Ross Eliot at a gun show in Portland last October
The March for Our Lives movement has been getting a lot of attention lately. It’s always inspiring to see young people getting active towards causes that bring about positive change. However, this particular one exhibits fundamental problems that demand examination. A helpful way to illustrate what’s wrong in a substantive manner is by making political comparisons with the modern Tea Party. Let’s rewind for a moment and see how that’s important.
Back in 2009, American conservatives hit especially hard times. During a two term Republican administration under George W. Bush, the country became mired in Eastern wars with no end in sight, plus entering the worst economic depression since 1929. The middle class, long in decline, contracted even more sharply. People who leaned right politically suddenly found long held assumptions shattered, with establishment Republicans unable to offer satisfying answers. On top of that, Democrats had elected Barack Obama as president, a Black man (with an Eastern sounding name no less), overturning centuries of cultural and racial precedent.
For Americans with a liberal bent, that provided an outlet: Reject the Bush era wars and policies by voting for Obama and give him a chance to fix things. Even among us leftists who expected little from corporate Democrats anyway, there was a hopeful sense afoot, at least enough to keep off the streets for a while and see what would happen next.
That’s why, when rage erupted against government bailouts for the financial industry, whose unregulated greed had caused the economic crash, it came from the right, even though leftists had been leading critics of corporate welfare for decades. However, that anger became channeled aside almost immediately. When news pundit Rick Santelli made his famous rant against the banks, he explicitly did so in the name of Capitalism, calling for a “New Tea Party.” Many American conservatives resonated with his message, something Republican party apparatchiks tied strongly to Wall Street, couldn’t effectively voice.
What emerged from all this was a movement of people with very legitimate grievances against the status quo, yet guided and amplified by wealthy interests such as the Koch brothers. Foregoing any critique that could effectively address economic inequality, the Tea Party ultimately recycled familiar failed ideas. Instead of corporate accountability, their 10 point plan advocated striking down environmental regulations and subsidized health care, besides supporting lower taxes and more respect for the Constitution…etc, etc.
Shift forward to 2018 and it’s the Democrats in trouble. They self-sabotaged a popular candidate out of their own presidential primary in favor of one with a more business friendly platform, only to see her lose against Donald Trump, whose constant bungles would have made any other politician’s campaign self implode. Despite everything but a Mt. Rushmore sized neon sign advertising that Americans are hungry for serious political and economic reform, Democrats have still largely been content offering half-hearted resistance in the face of Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, support for White nationalism and whatever the scandals du jour may be.
In other words, March for Our Lives materialized at a similar point in time but reversed. It’s also inspired by perfectly legitimate concerns: violence in American society is widespread, unavoidable and everyone knows someone affected. Women abused by partners, soldiers with PTSD from unnecessary wars and even whole communities of color terrorized by police departments. Of course, violence isn’t unique to the US, but a particular form of mass murder has become notorious within American society, what emergency drills call an active shooter. It’s specifically such an individual who caused the deaths of 17 high school students in Parkland, Florida last February, spurring the movement’s formation.
There are naturally significant differences besides similarities. The Tea Party arrived after economic catastrophe on a national scale as part of longtime worsening trends. Members of society most affected by it came from lower class and marginalized populations whose mass displacement into homelessness, addiction and suicide can never be fully quantified. March for Our Lives, on the other hand, mobilized in response to school shootings, a phenomenon on the decline for decades, despite sensational incidents played up in the media. Victims of class warfare are nameless, frequently unsympathetic figures. Solutions to economic problems, guaranteed incomes for example, often seem vague or too radical. Murdered tenagers, on the other hand, are universally relatable. People want tangible solutions and the issues appear more clear cut: simply curtail guns to stop guns killing people. Fundamental critiques of the social inequities that cause violence are more difficult to digest or be summed up in a meme.
Here’s how it broke down in practice. The Tea Party took widespread outrage against economic injustice and directed it safely away from taking up measures that might threaten the status quo. Right wing business interests funneled money toward the movement and conservative media outlets gushed enthusiastic coverage. By the same token, almost a decade later, March for Our Lives quickly allied with powerful economic forces. Democratic billionaire Michael Bloomberg provided assistance and high end fashion brand Gucci became its first large doner, besides other corporate backers. Citibank got in on the action, making moves to pressure clients toward more gun restrictions as did Walmart and other major retailers. Even prominent universities pledged they would not look askance at applicants disciplined by their high schools after walking out of classes for anti-gun protests. Then on March 24th, mainstream media outlets suspended ordinary schedules to provide live streaming coverage from Washington DC and other local marches.
Contrast that with the treatment of movements bringing other serious social problems to the fore. Would Gucci fund an event against police terror? Lyft drive anti-war demonstrators around for free? Citibank support protests highlighting Wall Street corruption? Look at news coverage for some perspective. The January 20th Women’s March culminated one year after the first, a year during which sexual violence, workplace discrimination and cultural misogyny rose to a level of awareness never seen before. Powerful men fell from grace, even well known offenders who had previously lived immune from conduct criticism. Significant subjects were raised that affected absolutely everyone in society. Despite this, the massive event took place with scarcely any attention from major networks.
Women’s issues, though directing affecting more than 50% of the population, are just one of many fallen by the wayside in comparison with the current media obsession around gun control. It’s a shame, because social violence is a serious problem and should be addressed as such. Like anything else, it’s the big picture that counts, yet March for Our Lives becomes fixated on minutia, often with little concern for facts. As observed before, school shootings are rare and declining, yet the movement claims them as an epidemic, just as it demonizes semi-auto rifles, which are only used in a tiny fraction of crimes. It doesn’t make for sensational headlines, but the vast majority of murders involve handguns, close proximity to the victim and only a few shots fired. Still, fear becomes drummed up around “assault rifles,” “high-capacity magazines,” and “high-powered” firearms.
Just as the Tea Party channeled conservative angst in a safe direction, March for Our Lives, strongly supported by 1% elites (that many liberals opposed during the Occupy Wall Street movement), appropriates frustration with the emerging Trump era and dilutes it. Suddenly, people who previously opposed regressive economic forces have found themselves on the same side as Walmart, the notorious destroyer of small businesses. Taking just two cases of many, Citibank cynically profited supporting the murderous South African apartheid regime and just last year was forced into settling 97.4 million dollars after a money laundering scandal. Picking up the gun control bandwagon provided much needed good press for both companies.
Still, despite the community destruction and very real bloodshed caused by corporations, it’s rare to find mainstream criticism. CEOs in suits, after all, don’t cast an alarming shadow for most people. Every cause needs a villain and the NRA, with its uncritical backing of Trump and incompetent public relations might as well come from Hollywood central casting. Tone deaf 2nd Amendment supporters openly march with rifles, playing up to embarrassing stereotypes and tying their gun ownership with any number of regressive issues. No wonder armed people on the left have been keeping quiet for fear of social ostracization. Many times lately I’ve seen individuals who own guns for protection, perhaps because of violent former partners or whose grandparents generation fought off the KKK, sit silently while friends (oblivious to that) ask: “Why would anyone need an AR-15?”
Of course, there’s an answer and it’s especially alarming to see liberals clamoring for greater firearm restrictions at the same time as the far right is becoming more radicalized. Emboldened by scarcely veiled support from the Oval Office, domestic fascism has become just another legitimate point of view and White Nationalists gone on the offensive. Tragically, many who formerly claimed solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters pointing out systemic racism in law enforcement, now expect Black populations to disarm and become dependent on those same police for community defense. That scenario is even featured in a major work from the White Power canon, The Turner Diaries, where racist insurgents rejoice after state gun control measures leave neighborhoods of color completely vulnerable to extermination.*
Of course liberals aren’t thinking about that when they opine against semi-auto rifles, despite their historic use in America** by marginalized populations to defend against lynch mobs and other collective attacks. It’s more comforting for them to imagine cartoonish redneck hillbillies being persecuted or camo wearing militia members rounded up. But just as the War on Drugs served as cover for the large scale incarceration of Black and Brown people, who would really be targeted during a War on Guns?
March for Our Lives deserves congratulations for enthusiasm and making effort to spotlight media bias in reporting about shootings in urban versus suburban schools. It may still find its own footing and offer up productive solutions toward reducing violence, however, that’s unlikely so long as the organization marches alongside regressive social forces. The measures it proposes do nothing to challenge institutional racism, skewed economic systems and toxic forms of masculinity, all of which are much larger factors behind violence of all kinds, not simply school shootings or particular tools used for violence. Americans should demand real solutions, not distractions that ignore root causes.
*Andrew Macdonald aka William Pierce. The Turner Diaries. Barricade Books, New Jersey, 1978 (1996 edition). 145.
**For further reading see:
Charles E. Cobb. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Duke University Press, Durham. 2016.
Nicholas Johnson. Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Prometheus Books, New York. 2014.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. New York University Press, New York. 2013.