Ernie Brill: Arms and the black man
NORTHAMPTON — Second Amendment discussions infuriate me. The Second Amendment chiefly exists for white people.
Throughout American history, when African-Americans exercise rights to bear arms in self-defense, they are vilified, threatened with death and assassinated by government and police collusion.
Our country’s beginnings involved self-defense. Thousands of Africans fought to not come to the Americas. This was before our Declaration of Independence announced “all men are created equal” and before our Constitution decreed Africans to be “three-fifths of a person.” After that crime against humanity, history records hundreds of slave rebellions, acts of self-defense, from the Maroons of Jamaica to Denmark Vecsey and Nat Turner. Cinque and the Amisdad’s slave-ship’s “cargo” successfully mutinied in armed self-defense against their mass-kidnappers.
Harriet Tubman carried a gun on Underground Railroad journeys to protect herself, her charges and to spur on some frightened passengers.
Often, African-Americans faced death for defending themselves. Whites received medals and statues. The traitor Robert E. Lee, leader of insurrectionist Southern militias, ended his slaughtering Civil War battles in peace and dignity. He served no prison time. He was not hung.
For African-Americans self-defense became an essential survival strategy when police attacked them or did not defend them from attacks by bigots.
I’ve witnessed this hypocrisy around self-defense in my lifetime.
In the late 1950’s, Robert F. Williams, veteran African-American Marine and NAACP leader in Monroe, N.C., led self-defense groups against Ku Klux Klan attempts to murder African-American citizens. Framed on a kidnapping charge, Williams left the country. His story, “Negroes With Guns,” remains out of print. Why do such powerful stories remain out of print?
The Black Muslims, including Malcolm X, formed the Fruits of Islam for self-defense. Malcolm X’s credo, “By any means necessary,” rose from his own experience: racists murdered his father.
In the early 1960’s, African-American World War II and Korean War veterans formed The Deacons for Defense in Louisiana (see Lance Hill’s “The Deacons for Defense,” University of North Carolina Press, 2004). This organization inspired the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, Calif., to protect African-Americans from severe police brutality. The Black Panther Party rapidly became a national organization.
FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. officials organized a massive Cointelpro program of un-American activities to demolish the Panthers, with agent provocateurs, illegal wire-tapping, frame-ups, police attacks and assassinations, murdering in his sleep Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton. Hampton was reshaping a gang, the Blackstone Rangers, to do community service.
In 1968, I was a student at San Francisco State College. Some white students at Fresno State College attacked and hospitalized three African-American students. George Murray, an English Department instructor and minister of education of the San Francisco Black Panther Party, advocated at a rally the practice of armed self-defense by African-American students. The California State College Trustees, with Gov. Ronald Reagan’s blessings, fired Murray, sparking the longest student strike in American history, from November 1968 until May 1969.
Here at home, in 2008, a University of Massachusetts African-American student, Jason Vassell, was attacked by two white non-students with criminal records. When the racially taunting trespassers burst into his dorm, feloniously assaulting him and breaking his nose, Vassell defended himself with a pocket knife.
One attacker was never charged. The other received probation for misdemeanor “disorderly conduct.” Vassell faced felony charges and expulsion without due process from UMass. Vassell had support from hundreds of students, faculty and Pioneer Valley community members.
Where was Vassell’s Homeland Security? Instead, he had UMass campus security that insisted on a “soured drug sale.” Victim Vassell became seen as the victimizer by the Northwest District Attorney’s Office. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel forced Vassell to plea bargain, a legal lynching.
What happened to Jason Vassell’s Second Amendment rights to defend himself?
Is America the bastion of hypocrisy? “All men are created equal,” the founders declared, then allowed significant exceptions, including the utter absence of women and the denial of black rights.
You have Second Amendment rights to bear arms if you are white. But what if you are an African-American taking a stand against physical attacks? Or what if you are Treyvon Martin with a hoodie and a bag of Skittles?
Ernie Brill of Northampton, educator and author of “I Looked Over Jordan And Other Stories,” is working on a novel about the San Francisco State College strike of 1968-69.