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We are not afraid

| Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In the past month, we have seen the kind of violence and control that can be exerted by even a minor town’s police department. Heavily armed city, county and state police forces joined the state National Guard to put down protests, riots and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting of a young black man by a police officer and the unrest it prompted have once more pushed the issue of race onto the national stage. However, it has raised another issue — that of police militarization.

Legacies of the “War on Terror,” federal programs now assist local police departments in obtaining — at little or no cost — weapons of war. Firearms and ammunition aren’t the only things being distributed, with military bayonets and mine-resistant armored vehicles turning police departments into paramilitary forces.

Military and police forces that feel invulnerable to any attack from the common people can run rampant. Massacres at Kent State and Jackson State Universities met those who protested the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Chicago Police Department assassinated Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969 as a part of the FBI’s campaign to suppress the left in general and the Black Panthers in particular. Going further back, the largest uprising in U.S. history since the Civil War took place in 1921 at the Battle of Blair Mountain, where exploited West Virginia coal miners fighting for their right to a labor union clashed with the county sheriff, the state police, the United States Army and hired thugs from private union-busting firms.

There is another side to this coin. The gap between state power and community power can be widened in two ways: the power of the state can be increased and the power of the common people can be decreased. It is not enough for us to simply fight police militarization — we must also fight for the right of regular people to arm themselves.

The issue of gun control has heated up again in recent years with several prominent mass shootings. In truth, these shootings account for a tiny fraction of gun homicides. The large majority of gun homicides are committed with handguns. Increasing restrictions on gun rights is framed as a public safety issue, to stop both day-to-day gun crime and tragic mass shootings. Yet if one were to take this claim at face value, it would still be insufficient.

Even if the state could seize hundreds of millions of guns, it would not treat the root of the problem. The rare mass shootings that captivate the media are symptomatic of a society in which mental health care is not universally available to the public and carries a heavy stigma. The same can be said for the suicides that make up the roughly 61 percent of gun deaths in the country. Gun homicides are often tied to other crimes, generally those that derive from economic desperation such as theft or drug trafficking. Without tackling poverty and economic inequality, the roots of this problem will remain.

However, even if guns themselves were the cause of violent crime, they would still be worth keeping in the hands of the common people. How many democracies have turned to dictatorship when the people were unable to stop the military from taking over? We should know the answer — the United States had a hand in quite a few in Latin America.

Brutal crack-downs may seem like a ridiculous prediction for the United States, but in an era of mounting inequality and the subservience of the political elite to the economic elite, it is not so hard to imagine a day coming in which the state has an interest in violently putting down a social movement. It has happened before, after all.

The state of California can look back proudly to when Governor Ronald Reagan joined with the Republicans, the Democrats and the National Rifle Association in forging tougher gun regulations in response to the socialist Black Panther Party for Self-Defense arming its members. The FBI then used its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to run false flag operations, infiltrate the Panthers with agents provocateurs and commit political assassinations to suppress the movement.

Modern times have seen dramatic increases in government spying on the citizenry and tension mounting over increasing inequality. With the political and economic elite having so much to lose and such a clear pattern of abuses by heavily armed police forces, is it so unreasonable to think you may one day end up on the wrong end of a bayonet? And if that happens, who should be afraid — you or the state?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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