‘Dallas is hot right now,” self-defence activist Eric Randall tells me with a shake of his head. It’s well over 100F in the carpark outside the strip mall pizzeria where we’re talking, and the asphalt is rippling with haze. But Randall is not talking about the weather. He’s talking about his neighbourhood.
For Randall, who leads one of a small but growing number of groups organising and training for the armed self-defence of black areas, the stakes are high. Only 10 days before our sit-down, a young black man named Micah Johnson shot 14 police officers in the downtown area, killing five. The increasing friction between the black community, the police, and rightwing or white supremacist activists who’ve been drawn to Dallas in the wake of the killings has been noticeable, he says.
Randall’s group may be in a radical minority, but he is part of a much larger body of African American opinion which is pro-firearms and pro-second amendment. Not everyone in that category shares Randall’s broader political views, but many see guns as a way of being safe in a country that is dangerous for black citizens.
In Dallas, the problem is not just the heightened suspicion between the black community and the police – though Randall does emphasise that those relationships are “tense, very, very tense”. It’s also that the city suddenly has much more pull for the growing counter-movement to Black Lives Matter, which is rising. Two days before our interview, rightwing activists had convened a White Lives Matter protest downtown.
He sees the White Lives Matter protest as just a small part of the growing backlash to a renewed movement for black rights. “Before it was just the police. But now these guys, these racists, have deputised themselves as the police’s protectors, as if the police need any more fucking protection. It’s chaotic, you can’t let your guard down at all.”
The rally presented itself as a defence of police, but Randall thinks that it’s simply a reaction to the success of Black Lives Matter movement, which “doesn’t even believe in guns. The biggest thing they’re going to carry is a bullhorn and a big sign.”
Randall is prepared to go beyond megaphones and placards. When he started his armed self-defence group in Denver, Brothers Against Racist Cops (Barc), it was a response to an incident in which he says he was racially profiled and abused in front of his son by an officer who pulled him over. The incident and Barc’s response was detailed in a short documentary.
When he moved back to Dallas, the city of his birth, he established a new Barc chapter. The emphasis is first on training, and then on neighbourhood patrols. Training means daily work on fitness, hand-to-hand combat and weapons drills, but also learning about the law, police procedures, citizens’ rights – even diet and nutrition. It includes temperance – no one in Barc drinks alcohol or takes drugs.
It is, in other words, a whole-of-life commitment.
“We meet and we train together, we learn together. There’s a lot of kids out here, they don’t know their rights, they don’t know the laws, so all I can teach anybody is train yourself and defend yourself. The person who will try to take your life one day, he’s training right now. And he’s training out of fear.”
Randall’s group is only possible because of the second amendment, and Texas’s permissive gun laws. They have long allowed open carry for long guns, and as of this year people with concealed carry permits can open-carry holstered handguns.
When asked about liberals who argue that the central problem in gun violence is the availability of guns, Randall shoots back. “I agree. The problem is guns, bullets come from guns. But the main problem is who is holding the damn gun. No one had a problem with people killing us until we started arming ourselves.”
Under conditions of militarised policing and a growing racist backlash, Randall sees his movement as a matter of survival. “We gotta always train, we gotta always be defensive, we just have to.”
‘If you want to take a community hostage, you take away their guns’
Across town in South Dallas, a historically black neighbourhood, Babu Omowale, a longtime black nationalist activist, offers similar thoughts with a different emphasis.
I interview him on the patio of a popular local soul food restaurant. Omowale is undemonstrative, but media-savvy and matter of fact. He wears a camouflage T-shirt and wraparound shades he won’t remove – not even for photos. On the basics of self-defence, he’s pretty well aligned with Randall’s views. But his organisational ties and long-term aims are distinctive.
Omowale is national minister of defence in the People’s New Black Panther party. He’s also a founder of the Huey P Newton Gun Club, another self-defence organisation, which carries out its own patrols, and which has been involved in high-profile confrontations with rightwing groups.
Last April, they turned out with the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther party to defend a mosque from the anti-Islamic group, BAIR. The interlopers, finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned, quickly backed down.
He claims that the self-defence group and its ideology are a response to a long history of violence or selective inaction from white-dominated institutions.
“We don’t have a lot of faith in the police department. We don’t have a lot of faith in our government right now. We believe our government and our police department has failed us. This is what leads us to take up arms in our own communities.”
Like Randall, his belief in the need for self-defence makes him resistant to the idea of gun control. He talks about it in terms reminiscent of second amendment advocates on the right, from the NRA to the militia movement.
“If you want to take a community hostage, you take away their guns and leave them no way to defend themselves. The constitution in America gives the people the right to defend themselves, not only against police departments but against tyrannical governments.”
He adds a familiar rhetorical flourish: “We don’t think guns are the issue. Guns don’t kill people, it’s the people who are handling these guns.”
It should be noted that the New Black Panther party is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of anti-white and antisemitic comments made by some of its leaders, and in part because of its committed separatism, which mirrors the white supremacist fringe – though while the latter groups rest their claims on resentment and entitlement, the NBPP draws on the real historic experience of racism and slavery. The Southern Poverty Law Center says that the radical black separatist groups they monitor, at least, are growing in number.
In conversation, Omowale did not engage in any hate speech, but he did reaffirm an explicit black nationalist separatism, putting it in the context of recent events as a desire for safety. He argues that the solution to racial violence is for black people to have their own land, government and guns.
“What we really want is a safe zone. Up until this point we haven’t been safe. We tried to incorporate ourselves as citizens in this country. We tried to integrate and become part of what’s supposedly great about America. But we haven’t seen the American dream. We haven’t seen American democracy. The only thing we’ve seen is American hypocrisy.”
‘It was never anticipated that African Americans would ever own guns’
The second amendment was originally a measure to maintain white supremacy, says Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American studies at the University of Houston, and author of The Counter-Revolution of 1776.
“When this constitutional amendment came in the late 18th century, they were concerned principally about a revolt of slaves, a revolt of the indigenous, or a revolt of both assisted by a foreign power.”
It was never anticipated that African Americans would ever own guns, any more than they would enjoy the rest of the Bill of Rights.
“Black people were not considered citizens at the founding, they were not even considered human. Exercising rights was not something that was expected of them, but exercising rights was something that had to be done to ensure survival, particularly the right of self-defence.”
He cites a long line of civil rights leaders who advocated self-defence, from WEB Du Bois to the Deacons for Defense. He also points out that the prospect of black people armed in public has been a persistent source of white fear in the US. Under Ronald Reagan, the state of California banned the open carry of loaded firearms after armed Black Panthers occupied the state capitol in Sacramento.
Now, as the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement receives powerful political cover from Donald Trump, whose stock in trade is white resentment, Horne is not surprised that more groups are organising for self-defence.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration. There is a strong rightwing movement in this country. People who have studied the lessons of history are acting accordingly.”
Do black citizens have the same second amendment rights as white Americans?
The question is, does carrying a gun make black people more safe or less so?
Philando Castile reportedly had a valid permit to carry a gun when he was pulled over in a traffic stop by the St Anthony, Minnesota, police department on 6 July. He was, nevertheless, fatally shot by one of the police officers who made the stop.
During the harrowing video filmed by his girlfriend, as Castile bled out in the driver’s seat, Reynolds claimed that Castile had informed the officer that he was carrying – precisely as concealed-carry trainers recommend – and that he was shot while trying to retrieve his wallet.
The investigation is ongoing, but to refine our question further: in practice, do black citizens have the same second amendment rights as white Americans? And are they respected when they exercise them?
Data on black gun ownership is not plentiful, and some of what is available dates from a time when the full impact of the deaths of black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray may have not yet registered. And the data that exists is messy, and difficult to draw firm conclusions from.
In 2014, Pew found that 19% of black Americans reported owning a gun, compared with 41% of white Americans. More recent surveys indicate a slight weakening in what overall is strong black support for greater gun control. But other data from late in 2014 suggests that more than half of black Americans still think that owning a gun makes someone safer.
If we accept the accuracy of these figures, there seems to be a large gap between the number of people who think guns would make them safer, and the number who actually go out and get a firearm.
Moving into this gap are those who promote African American gun ownership as a simple matter of civil rights and equality.
‘If you say the word firearm and then the word white, nobody blinks …’
Phillip Smith, in Atlanta, Georgia, started the National African American Gun Association specifically to promote all kinds of gun use – sports, hunting and self-defence – and to provide a hub for other organisations working to encourage firearms use among African Americans.
Smith “fell in love with shooting” when his friends took him to a range in California in his early 20s. On repeat visits, he was frequently the only black person in attendance, and “certain people would look at me like ‘what are you doing here?’”, he says.
It struck him that there were barriers – educational, informational and social – to African Americans becoming involved with firearms, or even buying a gun. He started NAAGA as a response in 2008, and it is now “growing exponentially”, with chapters in every state.
He says the group “is for African Americans, for our community”, but it’s not a case of politicised separatism, indeed he describes it as “apolitical and diverse”.
Like the self-defence advocates, he is motivated by the issue of safety even though, he explains, stereotypes about black people and violence put black gun owners in potential danger.
“If you say the word firearm and then the word white, nobody blinks. If you say black and gun, people don’t like that, people get alarmed. It’s just a totally different experience. Black people with firearms has been a taboo.”
Different groups of white people might get upset with his stance for different reasons – from racism to sincere and committed gun control advocacy. But Smith acknowledges that the deepest personal disagreements he has had on the topic have been with other African Americans.
“There are people within our own community who believe that guns are bad for our community. Some of them believe that we should never have firearms. I say, we’ve tried that for 300 years, let’s try it my way for 300 years and see what happens.”
‘My dad put a gun in my hand at a very early age – six, seven years old’
Others, like Sharon Ross in Portland, Oregon, advocate black firearm ownership as a way to survive something more cataclysmic than a burglary or home invasion. On her website, Afrovivalist, Ross details her own life as a prepper, hunter and outdoor enthusiast, and her mission is to encourage other African Americans and members of other minority groups to prepare to survive, even if the prepper subculture is overwhelmingly white.
When I meet Ross and her staffordshire terrier, General, in the northern suburbs of Portland, Oregon, she’s rearranging stores in the back of her bug out van (no pictures allowed), which, when the time comes, she’ll drive out to her property in eastern Washington.
In case of emergency, she’ll head straight for the back country. Again, the main concern is existential safety, and she says that “I am not too confident about our society and our government.”
She takes a dim view of all politicians, but she thinks that Obama “has pretty much confirmed that he is a supporter of one world government”.
Out in the high desert, she has 20 acres in an off-the-grid location. She says she is surrounded by a multiracial, cooperative community of like-minded survivalists.
In some ways, Ross thinks, “I’ve always been a prepper”. She grew up near rural Medford, Oregon, and “we were pretty much the first black family to live there and stay”. She was singled out at school, and got into physical confrontations. Perhaps as a result, “my dad put a gun in my hand at a very early age – six, seven years old”. She thinks he did it for two reasons: “So I would be able to be comfortable with the firearm, and if I had to use it, I had to use it.” He also taught her to hunt.
In early adulthood, she let the shooting go. But after she became interested in prepping in her mid-40s, following Hurricane Katrina, she decided to get back into firearms.
Like Smith, she has felt uncomfortable at events in an overwhelmingly white prepper community. She too was inspired to evangelise other black people. “Usually I am the only Afro-American there. I’m here as Afrovivalist to encourage other minorities to prepare. We are going to have a disaster in America, and there’s millions of people out there who would not know what to do.”
When pushed, she also opens up about the injustice of police violence, and the need for African Americans to arm themselves. She mentions the shooting of disabled carer Charles Kinsey, whose raised arms didn’t prevent police firing on him. “They say we need to take the guns away because of it, and my opinion is, take the guns away from the police.”
This overwhelming concern about police violence, along with broader issues of black safety, recurred across the spectrum of black gun advocates I talked to, who were otherwise diverse in their aims and politics. Of course, it shouldn’t come as news to white Americans, after two years of Black Lives Matter protests. But black gun advocacy offers another lens on the problem.
Gun ownership is currently a civil right for all Americans. Given the constitutional barriers to restricting the supply of guns perhaps we need to start looking harder at the demand side of the equation.
If police act with greater restraint, if African Americans feel safer in their homes and neighbourhoods, and if all of us help in the effort to confront public racism, it may be that fewer people feel the need to arm themselves.
Until then, for people like Eric Randall, the stakes will remain high enough to opt for armed self-defence. “For us to put our lives on the line for the community and the kids, it’s not even a second thought.”
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