract from the tragedy of the Bataclan, it simply acknowledges a difference in target and a possible shift in Daesh strategy. The Pulse represented what’s best about America, so it brought out the worst in Daesh. It’s okay to say that.

Make no mistake, this is about LGBT people. We might not have a monopoly on this grief, but it most certainly belongs to us. This was our community targeted. These were our lives taken. And they weren’t taken because of the red, white, and blue. They were taken because of the rainbow. And I need you to understand that. We’re not saying you can’t be sad, or angry, or feeling this deeply. We’re saying that you can’t possibly feel the innate violation and vulnerability that we feel.

Gay clubs are where we go to escape the judgments and hatred of the broader society. We retreat into the darkness of a club, behind closed doors, to be unabashedly ourselves because we so often can’t in the light of day. For so many of us, the gay club is the one place we felt intrinsically safe. That has been taken from us, and it raises bigger questions. If we’re not safe in Boystown or Soho, where the fuck are we safe?

This was an assault on the most fundamental part of me. These people weren’t just targeted for being Americans. They were targeted because of who they loved. They were targeted because they were viewed as subhuman, worse than animals. They were targeted because of a hateful ideology and straight supremacy. And it’s really, really easy to say “well yeah, Daesh throws gay people off roofs.” Because they do.

Yet on the same day as the massacre at Pulse, a white American was on his way to do harm to LGBT people at the Los Angeles Pride Parade. So don’t you dare use this, as Donald Trump has, to justify persecution of our Muslim brethren. There are LGBT Muslims too, and they are targeted as violently as we were. And let’s not forget that it was a white Christian who targeted lesbian bars in Atlanta in 1996. It was a straight Christian who killed three people at the Admiral Duncan. It wasn’t Daesh who lynched Matthew Shepherd. This is about Daesh, and I won’t pretend it isn’t. There’s got to be time and space to talk about radical Islamic terrorism and homophobia.

But this is also about us.  The outpouring of grief from the likes of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spent so much time and energy fighting gay marriage in Florida, is frustrating. I respect the fact that Bondi, Governor Rick Scott, and Marco Rubio were probably sincere. But they’re also deeply hypocritical. These people have spent their careers denying LGBT Americans equality. When Pam Bondi said she stood with the LGBT community, all I could wonder is why we have to die to have your solidarity? It would be nice to have it in life, too.

So as LGBT America mourns the loss of our siblings at Pulse, please give us the space to lead the national grieving. Take your cues from us. This is more than just a terrorist attack. It’s a hate crime. It was meant to terrify the LGBT community. And it has, it really has.

But we are strong. We fought for our rights on the streets outside Stonewall, in the Castro, in the prairies of Wyoming. We will keep fighting. LGBT Americans are, after all, Americans. And we never back down when someone threatens our hard-won freedoms. We’ve come too far to be cowed by one attack. LGBT Americans, and America as a country, will rise from these ashes and continue to fight for equality, freedom, and liberty.

I am a proud gay American.