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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and a Brief History of Black Gun Rights

As events continue to unfold in relation to the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, the Dallas shooting, and consecutive nights of protests in more than a dozen cities, there's no shortage of stories and trends that need deeper discussion. Among these are the important connection between police force and municipal revenue stemming from traffic violations, as well as the troubling, but necessary question of whether media outlets would have given the policy/excessive force issue this much attention if the Dallas shooting had not taken place.

However, one issue that is worth discussing, if for no other reason than it's apparent permanence is U.S. history and social reality, is the issue of gun rights, or the lack thereof, for Black folks in America. An aspect in both the Castile and the Sterling shootings is that both were in possession of a gun (not sure if this has actually been confirmed in the the Sterling case, but it seems generally accepted at this point). In the case of Philando Castile, the role that the gun may have played in his shooting is particularly troubling since Castile, according to his girlfriend, did exactly what he should have done--he notified the officer that there was a gun in the vehicle and that he had a permit. In essence he was killed because he dared to exercise his second amendment right to own a gun--that and the fact that the officer felt his "wide nose" fit the description of another suspect, but that's a topic for a-whole-nother article.

While some may choose to look at these tragic shootings and the possession of guns as isolated incidents, it's impossible to understand these events without looking at the history of Blacks and "gun rights" in America. This history dates back to before the United States was actually the United States--back to before the American Revolution, while colonies both with and without slavery had combinations of "Slave Codes" and "Black Codes" which not only made it illegal for enslaved Africans to own/posses guns, but placed limits on FREE Blacks as well. Obviously, this was before there was such a thing as the U.S. Constitution, so there was no second amendment. Nevertheless, these codes and practices established what would be a reality, either de jure or de facto, for more than 400 years: Blacks with guns was simply unacceptable to White America.

This pattern continued even as the American patriots declared that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Most of us know that those rights did not extend to Blacks in America, whether enslaved or free. What most of us don't know if how calculated and thoughtful the effort was to keep Blacks from fighting in the Revolutionary War, out of fear that Blacks should not be allowed to carry guns. General Washington, himself a slave owner, did not want Black soldiers, clearly agreeing with the premise stated above--Blacks with guns was simply unacceptable to White America. It was not until the British began recruiting and arming Blacks, through Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, that the revolutionaries changed their minds. Coincidentally, up until this point, the revolutionaries were not fairing particularly well against the British army. This would not be the last time in U.S. history that a change regarding Black rights was tied solely--SOLELY--to broader strategic needs.

This pattern would later be repeated during the Civil War, with similar results. Once again, the decision to recruit and begrudgingly arm Black soldiers coincided with the tide turning from Confederate victories to Union success.

Fast forward to the late 1960s, and the early Black Panthers' practice policing the police in their California communities by carrying guns openly in compliance with California law. In response, the state of Californina, led by a Republican state assemblyman and Governor Ronald Reagan, attempted to pass the Mulford Act, also known as the "Panthers Bill", which was specifically designed to prevent the Panthers from benefiting from 2nd Amendment rights. This Huffington Post article provides more information, including the interesting note that the gun control bill was passed with support from the NRA. So we should not be surprised that fifty years later, the NRA has been remarkably silent, or at least restrained, regarding such blatant violations of gun rights as we've seen in the Castile and Sterling shootings.

Again, fast forward another fifty years, and the basic premise has been modified slightly. Blacks with guns is no longer completely unacceptable; if it were, you would see some level of gun control. However, the notion and image of Blacks with guns is only acceptable as long as those guns are being pointed at other Blacks. But when the gun is associated with gun rights in general, not to mention any level of political activity, then the premise remains as true as the days of slave codes and Black codes. If you doubt that, just take a look at the video below.

That video was originally distributed in 2015. Perhaps if more of us, including those in law enforcement, truly considered the frightening implications of the clear double standard, shootings such as those we've seen in the past week could have been avoided. Perhaps if congresspeople were as concerned with Blacks lives, as they are with Hillary's emails, just maybe some of these shootings could be avoided. But for any of the pain of the past week to result in anything positive and progressive, we must first understand the systemic nature and historic roots of what we are up against. If we have the courage to start from that space of truth, anything is possible.

If not...

I'm Cliff, and these are my notes.