All this talk lately about stockpiles of weapons and images of white men shouting at cameras about the 2nd amendment has gotten me thinking about the 1980s. I don’t mean the 1980s writ large, as in the last time that vigilante white supremacists looked like they might grow into a significant movement. I mean my 1980s, the years during which I was no longer a child but, in so many ways, not yet an adult.
Underneath all the shouting about guns on the daily news, I sense a palpable fear of the possibility of facing what many perceive to be a hostile government unarmed. It’s a fear I could relate to in my youth in the 80s.
I grew up in Hawai’i, my childhood spent near a cluster of U.S. military bases during the height of the Vietnam War. I watched representatives of the U.S. government killing people who looked like me on T.V., and then faced the hostility of their real life counterparts on the street where I withstood the indignity of being called names like “baby gook” by men in uniform.
I knew from a young age that Hawai’i was a colony of the U.S., won through an act of rebellion that, though illegal under the U.S. Constitution, was sanctioned by the United States Congress. I wasn’t exactly trusting and innocent. Instead, even as a fourth grader, I secretly worried and fretted.
All that worry was channeled into anger as I reached puberty and testosterone kicked in. By the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic (and Ronald Reagan) started taking the lives of people I knew, my anger turned to rage. I viewed myself as a victim. Doing so released me from accountability and justified taking my rage out on those who held political views opposed to mine. I like to think I was self-righteous because the only reasonable alternative would involve admitting to having been an arrogant a-hole.
I joined ACT-UP. I remember planning muscularly risky acts of civil disobedience and having women in the group ask the question, is this about you guys proving that you’re really men to people who assume you are effeminate because you’re gay?
I did a lot of wild stuff in those days. I won’t call them “crazy” because that would be an offense to the mentally ill, not to mention to legitimate civil disobedience, which I believe in still. I was careful that nobody was physically harmed through my actions, which mostly involved spray paint and glue, but I’m guessing some of the acts felt like symbols of violence because they portrayed the kind of anger that so often leads in that direction.
I carried a gun back then, though just briefly. I’d been threatened and physically menaced by armed white power activists. I gave up my gun when a firearms expert told me that one should always assume that any confrontation will rise to the level of violence possible. If you carry a gun, you need to be prepared to use it because having it makes you and those next to you potential shooting victims. That kill or be killed scenario (especially the “kill” part and the idea of innocent bystanders being harmed) got me to put my weapon down.
So why am I telling you this story? There are a few reasons.
First, one should always be aware of the gendered nature of our impulse to violence. All this talk lately about mental illness is just b.s. Mentally ill people are less, not more likely, to commit acts of gun violence. Men on the other hand, well, the statistics seem to indicate we’re quite a problem.
Second, we are seeding rage-filled rebels in our midst, just as we are in places like Pakistan when drone attacks kill innocent civilians and we judge these tragedies acceptable collateral damage. Victimization breeds anger that too often excuses itself of accountability. We need to stop making victims.
Third, we grow violent in packs like militias when we believe our identities are under attack. The definitive identity of the U.S. since it’s inception has been white. Now, changing demographics combined with the scapegoating racism that is so much a part of our politics (and all during a time of economic crisis in which many of us have become wrongly convinced there isn’t enough to go around) is causing us to choose sides across the color line in a fight over American identity.
In this fight, we need to take those who many in the media have alternately trivialized and demonized as “gun nuts” seriously. They are neither trivial nor are they truly demons. No, we would be much better off to see them as part of a budding movement that is upping the ante on the struggle over racial equity because its members have been led to believe that people of color are to blame for their problems, among which is a loss of white political dominance that the most radical elements equate with national collapse. After all, for most of what has been presented to us as a glorious history, America has stood for white supremacy.
And never doubt that this movement is made up of people, not monsters. Monsters only live in our imaginations.
People don’t protest just to win policy change. We protest to win recognition, acknowledgement, and respect. Behind the shouting and the brandishing of arms, that’s what these guys are about. As hateful as we may find their beliefs, they are like us in this way and others. Understanding this and finding the humility to see something of ourselves in them is a strategic imperative. If we fail, we may find ourselves fighting with phantoms and, in that contest, we will surely lose.