Masculinity, State Torture and Gun Culture

Customization is an important part of being a gun owner. Discovering individual preferences that come into play through selecting different trigger weights, sights, hand grip and stock styles are major ways to become a more effective shooter. Making those adjustments yourself as much as possible creates familiarity that only helps the process. But it’s not just technical upgrades that are available. Some people prefer shiny stainless steel finishes and others classic gunmetal blue. Aftermarket options exist that can make the final product completely unrecognizable from its original state.

3CBDE02B-7005-4CB0-967C-D6D89A234AA2Still, it’s important to be sensible about your choices. I remember years ago reading an article by gun expert Massad Ayoob where he discussed ways juries become biased about armed defensive situations. He maintained the more aggressively a firearm was named or appeared played significant part in influencing verdicts. In other words, someone who defended themselves with a Masterpiece Arms Grim Reaper would come across as more sinister than the same person bearing an STI Lawman, even if all other circumstances were the same.

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Ayoob advised that anyone selecting a concealed carry weapon should always imagine how, worse case scenario, it might come across in court. For example, I once met a man who carried a Glock pistol he had engraved with an image of the mid ‘90s subculture comics character Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. The fellow laughed off my concern, but I remember declaring that should he ever actually used the pistol, it wouldn’t matter if a whole kindergarten was saved, he would still end up before a horrified jury trying to justify that name.

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Because gun culture is so embarrassingly hyper-masculine, it’s unsurprising many companies now offer customized versions of firearms catering to such unwise aesthetics. Massad Ayoob has written about his dim view of the comics vigilante Punisher skull that can be found emblazoned on many guns and several manufacturers make AR-15 lower receivers with not only death’s head graphics but even cast into actual skull shapes. As a design, the results are unavoidably tacky, but also point towards literal overkill. Firearms already look intimidating enough without excessive machismo making gun culture less accessible. 

Besides intimidating imagery, even worse are the political themes. One particular company, Spike’s Tactical, has become especially notorious on that front. Probably their best known offering is the AR-15 “Snowflake” lower receiver with fire control options ranging from:

“SAFE SPACE” (safe) 

“TRIGGERED” (semi-auto) 

“FULL LIBTURD” (fully automatic)

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Yet Spike’s most toxic product is the AR-15 “Waterboarding Instructor” receiver. This one lets operators select between:

“DRY,”

“WET” 

“DROWN ‘EM”

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In short, scoffing at serious war crimes. It’s simply shocking that a company who markets itself to law enforcement and the military would openly advocate state sanctioned torture, even disguised as a lame joke. Our grandparents generation executed Japanese officials after WWII for committing such atrocities. The permissive culture among modern day Right wingers merely sees an excuse to chuckle and make a few bucks.

However, Spike’s Tactical doesn’t limit their politics to just mocking sensitive liberals or applauding government sponsored terrorism. Just four months after the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, organized by White Nationalists in Charlottesville, where one of them murderously rammed a vehicle into massed counter-demonstrators, Spike’s issued a new ad campaign showing several men in tactical gear with AR-15 rifles facing down black masked figures. The copy read: “NOT TODAY ANTIFA,” with a list of multiple cities where anti-Fascist actions had occurred, including Charlottesville. In a press release, Spike’s described their graphic as simply reacting against Antifa, a so-called “violent group,” dodging the fact it clearly demonstrated solidarity with groups committing actual violence across America whose rising death tolls have required stringent anti-Fascist responses.

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Unfortunately these regressive trends are only growing among firearms manufacturers. Most recently Palmetto State Armory got into the game with their “Build the Wall” AR-15 receiver, marked:

“DETAIN,”

“DEPORT” 

“10 FEET HIGHER”

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This is particularly sickening given that President Trump’s wall building rhetoric has accompanied horrific abuses along the border region. In fact, at one recent rally, Trump simply laughed when one of his supporters advocated shooting immigrants on the Mexican frontier. We truly live in a culture beyond parody. How much longer until some marketer comes up with a special “Muslim Ban” or “Proud Pussy Grabber” themed firearm?

For the moment, it’s definitely an uphill battle, but Leftists need to tear gun culture back from the Right wing forces who have dominated it far too long. The human rights of self and community defense belongs to everyone, not only those burdened with fragile male egos and stunted political views. Let’s hope for a day when someone makes a Harriet Tubman rifle receiver. They can label its fire controls:

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Fascist Complexities: A Personal Encounter

B7803FA3-CB60-4CFB-AD79-774431D8DFDBFor a longtime Leftist, my familiarity with Fascism is more complex than most because I spent several years living in the basement pantry of a WWII era Nazi sympathizer and published a 2014 memoir (Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth) about our relationship. That individual was Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a well known Northwest intellectual and college professor. Originally American, she was taken from her birth family as an infant and raised in France among aristocrats that supported Germany. Decades later, I took daily care of her through regional lecture tours, international travels and many more bizarre adventures. It was a fascinating time that provided unusual insights into the world of Right wing subcultures now taking more violent form.B2CC0546-85A7-4DA8-B055-3EF572E88854

(above) Ross Eliot with Babette in 1999

This occurred during my early twenties as the late ‘90s anti-globalization movement unfolded and I took part with great enthusiasm. It was a bizarre contrast; morning meetings with anarchist groups to plan strategy, maybe being thrown out of a newspaper office in the afternoon while distributing anti-capitalist flyers, then serving Babette tea in the evening, surrounded by historical artifacts, including wartime medals her relatives won fighting alongside Axis troops.

It’s important to mention at this point, Babette was a trans-pioneer, active in the local LGTBQ community and who maintained close friendships with people of color and Jews plus any number of others generally considered antithetical to Nazi beliefs. She defined her values as influenced by Hitler, but only selectively. We often argued about politics, before viewing old mystery films together or playing marathon Scrabble games which she virtually always won.

Personal stakes felt much lower in Portland during that time. Several years before, racist gangs had been kicked out of town by anti-Fascist skinheads and punks through violent clashes at shows and in the streets. Subculture youths like myself floated dreamily along, enjoying a peace dividend hard won by our elders with fists and baseball bats. The idea of combating bigotry in a meaningful way through physical confrontations seemed naive. May Day marches and anti-globalization actions drew token Right wing counter-protesters, but few seriously worried any of them might ram a vehicle into our crowds. Everyone knew institutional racism and systemic injustices were the real problems, not scantily attended White power rallies or solitary madmen who assassinated abortion doctors. Big picture economic justice issues ruled the agenda, by comparison.

Because of that, Babette’s political inclinations felt like eccentric— even mildly charming character flaws. We could squabble over her adoration for the Chilean dictator Pinochet while cooking a lavish dinner together, before serving it to a group of her Hispanic students. While everyone ate, she might entertain us by lecturing about Latin American history in fluent Spanish. Frequently after such gatherings, I would lead guests downstairs for a tour of her extensive library where observant individuals might notice a first edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or 1928 translation of Mussolini’s autobiography. When eyebrows raised at this I would sigh and explain: “Oh yes, Dr. Ellsworth is a bit of a Fascist.”B5148E82-F02C-41D0-B874-645AEF4D3D72

But reality shifted. In the age of Trump, America transitioned from a place where regressive bureaucratic policies like prison sentencing disparities and other aspects of structural racism flew under mainstream detection to one where emboldened White Nationalist candidates could openly run for office and receive thousands of votes. Where hordes march through the streets with torches while shouting anti-Jewish slogans in spectacles hearkening back to Kristallnacht. Where violent attacks on minorities are drastically increasing and domestic body counts stretching from the Charleston church shooting to Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Even the FBI acknowledges militant racist groups have strategically infiltrated the police and military.

Amidst all this, one iconic symbol of resistance became the image of Fascist leader Richard Spencer being slugged in the face during a television interview. Exuberant stuff…but punching Nazis? I used to chauffeur one to her medical appointments!

Babette came by her Fascism early, combined with Old World elitism from childhood. The wealthy family she grew up amidst came from generations of French landed gentry and their patriarch, Foulques de Lareinty-Tholozan, owned a grand chateau that dominated the southern Sigean region. They maintained close relations with the nearby Spanish upper crust and also many Russian nobles who escaped revolutionary purges following WWI. In fact, Babette remembered frequent visits from Prince Felix Yusupov, the man notorious for murdering Rasputin in 1916.

Particularly because of their Russian connections, Babette’s family were staunch anti-communists and this only hardened once the Spanish Civil War broke out. The Right wing dictator, General Franco, who eventually triumphed against anarchist and communist forces supporting the Republic, found backing from both aristocratic and church establishments. This dynamic repeated itself in France after their 1940 surrender to Germany and solidified when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Because young Babette absorbed first-hand atrocity stories from survivors of anti-communist conflict to the south and east, it’s not surprising she interpreted the Fascism her family promoted as necessary for saving Western Civilization. Of course, from a privileged social position, she understood little that motivated ordinary people to overthrow centuries of Czarist oppression or combat Franco’s murderous authoritarianism.

Babette was only sixteen by the time WWII ended in Europe and never backed up her Fascist ideals with a rifle, yet many relatives did exactly that. She fondly remembered one cousin, named Foulques Honore de Lareinty-Tholozan (after his father), a slender, fair-haired youth several years older who enlisted with a French division of the Waffen SS. Reports indicated he was last seen alive retreating among German soldiers in 1945 but counted as missing in action.465C4FDA-26F8-4533-B951-F1541F981F9D

(above) Babette riding behind her cousin Foulques in the 1930s

Most of the war geographically isolated Babette from its violence, but protections her family enjoyed quickly evaporated once Axis troops pulled back following the 1944 Normandy invasion. A local resistance group summoned the elder de Lareinty-Tholozan to explain himself, and, (presumably expecting the partizans could be bribed or reasoned with), he promptly appeared. They immediately sentenced him to death, but before the firing squad assembled, allowed him one final letter. He did so, addressing it to his old Russian friend, Prince Felix Yusupov.*

Fearing for their own lives, Babette fled with her adopted mother to Paris where they presented themselves on December 14, 1944 at the Swiss embassy and requested asylum. Even amidst the tragedy of a world war, it must have given officials bemusement seeing a posh French collaborator admitting her child was actually an American citizen and leveraging their status for protection. Still, the Swiss dutifully filed a report with the US State Department who investigated and verified Babette was indeed American, in Europe illegally, and a minor who rightfully belonged with her birth family near Yakima, Washington.**

Babette was sent back to the US, which she remembered as a terrifying solo journey into the land of the enemy. Customs screeners confiscated her portrait of Hitler, and it seemed a teenage French Fascist might find little sympathy among citizens so recently stirred into battle against Nazism. However, she soon realized the postwar world could be very receptive for anti-communists, and not very concerned about their activities pre-1945. Across Europe and Asia, former enemies were put back in power, from Greece to Germany and Vietnam to the Philippines. Most famously, under Operation Paperclip, the US imported hundreds of Nazi scientists and protected them from war crimes prosecution.

In this environment, by 1949 Babette felt bold enough to include pro-Hitler statements throughout college papers while studying at Portland University, and soon after, expressed such devotion to the Third Reich at a Portland radio station that the FBI was alerted and launched a probe. They eventually concluded her Fascist tendencies presented no threat, but several years later when Babette developed professional relationships with East German academic institutions, she was put under investigation as a potential communist. This surveillance stretched over decades, with the last unredacted entry in her extensive file dated from 1975.***

If anything valuable was learned from my relationship with Babette that can help activists opposing emergent Right wing power in our times, it is recognizing Fascism’s dynamic flexibility. All too frequently, Leftists view the ideology through obsolete prisms forged by decades of simplistic historical interpretation. Successful analysis must be sinewy and tough, not so brittle it splinters.

Here’s one example: A year or so ago, I marched with a column of anti-Fascists in downtown Portland during an action confronting Patriot Prayer, a Right wing group notorious for its association with a man who murdered two locals during a 2017 racist assault. We passed several people, apparently tourists, and they asked what was afoot, gesturing at the flags and banners up ahead. A comrade informed them we were opposing Nazis, at which point the visitors shivered in terror! Afterwards I called for a discussion about proper terminology, because if those tourists had ventured closer, expecting goose-stepping Aryans in Waffen SS regalia or White racist skinheads, they would have been confused by the largely suburban Patriot Prayer crowd which usually includes several people of color (including the founder) and no obvious swastikas on display. I recommended substituting Fascist in the future as a less sensational but more accurate description of them.

But Fascism is a slippery word, easily dismissed, then embraced or even used synonymously with other terms. After an original century-old use by Mussolini’s political party, the term drifted into a simple catch-all for any authoritarianism. Conversely, it’s most popular synonym, the word “Nazi” (thanks to Joseph Goebbels effective propaganda) became an almost admiring noun connoting ruthless efficiency and cold exactitude. Both are typically used when discussing members of the stereotypical Western status quo: White cisgender heterosexual men. Recognizing the limitations of such assumptions is an important first step in defeating Fascism.

Of course, that was a lesson I learned years ago from Babette. When my professor recounted initially seeing foreign troops marching through the countryside, she remembered not ethnic Germans, but East Indians. These were presumably some of many abandoned by Great Britain early in the war, or captured later, who resented being treated as cannon fodder by the brutal occupiers of their own country. Indeed, several thousand formed a Wehrmacht legion that was eventually absorbed into the SS. Patriot Prayer may not appear the way Fascists are popularly conceived, and indeed, our grandparents generation who triumphed over Nazism did not always fight people who looked like Nazis.

Babette operated as a high profile trans member of Northwest academia, but that should be no surprise, as Fascism maintains deep roots in queer communities. Many remember the pink triangle eventually worn on concentration camp uniforms, though in their early days, Nazis (particularly SA Brownshirts organized by the openly gay Ernst Roehm) were often derided for that association by homophobic anti-Fascists. Despite a close friendship with Hitler, Roehm finally fell victim to a 1934 purge, his sexuality vilified as partial excuse.

Fascism promotes itself as a meritocracy for the intelligent and strong, with charismatic leaders highly celebrated. Babette certainly embodied those qualities and built up a cult of personality over decades in Northwest academia. Always robust and passionate, even throughout old age, she loved flouting social conventions, and that formed a large part of how she endeared herself. My professor delighted in the subversiveness of having participated in the Catholic church while still male identified and then, following her 1994 sex reassignment surgery, as a women. In fact, I possess several smirking photographs of her in drag during the 1960s after attending Mass and later on, wearing a Benedictine nun’s habit.C6FA96C6-1549-45C3-A736-BC4F14652D8B

Yet her true mirth came through in the fact she was a complete Atheist privately and told me about such pranks as inserting pornographic pictures in Bibles and hymnals. Indeed, she once stole a pair of panties, forgotten at our house by my girlfriend, and later claimed she hid them in the pulpit at a church. Humorous antics like these made her politics more palatable, and not just to me. Years later, one longtime teaching colleague told me about a series of highly inappropriate jokes Babette told, before letting slip an admiring comment about Hitler. The other professor recounted laughing and then exclaiming cordially: “You’re not fooling anybody! We all know you’re an old Nazi!”

Because she presented a living connection to the Fascism of WWII, it’s unsurprising my professor maintained connections among far Right subcultures. I discovered she was longtime friends with Mark Weber, notorious for leadership in neo-Nazi groups since the 1970s and most well known as director of the Institute for Historical Review, an organization dedicated towards diminishing Nazi war guilt, particularly the Jewish Holocaust. It seemed astonishing that Babette, who possessed an encyclopedic memory and often lectured for hours on topics from astronomy to feminism or geology— in three fluent languages no less, could be taken in by, for example, poorly researched pamphlets declaring Anne Frank’s diary a fake.

In the right packaging Fascism can be seductive. It raises up leaders and asks the rest to simply follow. The exact opposite of what I’d always believed in. Despite my Leftist credentials, after years caring for Babette and mesmerized by her intoxicating life story, I felt ideologically worn down. A worldly individual who earned her Ph.D by age thirty-four from the University of Bordeaux, she dominated our conversations intellectually. Over time I wondered, was I perhaps a Fascist too?

When Mark Weber visited the area in 2000 and spoke with an Arab students group at Portland State University, Babette urged I attend and curious… I did. It was quite anticlimactic. The other youths brought up issues with him related to Israeli apartheid policies and their discourse took place as interchangeably as if Weber were one of many Leftists I’d heard lecture about Middle Eastern topics. The brief encounter left me less illuminated than ever.

Then on February 16, 2002, Babette passed away as sensationally as she lived, collapsing from a heart attack in front of forty students preparing for one of her renown local history tours. After calling my professor’s basement home for three years, this catastrophe made life extremely complicated. Amidst personal grief, dealing with her estranged family and a host of other surreal happenings, Mark Weber sent an invitation to a symposium his organization was hosting in California. Having dipped my toes into the waters of Right wing subculture under Babette’s guidance, another hand now reached out, ready to draw me in further.

So I took one more step. Seventeen years later, remembering the whole experience is a high-speed blur of contrasts. The presenters ranged from Tony Martin, a professor of Africana Studies to Said Arikat, a Palestinian writer and Joe Sobran, the former National Review editor. Most attendees were White men, but women or people of color well represented also. One moment I talked with a Jewish couple who were volunteer coordinators over the weekend and the next, overheard a lady nearby bragging she was listed by the FBI as one of the most dangerous White supremacists in the nation.

It felt easy dismissing Babette’s politics as harmless, something to roll my eyes at before buttering her toast or clearing the board for another Scrabble game. Her charming ways dulled the edge of something that now cut too deeply to ignore. My professor’s house welcomed everyone and she accepted my friends and partners from all backgrounds. Yet now I conversed with earnest young men who recoiled when I mentioned dating people who weren’t White. The fact they sat and listened politely when a Black academic lectured about the role Jewish merchants played in the transatlantic slave trade made as little difference as when early 20th century KKK members supported Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in concert with the bloodstained Jim Crow system. The whole experience left me numb and I rode a Greyhound bus back to Portland, heavy hearted.

Despite everything, I’ll forever miss my friend who swept me through her whirlwind history into a moment of time when cognitive dissonance could make it seem like her version of Fascism was just another colorful identity without real consequences. But it wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Fundamentally, Fascism remains a system of genocidal exclusivity occasionally masked by popular inclusivities. A successful resistance must recognize what lies beneath the mask and hopefully awareness of Babette’s story can help raise it, before smashing what lies underneath for a better world that benefits everyone, not just an elite few.

 

*Much of my information about Babette’s early life comes from her personal accounts, private documents, interviews with the decedents of relatives in France and also the historical research of Jean-Pierre Géa-Torres in La sombre destinée du Château-du-Lac -Une histoire de familles.  Géa Editions, 2013.

**Freedom of Information Act (FOI/PA# 1308317-0 pg. 10-11

***FOI pg. 23

 

Gun Control After Trump

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It’s obviously too soon for writing a complete epitaph of the Trump presidency, however it finally concludes, by resignation, impeachment or some other more sensational climax. With such an unorthodox administration in every other manner, grinding through another election cycle or eventual term limit seems improbable. Still, whatever happens, it’s worth examining the stain Trump has already left on American gun culture and where we go from here.

In that regard, his relationship with the NRA must be addressed, as no organization has become more ubiquitous representing the public face of US gun owners, and no chief executive more closely tied with them. In an open letter from October of 2016, I criticized NRA leadership for endorsing Trump and predicted a woeful outcome. Short term, they could argue I was wrong.

As scandal after scandal after scandal plagued his presidential run, hordes of high level Republicans and traditional party backers either resisted endorsing Trump or actively opposed his nomination. Virtually all polls predicted a Hillary Clinton victory and the man himself made little effort toward even assembling a transition team.

Yet through this, the NRA never wavered and their loyalty found unlikely reward after Trump’s technical electoral win, alongside Republican gains overall. Their ship came in with two pro-2nd Amendment supreme court justices installed, while at the same time, many other federal judicial appointments swiftly filled. This took place while critical international postings remained empty and encouragement of White Nationalists and Fascists continued unabated, sending a clear signal where priorities lay: Rewarding his staunchest Right Wing supporters.

More minor 2nd Amendment related victories piled up as well, from loosening regulation of firearms on certain federal lands and revoking former President Obama’s gun purchasing ban against some Social Security mental health recipients (which it’s worth mentioning, the ACLU also opposed.) Still, most sensational items from the NRA’s wish list capsized. The Republican dominated congress failed passing a national concealed carry reciprocity act and another bill easing sound suppressor ownership sank as well.

An exception that must be noted was Trump’s unexpected announcement last December of a bump stock ban. However, it signified no significant break in his relationship with NRA hierarchy. Their subservient official statement on devices that simulate automatic fire is well worth reading. In short, they:

(1) voice no disagreement with Trump’s action

(2) call for the BATFE to re-evaluate whether or not bump stocks create automatic fire

(3) despite considerable expertise on tap, withhold any judgment about it themselves and…

(4) blame their original deregulation on Obama. (Thanks Obama!)

Therefore, in general the Trump presidency seems like a significant victory for gun owners and the NRA. Yet, as tables begin turning, with Democratic midterm wins one major indication, the future picture may not remain so rosy. This might seem surprising, because in the recent past, Democrats have balked at taking on gun control nationally. While long recognizing the issue as useful for mobilizing Liberals, party leaders well remember their sensational congressional defeat in 1994, which President Clinton famously blamed on the NRA

But now, major differences seem evident. Trump and gun rights are much more entwined than under previous Republican administrations, such as George W. Bush, who supported the 1994-2004 Assault Weapon Ban. As legal pressure against the president rises, NRA media releases (check them out) have becomes increasingly apocalyptic and unhinged. No behavior, it seems, no matter how corrupt or abhorrent, is apparently sufficient for them to cut ties with his regime.

Gun control groups are also better funded and organized than before. The New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg and other wealthy financiers back the movement, which picked up steam in recent years following sensational massacres, most prominently the 2016 Orlando nightclub and 2017 Las Vegas concert shootings. While many dismiss them as illegitimate because of this, it’s important to remember that most individual members are ordinary citizens who simply grew weary after years of seeing innocent people shot down in malls or schools and felt compelled to take action. Any action. The vast number of violent threats directed against gun control proponents only solidifies their positions. By contrast, I’ve operated as a public 2nd Amendment advocate for almost fifteen years and met with only occasional polite disagreement from  Liberals. Every belligerent rhetorical attack on my pro-gun projects has come from the Right.

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Photo credit: Jonathon Levinson, OPB 2019 (Ross Eliot with M1A)

Another new factor is that Democrats are in the midst of a severe confidence crisis. The most obvious manifestation of this was Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential run which party officials self-sabotaged in favor of Hillary Clinton’s losing bid; a bungle still lacking internal accountability. Many of the new political upstarts reaping headlines lean much further Left than the upper echelons, who maintain deep ties with wealthy corporate concerns.

For those elite elements, bringing gun control to the fore could be a way of placating Liberals and camouflaging national leaders under a progressive seeming mantle. Democratic politicians who cheerfully accept checks from agri-businesses, pharmaceutical corporations and hedge fund managers might deflect criticism by highlighting stands against the NRA. Trump voters screaming furiously about 2nd Amendment violations would conveniently distract Democrats from regressive members of their own party.

It’s the long term picture that counts and that’s why, despite Trump’s election scoring some immediate gun rights gains, the future is worrying for anyone who cares about community self defense amidst a dramatic rise in domestic Fascist terrorism. America’s middle class continues eroding with wealth disparity increasing, yet Right wingers who formerly supported Trump’s economic populist talking points are already blinded from his complicity with Wall Street and other scandals by racist immigrant blaming. At the same time, Left leaning Democrats, who should remain focused on social justice based economic solutions, hunger for anything that upsets Republicans. Harsh firearm restrictions would certainly accomplish that.

While a post-Trump world carries undeniable appeal, the decline and aftermath could be even worse if Democrats waste energy disarming communities most in danger of attack and individuals least protected by law enforcement. Violence that gun control groups wish to lower can only be truly solved through increased social equality. Just as church and state are best kept separate, so also should a toxic president’s legacy and the human right of self defense.

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Photo credit: Jonathon Levinson OPB 2019 (Eliot with RPK and Rosie S. with AR-15.)

The Need for Real Community Police

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In America today, many people experience relatively little contact with police and subsequently base their opinions about law enforcement more through media portrayals than reality. My life has provided examples in three distinct ways that are worth sharing.

Personal: I’m a working class white man in Portland who often carries a gun. That makes for a lot of common ground between myself and most local cops. In virtually every case where I have been pulled over for traffic infractions or had other occasion to interact with police on an individual level, I am treated respectfully and sometimes even like a blue collar brother. Officers waive away multiple equipment violations on my vehicles, simply dispense verbal warnings and after inspecting my Concealed Handgun License (CHL), often feel comfortable casually chatting about firearms. Based on this history, I actually feel more anxiety driving through an intersection where I know red light cameras are posted than if I notice patrol cars following me. That’s textbook White privilege.

On the Job: I work at a building for women who come from domestic violence, substance addiction and houseless backgrounds. This population suffers high levels of trauma, PTSD and mental illness, making for a highly vulnerable community. As one might imagine, the site is a natural magnet for male predators in search of victims. We dial 911 as needed.

While every filmatic treatment features these calls being answered immediately by a capable human, in reality there is often a messaging system, significant wait, and eventually a harried operator looking for excuses to divert any concern towards non-emergency services. Here’s one classic example:

A very large intoxicated man came into the building after visiting hours one night, terrorizing everyone with his yelling and drunken antics. The 911 operator didn’t consider this very serious and passed me off to non-emergency. They in turn advised me that police would respond when they had time. Women kept approaching me in tears, asking why nobody cared about their safety. After a couple hours, four officers responded and made the man leave. About twenty minutes later he returned and gained entry once again, resuming his previous behavior. 911 still didn’t consider this man who had repeatedly violated a women’s shelter to be worth their time. Non-emergency once again said police would respond whenever possible. Around 4am, two cops finally showed up and reluctantly heard my account of the evening. They ran the man’s name through their database and told me this individual in our building was a notorious violent felon and they had standing orders to only deal with him in groups of four or more. With that information passed along, they swiftly departed, leaving us to handle the situation ourselves.

Or try one from just last week:

A nine month pregnant resident had been repeatedly beaten by the father of her child and so we trasspassed him from the building. One afternoon he showed up outside, screaming threats against the woman and specific staff members. Terrified, she warned us that he was extremely violent and had a gun. Our building manager called 911 and amazingly, when an officer showed up over an hour later, the man was still outside. The cop behaved in a very condescending manner with the manager (also a woman) as though her account of the situation couldn’t be trusted. Then, while talking to the resident, who remember, was extremely pregnant and whose life had just been threatened, the police officer yelled at her, accusing her of being too emotional. If this unprofessional manner wasn’t enough, the cop eventually strolled outside to speak with the man whose actions caused all this in the first place. The two of them laughed together, joked around and even exchanged a friendly fist bump before the officer left. Both men were White. The pregnant woman is Black.

Update from 12/3/18

The same man who had beaten his pregnant ex (and was disrespected by a cop when she warned them he was dangerous and armed) showed up at the building with a shotgun and tried to force his way inside. Police appeared and peacefully arrested the man, then released him on bail just a few hours later.

Politically: I could go on and on about historic collaboration between law enforcement and regressive social forces in America, but one current event carries more immediate gravity. On August 4th, the right wing group Patriot Prayer, known for attracting White Nationalists and fascists, (including one who murdered two people last year) held a rally in Portland. A large community response turned up, opposing them. Police in riot gear separated both groups, and then abruptly turned on the counterprotesters, firing 40mm concussion grenades designed for airbursts, directly into the crowd. Several people were badly injured, including one man struck in the back of the head so hard it shattered his helmet. If not for that safety device, he would surely be dead.

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In Summary: As a working class White man in Portland, on an individual level I am given the benefit of most doubt by police officers. “Better fix that tail light, buddy!” or “Remember next time, you really gotta carry insurance papers!” or even “How do ya like that 9mm carry rig?”

But once I reach out to law enforcement requesting help at a facility assisting women on the lowest rungs of society, that all evaporates. Suddenly I’m a time waster. A generator of annoying paperwork. The people I work with aren’t perceived as trustworthy and male abusers seem greatly sympathetic by comparison. We are dismissed as quickly as possible, left to figure out problems on our own, yet with little authority.

It’s even worse once I operate as part of a collective opposing injustice in our community. Police officers have wide discretion in their use of violence and low accountability. The cop who fired what was nearly a lethal shot against the antifascist activist recently clearly felt little reason for concern, despite being caught on camera violating the proper use of a crowd control weapon.

The answer is real community policing.* Average people may not be able to interpret forensic clues that catch some devious mastermind, but most crime is highly localized. We all know our neighborhoods; the usual flow of people, which houses host loud parties and who yells at their spouses daily. Law enforcement must be decentralized so that first responders in an emergency are from that same community, already know the background situations and have a stake for how everything turn out. If power is abused, there should be a transparent review process with actual consequences. By the same token, consequences must exist for individuals making frivolous accusations, which are often used to target minorities.

Until power is granted to govern our own communities, people will simply rely on distant authority figures with little personal investment in the outcomes of their work. Every day I see a direct human cost when the solutions are obvious. We can do so much better. 

 

*Virtually every police force claims that they practice community policing. See here for a typical jumble of buzzwords that the Portland bureau hammered together.

The CIA, Philippine Insurgency and My First Time Shooting

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Grandma Donna in a painting by Natalie Phillips

At the age of seven, my grandmother was the first person to let me touch a gun. It happened after dinner one evening when she quite irresponsibly handed over an unloaded revolver to play with. As one might imagine, pretty much every breach of firearm handling protocol occurred. Years later, the first time I shot a gun involved her too.

During the early 90s, Grandma Donna had a lawyer named Mark. I recall a fairly unremarkable fellow, probably early 40s, with sandy hair, wire frame glasses and a soft chin. She invited him over for family meals several times and after one such event, he asked if I would like to go out shooting with him. I must have been around thirteen, still in junior high school. As a youth who had fought bitterly over even being allowed water pistols and cap guns, this was a major coup!

It’s unclear how my parents finally agreed, likely after blood oaths promising model behavior and good grades signed with future children as collateral. At the end of it, I found myself riding along in Mark’s car one early Saturday morning. My lips bubbled with questions. It seemed quite peculiar that an attorney would be armed and know how to shoot.

“Were you in the military or a cop before?” I asked.

“No, no…” Mark answered vaguely. “Not quite.”

He began selling me stories… about car bombs exploding in distant countries, tense hostage standoffs and training police forces in counter-terrorism tactics. He sounded like some kind of James Bond, only one more likely to blend in at an accounting conference. When we stopped for a red light, I asked the number two big question.

“Did you ever get shot back in those days?”

Mark grinned and reached down, pulling up his right pant leg. Sure enough, several white scars trailed in a row down the calf muscle. “This is from a gunfight in the Philippines almost ten years ago,” he proclaimed. “Fella tagged me before I could get behind cover. Three bullets from his AK went right through.” He paused dramatically.

“What did he do after he shot you?” I asked.

The light turned green. “He died.” Mark held up his hand, pistol style, and pulled the trigger finger. I felt a sudden chill, big question number one grimly answered.

We drove on, finally reaching a fenced building with a guard shack out front. Signage in bold red letters declared: POLICE ONLY.

“I thought you said you weren’t a cop?”

Mark shrugged as the guard recognized him and waved us through. “They let guys like me in here no problem.”

Once at the indoor range, he laid out a .38 Special revolver, 9mm pistol and .45 handgun. They felt awkward and heavy in my hands, almost impossible to hold steady, then jolting upward as each shot rang out. The concussions from Mark firing beside me made every nerve shake, so much that I accidentally muzzle swept him after finishing off my first magazine. He yelled so loudly I never made that mistake again, keeping each gun pointed strictly downrange no matter what. After we reeled the paper targets back, I stared enviously at Mark’s. Tightly clustered holes penetrated the black center. Mine scattered all over the place, except for two directly through the bull’s eye. Excitedly, I pointed those out but Mark shook his head.

“Sorry kid, I couldn’t resist.”

He stopped working for my grandmother soon afterward, but I always wondered about this strange man with incredible stories and scars from foreign violence. Of course, it might have all been fabricated. People enjoy toying with the credulity of youth, yet his tales at least possessed kernels of truth that engendered greater understanding later.

Why might Mark have carried a pistol in the Philippines during the 1980s? That time spanned almost a full century of US involvement in the region, following the 1898 Spanish-American War. Decades of bloody deployments by military forces kept the local population under control, as did eventually more covert operations using the CIA. It’s entirely possible Mark was part of those latter efforts, just as the man he allegedly killed was likely an ideological descendant of the Hukbalahop insurgency. This was a Filipino independence movement originally formed to combat Japanese occupation troops during WWII and who afterward continued fighting American soldiers who took their place.

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US soldiers posing in 1906 with massacred Filipinos

Mark was the first person who taught me to shoot, but he laid the groundwork for knowledge that taught me much more. About how lies and manipulation could spur my own country into wars of conquest benefiting the wealthy, as happened when the US appropriated Cuba and the Philippines from Spain. How even decades later dictators in both countries would be propped up in furtherance of corporate interests. And how important it remains to fight back, as the Hukbalahop resistance did against injustice, no matter where it occurs.

 

NORTH & HAMMER: More Reasons to Burn the NRA

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Together their surnames sound like a Black Metal band on trial for church arson, but Oliver North and Marion Hammer recently managed in just one day to throw additional fuel on everything that makes the National Rifle Association such a trash fire.

On May 7th, the NRA announced their next president, an iconic position historically often given to retired military officers or more recently, Right Wing public personas. Lt. Col. North fills both requirements. While he came across sympathetically to many during the 1980s as a stoic scapegoat from the Iran-Contra scandal, his career more recently involved playing a Fox News contributor in the most typical scribble-by-numbers sense. Wide eyed disbelief at how Democrats allegedly hate police officers, sorrowful head shaking when activists shout anti-war slogans and incongruous outrage at  NFL players peacefully kneeling during the national anthem as protest against State Terror by police forces.

Instead of winning more people over in support of gun rights, choosing North signals that the NRA seeks no deviation from it’s tragic policy of marrying the 2nd Amendment to regressive political and unrelated social issues. While the human right of self defense should hold universal appeal, it has instead promoted characters like Executive Vice-president Wayne LaPierre, who wrote sarcastically against feminism, singled out Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for attack* and repeatedly blamed shootings on video games. Of course, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests video games make teenagers extremely boring, yet no scientific link has ever been found to demonstrate that digital violence ever leaves the domain of ones and zeroes.

Still, LaPierre’s bungles pale in comparison to NRA board member Ted Nugent who most infamously created a new definition for White privilege when he evaded legal jeopardy after threatening to machine-gun President Obama, besides calling him a “subhuman mongrel” and then issuing a half-apology no parent would accept from their six-year old. Nugent’s other antics include referring to Hillary Clinton as a “bitch,” whore” and “toxic cunt” besides a whole host of slurs against Black and queer folks among many others. His dimwitted social observations are hardly original among the most ignorant, but by elevating such a man so highly, the NRA irresponsibly gives clear endorsement to such views. One could hardly imagine a better way to alienate decent minded people from the gun rights movement than a 60 second google search of Nugent’s quotes.

Then, if this wasn’t all bad enough, just hours after Oliver North’s new job announcement hit the airwaves, former NRA president Marion Hammer appeared on the NPR program All Things Considered. Immediately she fired off a classic culture wars bazooka. In her social analysis, the root cause of gun violence is “the breakdown of families. Parents don’t raise children the way they used to. There are too many children who grow up on their own without guidance.”

Hammer didn’t specify further, but it’s clear where she was riding the family values train and is an easy argument to dismiss. For example, divorce rates in the European Union as a whole are roughly identical to the United States, just under 50%. However, the EU is much more friendly territory for gay marriage and adoption, gender equality, including trans rights, not to mention atheism, abortions, birth control access…etc…etc…in other words, the vast host of issues that conservatives blame on destroying traditional virtues. Yet despite these trends not increasing divorce rates, they also don’t lead to Europeans murdering one another with the same enthusiasm as Americans. It’s obviously something else.

Unfortunately, North, LaPierre, Nugent and Hammer are ideological  prisoners, clawing at any excuse to blame shootings on something besides guns, yet ignoring what actually makes the United States so dangerous. Institutional racism is a huge factor, yet kneeling at football games never hurt anybody. Video games don’t kill, but toxic forms of masculinity remain dominant themes among mass murderers. Healthy families are obviously important, but children raised by queer parents are no worse than others. Systemic poverty destroys whole communities, leading to tragic violence levels, yet the NRA would rather play off skewed Right Wing social biases than face the truth. It weakens their organization long term and sadly, hampers the work of everyone who cares about the right to be armed.

 

*Both from Wayne LaPierre and James Jay Baker. Shooting Straight: Telling the Truth About Guns in America. Regnery Publishing, Washington DC, 2002.  3 & 129.

Ten Tips: How to Talk to Liberals About Guns

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  1. Language Choices: The way we talk frames everything else and couldn’t be more crucial because the real goal is persuading others. For example, when people discuss why they own firearms, it frequently comes from a perspective that makes the issue seem overly individualistic. Take a more collective approach and use words like Community Defense. Avoid cliche stances and arguments. Employ current terms that identify your social awareness. Learn the history of government sanctioned violence in America. Explain how oppressed peoples have always banded together using every tactic of resistance at their disposal, including arms. Point out how gun restrictions historically disempower such marginalized groups. Clearly condemn White Supremacist and police terrorism.

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  1. Humanize Adversaries: Understand that people who support gun control don’t hate freedom, they just hate seeing dead children on television. Conversely, make it clear where your own beliefs come from. For myself, I purchased my first gun after an extended research project about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It impressed me that such effective mass murder could take place largely with machetes and made me reevaluate what causes violence in societies. I wanted to become a more valuable member of my community in case of collective attacks against vulnerable people, as has happened in America before.

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  1. Make Concessions: People often enter a political debate convinced that compromise means weakness but there’s nothing wrong with flexibility. Good faith negotiations require that on both sides. Recognize we never get exactly what we want in life and especially not in politics. Pick a few things worth bending around. Maybe that’s raising certain age limits, or requiring more intensive safety classes for concealed handgun licenses or regulating bump stocks like full-auto rifles are already.

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  1. Check Your Privilege: People often take this the wrong way, but it’s not so hard to understand. Just be honest about who you are and how you got where you are. For example, I arrived where I am in life through tons of hard work but unavoidably also by taking advantage of my ruling class race and gender. That doesn’t mean everything came easy but it sure helped give me a leg up over many other people and it’s foolish to pretend that isn’t part of my success. Don’t let reality make you defensive, but instead take it as a lesson in humbleness.

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  1. Burn the NRA: This is a great time for anyone who cares about the future of self defense to incinerate  their NRA card. When gun control supporters criticize them, vehemently join in. Point out how during the early 20th century, when black Americans were put on trial for defending themselves against lynch mobs, they sat on the sidelines as leftists like the attorney Clarence Darrow upheld the 2nd Amendment in court as a human right for everyone. The NRA is racist, a fear mongering disaster and completely incompetent. Don’t hesitate to distance yourself from that cultural trash inferno.

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  1. Avoid Macho Posturing: Remember that advertisement from a few years back suggesting an AR-15 could reissue your “man card?” Ever notice how many guys like to pose for internet photos with their pistol pointed directly at the camera? What about all the machismo flying around about how .45 pistols are more manly than 9mm? These are all pretty much the definition of toxic masculinity in action and turn otherwise sympathetic people against gun culture.
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  2. Health Care Hypocrisy: There’s few things more embarrassing than when 2nd Amendment supporters suddenly become mental health advocates. If you are a Conservative, Liberals will immediately want to know what you have ever done that could strengthen the social safety net in general or specifically provide funding for mental health care. Besides scapegoating the mentally ill, should it turn out you voted for candidates or policies that actually reduced access to such services, this political dodge won’t fly very far.

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  1. Big Picture Mentality: It’s the long view that matters. People focus on particular details or anecdotes that reinforce their narrative but remember that social violence in America is a giant spectrum. It goes up and down through complicated factors unrelated to how many weapons are available or what regulations exist. Don’t let sensational incidents distract from the fact that most gun related deaths involve pistols, close proximity and a small number of shots fired.

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  1. Less Flag Waving: Most Liberals have a knee jerk reaction against the kind of bloated pageantry that many right-wingers enthusiastically embrace. They are rightfully suspicious after so many terrible disasters from the Vietnam and Gulf Wars to the Patriot Act came packaged inside red, white and blue wrapping paper. Ideas should stand on their own merits without patriotic camouflage. Don’t let gun rights be visually lumped in with so many other failed and ignoble exercises.

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  1. Don’t Open Carry: I understand how for many folks, the open carry movement is about culturally normalizing firearms and raising awareness. These are completely worthwhile sentiments. However, if you’re trying to win people over by showing off a black rifle in the deli line, some reevaluation is in order. This comes across as an intimidation tactic and makes few friends compared to the numbers it alienates.