Red, White & Bang

Nicholas Powers Feb 22, 2013

I was shot six times,” he said and rolled up his sleeve. When Frankie peeled back the gauze, I saw holes in his forearm as if he had been stung by a giant metal insect. “What the hell,” I muttered, “What happened?”

“Kid from Brownsville running down the street, shooting wildly at another kid,” he looked at me. “I was in the doorway and got hit. None of the bullets struck an artery or a bone. Someone was looking out for me.”

Thoughts spun like a tornado. Just a minute ago, I was jogging down the street to catch the presidential debate at Vodou Lounge when my name was yelled. In a parked jeep, a light came on and I saw Frankie, my scruffy neighbor. He told me of being on the stoop when a boy ran up, firing his gun at any moving thing, how bullets punched his body, how he prayed for life as blood gushed from his limbs.

Frankie rolled up his pant leg and showed me a crusted hole in his calf. I grasped his hands and said, “I am so thankful you are alive.” We knew people had been shot on our block but in order to go about living, we numbed our minds to the risks. And it wasn’t hard. The young men killing each other were locked in their own world — you just had to step around it. But every once in a while, a gunman shot so wildly, so carelessly that a shell pierced the invisible walls between us and them. Studying Frankie’s face, I remembered kicking a soccer ball with him and loosening the fire hydrant so kids could splash in the water. We stared at each other as I repeated, “I am so thankful you are alive.”


Last Dec. 14, Adam Llaza stormed an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. and shot 20 children and six adults. Screams echoed in the hallways and throughout the nation as news of the killings rippled through the media. We have another mass shooting, another gunman.

But on the day before the killings in Newtown, as well as every day for the foreseeable future, nearly 85 Americans die from gun-related incidents. Of those 85 people, 53 take their own lives and 16 are homicide victims, between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2010, the annual number of Americans killed by guns hit 31,328. The rising numbers are like a heart monitor gone awry — the quotidian carnage is signified by a dark, steady pulse, while mass shootings are the visible spikes. This patient is sick, but we aren’t listening to the true diagnosis.

These mass shooting escapades break through the fog of American denial because they are performed acts of violence, designed by the killer for an audience. Sometimes the gunman (and it’s always, so far, a man) makes videos or writes a manifesto, as in the Virginia Tech massacre or Columbine. At the very least, murdering random people in public turns the blood-soaked ground into a stage for the killer to be seen. And it trains the audience to read gun violence along two scales — carnage and innocence.

The bodies carried out on stretchers stop our breath. A killer who leaves numerous dead in his wake forces us to sense the purity of his rage. He forces us to question the technology used to enact it. The carnage of mass shooting is a glimpse into how vulnerable we are to the random hate of a stranger.

And if the faces on the stretchers are budding youth or the vulnerable old, if their deaths stained red a white wedding or emptied a prom night, we feel that not just life was lost — innocence itself was desecrated. Public mourning is not just empathy but also a ritual to reaffirm our ideology. The mass shootings in the Aurora cinema and then at the Sikh Temple in suburban Milwaukee rattled us, but it was the murder of children that made it possible to finally talk about gun control. Now we are unwilling to tolerate public gun violence after accepting it for so long in marginal groups — the poor, Latinos, African-Americans, new immigrants, urban youth.

A political economy of innocence exists in our nation’s media, in which the value of groups is produced, distributed and consumed. The race, class and gender of the victims are raw material added to the specific crime and made into an implicit scale of human worth. CNN, the New York Times and Fox News showed photos of the Newtown dead, creating empathic narratives. Millions of Americans mourned with the parents who lost their children, as we must, as befits a decent human being. But beneath tragedies like Newtown are the 85 people who die every day from a bullet. Many of the victims are urban youth, mostly black or Latino, whose deaths seep under the headlines like an invisible river of sorrow.


“Imagine your child screaming when a convicted felon breaks into your home,” the gravelly voice warns as a parent sprints through halls. “And you use a firearm to defend yourself and your family,” he growls. “Unbelievably, Barack Obama voted to make you the criminal.” It was a National Rifle Association (NRA) political ad, released in October 2008.

After the confetti from election night was swept up, news outlets reported that two things happened for male Republican voters — testosterone dropped and gun sales went up. A shudder rippled through conservative America, it was the fear of a crime, fear of loss of gun rights, fear of a race war. And this fear is more than 500 years old.

When Christopher Columbus waded to the shoreline of the New World, he was met by native people of whom later he wrote, “I could conquer them with 50 men and govern as I please.” Thousands of ships filled with settlers followed in his wake. They pushed further inland, raping, mass murdering, stealing, displacing, and each act of violence solidified their role as settlers who killed savages. In the haze of musket smoke, the silhouettes of men marched over the blood of natives.

After independence, our nation began a grinding conquest of the continent. At each step the gun was at hand. Whether it was the pistol in the belt of the slave owner or the settler’s rifle aimed at a native family leaving a home in flames, the gun was the symbol of a freedom won by violence. In the painting Westward Angel we see Manifest Destiny portrayed as an angel. It’s easy to imagine her hem passing over the corpses of indigenous people.

It is the violence between the settler and the savage that has formed the political ideology of our nation. The white, Christian male and his family founded a nation in the wilderness, away from the corruption of the Old World. The price of freedom was eternal vigilance at the walls. Outside the gates the ape- like slaves, wild savages and foreigners were amassing. The gun had to be near, loaded and ready.

It is this politico-mythic narrative that guides conservatives. Each time white supremacy has been challenged, a call to arms has been issued. After the Civil War, a brief season of civil liberties for black people followed, which was then shot down by white militias like the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1900s nearly two million black people left the South in a Great Migration and were met by white mobs shooting, lynching and bombing them in the urban North. In the civil rights era, white gunmen killed activists. After World War II, cities became racially diverse just as the business class began to shut down factories in the name of globalization. Urban neighborhoods became poor and desperate; by the 1970s, the Republican Party used code words of crime and welfare to address white racial anxiety. Suburbs grew like pale rings of fear from the dark downtown. It is in this context that the Second Amendment, “the right to bear arms,” became a justification to defend oneself against the specter of crime, a specter that itself was already a fictionalized racial terror.

Today the conservative sector of the shrinking white majority is terrified, stranded as they are in the colonial mythology of settler versus savage. They saw a rising tide of color elect the first black president and see Obama as part of a New World Order. It is believed to be a U.N.-led global cabal intent on using gun registries, background checks and bans on assault weapons to strip these Sovereign Citizens of the ability to fight and then, in turn, to enslave them.

During a recent senate hearing, Democrat Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said to NRA spokesman Wayne Lapierre, “I run into some of your NRA members and they say…we need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government.” Lapierre leaned back, then leaned in, “If you look at why our Founding Fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure these free people, in this new country would never have to be subjugated again.”


“I come from Bed-Stuy where niggaz either do or they gone die, gotta keep the Ratchett close by,” Lil’ Kim rapped from the car speakers. I laughed at the lyrics as my friend reached over and turned it up. After being dropped off in Bed-Stuy, I got out and looked at my street with Lil’ Kim’s voice in my head. It struck me that she, like many rappers, sells urban violence to America which then learns to see people of color in pain as normal.

An iconography of crime surrounds the blackened body, if one could peel the Hip Hop imagery of today — the Gangster, Video Vixen and Hype Man — you can see earlier versions of them in post-Civil War imagery of the Brute, the Jezebel and the Coon. It’s the visual vocabulary of the political economy of guilt, in which imagery of black criminality is produced, distributed and consumed.

The caricature most related to crime is of course the Black Brute, a hulking rapist, an enraged animal on the loose. After the Civil War, in the era of Reconstruction, new images of blacks were created by Southern whites to express their fear. And the Black Brute was the epitome of the savage. It is what George Zimmerman, a watchman for a gated community in central Florida, saw instead of Trayvon Martin, a black teen visiting his family and it is what Zimmerman aimed his gun at when he shot the young man dead.

Zimmerman had a settler mindset and a firearm, and he was shielded by a legal tradition called the Castle Doctrine, which posits that you can defend your home with deadly force. “Stand your ground” laws extend “home” to wherever one is legally allowed to stand. It was part of a network of legislation, including immunity for gun manufactures that was pushed by the NRA into law. Not surprisingly, the gun industry, which made $11 billion dollars in profit in 2011, donated at least $15 million dollars to the NRA since 2005. The bare facts are that the industry that profits from gun sales, in part funds a four million member-strong NRA which spends millions in elections on politicians who will pass laws beneficial to the gun industry. And we already have in this nation nearly 300 million guns for 310 million citizens.

In 2011 alone, gun makers churned out six million new firearms. These guns hit the market and are spread out on gun show tables, where thousands fall through the shredded net of gun control laws into the black market which transports them into black neighborhoods. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said on The Daily Show, “It’s a concealable handgun that is killing people. Assault weapons, I think should be banned. But they are responsible for less than 2 percent of shootings in this city. Ninety percent of the guns that we confiscate here come from other states. We say the iron pipeline up I-95, Southern states for the most part.”

And I see those guns. One night I heard some neighbors fighting and then gunshots, I looked through the window and saw a man entering his building with a long pistol. Four years ago, I was at the block party when a kid with a gun fired into the air, scattering everyone behind trees and running into buildings.

Recently I saw a documentary, Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story, in which then 19-year-old director Terrence Fisher interviewed his friends about guns. One hauled a shotgun from under his mattress and boasted of paralyzing a “dumb-ass” man. Another held a small gun in his palm and warned, “See this .22, can’t get no better than that.” He wiped it with an American flag bandana.

Fisher asked how they felt with the weapon; one friend said, “Any man with a gun in his hand feels bigger than the world. A gun will make a man do anything.” Later Fisher remembered, “My homeboy Marley G had an incident in a club. Dude had bumped Marley G. who bumped another dude, who got offended and pulled out his gun and shot him in his chest twice.” In the stairwell, Fisher’s friend said guns weren’t good but you couldn’t get caught without one in a fight. “In the hood you gotta have one to survive,” he said and shrugged.

Three months into filming, Fisher was walking to the roof with his friend Timothy Stansbury when Stansbury opened the door and was shot dead by a scared cop. The officer was never charged with a crime and the people swallowed their grief. At the film’s end, Fisher looked into the camera and said, “I’m 19 and I know eight people who’ve been killed by guns.”

Fisher lives in the Louis Armstrong projects that ring my block. From my roof, I can see the roof where Stansbury was shot. His death, like the police killings of Sean Bell or Ramarley Graham, gave a halo of innocence to young men of color. Thousands marched in their names to salvage a guiltlessness that has long been denied. And we, the left, marched with them, because in our Rousseauian worldview the state — in this case, personified by a cop — was the enemy of the people. But the reality is that more black and Latino, poor and immigrant male youth are killed by each other than by cops.


Ever since Frederick Douglass wrote of fighting the slave breaker Covey there has existed in black male culture a tradition of seeing violence as a means of freedom. In the Ante-Bellum era, slaves rebelled 250 separate times, in incidents that ranged from skirmishes to all-out guerilla warfare. From Nat Turner to the Deacons for Defense, from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers, gun violence has been part of the black political tradition. But the goal of this violence was always the defense of the larger community against white supremacist attacks.

In the late 1970s the Black left collapsed in a cross-fire of rivalry, FBI sabotage and a changing economy. The black He-Man changed from Huey Newtown to Superfly, factories shut down, cities went bankrupt, cocaine fell on the street like a winter snow, and prisons became warehouses for an unemployed generation. The police used new tactics to round up young men en masse. They were processed like raw material through a factory of courts and jails and emerged on the other side, bleak-eyed and desperate. Street culture, always one sector among others now dominated the value system of poor young men of color.

The code of the street — the touchy need for respect, ignitable pride, the struggle for status in a world of scarcity, homophobic and sexist machismo and violence as an answer to questions — became a common language. And with each fistfight, stabbing and shooting, urban youth become more and more segregated. Inner city schools are closed, metal detectors installed in the ones still open, teachers are scared away and their future evaporates. The only thing they have left that anyone wants is the soundtrack of their self-destruction. So a minor music called Hip Hop, which began in the 1970s as block party music in the South Bronx was by the mid-1980s slowly being transformed by corporate America into the minstrel show of Gangsta Rap. The Brute and the Jezebel are reinvented and sold to a new audience. Three decades later, black, Latino and increasingly immigrant youth are measuring their racial identity by 150-year-old, post-Civil War Southern caricatures.

Oppression when internalized by its victims for too long and too deeply eventually becomes their culture. So it struck me, on the night that Frankie told me about the shooting, that as I walked up Nostrand, I heard a group of young men around an open car rapping along with 50 Cent, “We rolling, whip stolen, AK loaded, I’m down to ride tonight. We smokin’, straight locin’, locked and loaded, somebody gon’ die tonight.”

I thought to myself, with all the guns and rage and nihilism here, you just might. And I thought, we on the left don’t address crime for what it is, a violent form of street-level capitalism. On the way to the bar, I kept seeing Frankie’s bullet wounds in my mind like a giant photograph. My friend almost died. He almost died. I kept repeating it.

And who was seeing the invisible victims of violence? Who was peering beneath the tragic headlines of mass shootings to see the cities being hollowed out by the multiplying voids of our dead teenagers? Who was willing to speak about their deaths? Finally, I entered the Vodou Lounge and everyone was staring at the TV as President Obama and Mitt Romney debated. In the cross-fire of their words was a white college student named Jeremy. The candidates tripped over each other to promise him a job. Obama said, “And there are a bunch of things we can do to make sure your future is bright.”


The bar was nearly empty; I sat with a beer watching the State of the Union address. Obama tensed his mouth. “In the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun,” he said. “More than a thousand.”

The presidential election had come and gone, washing over us like a giant wave of noise. And I was relieved Obama won. I didn’t share the view that a Romney victory would galvanize people into protesting. It was to me an admission of a lack of vision on the left, by those who see having a common enemy as the only thing that can move the masses. What about a common vision?

I looked out the window and imagined a neighborhood with midnight basketball to absorb the energy of youth whose homes were falling apart. Or taxing Wall Street and creating whole new job sectors? So much of the violence in these streets is read as simple personal violence and not as the effect of the violence of capitalism. How can an economic system dominate the earth, make exchanging labor for money as the principal way to meet basic needs and then not be able to provide full global employment? It is the contradiction grinding in our world. We are surrounded by ads for a life we can’t afford and are told that no other world is possible. When can we get a federal buyback program that lets people sell their guns, while shutting down the gun factories and melting the steel into solar panels?

Obama squinted his eyes and talked of a young woman named Hadiya Peddleton. “Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

He called for sensible reforms like a universal background check, a ban on assault weapons and laws to reduce the number of bullets in ammo cartridges. Yes, I nodded, all very sensible. He demanded the House and Senate allow for a vote as Mr. and Mrs. Peddleton stood and applauded. “They deserve a vote,” Obama lifted his voice in a rhythmic call. “They deserve a vote.”

Yes, I thought, we do deserve a vote but we need a whole lot more.

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