Thursday, April 19, 2007

Oppression, bigotry, dignity and the necessity of self-defense.

Am I pro-gun? I don’t know what that means. A gun is an inanimate object with no will or its own and no ability to act. It is acted upon. And, like any other inanimate object, what happens with it is entirely in the hands of human beings. It can do great evil and great good. The same is true of many things. Some religious fanatics managed to turn air planes into weapons of mass destruction, far more deadly than any handgun. Drunks turn automobiles into killing machines. Even a hand that can produce great things can become a fist that inflicts pain.

Now, I am not a member of the National Rifle Association. Not now, not never, though I have been a member of the ACLU. I'm not a joiner. I don’t own a gun. I have never owned a gun. The only time I fired a gun in my entire life was at school! True—but the school had a rifle range and it was part of a class and I had no choice in the matter, obviously this was a few years ago.

Second, I have been the victim of armed attacks. I have had a deranged and violent criminal put a pistol to my skull and promise to kill me. On a second occasion I was shot at. So I know what it is to be the victim of an armed assault.

When a gang of three men entered my home they tied me up and threatened to kill me. With my hands tied behind my back I was pushed down on the bed as they ransacked the house. What they did not know was that when they tied my hands I had used an old conjuring trick so that the ropes immediately became lose. Only one of the three men was armed. He was in front of me going through the shelves in the closet with his back to me.

I reached out from behind my back and took a large sum of cash that was in the bedstand and threw it under the bed. And at that moment I realized that if I had a gun in the bedstand, or under the bed, I would have been able to shoot the man and put an end to the trauma. I didn’t have one. So it continued. And I was not their only victim that day. It is something I prefer not to discuss in much detail. But I knew I could have ended it immediately. I could have stopped the evil. At that very second, a gun would have done me and my partner much good.

The second time I watched in horror as two men, one armed, grabbed someone I love very much in order to gain access to my home. They demanded to know where I was. They walked past the bedroom window where I stood watching this. I only intended to let them know that they were spotted and hoped they would conclude that I had called the police or set off a silent alarm. But they weren’t looking in my direction.

I only meant to get their attention. I took my hand and went to slap on the window, just to make a noise. But the adrenaline was flowing and instead I shattered the entire pane of glass with a loud bang. Shreds of glass went flying out toward them and their hostage. The one armed man turned away from his hostage and turned toward me. He raised his pistol and fired, the bullet went into the window shutter a few inches away from my head. He and his accomplice turned and ran leaving their hostage behind.

It was only later that I realized what had happened. Their would-be hostage told me that when I hit the glass, and it shattered, that it sounded like a gun going off. I believe that is what those thugs thought as well. They believed the flying glass was caused by a weapon fired in their direction. And the moment they decided I was armed, they decided it wa a good idea to go elsewhere.

During the dying days of apartheid I witnessed police brutality first hand. A conference I attended was “evacuated” by the police over an alleged bomb threat. There was no bomb. It was a police hoax to force us out of the building so they could videotape who was attending.

Twice that day a young thug of a cop tried to arrest a man who worked for the conference. His crime was that he was black. The first time he grabbed his victim several people grabbed the man from the other side and pulled him away from the cop. We stood in a line between the policeman and his intended victim. An arrest in South Africa under apartheid often meant a violent beating and could result in death. The officer backed down when he found a group of angry white people refusing to allow him to continue.

We were allowed back into the building. Once again this thug in uniform took it upon himself to try to arrest the same black man. But many of us were still there, standing with him. People blocked his way and refused to allow him through. He started becoming agitated. He got into a scuffle with a young woman. She threw her cold drink at him. And suddenly his fist started slamming into her face repeatedly.

At times like that you do not think, you react. And you react according to the deepest values you hold. I, someone who had spent my life avoiding violence and fighting, grabbed the left arm of this officer and clung to it. Another man standing nearby had done the same with his right arm. I just keep whispering in his ear: “You shouldn’t hit a woman.” Actually you shouldn’t hit anyone. Maybe I was sexist, but I believe it. You shouldn’t hit a woman, anyone, but especially not a woman or a child.

The policeman was spitting venom and threatening us. He promised to arrest us and to hurt us. I don’t know how it ended. I really don’t remember. At some point he calmed down and we let him go. He was still furious but not violent. His superior came over and realizing this act of brutality was being conducted in front of hundreds of witnesses—white witnesses, which made it worse in the eyes of the advocates of apartheid—took him away.

People sometimes forget that the police are often the agents of oppression as well. And when guns are outlawed only outlaws and cops have guns. And that scares me.

People in South Africa eventually were forced to fight their own government violently. This does not mean I support the ANC. I actually don’t. But I supported the freedom struggle, which is a different matter. I have friends who were part of that struggle. White friends who protested and were arrested and black friends who used weapons to fight against the apartheid state. There were things that some “freedom fighters” did which were wrong. But there were many things they did which were right, and just, and necessary. The simple truth is that the police were the last people a black victim of crime in South Africa would want to call.

Only the most sheltered, or ignorant, do not know of the attacks on black Americans in the Deep South, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and their allies in the state governments and the police. If a black man was attacked he couldn’t call on the police for help. Too often it was the police who were the attackers. Government was not there to protect the rights of black people. Government was the agent of their destruction.

W.E.B. DuBois realized the problem in the South: “In the last analysis lynching of Negroes is going to stop in the South when the cowardly mob is faced by effective guns in the hands of people determined to sell their souls dearly.” Herbert Harrison, president of the Liberal League of Negro America, in the 1920s, gave this advice: “I advise you to be ready to defend yourselves. I notice the State Government has removed some of its restrictions upon owning firearms, and one form of life insurance for your wives and children might be the possession of some of these handy implements.”

The Deacons for Defense and Justice, organized by the black churches, set up armed patrols to protect black neighborhoods from white vigilantes. Klan attacks had a tendency to stop when they knew their victims were armed. Her other views aside, Condoleezza Rice grew up in the segregated South. Her father was one of the armed men who took to the streets to protect his family. The Montgomery Advertiser wrote:
“During the bombings of the summer of 1963, her father and other neighborhood men guarded the streets at night to keep white vigilantes at bay. Rice said her staunch defense of gun rights comes from those days. She has argued that if the guns her father and neighbors carried had been registered, they could have been confiscated by the authorities, leaving the black community defenseless.”
In fact, this is precisely the origin of some of the first gun control laws in America. For instance, Michigan only implemented its law requiring gun permits after a black man, Dr. Ossian Sweet, was forced to defend his house from a white mob intent on burning him out. He shot and killed one of the mob as the police stood on the sidelines watching and refusing to act. Sweet was defended by the great champion of human rights Clarence Darrow, and acquitted.

Like the oppressed people in South Africa, the blacks in the American South, not that long ago, could not call upon the police for their protection. Too often the local Klan was run by members of the police department.

It wasn’t that many years ago I was in a car driving through the streets of Chicago. I was shocked to see dozens of police cars surrounding a building leading people out one by one and arresting them. Who were these people? What had they done?

They were gay men inside a gay bar who had done nothing. But that alone was sufficient cause for the Chicago police to raid the bar and arrest the men. Some years later I was having dinner in a restaurant in San Francisco with some friends. The waitress warned us to avoid the “riot” down the street. Of course as we left the restaurant we went to see what was happening.

Dozens and dozens of police, heavily armored and with batons ready, had stretched themselves across the width of Castro Street, at the corner of Market. The “riot” was angry residents of this gay neighborhood demanding the police leave. The “officers” marched down the streets forcing everyone to lock themselves inside. I later learned that on numerous occasions the police used various excuses to invade the Castro, sometimes quite violently.

Nor should not forget that it was one of these cops, Dan White, who was elected as a City Supervisor, who walked into City Hall in 1978 and assassinated the mayor and the first elected gay official, Harvey Milk. The police, to say the least, were very understanding with Mr. White.

Even to this day, many black and/or gay Americans can’t rely on the police to protect them. It isn’t that these people are necessarily advocates of a “gun culture.” Many don’t even like guns. But what other choice do they have? To disarm them is to put them at the mercy of every bigot and homophobe, in or out of uniform. Today there is a group of 40 chapters of Pink Pistols, a group that helps gays, lesbians and transgendered people learn how to use weapons in self-defense.

It is hard to convey the necessity of being able to defend one’s self to people who have never had to do so. I don’t think I could understand the attitude of many black Americans had I not witnessed police brutality against blacks in South Africa firsthand. I know what is like to feel fear and to face violent police officers.

The unfortunate reality of this world is that too often there are people who simply can’t rely on the police to protect them. And still, too often, it is the police from whom they need protection.

The idea that firearms must be a state monopoly is one that makes no sense in light of the history of our world. I can only suggest that individuals who advocate such things are unaware of how often, and how easily, the state has become the greatest engine of genocide in the modern world.

Can anyone rationally defend the premise that the people of Warsaw, in 1944, would have been better off with fewer guns? For 63 days they valiantly tried to end the domination of the Nazis. Betrayed by the Soviets, they were left to die. What they needed was not gun control but more guns.

Only one year before the Jews of Warsaw were confined to the ghetto awaiting deportation to Auschwitz, Birkenau and the other concentration camps. On January 18 armed Jews in the ghetto resisted the Nazi deportation process for the first time. The deportations stopped as the Nazi regime tried to decide what to do.

For three months there were no more deportations, no further deaths. During this time the people of the ghetto prepared to make their stand. They dug intricate tunnel systems and established air raid shelters and bunkers from which to fight. But they had only some pistols, a few rifles and one, perhaps three, machine guns. They mostly relied on home-made bombs.

The Nazis planned their attack for Passover and assumed it would take three days to clear the ghetto. It took a month. The Nazis, true to form, killed indiscriminately and destroyed the ghetto house by house. Over 13,000 were killed in the attack and 50,000 were sent off to the camps. Who would tell me that these people would have been better off with fewer guns?

It is the boot of oppression that drives home the importance of being able to defend one’s self. I’m not “pro-gun”. I’m pro freedom, pro human rights, pro self-defense. Guns are merely tools to help achieve those ends. To be pro or anti gun makes a much sense to me as being pro and anti hammer, or pro and anti screwdriver. But people, especially those who are the victims of prejudice and hatred, must be able to defend themselves. I wish the world we lived in were a different place where none of this were necessary. But wishing does not make reality.

History tells us that victims often can not rely on a state monopoly to protect them. Frequently the very individuals who run that monopoly are either participants in these attack,s or willingly turn a blind eye to them. Even under the best of circumstances they are less than willing to make an effort to stop such attacks or investigate them.

There are hateful people in this world. And as long as there are, their victims will need to be able to defend themselves. Disarming victims never helps the victim. It only helps the victimizer. Disarming the oppressed is an elixir that makes oppression stronger. It is a betrayal of every value that decent people hold dear.

Photos: A handgun; the apartheid police of South Africa in action; Deacons for Defense; patrols of the Stonewall gay bar after a police raid; Jews being led out of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis to their fate.

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