Workers Hammer No. 242
US Democrats exploit school massacre
No to gun control!
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard (no 1131, 6 April), newspaper of the Spartacist League/US.
In response to the criminal killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February, over a million protesters rallied nationwide in one of the biggest mobilisations for gun control in US history. The horror of mass shootings has become a habitual episode in modern America. And the aftermath of such massacres has become predictable: a debate over gun violence, in which each party of the blood-soaked and hypocritical ruling class follows its playbook.
Trump, who once gloated about how he could “shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose voters”, offered “thoughts and prayers” alongside reactionary schemes of deputising armed teachers as adjuncts to the police. The Democrats offered their own reactionary schemes for gun control, supplying the cash, organisers and glitterati for the “March for Our Lives” protest. They saw a new platform for their “resistance”, a pony they could ride all the way to the midterm elections this fall.
Just under three years ago, the Obama government seized on the cold-blooded Charleston church massacre to push gun restrictions. There, nine black people were assassinated by a white-supremacist killer. They were unable to defend themselves precisely because they were unarmed.
The current aim is a ban on semi-automatic rifles like the one used in Parkland and other massacres by lone gunmen in the last several years. The AR-15 available to civilians is a modified version of a fully automatic military weapon. It accounts for nearly one in five guns sold in the US, is relatively easy to use and is designed to produce maximum casualties quickly. Though the majority of homicides in this country are committed with handguns, many people, including gun owners, are sympathetic to banning the AR-15 and other semi-automatics, as well as high-capacity magazines, in the name of curbing gun violence.
No matter how it’s packaged, behind any gun legislation is a move towards disarming the exploited and oppressed. As Marxists, we oppose gun control laws and uphold the right to armed self-defence, a necessity for the working class, black people and the populace as a whole. In a 1916 piece titled, “The military programme of the proletarian revolution”, Bolshevik leader VI Lenin underlined that the struggle for working-class revolution required an armed proletariat: “An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves.”
Ultimately the issue of gun control is this: do you trust this consummately violent state, based on vicious exploitation and racial oppression, to have a monopoly of arms? The purpose of the capitalist state and its armed bodies of men — the local and federal police, the prison guards, the National Guard, the military — is to maintain the rule of the tiny class of exploiters against the working class and the oppressed.
The mass murderers in Washington represent the world’s most powerful imperialist state, inflicting unprecedented carnage — from the Korean War to Vietnam and Iraq, over seven million dead. Meanwhile, their police thugs on America’s streets kill some 1000 people a year, many for the “crime” of being black. A January article in the black magazine The Root notes: “Cops killed more Americans in 2017 than terrorists did (four). They killed more citizens than airplanes (13 deaths worldwide), mass shooters (428 deaths) and Chicago’s ‘top gang thugs’ (675 Chicago homicides).” To the capitalist rulers, the lives of the black and Latino poor are considered expendable. When protesters demonstrate against racist cop terror, they receive no celebrity fanfare or compassion from the media or politicians.
Disarming the oppressed
Capitalist America is riddled with examples of black people, Latinos and Native Americans fiercely repressed or massacred by government forces, and of workers shot down for striking or fighting to unionise. To this day, longshoremen on the West Coast commemorate “Bloody Thursday”, the day during the 1934 waterfront strike when thousands of strikers engaged in pitched battles with the police. After hours of fighting, the strikers retreated and were ambushed by cops. Over 70 workers were shot, most in the back, and two were killed.
A history of gun control shows how the bourgeoisie tries to quell any resistance to its rule, particularly in periods of social struggle. The first time the Supreme Court directly and explicitly curtailed the Second Amendment was the 1886 Presser v Illinois decision, when it ruled that militant workers in Chicago could not form armed militias. In 1934, the US government banned automatic weapons when workers were striking during the Great Depression. When the Black Panthers marched with loaded firearms, the federal gun control act was pushed forward to ward off black self-defence against racist police, especially in the face of the ghetto uprisings in 1968.
Gun control advocates present the campaign against semi-automatic rifles as a “reasonable” restriction on a weapon of war. The very term bandied about by liberals and the media to describe these rifles — “assault weapons” — is part of a political campaign to demonise anyone who would purchase them as intent on committing evil. Once the capitalist government is given an inch to restrict gun rights, it will take a mile. Case in point: this week a ban on bump stock rifle attachments in Chicago was coupled with a ban of civilian bulletproof vests, making it easier for police to execute their victims. With the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, the American population is not about to give up its arms. But what the liberals and Democrats are pushing is to chip away at this constitutional right. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stephens spelled out the real goal of the anti-gun agenda when he recently called to repeal the Second Amendment. If this comes to pass, only the cops, criminals, crazies and Klan will be armed.
The push for more “background checks” gives the Feds and cops greater power to determine the “good” gun owners from the “bad”. In 1956, the icon of nonviolence, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, was deemed “unsuitable” and denied a concealed carry permit when he applied after his house was bombed. The people weeded out by the state will be among those who have been swept up in the racist “war on drugs”, forever branded felons or criminals even for petty misdemeanours.
Background checks serve as another tool to identify and go after those the government perceives to be potential opponents of its class rule. Take the case of Rakem Balogun, a black man in Texas placed under FBI scrutiny for his political views and advocacy of armed self-defence. Targeted by the government as a “black identity extremist”, Balogun was deemed a “threat to the community” and faces up to ten years in prison for unlawful possession of a firearm. [After nearly six months in prison, Balogun’s indictment was dismissed on 1 May, with the judge noting the pretext for his arrest was baseless (see Workers Vanguard no 1134, 18 May).]
Meanwhile, the Parkland killer, Nikolas Cruz, had no problem passing background checks. Cruz is an avowed racist who was known by the FBI and the state for making threats. He publicly talked about killing Mexicans, hating Jews and putting black people back in chains — a fact underplayed by the media. In many ways, he is a quintessential product of this sick, racist society.
For the right of black armed self-defence!
Revolutionary Marxists defend the right to bear arms from the standpoint of the fight for liberating the working class, black people and all the oppressed. The Second Amendment, derived from the 1689 English Bill of Rights, came out of the American Revolution against British colonial rule in the 18th century. The calls to ban semi-automatics attack the very core of the Second Amendment. As we wrote in “The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 43-44, Summer 1989):
“The constitutional right is not about hunting or target practice; the American colonial revolutionaries wanted the whole people armed, centering on military arms — in today’s terms something like the AK-47 [or the AR-15] — in order to be able to kill British soldiers, and to forestall the threat of any standing army, which they rightly regarded as the bane of liberty and the basis of tyranny.”
In fact, a crucial part of the Second Amendment has already been taken away from the populace with the banning of automatic weapons.
In a country founded on the near-complete genocide of the indigenous population and on black chattel slavery, which was codified in the Constitution, gun rights were granted only to white, property-owning males. The exclusion of citizenship for black people was justified in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision by noting that if black men were citizens they could “keep and carry arms wherever they went”.
A 9 March op-ed piece in the Washington Post titled, “Gun rights are about keeping white men on top” argues that white men were and remain the only beneficiaries of the right to bear arms. Indeed, the capitalist state has long sought to disarm black people in order to fully subjugate them. But this is not an argument against the Second Amendment — it is an argument against gun control.
Great abolitionists like John Brown and Frederick Douglass knew that only force of arms could defeat the slavocracy. After the Civil War, black people became citizens, and the approximately 200,000 black Union troops held onto their arms as long as they could. Soon thereafter, black people were stripped of their newly won freedoms, including guns, through racist “Black Codes”. After the defeat of Reconstruction, as race-terror swept the South, anti-lynching crusader Ida B Wells wrote about the need for self-defence: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
There is a long tradition of black armed self-defence. In the 1930s, Southern union organisers and sharecroppers defended themselves with arms. During the 1950s and ’60s, Robert F Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, and the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana organised armed self-defence to combat Klan terror. Many black soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam refused to put their guns down and used their military training to struggle against Jim Crow; some joined the Black Power movement. As Charles E Cobb Jr elaborates in his book, This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed, guns kept black people alive during the civil rights movement.
Although nearly a third of Americans possess at least one gun, those standing up for the Second Amendment are portrayed by liberals as white racist yahoos out to hunt black people and immigrants. This perception has been reinforced by the fact that with the election of Trump, neo-Nazis and white-supremacists have been crawling out of their holes. In this context, many black people know full well that they need guns to defend themselves.
Membership in the National African-American Gun Association, known as NAAGA, has grown considerably in the last period. One pro-gun group outside Chicago, named the 761st Gun Club after a black tank battalion in World War Two, describes itself as “unapologetically pro-black”. In Cleveland, a pastor of Fellowship Church of God promotes teaching congregants how to protect themselves with guns, which he sees as essential after the Charleston massacre. Another initiative in Ohio called the Brown Girls Project teaches black women how to legally purchase and use firearms.
This butts heads with black Democrats, who push gun control as an “answer” to crime in the inner cities and segregated ghettos. They cynically play off the fact that black people are the main victims of gun violence, living in the hopeless hellholes that capitalism has condemned them to. Black politicians have peddled, with some effect, the lie that gun control is the way to survive the mean streets of America’s ghettos.
The black mayors and officials in power have served their bourgeois masters by seeking to keep a lid on black discontent. Thus, they supported government policies, such as the 1970s “war on crime”, the subsequent “war on drugs”, and Bill Clinton’s 1994 federal crime bill, which vastly increased mass incarceration and the number of cops on the streets. The ’94 legislation included a ban on semi-automatic weapons, inventing the spectre of military-grade rifles in the hands of “gang members”. This was a racist lie, akin to Hillary Clinton describing black youth as “superpredators”. One New Jersey police chief testified before Congress at the time: “Officers are more likely to confront an escaped tiger from the local zoo than to confront an assault rifle in the hands of a drug-crazed killer on the streets.”
Recently, activist and hip-hop artist Killer Mike got heat for an interview with the National Rifle Association (NRA) in which he adamantly advocated black gun rights. Pointing to the hypocrisy of those Democrats who rally behind gun control but won’t fight to address poverty in the ghettos, the rapper slammed anti-Trump liberals: “I’m just not willing to accept you telling me on Monday that my president is Hitler and then telling me Tuesday to de-arm. That didn’t go well for Jewish people when Hitler was in reign in Germany; why would I repeat the same mistake?” The interview was edited down and released by the NRA in the lead-up to the nationwide “March for Our Lives”. Accused of providing fodder to the NRA — whose CEO gave a foaming-at-the-mouth speech after the Parkland shooting against an alleged takeover of schools by communist sympathisers — Killer Mike was compelled to apologise.
The NRA is the largest group in the country committed to the defence of the Second Amendment. It is simultaneously portrayed as a group of militia-style cowboy reactionaries, an image the organisation certainly does little to counter. The NRA is pro-cop, so it vilifies Black Lives Matter activists as violent hoodlums. The NRA never would see fit to defend someone like Philando Castile, who in 2016 was executed after informing a Minnesota cop that he had a legal firearm on him. Instead, the NRA denounced Castile for having marijuana in his possession.
The proposal by the Trump administration and the NRA to turn underpaid and overworked teachers into police auxiliaries is a recipe for further militarising the schools. Segregated and impoverished schools are already patrolled by armed guards and replete with metal detectors, resembling daytime prisons. Recently, black and minority students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have protested the “police state” environment at their high school, and have opposed more security on campuses, which is a demand put forward by the “March for Our Lives” manifesto.
The capitalist state’s “socialist” sycophants
Just as the Democratic Party is trying to get some electoral bang for the buck from the student demonstrations, misleadingly sold as a “grassroots movement”, its waterboys on the left have also jumped on the bandwagon. Many of those (occasionally) posturing as socialists have rallied behind the anti-Trump “resistance” and have joined the liberals in attacking the NRA with the aim of rolling back gun rights. Jacobin (26 February), a journal for an array of Democratic Socialists of America supporters and their ilk, goes so far as to condemn anyone on the left for criticising gun legislation in an article titled, “The socialist case for gun control”. The piece states: “The failure of the state to safeguard black lives rarely factors into Left opposition to gun control.” Leave it to social democrats with a touching faith in the capitalist state to assume that the cops, courts and prisons are meant to “safeguard black lives”!
For its part, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) appeals to the same forces of repression to determine who gets weapons. In a 27 February article called “How do socialists take on gun fundamentalism?” Danny Katch grotesquely raises the call for a “government agency” to take over “gun training and licensing” in order to “undermine the primary recruiting tool of the NRA”. This call to strengthen the state is all part of the ISO joining the Democrats’ “resistance”. A 13 March Socialist Worker editorial lays out the ISO’s goal: “a different world from one where Trump and the NRA call the shots” — ie a world in which the Democrats reign supreme.
The latest anti-gun diatribe by Socialist Alternative (SAlt) [US affiliate of the Socialist Party’s Committee for a Workers’ International] bemoans the fact that the “establishment Democrats” aren’t doing enough, complaining that they “have been unable to effect any serious change on gun control” (“Student revolt shakes America — Struggle puts NRA on the run”, 27 March). A separate article after the Parkland shooting touts “a socialist program for safety in schools”, which puts a pink paint job on the liberals’ demands for banning semi-automatic weapons and for strengthening background checks on gun sales.
Without the intention of irony, SAlt calls to build this liberal “movement” promoting gun control with, among other things, “strike action”. Anyone who knows labour history is aware that workers engaged in “strike action” have repeatedly had to defend their picket lines, at times with arms in hand, against armed company goons and scabs. Presumably, SAlt would have told these workers to disarm.
As Lenin insisted in his 1916 piece: “Only after the proletariat has disarmed the bourgeoisie will it be able, without betraying its world-historic mission, to consign all armaments to the scrap-heap. And the proletariat will undoubtedly do this, but only when this condition has been fulfilled, certainly not before.” Disarming the bourgeoisie requires sweeping away the capitalist order through proletarian socialist revolution, as the Bolshevik party did in leading the proletariat of Russia to power a year later in the October Revolution.
While black people formally won armed self-defence and other basic rights with the Civil War that smashed slavery, finishing the fight for black equality and integration demands another social revolution, in which the capitalist exploiters are expropriated and their state shattered. Key to this perspective is the building of a conscious, organised vanguard party to lead the working class in the fight for black liberation. Only the working class, the producers of the wealth of society, can put an end to the horrors of war, oppression and economic misery by taking power and instituting an egalitarian socialist order.