Several weeks ago, I was interviewed by Brian Wheeler, a reporter from the BBC, regarding an article in progress about liberal gun owners in the US. He didn’t credit me specifically when it came out, but answering his questions made it clear that my own political journey has been far from ordinary.
Many other leftists I know became radicalized through literature. They often cite Emma Goldman or Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky as pivotal figures who opened their eyes and formed an emerging political consciousness, perhaps for college classes or simple personal exploration. Yet, though an avid non-fiction reader, nothing of the sort captivated me early on.
I was certainly no leftist upon entering the workforce. However, my two first teenage jobs were union, (UFCW and Teamsters) and fostered a deep sense of working class pride that never left. I loved attending meetings and networking with others who shared that bond. I couldn’t understood the resentment some people felt over paying our minimal shop dues. We enjoyed health benefits and earned better wages than non-union workers. How could anyone not see the connection?
Still, it wasn’t until until my first warehouse job at twenty years old that I truly became radicalized. It was for an international religious charity cooperating with a well known corporation on a military base south of Seattle. I had to sign a stack of binding non-disclosure agreements to get hired. The whole thing was a giant tax scam. I accepted shipments of merchandise that the corporate retailer could no longer sell, one example being, the demand for Happy New Year 1989 greeting cards was rather low by 1997. We would document the value, in that case, about $1.75 per card, then convert it into charitable donations so the company could write the MSRP off their taxes. I remember the mathematics very well. Each pallet usually totaled about $177,000 and we processed hundreds of them. Be aware, eight other affiliated warehouses in the US were following exactly the same program. I’m sure many other corporations run similar schemes.
It was virtually all complete garbage. Individual charities who received the stuff probably either recycled everything or dumped it in landfills. My supervisor explained the whole process to me. This was completely legal and every day I went to work seething with rage at helping respectable institutions avoid their share of the tax burden. We would sometimes cope with the tragedy of it all by singing patriotic anthems at the top of our lungs while unloading trucks. Everyone else in the warehouse must have thought we were completely mad.
My supervisor, an ex-gutterpunk, had been a leftist activist since the first Gulf War. It was from him I learned the brutal legacy of US military interventions in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. He taught me working class history, from Bacon’s Rebellion to the Pinkertons, while getting a hands on course in corporate welfare. Besides serving as political mentor, he also taught me how to shoot guns and considered firearms proficiency just another part of the activist toolbox. In that regard, I was late to the game. Many gun owners come from communities where knowing how to handle them is taught at an early age. Not for me. No hunters in my family.
My decision to become armed was an intellectual one, not something I grew up with. It wasn’t until learning about the Ludlow Massacre and Civil Rights era militias who battled the KKK that it became clear educated citizens with rifles could be highly valuable community members. I wanted to be one of them.
The BBC writer who interviewed me was quite interested in mainstream US gun culture and wondered how I could be considered distinct from it. My answer was, while many right-wing groups like the NRA have uncritically supported President-elect Trump’s stated agendas, there needs to be recognition that not all armed Americans accept his regressive views or ignore the often times violent persecutions against people of color unleashed since his election. Resistance to unjust policies will come from all quarters. Just as I learned on the job as a youth, firearm education is just another area of useful knowledge for any well prepared leftist.