On Shootings in El Paso and Dayton
We write to you in a state of mourning. In the wake of a week that included not one but two mass shootings, the largest ever immigration raid in a single state resulting in the arrest of nearly 700 undocumented workers and leaving hundreds of school children without their parents, and the loss of literary titan Toni Morrison, the national mood is palpably overcast.
As the number of mass shootings accumulates, Americans have grown increasingly anesthetized to the omnipresent threat of rote carnage. The rise of white nationalism infuses an additional wrinkle to that grim prospect. Now, in addition to the possibility of becoming an incidental casualty of random violence, those of us who are visible minorities must negotiate the public sphere with the piercing awareness that we may be gunned down in cold blood for merely being who we are. The nearly unmitigated access to guns empowers the disgruntled office worker or disaffected high school student to claim human lives as blithely as he vanquishes pixelated enemies on Fortnite. But it also enables despondent white men radicalized by Trumpism to rapidly transfigure rambling digital manifestoes into analog bloodbaths.
The United States is, of course, unique in its gun obsession, and the recent tragedies in Dayton and El Paso are undeniably part of that national culture. The ongoing political refusal to address the consequences of a crisis-ridden nation that has far more guns than people should invite the disgust of any empathy-capable individual. As of the writing of this statement, there have been 260 mass shootings in 2019. We are 218 days into the year. There have been almost 2,200 mass shootings on American soil since Sandy Hook.
But these recent tragedies in Ohio and Texas -- and the tragedies that will continue to besiege us -- are more than just the byproduct of failed gun policy. They are the direct result of an increasingly belligerent strain in our body politic. They are the harrowing extension of racism and sexism that is as American as, well, gun violence. And when we look past the shallow rhetoric that blames mental illness and video games, we get to the paroxysmal constant at the heart of many of these mass shootings: white patriarchy.
This is not conjecture, this is taking the prefatory words and deeds of these twisted killers seriously. Patrick Crusis, the 21-year-old white male suspect in custody for the shooting, stated plainly in his manifesto that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and served as an “act of preservation.”
He echoes Dylan Roof before him who murdered 11 African Americans who welcomed him into their sacred space. Shortly after declaring that he had to massacre them because African Americans “rape our women,” Roof shot 87-year-old Suzie Jackson 11 times. Imagine living through what you thought was the last gasps of violent white supremacy and reaching the beautiful age of 87, only to be gunned down by a vengeful lost boy hyped up on digitized hate. Have we really come this far, only to find that we’ve arrived once again in 1919, the year of the Red Summer where hundreds of Black men and women were killed at the hands of white mobs, emboldened by the government’s complacency with their supremacist ambitions?
While he was not a Trump supporter like his El Paso counterpart, classmates recall that the Dayton shooter, 24-year-old Connor Betts, consistently espoused views about women that are distressingly simpatico with 45’s. Not content to codify his misogyny via the hit list he allegedly kept of female classmates he wanted to rape, Betts also fronted a metal band associated with a subculture called “pornogrind”, an offshoot of grindcore music known for its lyrical depiction of sexual violence. The band released albums and songs with abhorrent titles designed for maximum shock value, including “Sexual Abuse of a Teenage Corpse” and “6 Ways of Female Butchery”.
The killings last weekend should be the end of the argument, the bright line in the sand that once and for all settles the question about what is the most serious threat to America and what should be done about it. Since 2002, the number of lives lost to the violence of the far-right is roughly equivalent to the number of lives lost to so-called Islamist radicals. As the Washington Post noted, the FBI has recently made clear that the majority of domestic terrorism threats in 2019 have involved explicit white nationalism. If we were to treat this brand of terrorism the way we treat foreign terrorism, we would undoubtedly pursue muscular and organized responses to the threat.
We might, for instance, activate a Department of Homeland Security program to counter violent extremism by collaborating with regional organizations to pinpoint individuals who are susceptible to radicalization, or create and invoke a federal statute that makes it illegal to provide money or training to domestic terrorist groups. But access to these measures is impeded by an administration that came to power by stoking the very resentments it’s now tasked with containing.
Shortly after the events of last weekend, the President was asked how concerned he was about “the rise of white supremacy”. “I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” Trump responded, “whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy.” This fingers-crossed-behind-his-back repudiation is consistent with the President’s well-documented penchant for false equivalencies. Further, it’s a lightly euphemized invocation of the spurious narrative that America is under attack -- that America is being “invaded” by the sort of people who want preferential treatment. To the President’s most zealous supporters, it is the “invaders” who want their own sort of “supremacy.” This is patently untrue and, ironically, precisely the sort of dog-whistle racism that the Republican party has made its staple over the past five decades.
It would be misguided to suggest that the country’s worsening epidemic of white nationalist gun violence is reducible to any single cause. The mutually reinforcing relationship between strident opposition to gun control and investment in racial hierarchy is nonetheless a salient contributor. The sanctity of a boundlessly permissive interpretation of the Second Amendment is directly tied to the legacy of settler colonialism, and particularly the abiding terror that subordinate groups might successfully overthrow their colonizers if not for the wide availability of firearms. As the much-ballyhooed brownification of America compounds fears of what white nationalists call a Great Replacement, support for unregulated gun access is likely to calcify further.
But even former FBI director James Comey wrote on Sunday that our officials “bear a unique responsibility to say loudly and consistently that white supremacy is illegitimate, that encouraging a politics of racial resentment can spawn violence, and that violence aimed at people by virtue of their skin color is terrorism.” If only the FBI had internalized this directive a few years ago, when he himself was at the helm. The nation’s watchdog has been slow to turn the corner away from its historic emphasis on racial justice leaders and movements. Famously, Comey’s beloved FBI called MLK the most dangerous man in America. And with that view came a targeting of King rather than protection.
Regardless of our government’s impotence in the face of this crisis, the resistance cannot wait until election day 2020. Dissenters should not underestimate the power of our own dollars in shaping political outcomes. We may express our outrage by withholding financial support from companies like Equinox and SoulCycle, whose owner is an ardent Trump backer. During the Civil Rights Movement, boycotts organized against Woolworths department stores were instrumental in galvanizing pro-integration coalitions and turning the tide against Jim Crow segregation. While ethical consumption under capitalism remains a nonstarter, history tells us that there is momentum-shifting potential in the symbolic gesture of boycotting businesses aligned with malignant politics.
But hitting white supremacy in its pockets won’t be enough. To move forward we need something that South Africa got right called Truth and Reconciliation. One truth that may be difficult to swallow is that as far as the line between public enemies and distant cousins, white supremacists have shared the anti-civil rights landscape with the FBI far longer than they’ve been in the FBI’s crosshairs. Only that can explain how and why the FBI labeled Black Lives Matter activists “identity extremists” while organizers of the deadly identity extremists have been able to mobilize and take lives without significant intervention on the part of the state. The thought that these threats are symmetrical -- as news anchor Tom Brokaw suggested just yesterday -- smacks of the same twisted logic that blamed the terroristic violence suffered by the Freedom Riders as a response to the “invasion” of the South by civil rights protesters.
This bloodlust has been unleashed before to nourish egos bruised from loss of status and authority in their world. It’s an alibi that cloaks murderous racial aggression in the language of “self-defense.” It is precisely what lynching was. And as the political writer Charles Pierce recently noted, with ready access to semi-automatic weapons and large magazines, “Our atomized culture has atomized mass murder. You can be your very own lynch mob.”
Black and Brown people have been terrorized in the United States since well before its conception. We are a country defined by the enslavement of Black people, the massacring of Native Americans, and the vicious conquest of Mexicans. Pretending that these injustices are located solely in the past is more than naive, it is dangerous.
Whiteness in America is an identity predicated on exclusivity and domination. Maleness is similarly bound up in the performance of strength via the subjugation of others. And mass shootings that explicitly target Black and Brown people, or that are informed by a pronounced antipathy toward women, are the murderous manifestation of an ideology amplified by the current occupant of the White House, but buoyed by hundreds of years of racist and sexist suppression and violence. It’s an ideology so definitive of America that the 28-year-old Australian man who opened fire in a Christchurch, New Zealand mosque cited white supremacist attacks in the United States as part of his depraved inspiration. In this sense, the United States is certainly a world leader. For all the wrong reasons.
Like everyone in America, Black and Brown people cannot go to church, to a shopping center, to school, or to a bar without the ever-present fear of being murdered. But for minorities, the vendetta may be personal. And maybe that’s the point. Because ensuring that Black and Brown people are not safe anywhere is precisely the way to “preserve” white supremacy.
On the Passing of Toni Morrison
Inevitably untimely, Toni Morrison’s recent passing now feels especially pointed. Perhaps the great American novelist, she was able to blend rhythm, pace, and imagery in such a way that invigorated our imagination, emotions, and intellect. To read her was to see the world through the clearest of eyes. And to complete one of her books was to confront paradoxical feelings of loss and gain: you are were more for having read it, but you were less for not being further enveloped by its originality.
More than her rhetorical and observational excellence, Morrison was a fierce social critic. She saw America for what it was and what it is. She walked the tightrope that every successful transgressor is forced to walk, and she did so with a grace and an impact that few have matched.
Soon after hearing of Morrison’s death AAPF’s co-founder and executive director, Kimberle Crenshaw, asked on Twitter, “Was it because she was such a giant that made me think she’d always be with us?” In some ways, Morrison’s status as an unparalleled figure in American history does make her immortal. Her words echo in the annals of the past, and in the voids we’ve yet to fill in the future. Her death is a tragedy. But what she leaves behind is a gift of unique importance.
Toni Morrison’s stories are now written. Examining her legacy brings about those familiar feelings of loss and gain: we are more for having had her in our world, and we are less for no longer being enveloped by her presence. May she rest in peace.