The Second Amendment and the Left
Platypus Review 110 | October 2018
On May 11, 2018, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion, The Second Amendment and the Left, at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Speaking at the event were Evan Hetland, member of Platypus; Mike Rotkin, former lecturer at UCSC and ex-mayor of Santa Cruz; Bruce Thompson, lecturer of history at UCSC; and Dayton Andrews, representing Redneck Revolt. The panel was moderated by Duyminh Tran. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Evan Hetland: Since the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, the bearing of arms has been a matter of critical importance to the Left. A utopian vision defined its aspirations, dreams, which they were convinced would require more than just marches and debates to achieve. If the working class had a world to win, then those who currently possessed it were likely not going to accept defeat so easily. The threat of counter revolution and political repression loomed large. To arm the people was to empower them, while reserving the tools of war for the state was recognized as reactionary, authoritarian repression. What has changed, if anything, since then? The Left seems to be split on this issue. Some say the Second Amendment is seen as the source of suffering—school shootings, gang violence, etc. Repealing or restricting it would be the noble, pragmatic thing to do. Then there are those (leftists) who cling to the old line (promoting the right to bear arms). What does this fracture indicate about the state of the Left? Is this a simple matter of tactics and opinion, or something more fundamental? Marx states, in the "Address to the Central Committee": "The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, cannons, and ammunition. And a revival of the old-style militia directed against the workers must be opposed. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered. Any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated—by force, if necessary."
In The Death-Agony of Capitalism Trotsky argues that the workers should be armed and organized against the forces of reaction. The workers militia allows for the struggle more broadly against imperialist war. The SPD of Germany, in the times of the great mass parties, reached great heights because it was a "state within a state." This was also a critical challenge for it, but nonetheless, it was able to secure its position and defend against incursion from the state. What position would the Left be advocating, in capitulating our claim to arms and resistance, laying it at the feet of the capitalist state?
This move towards gun control is evidence of the general aligning of ideals of what is called the "radical Left" and the Democratic Party that we have been seeing over the past fifty years. Indeed, #BlackLivesMatter has departed from its purported ties to past struggles such as the Black Panthers by aligning itself with gun control—as the March for our Lives indicated.
So, much of Left's conformity to the upsurge of anti-gun sentiment is a result of its strategy: being the most radical liberals and serving as the most enthusiastic foot soldiers of the Democratic Party. Namely, unarmed foot soldiers. So, is this the case? Or is this simply a matter of tactics and opinion and statistics?
Mike Rotkin: I am going to start by telling you I was born in the last month of WWII. I spent all of my youth playing "Army." We happened to have a gun with its firing pin taken out. We had little groups in my neighborhood that fought each other. Some people were the Germans, some were the French. I grew up totally into guns. I would not tell any of my students here at UCSC, but I used to be a duck hunter. I have gone to target ranges many times. In 1970 I joined a small Maoist party—the Revolutionary Union, which eventually became the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—where I learned to re-load empty shells, because we thought that in a revolutionary period you would not have the ability to go out and buy bullets, you would have to make your own. I learned how to make pipe bombs. In the Vietnam War, I had fantasies of building a junk and was actually able to buy a mortar and get shells for it. And my fantasy was that I would sail up the Potomac—I grew up in DC—and shell the White House—bring the war home. So, I am not a stranger to thinking about military struggle in my earlier youth. But, I have come to change my views on this matter.
The reality of the power of the military in the current period is so different in the period in which Marx was writing. There was a time, in Marx's period, where a small number of people with small arms could actually make a difference in a military struggle. Now, you would be quickly disposed of with those kinds of attacks. Marx thought the revolution was coming very soon. And I think that most of us now are thinking that if we really are successful, we are talking about at least twenty to fifty years for anything like a radical transformation of capitalism to something else.
So, the issue for us is that it is a fantasy to believe that individuals having guns would be useful in defending a revolution. I will go on beyond that to say that there is a huge irony in that the attempts of the right to take over the country—I am thinking of the current situation with Trump. Not fascism, but proto-fascism. It is ironic that the major defenders against these efforts have in fact been the FBI. If you look at that situation that we are in, you realize that our major defenders have not been radical leftists, armed people threatening that we are going to rise up if there is trouble around this issue. The reality is that our defense is not really in individual people holding guns or arms.
I will go off in a quick digression to mention the Second Amendment, which says that in order to have an effective militia people should be able to own guns or hold guns. We do not have that kind of militia. If anything, it is the National Guard of the various states. So, I have a proposal. If you want to defend the Second Amendment, you get to keep a gun if you join the National Guard. Then you have a right to have a gun. But the idea that somehow individuals holding guns creates an effective force against the power of a right-wing coup, or in a situation where we are about to take power as a Left—it is really a fantasy, and it needs to be directly attacked on that level.
As I have said in my past, I have thought about what role we would play, what would happen if we had a revolutionary moment. And in the early 1970s a lot of us misguidedly thought we were close to a revolutionary moment. It seemed like the whole country was coming apart. There were riots in almost every major city. Inner-city residents were up in arms and burning places down. It looked like things were possible—that maybe we were going to have a total break with the logic of the system. Looking back on it, we were deeply misguided. In the small places we were—on campuses, the two Left Coasts, we might have thought that we had possibilities of a revolutionary moment, but that was not realistic. In fact, all of the violence that came out of the Weathermen from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—the latter of which I was active in—that active movement in fact worked against us. It got Nixon elected by a landslide in 1968. It crushed McGovern who would have been a reasonable candidate for president at the time. And so, violence does not necessarily move us in a radical way towards possibilities of defending democracy.
The reality of it is, if you look at Marx, at the Critique of the Gotha Program, or the Communist Manifesto, one of the things that Marx says—and Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and Trotsky also— is that Socialists have to do more than fight for socialism. They also have to represent progressive politics. I am using paraphrases to explain, but their argument is, we have to stand for justice. We have to stand for the desires of the people, in terms of what they want to have in society. In representing that, we often will take up issues that have nothing directly related to socialism. They defended Dreyfus, who was a captain in the imperial French army. Dreyfus was being discriminated against because he was Jewish. And when asked "What do you give a shit about some captain in the imperial French army?” It is an injustice. And socialists should stand for justice, not just for a socialist vision of the future. But everywhere there is oppression we should be against it. Gun control is addressing a very real problem in our society.
We are in a situation where gun control is a reasonable defense of the people of the United States. It is true that more people of color use guns that white people in the United States, but by a factor of five, more people of color are killed by guns that white people in the United States in terms of these kinds of crime statistics. Guns have become basically what kills the most vulnerable people in the United States in massive numbers. It is something that socialists need to address, because in so doing, we are showing people that we believe in rationality. We believe in the defense of humane values. And that is something that in the current period is critical. People would be much better off to learn how to write leaflets, to make a good argument about what is wrong with fascism or Trump's ideas, or to be able to have an argument with somebody or speak publicly—than to learn how to hold guns, use them, be effective with them, and think about military tactics. Because we are not in a period where we are anywhere near that kind of a confrontation. That's my position.
Bruce Thompson: The political leaders who I most admired—the Kennedys, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.—were victims, obviously, of gun violence. If we take the fifty years since the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, if we take 15,000 or 20,000 as the number of Americans each year who are murdered by guns, that number comes close to a million. We have lost more of our fellow citizens to gun violence in the half-century since the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, than died in the Civil War, which was the biggest bloodletting in our history. So, this is an ongoing crisis. It is a scandal. There is no other country in the world in which gun ownership is fetishized in the way it is in the United States. The consequence is very clear. As Robert Kennedy used to say, this is unacceptable.
One thing is clear, there is no such thing as an absolute right to gun ownership. That is a misreading of the Second Amendment. As Mike pointed out, the words are very clear, it relates to participation in a well-regulated militia. If the Founding Fathers could have conceived of an AK-47, or any of these other weapons of mass destruction—does anyone seriously believe that they would have been in favor of making it easier to get one of those things than it is to get a license to drive an automobile? Does anyone seriously think that the Founding Fathers were idiots? But that is in fact the way in which the Right in our country interprets the Second Amendment. That is relatively new. It was Justice Scalia who turned the Second Amendment into something like an absolute right of gun ownership. In his reading of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers did not prohibit Americans from owning weapons of mass destruction.
So what stand should the Left take on this issue? It seems to me like it is not really a choice, it is an obligation. If you care about your fellow human beings, if you care about a more decent society, if you care about the fate of schoolchildren, then how can you possibly be in favor of the easy circulation of these weapons of mass destruction? It does not make any sense.
And I cannot imagine a Left that stands for a more just, a more decent society that cares for the future of our children, that doesn't make this a central issue. They have to be defeated. The NRA, their allies, and the Republican Party. And I believe they can be defeated, that this issue is going to be like gay marriage—they thought it was a winning card for them and look how quickly it turned into the opposite. I think that gun violence is that kind of issue. It is about to flip. The Republicans are already beginning to run scared on this issue because of those brave kids in Florida who are holding them to account. And I think that is a very positive step towards taking back our country, towards really saving our democracy—the fate of which really is at stake over the next several years.
Dayton Andrews: When I was born, in 1993, 47% of all black men in the city of Los Angeles between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven were on the city's gang register. The first time I was arrested I was fifteen. It was in my public high school. It was not political. It was the policy of what happens when kids get in trouble in LA public schools—they get arrested. When we look at gun violence, we like to talk about homicides, we like to talk about crime, but we do not actually talk about the state. We do not actually talk about the state’s use of violence. The number one arbiter of violence in this society is not private citizens owning guns, it is actually state actors.
If we look at it globally, who's the number one arbiter of violence statistically? The United states. The West! We are doing it, and it is totally legal! The Brady Bill was one of the first pieces of gun-control legislation, and it was endorsed by the NRA! The times, the reality is different. We do not have revolutionary parties actively struggling in working-class communities. People talk about the rates of gun ownership amongst communities of color, but they neglect those communities’ proximity to violence. They forget these legacies. I have called the cops—I do not know how many times—when my mom was getting beaten up. And not once did I get a SWAT car to show up at my house. Not once! They did not go to that zip code. So, what did the people do? We can only look at Philando Castile. Employee of a local school district, kept a gun, paid his permits, legal gun owner! Tells the officer, "I have a gun on my belt!" and is promptly shot how many times in the face in front of his wife and daughter?
We talk about the kids in Florida, we do not talk about the kids in Ferguson. And there was no neo-Nazi with an AR-15. It was the militarized Ferguson police force. Look at the Ferguson report that was produced there and what do we see? We see that the number one source of revenue in Ferguson were fines and fees. The number one revenue of the local government was actually penalizing the citizens with fees. They rose up! And they brought in armored personnel carriers to bring them back down. If you look at the history of the United States, you look at the Watts rebellions, and then Rodney King, you actually see darn near forty years of uncoordinated, mostly unsuccessful armed rebellion. Assata Shakur speaks about this in her autobiography The Development of the Black Liberation Army. It was not intentional. It is not like they got together and said, "We're gonna fuckin' form an army. We're gonna start robbing banks." No, no, no! The level of criminalization was so high, she could not even go outside her apartment anymore. They would pick her up. They would try to arrest her. They arrested several of her friends! They had to get fake identities. They had to start wearing wigs. They were pushed underground! They were being assassinated.
So, what do we see in terms of the Left? The Left has to recognize the reality of working-class communities of color, and that reality is a higher proximity to violence. Our position in the Bay Area, in Santa Cruz, the state of California, is that the number one oppressor in these communities is not the neo-Nazi with an AK-47. It is the policeman! It is the police officer, it is the supervisor, it is the shift lead, it is the abusive boyfriend, it is the men that molest you as you walk down the street. Those are the oppressors in this community! And in reality, most of the time when we look at how police handle these things, these are not adequate solutions.
The Black Panthers were actually very practical in their use of firearms. They were not preparing for guerilla raids. They were not drilling in the forest. They were not carrying balaclavas. They were not making pipe bombs. They were just practicing their legal rights! A man would get shot, they would have a rally. The pigs would show up, the racist neighbors from the hill community would come up, and the Panthers would have guns to protect themselves! People love to sanitize this period. They love to talk about, "Martin Luther King would not approve of this use of violence!" People like to assume Martin Luther King owned no firearms. It is very interesting. So you think he went out to Selma, Alabama and had no firearms? No, they had guns. They were prepared to defend themselves. Revolutionaries count on getting shot. Revolutionaries count on going to jail. Even if they're not even revolutionary, the government will just send you to jail. Community self-defense is not the same as insurrection. It is actually recognizing the oppressive forces that are active in a particular situation. And hoping to advance those struggles by actually practically uniting with the masses. We have to unite with the masses in a regular struggle.
We choose community self-defense in Redneck Revolt. We educate people in the use of the guns and legal gun ownership, but we also teach about the roles of violence in our communities. We need to develop an understanding of what violence is and how it plays out! And the real reality of how this affects working-class communities of color. We will leave it at that.
EH: If guns have caused over a million deaths in the past since Kennedy, car accidents have killed over 3.6 million. Should we ban cars? Obviously not. There is real utility in cars. They get us places. They increase our ability to coordinate economically. And there is real utility in guns. Namely, the preservation of autonomy and the preservation of democracy. What is a citizen if they lay down the monopoly of violence at the hands of the state? You get Hobbes' Leviathan, essentially. It is the creature to which we all surrender our ability to fight back. In order to get a state that will honor the democratic process, it needs to be somewhat afraid of insurrection. Not only this, but there is also the connection with revolutionary politics and armed insurrection. Namely that it is not possible to convince the state to change its ways if the state is not interested in changing its ways—and you are disconnected from the state. There is this idea that the Republicans are the most heinous political party since slavery. I would look more to the Southern Democrats. I see a lot of "look over there!" rather than at the Democrats as well. I think that the fact that so many of the Left are running over to embrace gun control is a symptom of its tailism to the Democratic Party.
MR: First of all, I want to say I was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, worked in the South, and got beaten by Southern sheriffs for doing voter registration work. I do not know whether Martin Luther King had arms, but I can tell you that the people I was working with on the Alabama-Florida border—we were not armed. What made that Civil Rights movement successful was that the public perceived the people who were not challenging the power of the United States in an armed way, but who took a moral stand. The fact that we were unarmed and fighting for justice was what led to the success of that movement. In fact, if those people had been openly armed and fighting back at the Selma Bridge or other places with gunfire, there would have never been a Civil Rights movement. We would still be in the same place we were in 1945 or 1950. I think it is a real misreading to think about whether people had guns. It protected itself with a moral shield, not with weapons.
It is a real mistake to believe that the individual ownership of guns or that having guns is what protects you against the state. I am not disagreeing with anything of the comments about the way the state abuses people, particularly people of color. But there is no question that abuse is not going to be defended against by individual people having their guns. It is going to be defended by mass movements of people who demand changes. Whether you do that through the Democratic Party or through a third party or whatever way you think, you are going to go do it. It is going to be by a movement that pushes for moral values and argues that the ways things are going do not make sense and do not defend the interests of the vast majority of people in society... that racism is not only bad for people of color, but bad for most white people. That is an argument that is going to be much more successful than people of color defending themselves with weapons.
Think of that image, is that going to bring the state to heel, is it going to stop the abuses that are going on? We have seen over and over again... any time people had guns to defend themselves, they were quickly crushed by the power of the state. We are not in a period where the vast majority of people are ready for revolution.
BT: I agree with Mike. I think that the way to challenge oppression is not with a threat of insurrection, which will only lead to more repression, but rather with democracy, with the vote, with winning elections! It is not true that you cannot change the posture of the state. You can change it by winning elections! I think that should be the primary strategy.
DA: At no point in this discussion have we ever advocated for the individual use of guns to achieve political power. We see an absolute absence of mass movements. We disagree full-heartedly with the fact we have to do this totally without firearms. That is a complete erasure of the reality certain communities face. This is not a blanket statement about who should be armed or should not be armed. I will tell you the number one cause of death for black women under 30: it is intimate partner violence! But the conversation is not: should we ban men? That would be really convenient. It would solve the problem in one way, but that is not really advancing the struggle.
We have had a lot of legal victories, but we actually have not changed the character of our society! Look at housing. Our housing market is just as segregated as it was in 1961! It has not changed! Malcolm X talks about the pacification of the March on Washington. The movement had a real opportunity to unite with a lot of working-class forces. At the same time, there was a real compromise that was made to present an image that was able to persevere—that was the decision he made back then.
The state is afraid of us. They are! They have the means to destroy us. That is true! That is why if we think of actual political change, we have to take that seriously. Because the last act of the Chilean Communist Party before they started to receive shells from U.S. aircraft was to disarm the workers. One of their final polemics said, "The Chilean military will never turn on the people of Chile! Never!"
If the 2nd Amendment does not cover technologies that have developed since the time of the Founding Fathers, then do the First and Fourth Amendments not apply to new technologies like the internet and other new spaces? Or would freedom of speech and freedom of privacy apply elsewhere?
MR: I think every one of these Amendments needs modern interpretation of what the impacts are and be thought about in terms of their impacts in exactly that way. The Second Amendment is no different. There is no question that how we interpret freedom of speech, privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment and so forth, need to be considered not in terms of what the Founding Fathers were thinking was important in the time of the Revolution, but what sense does it make now? The Second Amendment was an attempt to make sure that the foreign powers—Britain, and unfortunately the Indians—that people were protected against what was perceived as outside attacks or threats. You have to understand that we are not in that situation. I take your premise seriously—that you have to look at the First Amendment and think about how it would have to be interpreted differently now than before. What rights do people have in terms of Facebook and other kinds of issues? The Founding Fathers had no conception about what we are talking about.
DA: They knew exactly what the Second Amendment was going to be used for. It was going to be used for militia groups they were arming in order to pacify the frontier. The state wants to arm poor white people as a means to get rid of Native American indigenous people. What is Manifest Destiny but mass destruction? We always talk about what the Founding Fathers wanted, but these people owned slaves. All of Thomas Jefferson's descendants are black people. How did that happen? Sally Hemings! According to the Department of Corrections, an imprisoned person cannot consent to intercourse. So should we take Thomas Jefferson's word on how to treat a lady? If we know this man has procreated through rape? So we lionize these men, but if we put these people in a modern context would you want to sit next to these men? No!
MR: I think that one of the things you have to think about when you get into discussions about gun control, free speech, or any issue is: what are the practical realities of what we are talking about? We have massive statistics showing us that the people who own guns are much more likely to be harmed by it themselves than harm somebody else. That guns, in fact, are not a great tool of defense for people. They are not adequately trained to use them. Do you think if I have a gun when someone breaks into my house that I am going to be ready to deal with them? But statistics demonstrate over and over again that the gun is more likely to kill your children than some intruder into your home.
DA: We're not training people in the use of firearms so they can defend their homes from robbers. This is for political purposes. These are folks who wanted to get more involved. You are right—that is one particular issue that we talk about with people—people develop plans about what they do. For example, how do you protect your firearm from getting stolen? That is a big, serious issue that people worry about. You buy a firearm, someone steals it and commits a crime that actually can be traced back to you—that is a serious issue. But these are real discussions that need to be had in communities affected by violence. If we make these blanket statements on guns from an ivory tower, using statistical methods that are inaccurate, that have always been inaccurate, then people just stop listening to us. Then we are incapable of actually fusing with the mass of people, which is a very difficult thing to do. It requires actually using these general statistical methods of information and uniting that with people in these actual communities, which requires actual investigation.
On the topic of militias and—what was brought up but not explained—the "state within a state," which I suppose would be the SPD's paramilitary organization... but what do you think about a non-government militia, a community militia meant for community self-defense in the style of the Black Panthers? They do not rely on individual ownership of guns. They regulate themselves.
DA: You found our model! It is really easy! You just have to talk to each other.
I was wondering how that would work. If the Constitution was interpreted as saying only a well-regulated militia has the right to bear arms, would the state allow for the existence of anti-government groups, even if they are well-regulated gun owners?
MR: They are not now. People in Idaho that have these militias... the state goes after them when they can find them. Not systematically, but if the state has an opportunity, it will take those groups down. It would do the same as what it did to the Black Panther Party. Once they discover there is a situation like that, they are not going to be passive about how they are going to respond to these so-called militia groups. They do not find them any more acceptable than individuals owning guns.
EH: One of the major points about the "state within a state" complex is that the Marxist interpretation of the state is special bodies of armed men. You have these socialist militias within Germany that are not only performing self-defense, but also providing education and training to the community, which is what the Black Panthers also took part in.
MR: But you are talking about a situation when the government did not control society the way our government controls our society today. It was a fluid situation. For example, during the Russian Revolution, before the actual revolution itself took place, the army was divided, people were deserting the army, and members of the army were going over to the Left and joining the various factions of the communist party at the time. I think there is a fantasy here that somehow our situation is analogous. Things were fluid enough that small groups, or even a large political group could challenge the power of the state, and the state would not have the ability to take them on. That was the situation in Germany. That was the situation in Russia before the Revolution. Think seriously about it. Are we close to that situation in the United States? The Left is a pissant little group—and I am part of it—of people that are trying to challenge the status quo. It is easily crushable by the state. You cannot have an analogy comparing what those parties did in maintaining an armed detachment as a part of their policy. If we did that now, the state would not only take down the armed detachment, but also take down the party.
On the topic of police and gun control, do you think that policemen now are more inclined to use deadly force, because of the current public commentary on guns?
DA: Cops have always done it. There has never been a golden age of policing. People have always hated cops. Why? Because they are always policing your behavior and fucking beating your ass. The issue nowadays is that I have a fucking cell phone. So when I am not doing these talks, I am working with public policy in San Francisco. What we have seen is that even when we introduce time and distance training, body cameras, and new policies on the use of force, we are still not changing the character of the police's relationship to these communities. When they do not have tasers, they have clubs and mace. We have had nine officer-involved shootings in San Francisco, and they all involved people that were mentally ill. This is two years after we implemented the new training, and over a year after all officers were equipped with body cameras. We had three officers of those nine shootings put their right hand over their body camera, and fire with their left hand. The police have to be disarmed. That is our line, first and foremost.
So the police have to be disarmed, and then everybody loses their guns?
DA: It would be a Herculean task. I think it is possible. I do not think the government has the right to disarm citizens when one of the largest sources of violence in our society is the police.
So with this in mind, is there some kind of compromise we can reach? Can you keep your guns in a different location that is monitored, and still have arenas where you can shoot for sport, or go hunt?
DA: We already have a certain type of compromise right now. However, this compromise follows a cookie-cutter model without acknowledging the particularities of communities afflicted by gun violence. The Brady Bill was a specific political reaction to armed black people entering the state capital. This government launched COINTELPRO. Huey P. Newton wrote his thesis on COINTELPRO's war on the Panthers right here in UCSC. It was an actual campaign to break down armed revolutionary movements in this country. It was meant to target white nationalist groups as well. But as you can tell, it did not work. We see troubling instances of law enforcement and fascist groups cooperating. They are allowed to provide their own security at rallies. Lenin says, I think, in What is to be Done? that we must take social change very seriously. The moment might not be a military moment, but we have to treat it like that. We are not telling people to bomb government facilities. We are not ambushing police. We are having a conversation about gun ownership based on the particular situations of these communities affected by gun violence.
MR: We must step up the pressure and get council members elected who think police violence is a big issue and are willing to do something about it. You can make a difference around these things. Currently, we have a lot of council members that will wither under the police chief. They will start a conversation and spend weeks, months talking about it, and nothing will happen. I think the first choice is to use the democratic process to have control over how the police use their weapons and the consequences when they misuse them.
DA: Let’s look at the history of these different electoral campaigns to change the character of these neighborhoods. Think about how excited the black community got when we elected Barack Obama, and how disappointed we were when there were more drone strikes and deportations than any other sitting president. You run the risk of appearing condescending to the communities that face higher rates of voter disenfranchisement when the electoral process continually proves disappointing. In the time of Malcom X, when the police would kidnap different members of their organization… what the people did was to demonstrate in front of the police station itself and threaten to break in until the hostages were released. That was a different time under different conditions. But if we constrain all popular struggle, we will return back to the same position that we are at now. We are going to continue to fill up these buckets of people’s hopes and dreams and then pour it onto the concrete. However, I will acknowledge that certain electoral struggles will advance popular struggle. It is important to have these different avenues for struggle, like ballot measures around police accountability.
The difference between now and the time of Marx and Lenin is that there is a complete absence of mass parties. There is an infinite potential for scaremongering when it comes to the liberal state showing people that the socialists want to be armed, considering that we have lived through decades of Cold War propaganda. So my question to you all here is, do you think that the focus on this one issue of allowing the socialists to be armed is detrimental to the creation of a left party in the long term?
DA: That is respectability, right? We can go back to the polls. Seventy percent of white Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King. Seventy of white Americans do not approve of Colin Kaepernick bending the knee during the national anthem. So if we base this on respectability, we are not going to get anywhere. There is an actual need to have clear and open dialogue between activist organizing and the community. I have been involved in struggles where people pass all kinds of rumors about the most liberal-progressive votes. If you have actual links in these communities, they will know that you are not crazy and are working toward improvements. But that is predicated on you doing the work. The media can only demonize socialists if they are not doing their jobs.
MR: Let me tell you a quick story. In 1972, the U.S. bombed Hanoi and Haiphong. We organized a huge demonstration to shut down multiple highways in the area. We recorded 150,000 people from various organizations that were committed to this plan. The night before the demonstration, the Revolutionary Communist Party out of the Bay Area announced they were coming armed. Nobody showed up to the demonstration. They said, fuck it, I am not going to some place where there is going to be a shootout between the police and the RCP. Now, I was part of a contingent of 400 people from Santa Cruz that went to Alameda Island to create a diversion to draw the tactical squads away from this major demonstration. We showed up at four in the morning to draw some of the squads off, but the main demonstration never happened. I do not have a lot of love for the RCP and their decision to announce that they were bringing guns because it was going to create the "struggle of the moment." It was bullshit, and ultimately, an unarmed, active demonstration shutting down the highways would have had a real impact on that war effort. It is a joke to think that we are going to be involved in an armed struggle with the state at this point. We are such a pimple on the body politic. We have such an inability to articulate anything. Not just in working class communities, but anywhere that represents the vast majority of the American people.
I think there is a place for police in society as far as serving out warrants... like a bailiff’s job in a court. However, I have seen that some communities in the Honduras have alarming success with these types of programs concerning police privatization. Maybe that is something people should be seriously considering as a way to bring down gun violence. You privatize the police force that patrols your neighborhood. As your security, you can decide what they are armed with, determine what their uniform will be, and how they are supposed to conduct themselves.
MR: Your only hope for dealing with the police is to empower the civilian government that is elected by the people. You can pressure them by electing the right people and through demonstrations. I am talking about a whole, wide range of demonstrations. Note that I am not saying what the limits on them are. In my first year of being mayor, we got rid of the police chief and two deputy chiefs, and took four police officers to court for brutalizing homeless people. You can make a difference, but you have to be willing to stand up to pressure from not only the police, but from the more conservative members of the community. Back then, Santa Cruz was a right-wing town run by the John Birch Society. We stood up to them and managed to totally change the police force. They are still not perfect, but compared to the old police force where they basically did whatever the hell they wanted and had no oversight by the civilian government? I wish I knew if there was an alternative, but I think that it is the only way you can do it.
EH: This talk of the private police force really makes me think of the Pinkertons. That is nostalgic... that did not end well. I also wanted to bring up also the question of the police in general. This was touched upon earlier, that police did not always exist. It is important to remember that police are actually a creature of Reconstruction. They were largely employed in enforcing, in the United States at least, slavery. They came from slave patrols.
MR: Long before the Civil War and slavery, there were police in America. There is no question of that. The police are the result of having a society where people no longer live in small villages where everybody knows each other. You have total strangers who have no connection. You need some additional force simply because people are not going to live on a basis of cooperation and agreement on the scale we live in. Call them whatever you want, there is going to have to be someone with authority to manage our cities.
EH: But before there were civilians, militias existed. Not the police.
DA: They were constables. They were patrolmen. It is different from a force that provides 24- hour enforcement. They have pensions and salaries. They have headquarters. They have contracts. They have uniforms. It is a very different relationship than a militia group from the early-18th century. When we actually look at our definition of a police force, the police force did not exist before 1850. A book that all of you could look up is Our Enemies in Blue. It is a good one that tracks the relationship and development of the police force. Cops came about when folks started moving into cities. Due to the socialization of labor, there needs to be a policing force to maintain order. In reality, that is what police are. We should be very clear that this particular form of the police is different and is an important political tool. |P