Black people cannot afford to disarm. Our lives hang in, and our bodies are maimed, in the balance. Being disarmed in an anti-Black country, with vigilantes and state-sanctioned white supremacists and queer-hating folks on the loose, is an invitation to terror. In an environment where Black is a pseudonym for violence, we must be prepared to love and protect ourselves, in all ways that love permits, even if that means bearing arms. And while this is not a call to arms, it is a reminder to Black people to remain as prepared today as we have always been.
The bloody reality is, the fear of Black retaliation and self-defense have long been the force in American racial history that has been at the heart of the need to control Black people’s access to arms by way of the law. It’s also the force that has kept this country from the fire of complete obliteration. If Black people deceive ourselves into allowing background checks, or racist police interactions, to determine our right to protect ourselves, we will be disproportionately disarmed in a world where anti-Black police forces that are armed like the U.S. military, communities that are often occupied as if they are military territories and unprotected households are common.And the most impacted among us are Black women, femmes, BlaQueer & Trans people and all those living in overly-policed areas.
In an environment where Black is a pseudonym for violence, we must be prepared to love and protect ourselves, in all ways that love permits, even if that means bearing arms.
Before we move to disarm those who are most impacted by state and communal violence, we must first indict and disarm those responsible for and perfecting such harm. The concept of disarmament, in fact, is built upon the fear of Black revenge. Gun control was birthed because of white collective fear.
In 1967, for example, Huey P. Newton—a second year law student at the time—used a novel reading of the second amendment to articulate an individual right to bear arms, an idea that was barely recognized by the fringe of the legal establishment at the time. Relying on Newton’s legal analysis, he and Bobby Seale—the founders of the Black Panther Party—began organizing armed patrols, and policing the police, in order to reduce anti-Black violence. The police were irritated and intimidated and began clamoring for legislative intervention, eventually leading to the Mumford Act.
Bobby Seale would later lead an armed delegation to witness the vote on the legislation bumping into then California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who was quickly whisked away. Seale and company accidentally walked on the senate floor, causing pandemonium and assuring passage of the bill. The Mumford Act was the first major gun control law, which limited the ability of California residents to carry guns in public.
A year later Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, as well as the Gun Control Act of 1968. The laws created federal surveillance of gun sales and banned people with criminal records—people who are at risk of violation and disenfranchisement by police—from accessing guns. These acts followed a 1967 report by the Kerner Commission that was commissioned and ignored by President Johnson and utilized to blame much of the social unrest at the time on Black protests and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, on the availability of guns and the deterrence of police activity.
While myriad, reasonable arguments may exist for the limitation of gun access for those predisposed toward communal violence today, we cannot forget a long history that details the calculated ways Black people have been kept from self-protection. And Black people cannot allow our often violent interactions with the state, or the label of criminality to become our standard. Instead we must turn to community-produced knowledge about ourselves, and each other, and create interventions that are informed and enforced by community.
When the bullets are silent, the blood has stopped letting, and the panic has passed, we are called to recall, resolve and remove the pathway that lead violence our way.
In every crisis, particularly those that involve bodies stolen by surprise force, we are temporarily robbed of breathe and belief. When terror strikes, our tongues are paralyzed, unable to announce the violence the voice was never trained to name. When the bullets are silent, the blood has stopped letting, and the panic has passed, we are called to recall, resolve and remove the pathway that lead violence our way.
Did the assailant have assistants? Who are his parents? Might they too be culpable? What music was he listening to? Are we sure he did not have mental health issues? How did he get the guns? How did he pass a background check? Did he even have one? After the answers to these questions are fleshed out and repeated on television, social media and the radio, the call to disarm is whispered and then roared in unison. If we listen closely though, to preventative prescriptions of newscasters and politicians alike, we hear something other than the violence of the assailant being treated. The conversation moves from safety and prevention to security and control. What becomes obscured, though, is the question of who needs to be controlled and to what end?
We must pay close attention to how this event of violence works to ascribe value to the police force, one of the central sources of violence for Black & Brown people of color. When a white man murders, the bullet becomes evidence of Black, Brown and Arab criminality, an indictment that cannot be overturned.
The questions of decency, of accomplishments, of education, of musical interest, of rearing and mental capacity are tools to measure the perpetrator’s distance from the “hard working Americans” necessary to “make America great again.” The question of criminality is not about whether one has a pattern of being vile or violent, but instead their proximity to or distance from the penal state, which protects white bodies and properties. That is why it is impossible to conduct policing in America without enforcing white supremacy. Police are inherently anti-Black and white supremacist in practice.
As a legal advocate, who has defended a handful of clients, I can tell you that criminality and Blackness are interchangeable designations and may as well have the same spelling. This is the choreographed calm before the storm. The storm is the covert articulation of a train of thought that situates the police and the state as the most trusted entity to protect us from violence. The hysteria around violence, and the collective white fear, is centered on the individual, the poor, the Black, the BlaQueer, the othered—or the exceptional white man that stands as so deranged, so violent, so vile, that he becomes a cautionary tale for what might transpire if the Black or othered were to be free or attain justice. But Black people need not believe the hype.
We cannot forget how many of us are here only because our grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents were better markswomen than the hooded ancestors of those who now patrol, surveil and disappear us with impunity—those who use their “fear” of our unarmed bodies as their defense for our dispossession.
Tabias Olajuawon, JD is an award-winning author, scholar-creator and PhD student in African & African Diaspora at UT-Austin.