March for Whose Lives?
There have been mixed reactions to the recent “March for Our Lives” campaigns in the US, and with good reason. In general, we should all agree that we need to take a stand against gun violence; it is terrifying that there have been so many mass shootings in the US, and even more terrifying that we mostly hear of these taking place in schools.
If “March for Our Lives” is a campaign against gun violence, who in the world would be against it? For one, we can expect overzealous gun owners to oppose increased restrictions on what types of guns civilians can buy, but the campaign has even faced some opposition from progressive activists; why?
Well, the issue that sparked the campaign was a school shooting in the US, but the campaign has touched on topics besides mass shootings in American schools. Reactions to the campaign have exposed the lack of intersectionality in movements in the US. Innocently or not, American activists have spread messages that are either insensitive our downright ignorant.
There is a stark difference between generally supporting ‘a movement against gun violence’ and supporting the “March for Our Lives” campaign in particular; the latter needs to be assessed through an anti-racist and anti-imperialist lens. Let us first start with the topic of race, then we can get into my favourite topic, imperialism.
Some persons were confused about why some supporters of Black Lives Matter, another movement in the US that focuses on some form of violence, are at odds with the March for Our Lives campaign. This sentiment has been misunderstood as jealousy or badminded behaviour, with persons thinking that BLM activists are merely jealous of the publicity that Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg have been getting, but this is not really the issue. In any case, Black Lives Matter has its own handful of persons who have risen to fame from the movement; I was pleased to find out that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is bigger and more serious than jokes like Deray.
Separate from publicity, there have been completely different reactions to March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter. Barack Obama, for example, offered critique of Black Lives Matter instead of support, adding “that social change can be a slow and incremental process.” In general, his tone and commentary on Black Lives Matter revolved around the idea that they were asking for too much or wanted change too rapidly; it was patronising. On the other hand, his response to the March for Our Lives demonstrations was enthusiastic support without much critique (if any at all). So Black families go out to protest and the response is that they should chill out and hold up, whereas white upper-middle class kids go out to protest and the response is that things must change now.
So why bring race into this, you ask? Is it about using identity politics to say that one voice should matter more? No, and it’s not about claiming that gun violence only affects white people (even if it did, no-one wants to see kids being murdered). Race becomes an issue when we look at the lines that the March for Our Lives campaign is using.
Black Lives Matter, at least in comparison to March for Our Lives, was somewhat anti-establishment in that it interrogated the force used by police. March for Our Lives is defending the use of certain weapons by police; this is insensitive to activists who have been trying to combat police/state brutality itself in the US. Essentially, the Parkland kids are really looking at the type of violence that affects them, instead of building a united coalition against gun violence - a coalition from which they could have get broader support.
The video above features someone explaining that the March for Our Lives campaign needs to listen to Black voices and discuss police brutality and state violence, or they're not really marching for everyone's lives. The movement can't just be, in her own words, "about white people and school shootings" - and this isn't downplaying the terror of school shootings, but trigger-happy police officers are responsible for hundreds of deaths of Black people every year. In addition to Black children being at risk in schools, Black youth in general have to worry about violence when they're at places of worship, going about their daily lives, and even inside their homes.
Emma Gonzalez shared this very unsettling video. While she is young, it is still important to address this because the message that is being spread and accepted is doing no less damage as some magical result of her age. The video starts with US veterans talking about where they have served, and they express it proudly. They talk about having firsthand experience with a particular type of weapon, and saying that it has only one purpose, and that it therefore shouldn't be in America; they talk specifically of how many Americans it has killed, but was it in America that they were using it? No, they were using it to kill people in other countries. Note how they say that these weapons shouldn't be used "by anyone, other than military and law enforcement" - so they acknowledge how murderous these weapons are, and express pride in how they serve with them in other countries; they see a problem with these weapons being in America but have no problem with them being used elsewhere. They even openly say this: "high-powered rapid-fire assault rifles like the AR-15 are meant for one thing; that's not something I want in my country."
They openly acknowledge that these weapons are only for murder, they don't want these weapons in their own country, but they don't think about how terrifying it is for civilians in other countries when they go to "serve" the US by invading these countries? They expressed pride in how they've served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Viet Nam, so it's not as if these are veterans who hate war and are now reformed; they are okay with gun violence against people in the Third World, just not in their own country.
Bernie Sanders, who has supported the March for Our Lives movement, demonstrates the particular problem we have with the American mindset. Here, he says that "We should not be selling assault weapons in this country" - referring to the US, while acknowledging that "they are for killing human beings. These are military weapons." The clear problem here is that this doesn't interrogate or question gun violence against people in the Third World, at the hands of US soldiers or US allies like Saudi Arabia and Honduras. The message isn't that weapons for killing humans shouldn't be used; it's that they shouldn't be used in America because Americans are exceptional. Just as some zealous gun owners in the US have accepted certain things as normal and okay, Americans have largely accepted the operations of their military in other countries as normal and okay.
Sadly, even Black Lives Matter has been disappointing. They have turned police violence into an African-American issue, when they could be uniting the African diaspora in all of the Americas, because Black people experience racial profiling and police brutality in all of the Americas, from the War On Drugs and other ways that the US encourages police militarisation in the Americas. Many Black people in Jamaica were in tune with the BLM movement because we could empathise and relate to their struggle; we felt like we owed them some solidarity, but it wasn't reciprocated. Recently, areas of Jamaica (like St. James and St. Catherine) have been placed under 'enhanced security measures' where mass detentions take place and police and soldiers - all bearing assault rifles - search some persons even 3 times per day. We have military checkpoints inside our own country just because our government wants to make American tourists feel safer. Even before these security measures, average police carrying assault rifles has been a norm in Jamaica, and the idea of "shoot first, ask questions later" has been 'a thing' to say the least.
The scope of gun violence that we need to combat needs to be broadened. In the case of BLM, they need to be engaging Black people in other countries more; I've heard that they have sent delegations to other countries so I hope these are fruitful. In the case of March for Our Lives, it is not only that they left out other struggles; it's that they have taken on very specific lines that show antipathy - rather than apathy - towards these struggles. They're saying that they don't want something in their country, while accepting it as normal in others. Not only do they accept it as normal, but they have spokespersons who are directly linked to this violence in other countries; so it's not as if they're merely saying "I don't want to live in the same conditions as Afghan people" - it's "I have contributed to violence against Afghan people, and I don't want that for American people."
March for Our Lives needs to be able to take these things into account if they expect solidarity from Black people, and both March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter need to take certain things into account if they expect solidarity from people from other countries. It is refreshing to see young people leading a movement, but any movement that gains traction or has some influence needs to be held accountable. This critique isn't intended to debase the legitimacy of these movements; this is a call for these movements to take things into consideration. This call isn't being addressed to emerging career activists like Emma Gonzalez or David Hogg; it is a call to anyone from Black Lives Matter or March for Our Lives.
I have a simple question: they call the movement "March for Our Lives" but a march for whose lives? It's not that I expected this to be a movement for Jamaican lives, though I must say that this affects us as well; a lack of restrictions allows high-powered weapons to make their way to Jamaican shores despite us having strict gun control here. These guns, which are illegal here, are used to wreak havoc on our people.
So it's cute that some young American activists are talking about how they won't vote for US politicians if they choose the gun lobby over "American lives" but American lives aren't the only ones harmed by American gun violence. The only thing American is the violence, but the victims are global. Of course, it is unlikely that you'll hear enough people in the US saying that they won't vote for US politicians if they choose war and imperialism over global lives; at the end of the day, the only lives Americans care about are their own.
Even if March for Our Lives is just for people in America, it should at least talk about the lives of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Stephon Clark; is the march about their lives too? Even within America, Black lives have been left out of the scope of this discussion.
If you're going to oppose gun violence, please also oppose gun violence committed by US police, US soldiers, and US puppet governments; they're all linked to the military-industrial complex, the need for weapons manufacturers to sell weapons. The same weapons manufacturers, who lobby the US government to take aggressive foreign policy stances and sell weapons to US allies, are the same groups that have an interest in preventing gun regulations.