“…So this time let us skip all the sighing and promising and moments of silence. Why keep up the pretense that we are going to take any real and practical steps toward sanity? Everyone knows we are not going to do a single damn thing. We can’t. We are captives of The Gun.
The Gun is patriotic.
The Gun is America.
The Gun is God.”
– Gary Willis, 2016
In her latest book, “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (2018), historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,” offers a compelling account of the roots of gun culture in the United States. She clearly connects this history with the Second Amendment and explains how the violence of this connection has largely shaped the character of the US as an exceptional imperialist power responsible for the global reinforcement of racial capitalism and class violence. This connection, she argues, is crucial in understanding the conduct of the United States from its seizure of Native American land to its current “war on terror” that feeds into its very own lucrative military industrial complex. She cites Gary Willis’ satirical piece published in the Boston Globe after the Orlando club massacre that took away 49 lives to illustrate the maniacal sensibility behind the gun lobby that rests on a “presumed sanctity of the Second Amendment.”
Dunbar-Ortiz critiques the “presumed sanctity of the Second Amendment” both by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun control advocates. The NRA invokes that the Second Amendment guarantees the rights of every individual to bear arms. Gun control advocates, however, aver that the Second Amendment is about states continuing to have their own well regulated militias as exemplified in the existence of the National Guard (2018:23).
Both positions take for granted the use of guns within a legal framework. In other words, and as Georgetown University law Professor David Cole suggests, “guns have such a strong appeal in the United States in comparison with other societies (23).” More to the point, Dunbar-Ortiz argues that “understanding the purpose of the Second Amendment is key to understanding the gun culture in the United States, and possibly the key to a new consciousness about the lingering effects of settler colonialism and white nationalism (23).”
The Second Amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The Second Amendment finds its way in US history during the late 18th century with the Anglo American settlers’ break with the British empire, followed by the conquest of Native American lands through the slaughter of indigenous peoples in order to extend the boundaries of the 13 colonies. This is largely a response to the 1763 Treaty of Paris that prompted King George III to issue a prohibition on the expansion of British settlement to the west of the Allegheny-Appalachian mountain chain. Anglo-American settlers who were already in those areas were ordered to immediately return to the 13 colonies. But thousands of settlers resisted the edict, consequently compelling the British authorities to deploy more soldiers to indigenous lands in order to implement the rule and for the British Parliament to impose a Stamp Act on the colonists in the form of
“a tax on all printed materials that had to be paid in British pounds, not local money. The iconic colonial protest slogan “taxation without representation is tyranny” marked the surge of rebellion against British control but it did not tell the whole story, considering what the tax was for: to pay the cost of housing, feeding, and transporting soldiers to contain and suppress the colonies from expanding further into Indian territory (31).”
The rebellion of the Anglo American settlers against British control at this point was less for independence than the objective of grabbing more land from the Native Americans. “These militant settlers—rangers—,” in the words of Dunbar-Ortiz, “created the framework for the United States to appropriate Native territories and attempt to eradicate Indigenous nations across the continent for the following century. These illegal settlers were initially dependent on colonial militias for support; after the War of Independence they relied on U.S. military to protect their settlements (32).”
By 1783, the British would embark on an invasion of South Asia and the Pacific, which would lead them to withdraw from the fight for sovereignty over the 13 colonies. Dunbar-Ortiz describes “Britain’s transfer of its claim to Indian Country west of the colonies” as a “nightmarish disaster for all Indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi and ultimately all of North America that would be claimed and occupied by the United States. Britain’s withdrawal in 1783 opened a new chapter of unrestrained racist violence and colonization of the continent (33).”
By 1785 with the creation of the United States Constitution (to be approved and implemented by all States in 1791) and the Land Ordinance that established a centralized survey and land distribution of land taken away from the Native Americans “to be auctioned off to the highest bidder,” a procedure for colonization via military occupation was already in place. The vertical and horizontal expansion of the new settler-state from North America to the Pacific was made possible by those who desired independence as inspired by pre-Revolutionary colonial elites like George Washington “who as leader of the Virginia militia took armed surveying teams illegally into Ohio country, making him one of the most successful land speculators in the colonies (38).” Dunbar-Ortiz emphasizes that “ the wealthiest colonists were all speculators” from Washington and other founders of the United States who acquired land and enslaved people (38). They “designed a governmental and economic structure to serve the private property interest of each and…nearly all of them slavers and land speculators, with the brilliant Alexander Hamilton as the genius of finance (39).”
The history that makes the United States’ claim to American Exceptionalism credible is a history of genocide for the accumulation of profit. The continuing brutality against black people, exploitation and oppression of immigrants, police brutality, all forms of abuse against women and LGBTQA, imperialist resource extraction in semi-colonies, military bases expansion, the war on terror, the prison industrial complex, and gun violence are necessary to sustain the foundation of the US: “a capitalist state and an empire on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves (39).” This continuing past, Dunbar-Ortiz notes, necessitated the founding of one of the most profitable modern corporations—the firearms industry. Thus the persistence of such history, she adds, is seen in gun proliferation and gun violence. “The Gun is patriotic. The Gun is America. The Gun is God.”
Happiness is not a warm gun
My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimate face of universal struggle. You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what you call your people and that leads you into land reform and into Black English into Angola leads you back to your own bed where you lie by yourself, wondering if you deserve to be peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedom of your own unfaltering heart. And the scale shrinks to the side of a skull: your own interior cage.
And then if you are lucky, and I have been lucky, everything comes back to you. And then you know why one of the freedom fighters in the sixties, a young Black woman interviewed shortly after she was beaten up for riding near the front of an interstate bus—you know why she said, “We are all so very happy.”
It’s because it’s on. All of us and me by myself: we’re on.
-June Jordan, 1981
Understanding the historical context of the Second Amendment in shaping the lives and “destinies” of peoples whose personal and collective histories are entangled with the US’ rise to global hegemony is partly approaching and confronting a situation whose history has been stolen or hidden away and currently repackaged as a debate on gun rights versus gun control. The repackaging of a historical and urgent issue in this manner implies that the world can only look to either the Republicans or the Democrats for a solution. Doing so, however, is in itself part of the problem.
But the student activists-led massive national protest on March 24 was a big step in the right direction. True, there was a particular call for gun control immediately after the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida and even during the massive protest. Is gun regulation worse than the all too rampant killings of school children by almost always armed white males, the non-stop murder of black people by the police vis a vis the NRA’s political influence and the government’s refusal to take immediate steps? Gun regulation, though, cannot be the only idea. When cynics say it is a solution easier legislated than implemented, perhaps they mean what we already know and tolerate: impunity trumps regulation.
March 24 Saturday morning: In New York City subways, public announcements would facilitate the movement of bodies multiplying by the minute in the streets surrounding the Central Park. Stations near the mass up area are no longer passable for those who will join the rally. They would have to alight to stations farther away from 74th St and W Central Park. One wonders what goes on outside and is reluctantly content with making out what’s on the placards of people who are patiently queuing their way out of the subway.
Some say it is an event waiting to happen. But certainly, it could not have happened just by waiting. The #MarchForOurLives rally is an outcome of a brave and thoughtful organizing among the youth. They gathered together, reached out to other youths, organizations, institutions, and eventually, the power and speed at which they were holding fast to a belief in the form of an urgent campaign compelled politicians, celebrities, and even ordinary people to share their resources and make the march for our lives happen nationwide. These young people believe in defending lives. And there is nothing more radical, more basic than organizing and politicizing for the defense of lives.
Here, an elderly person cheers the marchers as she holds up a placard that summons the spirit of Whitney Houston and one of the most touching truths sang by many long after she is gone: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way…”
But Whitney is actually singing the story of Dr. Martin Luther King and the black families in Birmingham, Alabama in their fight for civil rights. #MarchForOurLives is not the first time in the history of the United States there children and teens played a prominent role in a crusade for people’s rights.
The black kids cannot play in the same playground as the white kids, they were banned from their schools and water fountains. Black families planned, organized, and mobilized to fight against the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that separated blacks from whites in various spaces. It was essentially a law that designated spaces as “white only.” In May 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led a movement of young people who fought for civil rights: “Singing the songs of freedom, one thousand strong we came.” Hundreds of children were jailed during the first day, and the incarceration and violent dispersals spilled over the next two days. But the young people soldiered on and lived up to Dr. King’s vision: “Let the children march. They will lead the way.”
While in jail, children were chanting, “We shall overcome!” Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around!” “Freedom is coming!” In a powerful message to these children’s parents, Martin Luther King also captured the crucial role of the youth: “Don’t worry about your children. They are going to be all right. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job not only for themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.” By July 23, segregation ordinances were withdrawn by Birmingham. On August 28, over 250,000 marched to Washington DC. Dr. In this occasion, Dr. King gave his famous I have a dream speech. By 1964 and 1965, both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlaws racial, national, sexual and religious discrimination and the Voting Rights Act ended the ban on African American’s right to vote.
How are the youth of today, 55 years after the Civil Rights Movement, learning to lead the way?
First of all, they want the world to know that they can no longer be silent until the end of gun violence. They make it clear that the protection of children is far more important than so-called gun rights.
Young people, perhaps even younger than ten-years old expose the madness of a social order that protect guns at the expense of kids. They reject “thoughts and prayers” offered to fallen children, they “demand action!” and decide that “we won’t be next!” In other words, “enough” and “choose lives.”
A young woman is holding a thought-provoking placard that invites a historical understanding of mass shootings: “18 century laws 21st century guns.”
One placard exposes how in American society, guns are easier to access than transformative and empowering education for the youth. Parents with their precious babies point to the same lamentable condition by churning out a correct instruction “Books not bullets!” In a sharp rendition of people empowerment, teachers and students recognize that education is a weapon against the prevailing order of mass murder:
“Arm me with pencils not a gun!”
“The only arms I want in my classroom”
“Arm me with books not guns”
A person by the sidewalk is on board as stands astounded by the crowd. He. too, has got a demand: “The youth speak truth, hear them!”
A queer person who is looking so joyful to see and to be seen by the marchers holds up one of the most affirmative and reassuring expression of solidarity: “armed with a Yaaassss!”
In a residential building towards 64th and the Avenue of the Americas, a couple watching the march by their terrace needed to confirm what the marchers most probably needed to know: “You are democracy at work. Thank you.” That we know that the March For Our Lives rally is an exercise in democracy is not enough. It is the people’s recognition and appreciation of who we are in that march that matters more. It is like being told how the enemy is definitely stronger at this point but we are your allies, and we are many, march on! Isn’t that something every radical needs to hear once in a while?
The indictment of the State clearly articulated in a placard, which doubles as a student’s last will and testament: “If I die in a school shooting- forget burial drop my body on the steps of the capitol.” One placard indicates how the youth is owning up to its responsibility of challenging the oligarchic state that finds expression in a literary bestseller: “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who have LEADERSHIP thrust upon them and to their own surprise…they wear it well J.K. Rowling.”
My favorite placard is the one that says a lot with the use of curt language: “Yes I’ve got a fucking agenda!” It sums up what I owe to myself and to the politics that brings me here to the March For Our Lives rally and to all the other places that I attend to. I do have an agenda and I share it with people who believe that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” The same people who believe that an organized and self-conscious mass movement can push for urgent reforms vis a vis fundamental changes in the system. It is a belief backed up by victorious moments in history: the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, the revolution of the Peoples Republic of China with Mao, the revolution in Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh, the greatness and tenacity of the revolutionary people of Cuba, Venezuela, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Palestine and the breakthroughs of the Kabataan Makabayan, which unsettled the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. And this is not just a romantic leap in logic.
Registering Eric Garner’s last words moments before he was killed by the police in 2015, I saw a young person writing up her placard and subsequently staring at it as if to ensure the completeness of a checklist. “I cannot breathe until…” The list is a combination of particular steps for gun regulation and universal demands for our people: end to mass incarceration, health care for everybody, oligarchs be gone.
To see people from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement calling for justice for the murder of Stephon Clark and all victims of police terror makes me infinitely reassured and happy. Not that I wouldn’t have marched without the BLM. But their presence never fails to make me understand the truth about the accumulation of capital through slave trade, slave breeding, the auction block, the prison industrial complex, and through all the ills generated by and inherent in racial capitalism. I think and march with BLM and I am brought home to my own people— the Lumad, the Aetas, the Moros, the oppressed fighting Filipino farmers, the armed revolutionary women of the New People’s Army for whom Duterte issued an order to his men: bullets to the vaginas of these female rebels.
In an anthology titled “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective” (2017), editor Keeanga-Yamahata Taylor captures how the struggle for freedom looks like. The black women of Combahee River Collective were “continuing to analyze the roots of Black women’s oppression under capitalism and arguing for the reorganization of society based on the collective needs of the most oppressed. That is to say, if you could free the most oppressed people in society, then you would have to free everyone (2017:10).”
Gun control is only one of the particular demands of the March For Our Lives Movement. The demands of the marchers exceed this system. It demands a democracy of another form. Only a state that is other than itself can start working towards the realization of these demands. The ball is on us marchers whose demands do not only promise but necessitate a reorganization of society. After all, marching for our lives can only break with a social order that engages in mass murder every single day for the accumulation of capitalist profit. Marching for our lives portends to a future of a redistribution of wealth and a recognition of who and what we can become as a people who choose lives over profits.
Sarah Raymundo teaches at the University of the Philippine Diliman-Center for International Studies. She is the Chairperson of the Philippines-Venezuela Bolivarian Friendship Association. She also chairs the International Committee of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT). She is also the External Vice Chair of the Philippine Anti-Imperialist Studies (PAIS) and a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. 2018. Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Taylor, K-T. 2017. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket
Keller, C. and Levi J.H. 2017. We’re On: A June Jordan Reader. Maine: Alice James Books
Clark-Robinsion, M. 2017. Let the Children March. Canada: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.