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Armed Self-Defense, White Privilege and White Supremacy in West Michigan

November 29, 2020

A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, an it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.   Ida B. Wells

Nearly a month ago, I attended an action in Allendale, which was organized by Justice for Black Lives. I wrote a critique of the local news coverage of the action, which featured the American Patriot Council’s freedom march and a counter-demonstration by Justice for Black Lives.

MLive framed there coverage of the events that took place on October 24th, with the following headline, Lots of guns, but simultaneous West Michigan rallies by opposing groups stays peaceful.

This kind of simplistic coverage is not surprising, but it offers no serious look at the major difference between White Supremacists who carry guns and why Black and Indigenous people would bring weapons to a protest.

Likewise, some of the people involved in trying to get Ryan Kelley, co-founder of the American Patriot Movement, removed from his position on the Allendale Planning Commission, also took issue with Black and Indigenous people coming to the protest on October 24th, with arms.

I get that people, meaning white people, might feel uncomfortable with people they are protesting with, who are armed. However, white people have no credibility or moral authority to question whether Black or Indigenous people chose to defend themselves, even if that includes showing up at a protest with guns.

I understand how this might make white people uncomfortable, since I used to embrace a more dogmatic position when it comes to non-violence vs Self-Defense. However, once I started doing solidarity work in Mexico and Central America from 1988 – 2006, I came to see how groups in those countries that used non-violent tactics worked in conjunction with those who had chosen armed self-defense. The group COMADRES in El Salvador, which were essentially families and relatives of the disappeared, worked with the FMLN, the armed insurgent group. In Mexico, the EZLN, which took up arms in 1994, also had the support of millions from civil society and worked directly with groups that embraced non-violence. These are strategic choices that people make, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t work together.

For the rest of this article I want to provide some arguments for why white people should never tell Black and Indigenous people that they cannot engage in armed self-defense. 

First, it is important to acknowledge that Black and Indigenous people have a long history of using armed self-defense, especially against state violence in the form of Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy. Do white people honestly think that it is morally superior for Black and Indigenous people to only use non-violence? Think about the tremendous amount of violence that Settler Colonialism and Genocide has brought to First Nations over the past 500 years. Those engaged in Settler Colonialism used brutal force, with guns, scalping, chemical and biological warfare, along with force relocation and forced removal of indigenous children with the dictum, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Do white people actually think that Indigenous people did not have the right to defend themselves, their families and their homes from all of the heinous crimes the US government committed against them? Do you think that Indigenous people should have tried to reason with the like of Col. George Custer? The armed resistance against the US Calvary at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, also known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, was a direct result of the US government’s ongoing war against Native people during the period of what we were all taught in school was, The Indian Wars. 

This same history is similar within the Black community, especially since the beginning of slavery in the US. Too often, especially amongst white people, we see the emancipation of those in slavery as coming about with the Civil War. However, as Carter Jackson points out in her book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, the use of armed self-defense and self-liberation was very much a part of the abolitionist movement. However, even after chattel slavery was abolished, White Supremacy morphed into the Jim Crow era, state-sanctioned apartheid and systemic racism. After WWII, groups of Black men, many who had served in the US military, formed gun clubs for self-defense, the most famous groups were called Deacons for Defense (see The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill). The most well known Black armed self-defense group, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, also organized during the Civil Rights era, along with groups like RAM – Revolutionary Action Movement. The consensus amongst historians is that the non-violent groups benefited from the armed self-defense groups, since the power structure now saw the non-violent groups as more reasonable. In other words, the Black armed self-defense groups provided political space for the non-violent groups to accomplish more, since the threat of an armed uprising was now on the minds of the white power structure.

Second, armed self-defense by Black and Indigenous communities is based on their lived experience of how brutal the white power structure has been and can be. If your people were forced off their land, enslaved, your children forcibly removed, your people lynched and discriminated against in every facet of society, do you think that they could ever trust the white power structure? 

Third, the Black and Indigenous armed self-defense group that was at the Allendale protest on October 24, were not only protecting themselves against the armed members of the American Patriot Council protest, they were also protecting themselves against the armed cops who were also at the protest. The reality is that Black and Indigenous people know all too well that law enforcement agents, from local police to the FBI, have a long history of murdering, arresting and detaining their community. The white armed participants in the American Patriot Council were probably the main concerns of the armed Black and Indigenous resisters, but the specter of law enforcement is always on their radar.

Fourth, the white people from Allendale, who raised objections to Black & Indigenous people coming to the October 24 protest with arms need to come to terms with the first 3 points raised here. In addition, were the white liberals from Allendale ever concerned or did they object to there always being armed members of local law enforcement at the October 24 protest or any of the previous protests against the Confederate statue in Allendale? I suspect not, which makes them hypocritical for not condemning the armed police and just the armed “militia” who have come to the aid of Ryan Kelley, since this conflict began last summer. Again, cops are more likely to shoot and kill Black and Indigenous people than are white “militia” types.

Of course it would be wonderful if no one came to protests with guns, but this is not the world we live in. The reality is that white people need to come to terms with the long history of state violence against Black and Indigenous people in the US, before they question or judge Black and Indigenous people for armed self-defense. White people, like myself, need to confront our own privilege and our own complicity in the larger systemic role that White Supremacy plays in this society. Lastly, white people have no grounds to ever tell Black and Indigenous people how they should protect themselves or how they show up to a public demonstration. 

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