Carol Anderson’s Haunting History of America’s Racist Double Gun Standard

Photograph Source: Fibonacci Blue – CC BY 2.0

Carol Anderson, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Get it right: in Amerika, guns, self-defense, and political violence are for white Whiskey Rebels, racist white mobs, racist white cops, George Zimmerman, Kyle Rittenhouse, and the January 6th marauders, NOT Denmark Vesey, Black sharecroppers, Black Panthers, Milton Hall, Philando Castille, Brionna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. And this is as it was always supposed to be under the Second Amendment.

It was darkly fitting to begin writing this review on Halloween. Historian Carol Anderson’s new book The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America is hauntingly well-matched to terrifying current events. Anderson argues that U.S. domestic gun policy is plagued by a longstanding and ferocious racial double standard. It has always been about enforcing Black powerlessness and white rule. The holy Second Amendment rights “to bear arms” and “a well-regulated militia” have always been “for whites only” in American history. As Anderson shows, the amendment’s “for whites only” character is by design, a feature, not a bug. It’s not something that can be fixed by extending the amendment’s “freedoms” to people of color. Those “freedoms” are tools of white supremacy, no small part of why America’s contemporary Republifascists are so enamored of their “Second Amendment rights.”

Some Recent Racist Police State Murders

Consider recent events demonstrating that the second a Black person is thought to possess, much less brandish a gun in the white-supremacist United States today, their life can be placed in peril. Take the cases of the Black men Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, John Crawford III, Emantic Bradford, and the Black youth Tamir Rice. Castille was killed outside St. Paul, Minnesota in the summer of 2016. His murderer was a trigger-happy white cop reacting to Castille reaching as requested for his identification after telling the officer that he had a legally permitted gun with him. Just one day before Castille’s murder, Baton Rouge police killed Sterling for possessing a gun in his pocket.

Two years before that, Crawford was shot to death by police for loosely carrying a small unpackaged retail BB gun while talking on his cell phone in a Walmart store in the “open carry” state of Ohio. His killers had been juiced up to think they were confronting a Black shooter by a deceptive 911 call from the racist white shopper Ronald Ritchie. Four months after the Crawford killing, the 12-year-old boy Tamir Rice was shot dead by Cleveland cops while playing with a toy gun in a public park.

Three years ago, the armed Black military veteran Bradford was shot dead in the back of the head by police while Bradford was trying to protect shoppers from a gunfight in open carry Alabama.

None of the killer cops involved in any of these murders was charged with a crime.

Then came the gruesome March 2020 Louisville police fusillade that ended the life of 26-year-old Black medical technical Brionna Taylor in her own home. The shooting came after Taylor’s boyfriend fired his pistol to deter what was by all indications a violent invasion of Taylor’s apartment. The incursion was an illegal and mistaken no-knock home raid conducted by a Louisville police SWAT team.

The longstanding legal “castle doctrine” upholds American citizens right to protect their homes by all necessary means. When Kentucky’s right-wing arch-Uncle Tom attorney general refused to prosecute any of Taylor’s killers, the “castle doctrine” was rendered hollow when it came to Black people facing lawless home invasion by “law and order.”

No Guns Required: The Largely Forgotten Pre-BLM Cases of Milton Hall and John Deng

Consistent with Anderson’s argument that it’s not about guns per se but more fundamentally about race and anti-Blackness, cops and security guards get away with Black people who have the audacity to defend themselves in any way, even without firearms. The real sin is self-defense. I can never shake the memory of the video showing at least seven Saginaw, Michigan cops gunning down the homeless black man Milton Hall in a shopping plaza in the summer of 2012. The killers launched their appalling 47-shot volley after Hall allegedly lunged with a small knife at a police dog snarling more than ten feet away. No charges were ever filed in connection with this savage police-state execution, conducted in broad daylight.

Three years to the day before Milton Hall’s sadistic liquidation, a white Johnson County, Iowa sheriff’s deputy Terry Stotler ran across an Iowa City scuffle in which the young African John Deng brandished a small knife against the drunken white man John Bohnenkamp. Bohnenkamp attacked Deng for dropping bottles taken from a garbage bin in a downtown parking lot. The deputy took out his .40-caliber Glock pistol and killed Deng on the spot while Bohnenkamp screamed “shoot him!” Following the usual practice, the Johnson County state’s attorney later exonerated Stotler in a cursory “investigation.”

The Slave Era

So much for open carry, the castle doctrine, and the right of self-defense when Black people are defending themselves – or even just when Blacks are in real or seeming possession of weapons. Armed self-defense is for racist white killers like the Black teenager Trayvon Martin’s deranged white killer George Zimmerman (who got away with stalking and murdering Martin with a disingenuous “stand your ground” legal defense), not for John Deng, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling. or Brionna Taylor. It’s for the soon-to-be exonerated racist teen MAGAt and fascist hero Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin (to the applause of then US president Donald Trump) in August of 2020 (more on the Rittenhouse trial, just underway, below).

It’s nothing new under the long hot historical sun of American racial sadism. The Second shows how the American racial double standard on firearms, self-defense, and use of force dates to the nation’s colonial, revolutionary, and constitutional origins. Africans brought to and born in British colonial North America were denied the right to carry guns thanks to white fears that an armed Black population would be able to retaliate with potent force against their slaveowners and the slave system (imagine). Colonial governments banned Blacks from their militias out of the same fear. The early state government of South Carolina was willing to sacrifice national independence out of its dread of what could happen if its Black subjects were enlisted as soldiers in the Continental Army.

Anderson argues that southern states would have walked away from the US Constitution and from the United States itself without a constitutional amendment (the Second) negotiated and crafted to ensure that southern state militias would (a) not fall under the command of a national government that included officeholders opposed to slavery; (b) include only members sanctioned by southern state officials; (c) continue to perform their longstanding role of suppressing real and potential slave rebellions.

Whiskey Rebels v. Slave Rebels

After the Constitution’s ratification, most states made it illegal for Blacks to possess firearms. Free Blacks were removed from state militias. All-white state militias were deployed to crush and avenge actual and planned slave uprisings (the aborted 1800 Gabriel uprising, the 1819 Louisiana rebellion led by Charles Deslondes, the 1822 Denmark Vesey plot, and the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion). Rebellious slaves were tortured, executed, and dismembered, their severed heads placed on pikes, for the sin of (imagine) rising against Black chattel slavery. By telling contrast, the white farmer anti-tax Whiskey Rebels of western Pennsylvania received parse prosecution, light sentences, and full pardons after they took up arms against the United States government in 1791.

It wasn’t just about the South during the Antebellum era. The Second Amendment was shown to be for whites only during Caucasian mob assaults on Black communities in Providence (1831), New York City (1834), Cincinnati (1841), and Philadelphia (1849). After 1500 frothing white racists descended upon Black Cincinnati in the summer of 1841, city authorities intervened to disarm the Black community, leaving it powerless in the face of a merciless slaughter.

From Civil War Through World War I

In her third chapter, titled “The Right to Kill Negroes,” Anderson shows that the Civil War and the end of slavery did not change the basic racist equation. Blacks who dared to defend themselves and each other with arms against armed white mobs were jailed and murdered in Union County, South Carolina in 1871. Black Union Army troops, who might have prevented these and other southern massacres, were moved out of the post-Civil War South in a nod to southern white fears of Blacks with guns. Southern elected Republicans in northern-occupied Reconstruction states were too afraid of sparking all-out race war to enlist Black militias against Ku Klux Klan terrorism. Black militia members were slaughtered en masse for refusing to disarm in Hamburg, South Carolina in the summer of 1876.

Thirty years later, the white Georgia militia disarmed Black Atlanta as the city’s Black community was overrun by packs of frenzied and armed Caucasians. A racist pogrom ensued, fueled not just by the usual lynch-mob pretext (the alleged Black rape of a white woman) but also by white rage over Black people having the audacity to pick up guns and ammunition and practice armed self-defense. Here is a haunting passage on the 1906 Atlanta Massacre from Anderson, a Black professor at Atlanta’s Emory University:

‘Black people. Armed. Shooting back. Simply because a white mob had gone on a multiday killing spree? Not in Georgia. Th state retaliated. The militia, reinforced with “three infantry companies, the Governor’s Horse Guard, a machine gun, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition,” launched in an invasion of Brownsville. As in the old antebellum days of the slave patrol, Georgia’s twentieth-century version used violence and terror to break into and ransack African Americans’ homes in a hunt for weapons. The state militia chanted: “We are rough, we are tough, we kill niggers, and never get enough. Troops shot and beat Blacks while ripping their homes to shreds. Hundreds of African Americans were arrested and their guns confiscated…For defending themselves, African Americans were lunched, beaten, tortured, shot, and jailed.’ (Anderson, The Second, 107)

Early in the same year as the Atlanta pogrom, white outrage and violence driven by dread of African Americans with guns led to the dishonorable discharge of 167 Black US Army soldiers stationed in Brownsville, Texas.

Then came the Great War. Fifteen Black soldiers were executed by military authorities in 1917 after having the audacity to provide armed defense to Black Houston residents facing white racist terrorism. White fear of Blacks soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War I helped fuel racist pogroms across the nation during and after the European conflict. A racist white mob, state militia, and a US Army regiment took the loss of two white lives during a savage racist attack on a Black sharecropper union as justification for a five-day killing spree that murdered at least 856 Black people in Elaine, Arkansas in September of 1919.

(This is just small portion of the Jim Crow terrorism that helped inspire Adolph Hitler and his Nazi brethren to new heights of racial exterminism)

The Coming Rittenhouse Exoneration: A Perfect Match for The Second

The lethal white double standard has continued unabated over the last century. Highlights include: the passing of a federal 1968 Gun Control law aimed only at Black gun ownership; the systematic police-state murder and dismantlement of the Black Panthers, imposed as punishment for (among other things) advocating and modelling Black armed self-defense; repeated denial of “castle doctrine,” “stand your ground,” self-defense, and open carry rights to Blacks while those rights are regularly granted to whites – even to racist white killers like George Zimmerman and Kyle Rittenhouse.

Here we are now in November 2021, at the opening of the long-awaited trial of the white teen MAGAt Trumpster and cop-worshipper Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters – Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber – in cold blood with an illegally owned assault rife in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the late summer of 2020. He was immediately hailed by the fascist Republican Party as (in the words of National Public Radio)“a martyred patriot whose extreme actions were born of Democrat failures to quell violence on their streets.” Recall that the neo-Confederate white power US president Donald Trump, the son of a onetime KKK adherent, embraced Rittenhouse and stopped in Kenosha, Wisconsin to defend the killer on the very last night of the 2020 presidential campaign one year and three days ago.

The old white male racist judge in charge of the trial has just declared that prosecutors can’t call Rittenhouse’s victims “victims,” but that Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys can call Rittenhouse’s (well) victims “rioters” and “looters.” The jurist is a notorious and longstanding agent of racial oppression. The blood-soaked teenfash hero will be portrayed as the real traumatized victim. It is reasonable to expect that Rittenhouse will be declared not guilty on grounds of “self-defense.”

The Rittenhouse case is a hauntingly perfect a match for Carol Anderson’s book. It’s almost spooky. Why did Black and civil rights protests and riots occur in August of 2020? Because a white Kenosha police officer shot the young Black man Jacob Blake in the back, crippling him for life, out of the mistaken belief that Blake was going to pull a gun on him. Who was Rittenhouse affiliated with when he murdered the two protesters? He crossed state lines from Illinois as the member of a self-styled “militia” group called “the Kenosha Guard.” (Look for his defense to wrap their argument in the Second Amendment language of Americans’ right to a “well regulated militia.”)

To top it all off, Rittenhouse had and retains the backing of the nation’s 45th president, a vicious white supremacist who has championed political violence to advance racial nationalism. This president’s white fascist January 6th marauders are facing minor charges for undertaking a bloody assault on the US Capitol meant to prevent the Congressional certification of the election of a president whose victory is viewed as illegitimate by millions of racist whites because it depended on nonwhite votes. In their exemption from serious punishment, these “fascist traitors” (as the liberal Congressman Jamie Raskin has accurately described them) are like the white 1791 Whiskey Rebels: they are being treated with kid gloves after undertaking a violent attack on the federal government. It doesn’t take much political, sociological, and imagination to guess that Black people and antiracist allies who attacked the US Capitol would suffer something much more like the fate of the Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, and Denmark Vesey rebels.

Ahmaud Armery: A Slave Capture Defense in 2021

But the defense attorneys representing Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan may have walked even more hauntingly out of The Second. The McMichaels and Bryan are the white racist thugs who armed themselves and then stalked and murdered the young Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia in February of 2020. Arbery was killed after struggling over the shotgun with which Travis McMichael slaughtered him. As Reuters reported last June, the McMichael and Bryan defense will rely on a 1863 Georgia citizen’s arrest law designed for slave owners seeking to capture escaped Black slaves. The defense will argue that they were able to stop Arbery and issue a citizen’s arrest since they thought he was committing a crime.

The law was repealed last May. According to Kevin Gough, a lawyer for Bryan, last month, “Citizen’s arrest is a big part of our case, a big part. They changed the law but changing the law doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t change what was the law of the land at the time.”

Expect the McMichaels and Bryan to join Rittenhouse, George Zimmerman, the sick racist white St. Louis “stand your ground” couple (the vile McCloskeys) who menaced peaceful BLM protesters with an AR-15 and a pistol (later enlisted as paranoid-style speakers at the Republifascist National Convention, tellingly enough) in the spring of 2020, the “martyred” fascist criminal Ashli Babbitt, and Trump’s enduring hero the top Confederate general Robert E. Lee (who the “instinctive” fascist Trump says would have won “complete and total victory” in Afghanistan!) in the pantheon of white heroes standing to make America Great Again by “any means necessary.”

A Fateful Case Before the High Fash Court

Meanwhile, we may soon see the racial double standard that Carol Anderson has so brilliantly written about demonstrated like never before. In The New York Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA) v. Bruen, the absurdly far-right US Supreme Court could well undo basic state and local gun control measures across the country. The right-wing NYSRPA’s argument is that the Second Amendment was meant to make not just private homes but all public places privileged space for open and concealed weapons carrying. Sadly enough, this challenge to gun control is backed by the National African American Gun Association (“NAAGA”) and Bronx[public] Defenders, who hope to expand legal Black access to firearms and reduce the discriminatory impact of gun control laws on racial minorities. If Carol Anderson is correct, trying to wield the Second Amendment on behalf of Black people is a pipe dream.

In any event, the racist bloodbath that could be fueled by a “pro-gun” ruling in NYSRPA v. Bruen would be, to quote H. Rap Brown, “as [US-]American as cherry pie.” It would be all too consistent with the high court’s expected imposition of female slavery through forced motherhood (in Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs) and with the racist intentions of the 18th Century slaveowners for whom (as Anderson shows) the right-wing’s beloved Second Amendment was designed.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).