Guns, Politics, and American Culture - Part 2

Apsken at Apsken at
Sat Nov 20 21:16:12 MST 1999

By Ken Lawrence
(continued from Part 1)
    Contrary to the allegations of Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St.Clair, and
perhaps others who are frustrated with the current low level of activism and
are in search of scapegoats on the left to blame, radical organizers did not
and do not turn our backs on alienated insurgent white people who have a
different political viewpoint from ours. (The tactics of involving them are
certainly a matter of ongoing debate. In SCEF, we insisted on explicitly
anti-racist programs, with African Americans and women in positions of
leadership. UE organizers with whom we worked regarded our approach as
sectarian, and although they were exemplary advocates for the class, they
limited their union's demands and programs to least-common-denominator
economic programs.)
    Because most of our arenas of activity were industries or communities
where African Americans took the lead, we encountered relatively few
right-wing white people who were eager to join our movement. An exception was
our antinuclear organization, the Mississippi Catfish Alliance, which
mobilized in opposition to the Yellow Creek nuclear reactor that TVA proposed
to build in Northeast Mississippi, and the Grand Gulf reactor built by
Mississippi Power and Light Company at Port Gibson.
    When we held a demonstration at the Yellow Creek site, Catfish was mainly
white and rural, mostly poor people who bitterly resented the TVA's plan to
drastically change their environment without any concern for their wishes,
but it also included contingents of students and faculty from Ole Miss and
Mississippi State, possibly mobilizing 200 people. At Grand Gulf, the crowd
was about ten times bigger, with African Americans outnumbering whites about
five to one. Most were local Claiborne County people, probably the most
militant mass constituency in the state, with additional contingents from
Alcorn, Jackson State, and (white students and faculty from) the University
of Southern Mississippi.
    In Jackson and Hinds County, the Catfish Alliance comprised mostly
seasoned leftists, black and white, but also a fervently antinuclear group of
rightwingers brought to us by a Liberty Lobby supporter, the wheelchair-bound
proprietor of a pawnshop who had once been elected coroner during the
segregation and prohibition era. A young white woman organizer and I met with
him on several occasions to work out the terms on which we agreed to include
his group. When we told him that racial epithets would not be tolerated, he
sulked, but then said he would practice our etiquette by treating his Choctaw
Indian store manager with respect, and would stop disparaging him. I also
informed the man that my own heritage is Jewish, whereupon he denied holding
anti-Semitic views.
    After building a mass base for Catfish, we ran an electoral campaign for
the state's three Public Service Commission posts on an independent
antinuclear platform. In the Northern District our candidate was Linda Lewis,
white proprietor of a health food store in Oxford; in the Central District,
Sarah Johnson, African American councilwoman from Greenville; in the Southern
District, Ayres Haxton, a welder from Natchez. As a matter of principle
(perhaps reluctantly) accepted by our right-wing white supporters, we
required that the campaign literature include all three candidates and a
single statewide platform. Of the three, only Johnson came close to
challenging the victorious Democrat, but the campaign did get a lot of press,
and TVA canceled the Yellow Creek project. The reactor at Grand Gulf was
completed even after a tornado cracked its containment dome, and is today the
main generator owned by Entergy Corporation. Catfish never received support
from the antinuclear or environmental movements nationally, perhaps because
it was predominantly black in membership and constituency.
    The coalition with our Liberty Lobby pawnbroker and his group did not
endure after our defeat at Port Gibson, and in any case most of his followers
hankered for overtly racist political expressions. None of them became
permanent converts to our cause, although lots of other poor and
working-class white Mississippians did. But one element of the collaboration
was interesting in the context of our present discussion: The pawnshop sold a
lot of guns to black activists, with a wink and a nod to the paperwork
    Meanwhile I had begun attending gun shows in the mid-1970s, which — pace
Alexander Cockburn — were not and are not "fun." They were held at the
Jackson Trade Mart two to four times each year, and were infamous for hosting
Ku Klux Klan and Nazi recruiters. A Jackson television news program once had
featured the enormous swastika banner across the side wall at one gun show;
thereafter all cameras were banned.
    My reason for attending, even before the KKK's mass resurgence, was to
monitor the recruitment of mercenaries to fight for white Rhodesia. Much of
my solidarity work with the Zimbabwe African National Union consisted of
documenting and publishing data on mercenary recruitment, which was directed
in the U.S. by the Army Special Forces Reserve at Arlington Heights, Illinois
(a CIA front), the unit from which Soldier of Fortune publisher (and later
NRA leader) Robert K. Brown held the rank of colonel.
    Mass recruitment of mercenaries was conducted by Soldier of Fortune
staff; gun shows provided congenial ambiance for those activities, which grew
significantly as the Carter administration ratcheted up its counterinsurgency
war in El Salvador. Mercenary recruitment escalated exponentially during the
Reagan years; gun show organizers came to regard enlisting fighters for the
Nicaraguan contra cause as their patriotic duty.
    That is not to say that thousands of men and women who drove into Jackson
from 30 outlying counties were coming to sign up for combat duty in Central
America, not at all. The great majority were hunters, and a significant
minority were competitive shooters, in search of weapons, ammunition,
supplies, and equipment. Despite their economic importance, they and the
dealers who served them were accorded no special welcome. But the hundreds of
police, highway patrolmen, sheriffs' deputies and constables who came were
honored guests, usually admitted free if they attended in uniform. (So much
for Cockburn's delusion that gun shows are gathering places for
anti-government insurgents.)
    The central themes of gun shows I attended were always twofold — the
romance of military combat, and flagrant (I want to say, inhuman) cruelty.
Thus the main aisle contained a large display of fully automatic weapons,
with a .50-caliber water-cooled machine gun as the centerpiece, and video
screens showing combat training exercises recommended for owners of all
sorts, from Uzi machine pistols to Browning Automatic Rifles.
    Bipod-mounted .30-caliber BARs were sentimental favorites of World War II
and Korean veterans, but could only be purchased legally, with a full paper
trail, license, and payment of the BATF's federal transfer tax. Buyers who
wanted off-the-books automatic weapons were sold hardware kits that easily
converted Colt AR-15 "sporting" rifles into fully automatic M-16s.
    Stands for mercenary and Klan-Nazi recruiters, also given prominent floor
locations, included sales of such wholesome publications as torture manuals
(I excerpted the worst examples several years ago in a CovertAction article)
and "Official Running N----r" racist caricature targets (a police favorite).
One ghoulish display included photographs of burns that police interrogators
had inflicted on their captives with stun guns and cattle prods, as
advertisements flogging sales of those very devices. Brass knuckles were
another favorite product.
    It's true that mercenary recruiters disappeared after the Sandinista
defeat in Nicaragua, and that gun show culture in Jackson became more subdued
in the 1990s. But the essential themes of armed combat and cruelty, and the
law enforcement presence, were as strong as ever the last time I attended one
several years ago.
    In 1993 I moved from Mississippi to Pennsylvania, and have lived here
ever since. No longer do I hunt, and my target shooting is infrequent.
Nevertheless, gun culture is more pervasive here than it ever was in
Mississippi. Opening day of buck season is a holiday for every blue collar
worker, and for many high schools. (My sweetheart says Firstdaybuck is one
word in the Pennsylvania vocabulary.)
    Certainly many facets of U.S. working-class culture ought to be
challenged by leftists as we organize and propagate our vision of the good
society, but it seems to me that tilting against gun culture is not a good
idea, certainly is not a priority, and is doomed to fail if attempted. On the
other hand, the Cockburn-St.Clair infatuation with right-wing gun culture is
far worse, especially in light of Katha Pollitt's evidence that St.Clair's
advocacy is personally hypocritical.
    In the absence of a popular leftwing insurgency, they seem to have
decided that any insurgency is better than none, while at the same time
castigating the left for having failed to ignite one. St.Clair's riposte to
Pollitt is laden with esteem for the NRA's virility in contrast to the Sierra
Club's timidity, but neither organization can serve as a model for activists.
Both of those, in different ways, derive their power from bourgeois and
corporate sponsorship, and government indulgence.
    Cockburn and St.Clair are certainly not the first among us to promote a
get-rich-quick  mirage for organizers, but their message cannot be permitted
to drown out the simple truth. Our grandest and perhaps most difficult task
is to project by example, even in relatively quiet times or backward
circumstances, the vision we seek to reify, as we prepare to intervene when
history again favors our cause.

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