In the wake of a spate of mass shootings in the US, Stewart Smyth looks at the politics behind these massacres, and the double-standards of a racist American system when it comes to “domestic terrorism”.
In the space a week, three were shot dead at a food festival in California, at least nine were killed at a bar in Dayton, Ohio and at least twenty dead at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Just another week in the history of the greatest country in the world.
Meanwhile the police in the US are also busy shooting and killing people—519 police deaths so far in 2019 (up to the end of July), on top of 992 fatalities in 2018.1
It should go without saying that each one of these deaths is a tragedy. It is also true that each fatality has multiple reasons and causes. However, there is a trap in following the thinking that each case is unique and down purely to the actions of the individuals involved.
We’ve heard these justifications over the years; white supremacist killer was a loner, socially awkward, suffered from mental illness, influenced by video games and violent song, or, young black man stopped by the police, tries to flee, and is shot dead by pursuing police who thought he was armed. These may seem like opposing narratives but they are based on the same thinking—that shootings by law enforcement (or others) are purely down to individual actions and circumstances.
An example of how such thinking plays out was the fatal shooting by Memphis police of young black man Brandon Webber, in June. Law enforcement officers were attempting to serve a warrant on Webber for alleged aggravated assault, conspiracy and armed robbery. At which point, it is alleged that Webber rammed a police car and then exited his car with a weapon.
Webber was shot multiple times, but no police officer was hurt during the incident.
The response to these events highlights the limitation of looking at the incident in isolation. First, there was the thoroughly racist response articulated by a white teacher from a local (predominantly black) college who used the disclosure of Webber’s social media posts, including references to gang culture and images of the deceased posing with guns, as justification for his killing.
Anecdotal reviewing of social media posts about Webber’s death show predictable support for these views amongst some in the white community, but also that there was a section of the black community who also subscribed to them.
Another response espouses that while his death was a tragedy, if only Webber had just complied more with the police then he would still be alive. But there is a long history of interactions in such cases where even if the detainee complies, they still can end up dead. For example, the case of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016, who having been stopped by a police officer when reaching for his ID, which the officer had requested, was shot and killed.
Of course there are plenty of people, black and white, who have challenged the actions of the police in Memphis (and elsewhere), highlighting the double standards in the way black people accused of crimes are treated, in comparison to their white contemporaries who have committed horrific acts.
For example, Tami Sawyer (Black Lives Matter activist and candidate in the current Memphis mayoral election) was criticised in June for contrasting Webber’s fate with how Dylann Roof, who had murdered nine black people at a church in Charleston in 2015, had been peacefully taken into custody and treated to Burger King on the way to the police station as he was hungry. The El Paso shooter was similarly taken into custody, despite being heavily armed and having just shot dozens of people.
The El Paso shooting illustrates a second hypocrisy. The shooter was fuelled by white nationalist ideas and claimed he was defending his country against the “Hispanic invasion”. His chosen form of that defence was terrorism—he is a home-grown, domestic, US-terrorist.
This is important because in June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the double standards in US law and the way the FBI apply it, where terrorism in the US can only occur if it is linked to an international organisation. There is a definition of domestic terrorism on the US law books but no laws to support it.
The police carrying out the investigation in El Paso state are treating the case as one of domestic terrorism, however, they will not be able to charge the killer with such a crime as it does not formally exist in the US.
It’s the system
While exposing these double standards is a necessary step towards a deeper understanding of the relationship between guns and race in the US, it would be naïve to think that just changing the laws or some police protocols is the solution.
We need to look beyond a narrow focus on the specifics of each case and locate the issues within the broader system. Talking at a conference in London in 1967, Stokely Carmichael (leading Black Power activist and theorist) explained:
I’m a political activist and I don’t deal with the individual. I think it’s a cop out when people talk about the individual … I want to talk about the system.”
Carmichael went on:
…the capitalist system automatically contains within itself racism, whether by design or not. Capitalism and racism seem to go hand in hand”.
When addressing the totality of US capitalism, including its history and especially its economic development, we are confronted with one of its foundational contradictions. On one side, US elites claim the country to be the highest form of human development, expressed in the freedom and liberty of the individual. A society that was/is superior to all previous societies with absolute rulers (monarchs, lords, emperors, etc.).
Yet the US could not have developed economically in the manner it did without the stolen labour of African people through slavery, where the slaves were treated as a form of property. To justify this theft and slavery in the land of the free, black people could not have been humans (no rights of man for the slave).
Further, Howard Zinn, in his must-read A People’s History of the United States, highlights how in response to a series of revolts by black slaves and poor whites united together, at the end of the 18th century, racism emerged as a way to divide the groups and so maintain social control for the rich.
Racism is deeply embedded in the US economic and social structures.
Impact of racism
Writing from a cell in Marin County Jail in May 1971, Angela Davis illustrated the impact of this racism, arguing that racist oppression “invades the lives of Black people on an infinite variety of levels … substandard schools, medical care hardly fit for animals, overpriced, dilapidated housing, a welfare system based on a policy of skimpy concessions, designed to degrade and divide … this is only the beginning of the list …”. We can add poverty and unemployment rates, levels of incarceration, and more.
Fifty years on and little on this list has changed for many in the black community. Taking Memphis as an example, a report commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) analysing the changes in a number of social indicators over the fifty years since Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 found that absolute poverty may have fallen (although the evidence on this is not robust). However, in Memphis city and Shelby County:
- The childhood poverty rate for African American children is more than four times greater than that of whites.
- Overall African American poverty rates are two and half times higher than that of whites.
The one indicator that has dramatically changed, in the NCRM’s report, is the incarceration rate of black males which has increased by 50 per cent since 1980, while incarceration rates for white males had fallen slightly over the same period.
In the circumstances of an economically exploitative and socially oppressive society, with racism deeply embedded, the role of the police is to protect and preserve the existing institutions and structures from the sources of any potential challenge.
So where Angela Davis says that the police “are there to intimidate Blacks, to persuade us with their violence that we are powerless to alter the conditions of our lives”, we can see the same role played out against other minority groups and working class communities, especially where members of those groups and communities dare to start organising collectively to protect their rights and/or improve their living conditions.
Unity as the solution
Looking as a whole there are other factors which influence the use of guns in US society, including the power of the gun lobby and armaments industry, the increasing militarisation of the law enforcement and a political agenda (from certain sections) that prioritises the right to bear arms over all other rights. All of this needs to be challenged.
The broader system perspective also allows us to understand the roots of racism. As John Molyneux argues elsewhere on Rebel, racism is a tool developed by and for the protection of the 1%, which is used to divide communities with the intended effect of keeping them powerless.
the only effective guarantee against the victory of fascism [and racism] is an indivisible mass movement which refuses to conduct business as usual as long as repression rages on … the greatest menace to racism and fascism is unity!”.
- These numbers are from the Washington Post database. For clarity, so far this year 34 per cent of these deaths are identified as white, 24 per cent black, 20 per cent Hispanic and the remainder as Other or Unknown. According the 2010 US census the overall percentage for each group in the total population were 72.4 white, 16.3 Hispanic and 12.6 black. There are caveats to these numbers but they do highlight the disproportionate impact of police killings among the black and Hispanic communities.