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The students who organized the magnificent March for Our Lives on March 24 will continue to pressure elected officials to stop thinking and praying and start disarming civilians of their hyper-lethal military ordnance. Some of the youth—mostly kids who attend school in poor, predominantly brown and black communities—also are crying out against everyday gun violence on their streets.
Moving from liberal gun reform to a truly radical movement will require articulating the connection between interpersonal violence and official, ‘licit’ violence.
But so far the lion’s share of the anti-gun movement’s passion has been trained on just that: guns—and preventing individuals from using them to act out their personal psychopathology, racist paranoia, familial rage, territorial dominance, or suicidal depression. In this construction, there are bad guys with guns, and good guys. The police are on the same side as the protestors.
They are not. As Black Lives Matter recognizes, a violent street culture has its roots in political and economic disenfranchisement, enforced by police surveillance and the state-sanctioned murders of people of color. Now, black students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are demanding that this message—in their voices—be amplified.
Moving from liberal reform to a truly radical movement will require articulating the connection between interpersonal violence and official, “licit” violence.
In fact, it’s not just police brutality. State violence—including the harm perpetuated by border agents, juvenile detention staff, and prison guards—is underwritten by a political culture in which the United States perceives itself to be perpetually at risk of attack and thus obliged to wage permanent war against a growing cast of enemy combatants: drug dealers, gangs, terrorists, sexual predators, “illegal aliens.”
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been ruled by what George Mason University cultural studies professor Roger Lancaster calls “preventive governance” against perceived threats both external and internal. Many Americans got their first look at the militarization of everything in 2014, watching TV footage of Ferguson, Missouri, police in bulletproof vests, atop armored vehicles pointing military rifles at the civilians below, who were rising up against the killing of the unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by a white cop. The tanks and guns were gifts from the U.S. Justice Department, which since 1989 has overseen a massive transfer of free surplus military equipment—mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, like those in Ferguson, planes, and helicopters, assault rifles, grenade launchers, bomb detonator robots, and night-vision sniper scopes—to local and state law enforcers engaged in the “war on drugs,” and, later, counter-terrorism. “Ferguson resembles Fallujah,” declared U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), though veterans noted that the police were better armed than combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shaken by images of faux-soldiers waging war on the people they were hired to protect, Obama issued an executive order barring the police from using certain types of military equipment. Trump rescinded the order.
Shaken by those images, in May 2015 President Obama signed an executive order barring the Pentagon from handing certain types of military equipment to police. In August 2017 Trump rescinded the order.
The border has been transformed “from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence”—an “imagined war zone,” according to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Both Democrats and Republicans endorse stepped-up border “security”; like shoppers some just prefer electronic gadgets to brick-and-mortar walls.
There is no greater symbol of this transformation than the renaming and repurposing of the agency formerly known as Immigration and Naturalization Services to the Department of Homeland Security, which under Donald Trump has unleashed its agents as a kind of Gestapo in immigrant communities. To police the rest of the globe, last week the president named two Drs. Strangelove as secretary of state and national security officer, and an unrepentant torturer to head the CIA. They will have plenty to work with. The day before the march against gun violence, Trump signed a bipartisan budget that allocates more than half its $1.3 trillion—$700 billion—to military spending.
As the level of menace ticks up with each bellicose tweet from the Trump White House, the people are inspired to protect the homeland from un-Americans. The FBI reported a 12 percent rise in hate crimes over two years, to 6,121 in 2016.
Now school shooters have been added to the list of perceived enemies of a secure nation. To combat them, lawmakers are thinking like an army. The budget zeros out the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative—whose evidence-based, anti-violence programs, such as bullying prevention, aimed to create respectful, peaceful school communities—and funnels its $75 million allocation to the STOP School Violence Act, which will “harden” school buildings with measures such as metal detectors and locks.
We must resist the militarization of our state, our communities, and our psyches and act as allies to those most harmed by violence, whether at the hands of the Army, the police, or a kid with an AR-15.
Already plenty of schools—again, predominantly in neighborhoods of color—have these measures, along with police patrolling the halls. School safety researchers note that such measure may make some students feel less rather than more safe. They also make students feel like suspects, which they are—vis, the school-to-prison pipeline. Especially since the police shooting of yet another unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, Calif., Parkland’s African-American students are unnerved by the swarm of cops in their school. “It’s bad enough we have to return with clear backpacks,” said one boy. “Should we also return with our hands up?”
It is not news that the United States is a violent place. Our vast territory and economic might were purchased with the bodies of Africans and Native Americans. The National Rifle Association would like you to think that gun death is inevitable—almost patriotic, if perpetrated by a good guy with a gun. As the journalist Mike Spies argues, this is the NRA’s long-range strategy: to normalize guns in every sphere of life. Their lobbying has succeeded. Across the nation, Stand Your Ground laws protect gunslinging hotheads and firearms are permitted in spaces where once they were anathema, such as daycare centers and bars. School “active shooter” drills, and moves to arm teachers, also tacitly confirm the assumption that bloody mayhem is just a question of when.
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have “called BS” on that assumption. The movement they launched has already done impressive damage to the credibility, and perhaps the influence, of the NRA. Their goal, gun control, is smart, focused, and achievable. But it is only a first step.
Young and old, we must resist the militarization of our state, our communities, and our psyches and act as allies to those most harmed by violence, whether at the hands of the Army, the police, or a kid with an AR-15. That is the only way to keep our nation sane and our children safe.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2018, to reflect the statement made by black students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on March 29.
Judith Levine is the author of four books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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The lawless—and ongoing—administration of the prison by four American presidents underwrites the broader democratic crisis we face today.
The militarization of gun culture among both civilians and police reflects an increasingly energetic defense of white rule in the United States. This has been facilitated in part by an NRA-led reinterpretation of what the Second Amendment meant by “militia”.
My patients and I don’t use words like “choice” or “viability.”