Category Archives: Gun control

How I Called the Cops and Almost Got Shot: the Politics of Being a “Threat”


On this national day of protest against police brutality, Reporter Arun Gupta recalls an incident years ago in New York City when he stared down the barrel of a police gun because he “looked like a suspect.” 

By Arun Gupta  September 10, 2013
It was night. I was winding down, watching “Star Trek” in the living room when Irene yelled in panic from the back of our railroad flat in Brooklyn. A few seconds later, she emerged half-dressed and red-faced. “Some guy tried to climb into my bedroom from the fire escape. But I screamed, and he ran off,” she panted in her Irish brogue.

Grabbing the phone, I dialed 911 and said a guy had tried to break into our apartment but had fled. “They’re in your apartment?” the dispatcher asked. “No! It was an attempted break-in. They’re gone.” I emphasized, “Attempted, attempted. They are long gone.” I walked toward Irene’s bedroom and from her window adjoining the fire escape blue-and-red lights flashed in the dark as a police cruiser rounded the corner.

We shouted to the cops that someone tried to break in but hightailed out because of the commotion. They asked where the prowler was. “I don’t know. They’re probably nearby.” The cops remained in the car, seemingly uninterested in searching for the suspect.

As Irene gave the cops more details, there was pounding on the front door. “I’ll get it,” I said, striding down the hall. Fists hammered on the door. “Who is it,” I asked. “Police. Open up!” I peered through the eyehole, but the figures were obscured. “Step in front of the peephole,” I said. “Open the fucking door,” a male voice bellowed.

Well, I figured, I was the one who called the cops, so who else could it be? I swung the door open and to my side was a black female cop with her gun drawn, pointed upward, and in front of me was a white male cop standing on the stairs in a two-handed shooting stance with his gun resting on the banister pointing directly at my head. As I stared down the barrel of his nickel-plated revolver, the warning from my friend Greg, a born-and-bred Texan, flashed in my head. “Always be wary of a cop who has a nickel-plated revolver. It means they spent $500 on their own gun, and they’re eager to use it.”

“Put your guns away,” I blurted at the African-American cop. With a head shake, she shot back, “Don’t tell me what to do.” Meanwhile the male cop yelled, “Step out of the fucking apartment.”

It dawned on me that they thought I was the suspect.

But they didn’t consider that I was unarmed, barefoot and wearing only underwear and a T-shirt – or why an intruder would open the locked door when there were plenty of windows to escape from in the apartment. I hollered, “I was the one who called 911. I told them the guy fled.” The male cop kept baying, “Get out of the fucking apartment,” and I countered, “This is my fucking apartment.”

At that point Irene entered the three-way fray and exclaimed, “What in Christ’s name are you doing? He’s my roommate.” The cops lowered their guns, and as we continued yelling they looked at each other and then bolted.

“Jesus Christ, they thought you were the burglar,” Irene said as we closed the door. I rolled my eyes, “Fucking pigs.” This is the point in the story where I’m supposed to say I started shaking when I realized my brains were almost turned into modern art on the wall behind me. But I didn’t because I was unscathed. I did figure they flew the coop quickly because they were about to execute some street justice on me and didn’t want us to get their badge numbers.

I was pissed they assumed I was enough of a threat to warrant the possible use of deadly force. I was pissed that what saved my South Asian ass was my female Irish roommate. (And I was pissed I missed the end of “Star Trek.”)

If the cops had killed me, it would have been the word of New York’s finest against my corpse. The story would have been they were responding to a break-in. I was a suspect who was being uncooperative, belligerent, even threatening. In the unlikely event they were charged with a crime, the cops would have been acquitted because their perception was I was a threat. That perception was based mainly on the fact I’m a dark-skinned, broad-shouldered male. I would have been another Trayvon Martin or Amadou Diallo, who was plugged with 19 bullets in 1999 after four cops stopped him in his Bronx apartment building because he “looked like a suspect.”

Like Martin’s, Diallo’s killing spurred a movement against racial profiling, which led to a court order in 2003 forcing the NYPD to release data on stop-and-frisk practices every three months. But my death would have been a footnote, because it would have happened right before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1993 and aggressively expanded stop-and-frisks. Back then, few people were aware of the lax protocol for police stops. I was certainly clueless in 1990 when I felt the humiliation of a police stop in a subway station because they said I “looked like a suspect.”

The problem with stop-and-frisk is the wide discretion given to cops’ perception, cops whose views are shaped more by centuries of social prejudices than a few months in the police academy. Cops, soldiers, even armed vigilantes can get away with murder by claiming they felt threatened. The law takes stereotypes like black criminals, Mexican gangsters and Muslim terrorists and transforms them from subjective irrationality into objective criteria. George Zimmerman would never have been acquitted if he had gunned down a 17-year-old blonde cheerleader. That’s why I could have been on the roll call that includes Diallo, Martin, Sean Bell, Ramerley Graham, Oscar Grant and hundreds of others.

Stop-and-frisks are known as “Terry stops,” referring to the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment. It was the first time “the Court allowed a criminal search and seizure without probable cause,” and subsequent case law further loosened the standards for a stop. The court ruled police need only “reasonable suspicion” to stop someone, and the “sole justification” for a frisk is “to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer.”

Terry was shaped in an era of “social upheaval, violence in ghettos and disorder on campuses,” and handed down right after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The liberal Warren Court was under attack from the right for “coddling criminals,” and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign fanned the flames to such a degree that ” ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ signs appeared along highways in most parts of the country.”

The justices capitulated to the law-and-order climate by asserting police conduct involved the “necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer” drawing on “his experience.” The high court made this explicit 12 years later in United States v. Cortez when it “directly instructed lower courts to defer to the judgment of police.” Given the historical antagonism between an overwhelmingly white police force and ghettoized communities, it made racial fears central to policing. In Cortez, the justices also implied police actions were beyond public scrutiny: “A trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions … that might well elude an untrained person.” So if the police decide inner-city blacks and Latinos are violent or prone to crime, then the courts should defer to the police as the most capable of making and acting on those judgments.

This is why it took 14 years to take a bite out of stop-and-frisk. Of the 4.8 million stops conducted by the NYPD in the past decade, five in six of those stopped were black or Latino. They were more likely to be frisked than whites but less likely to be found with a weapon. Digging into the 685,724 stops in 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union uncovered two astonishing facts: the “number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared with 158,406), and in six precincts where blacks and Latinos make up 14 percent of the population or less, they accounted for 70 percent of stops. Independent studies have determined “race predicts stop-and-frisk patterns even after controlling for variables like crime rates, social conditions and the allocation of police resources.”

Since 2003, of the 570,000 people arrested or given a summons, nearly 90 percent are black and Latino, creating a circular logic. It’s reasonable for police to stop, frisk and arrest black men and Latinos because they are more likely to be involved in criminal activity because police are arresting so many of them.

That’s the logic of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claims cops “disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” Because of Terry, Bloomberg and top cop Ray Kelly have to say they’re taking guns off the streets to justify ratcheting up stop-and-frisks sevenfold since 2002. But cops have had to stop an average of 833 people in recent years to find one illegal gun, and stop-and-frisks are so inefficient that they produce fewer arrests than what police typically achieve at random checkpoints.

Bloomberg’s attitude flows down the command chain and reinforces prejudices that blacks and Latinos are more prone to crime. It’s also codified in the law where reasonable suspicion exists for anyone in a “high-crime area” and who moves away from police. In the 1.62 million stops from 2010 through June 2012, the three most cited factors lack individual specificity: high-crime area at 61 percent, “furtive movements” at 54 percent and time of day at 43 percent. (Multiple factors are usually cited, and the nebulous categories of “evasive response,” “proximity to crime scene” and “changed direction” account for another 65 percent.) But expert analysis finds 86 percent of these stops can still be justified, an additional 10 percent could not be categorized and a mere 4 percent were “apparently unjustified.” So with a few tweaks, the NYPD can still profile entire communities.

This does not detract from the dogged grassroots effort against stop-and-frisk in conjunction with the legal strategy pursued by the Center for Constitutional Rights since 1999. It has won landmark victories like US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s August 12 ruling that the NYPD is engaged in “indirect racial profiling,” which the “city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to” in violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. Scheindlin appointed an independent monitor to “end the constitutional violations in the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices,” and the City Council passed a bill authorizing “an outside inspector general with subpoena power to study and make policy recommendations to the department.”

Bigger battles lie ahead beyond the hostility the NYPD likely will mount to many reforms. The next step is to wipe away the stained legacy of Terry, which is essential to the New Jim Crow that consigns many African-Americans to the bottom of the barrel. Since the 1963 March on Washington, the relative status of blacks compared with whites is virtually unchanged in terms of poverty, earnings, wealth and unemployment. When it comes to imprisonment, the rates are worse.

The drug war and an eightfold increase in the prison population since 1970 have forced millions of blacks and Latinos into a shadow workforce. I’ve encountered the results in Niles, Ohio, where striking steelworkers told me the factory owner was using ex-convicts as strike breakers, and in the Chicago warehouse industry, where workers say about half the workers have criminal records and are desperate for any employment, which allows management to force down wages and deny workers basic rights.

I know what it’s like to be a problem. The police have stopped and interrogated me; cops pulled guns on me in my own apartment, and I regularly win the Homeland Security interrogation lottery when entering the United States. But in general my social status affords me protection.

My daily life is not defined by a system that conflates race with danger. My school was not patrolled by scowling cops packing heat. My job options were not limited to flipping burgers or slinging rock. My friends didn’t cycle between prison and parole. My neighborhood isn’t swarming with so many cops that kids lift their shirts to indicate, “There’s no reason to stop and frisk me.”

Yet that night in my apartment, my background didn’t matter: The clichés about a clean record, a good background, an upstanding citizen. The cops didn’t know that, but they knew I willingly opened the door, I was unarmed and in my underwear, I explained I called 911, but I was guilty. I got a nickel-plated taste of how policing reflects social prejudices.

Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama aside, there’s a desperate need for a new Reconstruction today as much as there was 50 years ago, when the tide shifted against America-style Apartheid. The much-needed judicial and legislative victories against stop-and-frisk do not address how individual fears harden into iron bars of segregation. And while the race line has blurred into class, we are still two countries, separate and unequal.


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Filed under Gun control, Inequality, Labor, Race

Revolution Is a Warm Gun: Rethinking the Left’s Positions on Gun Control

Assault weapons on display at The Freedom Shoppe in New Milford, CT. (Photo: Wendy Carlson, The New York Times)

Assault weapons on display at The Freedom Shoppe in New Milford, CT. (Photo: Wendy Carlson, The New York Times)

by Arun Gupta
April 13, 2013

Tony was the first gun-toting revolutionary I ever met. A Jewish African-American studies major, he quoted Frantz Fanon in the twilight of the Reagan era. When he popped by the school cafeteria, he was usually upset about something – the frat-boy student government, the state of Black America, a shop owner admonishing a customer, “Don’t Jew me.” Tony once vowed if a revolt suddenly “went down” in Baltimore, where we went to college, he would join in. “It would be premature,” he said, but he would nonetheless grab his assault rifle and give his life fighting alongside the rebelling urban underclass. I thought, “This guy has a death wish.”

I didn’t realize how right I was. One day in the cafeteria, someone said, “Did you hear about Tony? He killed himself. Gun to the head.” Rumor was his young wife and baby daughter were at home when he did it.

I’ve been thinking about Tony and what he represented in terms of the left’s relationship to guns. Namely, why is it that so many leftists – and by leftists, I’m referring to self-described radicals and revolutionaries, not liberals – are against gun control?

Despite the Aurora and Newtown massacres, it’s almost impossible to pass effective gun-control measures. It’s not enough to attribute lax gun laws to our founding mythology, a violent culture or the power of the gun lobby. After all, same-sex marriage has triumphed, and reproductive rights still exist, despite the same mix of power, money and culture in the opposition’s corner.

What’s missing from the pro-gun-control camp is a genuine grassroots campaign, and that’s where the left comes in. Pick an issue and the left is organizing around it – climate justice, labor, rape culture, immigrant rights. But why not gun control? Because, most leftists, myself included, agree with the principle Tony advocated, which is political violence – meaning collective self-defense – is a necessary though not sufficient means of securing freedom from a violent state.

Before you equate radical with bomb-thrower, realize Americans, with few exceptions, support state violence. Yet some support gun rights and some oppose it. Many leftists are in the former camp. To confirm this, I asked a couple thousand Facebook “friends” if they opposed gun control and their reasons why. The responses came pouring in:

“Is a state monopoly on arms in the best interests of the working class?”

“Gun laws, much like drug laws, are used to oppress the poor and people of color.”

“We can’t have a revolution without them.”

“Governments already have too much of a monopoly on violence and we will one day have to bring this one down.”

“I’ll be damned a cop can have a gun but I can’t.”

“Gun control laws … are another step down the incline to a full-fledged police state.”

“[I support] the right to bear arms – because I’m horrified that racist whites are heavily armed in areas of the country that oppose democratic rights.”

Judging from these comments, many leftists agree with the right that the biggest threat to society is not mentally ill shooters like Adam Lanza. It’s the state. The implication is that the solution to a society with too many guns is more guns. That’s why leftists tend to shrug off gun control. They see it as impinging on their freedom, or at least as something that doesn’t affect them.

But I’m rethinking this position and now conclude that a society awash in guns is more of a detriment to the left project of emancipation than a means to secure it.

This is not an abstract argument. Obama’s gun-control push is on the ropes after the bill banning semi-automatic pistols and weapons, as well as high-capacity magazines, died in the Senate. Remaining measures include providing resources for school “tip lines, surveillance equipment, secured entrances” – such as metal detectors and armed police – and enabling the use of National Guard troops to “ensure schools are safe.” That’s right. The response to guns in schools is to put soldiers cradling machine guns in schools.

Without bottom-up pressure, like the campaign that’s blocked the Keystone XL pipeline thus far, legislation is beholden to those with the most money and lobbyists, in this case the NRA and gun manufacturers. As liberals and gun-control NGOs play an inside game, they lack the skills, base and inclination to organize the kind of movement that can disrupt the balance of forces.

Loathe to grant the state more power, leftists have sat out the gun debate. However, every Aurora and Newtown convinces a terrified public to trade civil liberties for security, allowing the police, already equipped with tanksarmed helicopters and drones, to gain more weapons, more powers, more surveillance and less oversight. Ironically, much of the left’s energy is focused on reining in police powers, such as campaigns spearheaded by Cop WatchStolen LivesINCITE!, and Critical Resistance, and extending to projects led by liberals and libertarians in the NAACPACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Thus, the left should connect the dots by framing gun restrictions as part of the effort to limit police powers, abuses and surveillance. Unlike the right, the left does not believe the state of nature is a war of all against all. Central to the left project is demilitarizing society, and by using this as the umbrella, gun control can provide an opening to shackle the state instead of the people. But first, the left needs to rethink the role that violence plays in social change.

Let me explain. My journey was different than Tony’s (he was an ex-Marine), even though I arrived at the same conclusion, that violence from below is often legitimate. I began my political education devouring works by Gandhi, King and Gene Sharp, solidifying my belief that nonviolence alone would triumph. Reading the Managua Lectures by Noam Chomsky shattered my naiveté. In his signature style, Chomsky mined the official record to demonstrate how the US government greets peaceful change with violent terror. President John F. Kennedy admitted as much in 1962 when he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” With shamefully few exceptions, conservatives and liberals, corporations and unions, pundits and intellectuals, supported the cold war.

Soon, I was marching in support of armed revolutionaries in El Salvador and South Africa. At the same time, I was being arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, alongside storied Catholic pacifists like Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, to oppose US policies repressing these movements.

There is nothing contradictory about the two approaches. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador and the African National Congress in South Africa calibrated the mix of violent and nonviolent tactics that would best advance their struggles according to “the constellation of forces.” Movements turn to violence after nonviolence alone proves futile, as in Southern Africa, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iran, Palestine, Guatemala and Syria. Of course, popular violence is often defeated, and some violent tactics, like suicide bombings, are self-defeating. A New York Times article on nonviolent resistance in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh observes that Palestinians there “insisted they had the right to armed resistance; they just don’t think it works.” As such, they viewed suicide bombings not as “a moral error so much as a strategic one.”

Nonviolence can work for limited campaigns or to change the political class, as the civil rights movement and Egypt’s democratic revolt did. But rarely, if ever, does nonviolence uproot the old order. Governments crush nonviolent movements all the time, as in Czechoslovakia and Mexico in 1968, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Bahrain in 2011. Nonviolent resistance alone is futile against the Pentagon, as proved by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As for the Indian independence struggle, it left relatively untouched caste divisions, the grip of rural landholders over the peasantry and the capitalist economy.

One has to dissect the social context: What are your vision and goals? Who is in your camp? Who is sitting on the fence? Who opposes you? Only then can a movement determine which tactics are likely to build support and power that can undermine their opponents while bringing their vision to fruition. This analytical process becomes evident in when and how leftists decide which armed resistance movements to support.

For example, when Israel, the US muscle in the Middle East, pummeled Lebanon in 2006, leading left-wing intellectuals, including Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, Judith Butler, John Berger, Eduardo Galeano, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali and Ken Loach, published a “Statement in Solidarity with the Peoples of Lebanon and Palestine.” It decried “The deliberate and systematic destruction of Lebanon’s social infrastructure by the Israeli air force [as] a war crime, designed to reduce that country to the status of an Israeli-US protectorate,” and offered “our solidarity and support to the victims of this brutality and to those who mount a resistance against it.” On one level, it’s an unremarkable statement, as the right to resist illegal wars and occupations is enshrined in international law. But they were also boldly acknowledging that only Hezbollah’s trained army, not protests, tweets or petitions, could counter Israeli aggression.

The domestic situation is more complex. H. Rap Brown hit the bull’s-eye when he quipped, “Violence … is as American as cherry pie.” The mile markers of US history are colonization, genocide, slavery, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, World Wars, cold war, Korea, Vietnam and globe-spanning coups, counter-revolutions, drug wars, proxy wars, secret wars, drone wars and the war on terror.

The public, liberals included, reflexively backs state violence. Only in America is a state headed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s bombed seven countries and asserts the right to globalized kidnapping, torture and secret kill lists not seen as the grotesque absurdity it is. On top of that, Americans gorge on violent movies, television, video games and sports, as they blindly support state violence – a mere 4 percent of the public “strongly opposes” drone strikes against terrorist “suspects” – but they will denounce “violent anarchists” if a scrawny black bloc protester smashes a Starbucks window. The left wants to overturn this order, but it knows the hammer will come down on it for anything but peaceful dissent. So the left has shunned violence for years. Some hapless youth might get ensnared in FBI terror plots, but left-wing leaders aren’t making threats about “Second Amendment remedies” or brandishing guns and placards invoking the warning, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Despite living in a deeply violent society, armed resistance is suicidal, as even Tony recognized. So I call myself a “strategic pacifist,” meaning violence is counterproductive under present conditions. Even property destruction has become self-defeating, as shown last year on the West Coast, where prosecutors jumped on incidents of window-breaking to repress Occupy Wall Street-related movements. At the same time, I argue that categorical pacifism – secular advocates of which are about as common as green penguins – is ahistorical and apolitical because it imposes a one-size-fits-all ideology, denying the specifics of history and the political constraints every movement faces. It’s so rare, in fact, that a few years ago, while talking with fellow activists at the War Resisters League, it dawned on us that not one was an absolute pacifist. Many people claim to be antiwar, but a little prodding will get them to admit World War II or the American Civil War was justified.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the left’s relation to guns. Despite its peaceful character, the left is unwilling to abandon the idea of violence. As Malcolm X put it: “By any means necessary.” Therefore, allowing the state to circumscribe gun rights means surrendering power.

There is a flaw in this formula, however. Popular violence is merely an instrument to bring about an ideal society free of violence. While violence against the US government is inevitable abroad, does it make sense here? One of the few public intellectuals to engage with popular violence is Slavoj Žižek, who writes: “every act of violence against the state on the part of the oppressed is ultimately ‘defensive.’ … for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it will always be a matter of strategy whether or not use violence against the enemy).”

That’s the rub. The main strategic concern for social movements is not to declare war on the state, but to create broad-based organizations that can first resist through every peaceful means possible. That involves maximizing public space in which to organize while minimizing state repression. Public space was essential to Occupy Wall Street’s success, and OWS still hasn’t recovered from the violent evictions. But it’s a fallacy to equate violence as a means to one day overthrow the state with violence as a means of protection for movements to claim public space.

This is why many leftists fetishize guns as Tony did. It’s easier to feel the power in the cold steel of a rifle barrel than to trust the arduous path of building a collective movement that may yield social power years down the road, if you’re lucky.

I got a taste of this false sense of power during ex-cop Chris Dorner’s war against the LAPD. The paranoia in Los Angeles was palpable, with the incessant thump of choppers, jumpy cops and locked-down schools. The police verified Dorner’s bitter manifesto by shooting up innocents and neighborhoods, and engaging in what appears to have been his pre-meditated murder. Dorner was lionized as a folk hero – with tens of thousands of people liking dozens of Facebook pages – and one commentator comparing him to a real-life Django Unchained. But Dorner’s rampage also bolstered support for the police, and you won’t build a movement by celebrating mass murder.

In this light, support for Dorner, as well as for gun rights, is a sign of social impotence. I think Tony gravitated to guns for that reason: weakness, not strength. They were his solution to a troubled society and his own troubled life. Likewise, the left looks for silver bullets to its predicament of powerlessness. Refusing to engage with the state doesn’t make it disappear; it just becomes a bigger threat. Trying to use the state apparatus to constrict the state is tricky, but many cherished freedoms – from habeas corpus to abortion rights to freedom of speech and assembly – involve precisely that. Otherwise, we sit back and watch as the state grows more powerful and society grows more violent.

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