Guns and Rights in the U.S.

With the US facing internal state crisis, symbolized by recent protests against arbitrary violence and cruelty by militarized police in places like Ferguson, Missouri, it would be wise draw upon the counsel of veterans of the US civil rights struggle like Charles E. Cobb, Jr. With this in mind, his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (2014) is an excellent place to start. It is also especially relevant due to the prominence of the Second Amendment in recent US political discourse.

I have already given my arguments in favor of US gun rights within the context of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), but Cobb’s arguments offer an even more valuable liberal pro-gun argument worth considering. Because the “freedom struggle continues”, Cobb argues, we must remember that civil rights were often won due to the “right to self-protection”. This is despite how gun rights are now “associated with the conservative white Right, and far too often the concept of “standing one’s ground” is invoked to defend the murder of a black person” (p. 237).

charles_cobb-300Throughout the book, Cobb talks about how “self-defense” safeguarded nonviolent protest actions, and how the nonviolent actions were a “mere tactic” rather than being based on binding ethics. It is important also to note that, despite its title, Cobb’s book is not concerned with “black guerrilla warfare, retaliatory violence, or “revolutionary” armed struggle” (p. 1-17).

Cobb’s analysis differs from other analyses of the black civil rights struggle, which tended to focus on “prominent, visible leaders”. Instead, Cobb advocates an analysis that focuses on the “community-organizing tradition” (p. 1-17). This is very evident in his writing, and tends to be reflected in the reliance on anecdotes to tell the story. This reliance on anecdotes rather than a more scholarly approach could be considered a weakness, but Cobb acknowledges his sources tell no “gospel”, and are really just the personal recollections of individual civil rights campaigners (p. 239-250). Cobb’s writing style is gripping. He creates an authoritative story of the history of the US black freedom struggle, reading almost like a novel – a vivid account that will challenge Americans as if they were there and witnessed for themselves what Cobb is describing.

In many ways, the reliance on personal accounts mentioned above is justified in explaining how self-defense is necessary for effective political activism in the US. In Chapter 4, Cobb explains that scenes of violent self-defense were often provoked directly by violent manifestations of injustice (p. 114-148). He compares such self-defense with the lofty philosophical aim of perfect nonviolence, as follows:

Emotional reactions lodged in the real world-experiences of ordinary people. Any theoretical or philosophical arguments about their value – at least, any arguments made by people in pulpits and classrooms who do not have to face the human consequences of their thoughts or of the actions they propose – is in the end an intellectual tea-party, perhaps momentarily refreshing but only occasionally nourishing.

Cobb elaborates that most people would not categorize themselves as either “violent” or “nonviolent” and so we are left without any category for most people. He argues that our direction is dominated by the pragmatic majority involved in the political struggle, stating that, “which [violent or nonviolent] they would choose would depend on what they had concluded about their immediate circumstances.”

The historical analysis of the freedom struggle described in the book is compelling. According to Cobb, the United States was “conceived in liberty”, yet founded in a state of profound hypocrisy. Most of the founding fathers of the US were racists. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was a slave-owner, whose “earliest childhood memory was of being carried on a pillow by an enslaved black person” (p. 33-28).

US black communities have, from the founding to the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond, had to rely on their own self-defense rather than the law to protect themselves from white supremacist violence (p. 27-54). Cobb breaks down this history in the chapters of his book. In Chapter 2, he looks at the impact of World War 2 on the “evolution of black struggle in the United States”, concluding that “something changed in the perspective and behavior of many of the returning veterans.” The change “occurred at the grassroots” and was instrumental in preparing the way for future aspirations of black communities in the US (p. 55-82). Chapter 3 covers some examples of armed self-defense post-World War Two, and the early signs of what would become an apparent clash between philosophies of armed resistance (Robert Williams’ arguments are analyzed as representing this side) and the philosophy of nonviolence advocated by personalities like Martin Luther King, Jr (p. 83-113).

A large part of the book is devoted to the background and emergence of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who are regarded by Cobb as the best representation of the principle of self-defense embedded in an ostensibly nonviolent movement (p. 149-226). Of particular value, if contrasted with modern exchanges of violence between protesters and police in the United States, is the fact the Deacons were able to directly resist and challenge police authorities to safeguard the dignity of the black community.

One of Cobb’s accounts describes the Deacons forcing police not to use water-cannon on protesters, by threatening the police with firearms (p. 207). The very suggestion that this might be possible would make no sense in the context of the militarized US police state today, which has demonstrated its ruthlessness in shooting black teens dead for simply fleeing in its crosshairs. What this proves is that the US today has not advanced from the segregationist, racist, white-ruled society it was, but has become the militarized police state that can get away with shooting blacks in cold blood merely for running in the crosshairs.

In addition to giving vivid historical accounts, the book also considers the modern cultural aspect of armed self-defense, noting that the image of white gunmen is “glamorized” in US culture, but comparatively “the notion of black people carrying guns conjures fear rather than admiration or nostalgia.” This is “despite the heroic black rebellions against slavery in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries” (p. 28-38).

To conclude, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed is a worthy read for anyone analyzing the enduring social crisis in the United States. It is of particular value for understanding the interplay of such issues as police reform and the Second Amendment in the modern US. The sound historical background offered by this book is much needed, if we are to correctly understand controversies surrounding police brutality that have drawn global attention to the regime’s deepening internal turmoil and contradictions.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The Blog. Read other articles by Harry.