Imagining a different Virginia gun rally
On January 20, Martin Luther King Jr. day, a group of overwhelmingly white men gathered in Richmond, VA to celebrate their right to carry the thing that was used to kill Martin Luther King Jr. They came to speak up for their right to carry…things they were carrying. The contrast with MLK and the civil right heroes marching for equality and basic human rights not afforded them was likely lost on many of them.
Photos and news reports from the rally show some people, almost all men, carrying assault rifles, and many carrying signs decrying any limits on gun ownership whatsoever (even though every other Constitutional right comes with its limitations), proclaiming their readiness to fight their own government if it becomes tyrannical (I’m glad we’ll have rifle owners ready to take out the U.S. government’s firepower), and all order of thinly-veiled threats that should the majority of Virginians get their way legislatively, they’re ready to use their guns to stop it. I may be missing something, but this is not the most inspiring, life-giving vision I’ve come across.
Though I am not certain about the racial make-up of the attendees, I saw just one person of color in the half-dozen videos I watched from the event. Attendee estimates range from 16,000 to 22,000. Either way, it was a considerable crowd. I propose a simple thought experiment: What if the racial make-up of the crowd were totally different? What if the crowd had all the same signs, messages, and supposed allegiance to God and country but were mostly black, Latinx, and/or Muslim? How would the rally/protest had been viewed differently, and why?
It was this kind of thought experiment that insightful commentators invited with the 2014 Cliven Bundy ranch stand-off with federal agents in which some of Bundy’s supporters trained rifles on agents who had come to enforce federal law. Federal agents eventually decided to leave and de-escalate the situation, and Bundy’s folks lived to tell about it. Can people of color pull that off?
A satirical video produced by College Humor brilliantly exposes this extreme double standard. The video begins with two white men spouting common lines about gun rights and the Second Amendment, but then enters a black man dressed to look like a member of the Black Panther Party. As he speaks in the same menacing way as many white gun enthusiasts about his rights not needing justification, background checks being an invasion of privacy, etc., the two white men grow increasingly uneasy. The same level of zeal and fanaticism coming from the mouth of a person of color just doesn’t quite sound the same. Why is that?
You see, one of the many aspects of white privilege is what Cory Collins calls “the power of the benefit of the doubt.”
White people are also more likely to see positive portrayals of people who look like them on the news, on TV shows and in movies. They are more likely to be treated as individuals, rather than as representatives of (or exceptions to) a stereotyped racial identity. In other words, they are more often humanized and granted the benefit of the doubt.
It is hard to imagine this benefit of the doubt manifesting more clearly than white men are allowed to march through the streets packing assault rifles and additional visible ammunition, being called “militias” by the media instead of a “mob” or “thugs,” words strangely used more often for people of color. Yes, officials and residents feared that violence would break out, but it was more connected to the recent history of the Charlottesville rally and the presence of weapons than the identity of those marching. News outlets jovially reported that there were no reported injuries and only one arrest, coming close to mocking the governor for declaring a state of emergency ahead of the event. One can feel the collective, ‘See, I told you so! These people can be trusted to be reasonable and safe.” They even picked up their trash, one person commented.
Yet, there was a clear message, printed clearly on some signs: “Come and take it [my gun].” There is no ambiguity here. ‘We’ll be peaceful as long as things go our way.’ For these gun enthusiasts, you don’t have to threaten their life, property, or family. They’re ready to make you stare down the barrel if you do so much as say they need to certify they’re not felons or suggest that maybe required training is a good idea.
Imagine the hysteria that would ensue if it were a group of black, Latinx, and/or Muslim citizens doing this.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine it. As one of countless examples, perhaps you remember the backlash when a group of Muslims wanted to build a community center in downtown Manhattan. Despite the fact that they had nothing to do with 9/11, had openly and clearly condemned the act, and were building something that would benefit everyone, the protest was fast and ferocious. But 16,000+ white men carrying guns with no discernible vision for a shared future are OK and just exercising their rights.
The rhetoric of these “law abiding” “good guys with guns” matches and surpasses anything that could be considered alarming from others. The things that alarmed the rest of America about the Black Panthers in their time were all present within this group, and then some. The NRA at that time, by the way, was singing a very different tune, supporting a ban on open carry in California.
The rhetoric of these “law abiding” “good guys with guns” is far more menacing than anything you hear from people in this country who are considered a threat, many of whom live under the weight of pervasive suspicion and hostility simply because of who they are.
After the apostle Peter had been led beyond the confines of his people and religious tradition to encounter someone he considered to be working for the enemy, he ended up declaring, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35). It shouldn’t matter who is carrying guns and ammo down the street, holding a vague but menacing threat of lawlessness and violence over their community, treating their right to carry weapons as a trump card over any other right. That’s always wrong. That’s always stupid. That’s always something that should make reasonable people say, “We are better.”