Opinion: Rising Political Violence and the Target on Our Backs

A massive vigil following the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. / Image in the public domain via Wikimedia

Opinion: Gun Violence and White Supremacy Are a Deadly Combination – and Demand Our Attention

The first time I fired a gun—a 9mm, semi-automatic—the thing that surprised me was just how easy it was. It took only a tiny amount of pressure from my index finger, the same amount I might use to click “enter” on this stubborn keyboard and less than what it takes to jam my headphone cable into a lint-filled iPhone jack. That was enough to send a lethal bullet over 1,200 feet per second – in that case, hitting a carefully placed bottle on a tree branch.

I was born the younger of two sons to a couple of veterans in Texas and mostly raised in the South, in a military-dominated Virginia suburb. My parents never kept guns in the home (as far as I know); plenty of friends and peers had guns, evidenced by the rifle rack on the back of a classmate’s lifted F-150, partly obscuring the “rebel flag” (aka Confederate flag) in the back window of the cabin.

But I never fired a gun until my mid-20s, when I was living in San Francisco, where, since 2015, gun shops no longer even exist. I traveled north to Cow Mountain, near Ukiah, in the deep-red rural part of Northern California. Amid the dramatic years-long drought that affected California a few years ago, the mountain and surrounding valleys were dusty, like endlessly undulating rows of piled straw.

Up on the mountain, an open-air shooting range, cars and trucks peeled off down gravel trails to set up for the day; men (mostly men) pulled out their personal arsenals to practice firing a tremendous range of firearms.

I started slow and easy with the Glock, but gradually progressed through others – an air rifle and a pistol, for instance. Within a few hours, with just minutes of instruction and practice, I reliably could hit a target from a few dozen yards; I felt comfortable reloading quickly; I felt a baseline comfort in the basics of handling a gun.

The Cow Mountain trip taught me not just the basics of responsibly using and accurately firing guns, but it also taught me a bit about the intrinsic appeal of guns. It was fun; it was a social, enjoyable experience to share with the friends I traveled with. I got it.

In the five years since, I’ve also reflected on the ways my life has intersected with guns – and gun violence, a grim, pervading backdrop to our lives unlike ever before and anywhere else, save literal war zones.

I turn 31 years old next month. Since 2007, I’ve known dozens of people who were present for and/or lost loved ones in mass shootings—Virginia Tech, Umpqua Community College, Pulse, San Bernardino—not even including “mere” active shooter situations without sufficient fatalities to “qualify” as mass killings, such as the 2015 lockdown of a military hospital complex at Fort Bliss in Texas, following a murder-suicide. (Unbelievably, the same friend who was present for the lockdown at Fort Bliss was also present for Virginia Tech’s massacre eight years earlier, where her freshman-year RA was shot to death with one other person in the West Ambler-Johnston Residence Hall.)

Those are just the mass shootings, though. The foregoing cases don’t include the shooting a block from my Brooklyn apartment a week ago, one which I couldn’t even find a reference to anywhere in New York media (though another recent mass shooting in the borough, at a vigil no less, was covered). They omit a vast majority of the slaughter, an estimated 100 Americans every day; another 210 are shot and injured. Every single day, about 21 of the 310 in total will be children and teens, four of whom die.

“Nothing Left to Say – Now the Doing Starts”

Our collective, grief-driven exhaustion has produced voluminous reporting and writing on the causes of and possible solutions to routine carnage in communities around the country. It begins to feel as if it’s all in vain.

Two landing pages, from the U.K. edition of The Guardian and from France’s Le Monde, following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio over the weekend. / Images via screen shot.

Twenty years after Columbine, 12 after Virginia Tech and nearly seven years after Sandy Hook, adding even one more word to the gun control “debate” can feel fruitless. As MEL Magazine’s Miles Klee wrote poignantly yesterday, in a piece titled “There Is Nothing Left to Say,”

After multiple mass shootings across America in a single weekend left at least 30 dead and dozens injured, we all began to talk. In this endeavor, we failed instantly.

(…)

None of [the pundits or politicians’] messages were the right one, all indifferent, defensive or heartless. Then again, what’s left to say? The rest of us are tired of stamping out misinformation as an attack unfolds, debunking the myths around firearms, zeroing in on the vile racism of one shooter and the rank misogyny of another, naming who’s accountable for those views, and demanding the single fucking policy — gun control — that would put us on the path toward peace. “Do something” is the final, reductive rallying cry of the wounded and terrorized, because we’ve run out of words to articulate what that “something” is. We know why mass shootings happen, and we know that they’ll keep happening till we break the country’s death-cult grip on the instruments of mass casualties. We also know that no one in power has any intention of helping that process along

Klee may seem somewhat nihilistic, but his point is anything but. He instructs readers—and writers across media—to abandon the cyclical, stagnant commentary which always unfolds, as though scripted, after each unsurprising tragedy. His conclusion is not a call to end our caring about these issues, but rather our rote rituals surrounding gun violence:

We don’t need a “conversation” about guns anymore. The data are in. The dead are tallied. The weapons were traced, and the manifestos read. We are done presenting the case for checks on the Second Amendment, as the case renews itself in blood each day. All that’s left is the revolution. That is what we communicate in the clipped slogans of the era: Do somethingEnough is enoughNever again. Extra words are wasted breath.

There is nothing left to say — now the doing starts.

Where—how—do we even start?

Seeing Clearly

I’ve written here before on Washington, D.C.’s efforts to include the LGBTQ community in reducing gun deaths and on the rising tide of hate crimes against queer Americans, including the horrific, growing violence against trans Black women in particular. The massacre in El Paso, Texas, last weekend demands a renewed, refocused attention to these subjects – and, following the lessons in Klee’s writing above, it requires that we start “doing.”

The first necessary step is one of recognition, as pointed out by John Gallagher in a commentary piece in LGBTQ Nation Saturday. The title, once again, immediately and clearly articulates Gallagher’s argument: “If You Think the El Paso Shooting Wasn’t About LGBTQ People, Think Again.”

In the El Paso mass shooting, Gallagher writes, was a “horrendous massacre” that “seems to have had its root in violent hatred of immigrants.” It was an emblematic case of violence motivated by white nationalism; the shooter’s manifesto, Gallagher notes, echoed typical white supremacist views on “white replacement” and the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” mirroring the phrasing of both President Trump and U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX).

The manifesto also explicitly appears to be modeled after earlier white supremacist killers’ writings before mass shooting events. (And, within hours, its legitimacy was strongly supported by the details it included but were publicly unknown, posted to online forum and far-right hub 8chan before the first shots were fired.) As Robert Evans wrote at Bellingcat, this fits an ongoing pattern in white supremacist mass murders:

There is nothing new in this killer’s ramblings. He expresses fears of the same “replacement” of white people that motivated the Christchurch shooter, and notes that he was deeply motivated by that shooter’s manifesto. In the article I wrote after the Poway Synagogue shooting I noted that 8channers had dedicated a great deal of time to spreading that manifesto, in an effort to inspire more shooters. The El Paso shooting is further proof that this strategy works. 

A number of social media profiles for the arrested shooter have been found on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. These profiles are consistent with one another, and align with details that police have released about the shooter. His Twitter profile, left fallow since April 2017, suggests that at that time he projected the image of a relatively normal Trump-supporting Republican.

(April Glaser at Slate and Judd Legum’s Popular Information also ran pieces explaining the role of 8chan in recent days, though The Nation’s Brendan O’Connor warned against oversimplification and over-emphasis on 8chan alone, back in March, asserting we, collectively, ought to pay more attention to structural white supremacist violence throughout American history. Still, Evans is right to look to 8chan and related sites as a source, even if not the source for deeper understanding.)

LGBTQ Nation’s Gallagher, meanwhile, underlines a critical point: Anti-LGBTQ hatred and white supremacy are “tightly linked.” I might go further and say they are utterly inseparable, mutually reinforcing, malignant forces, ones we can see when hateful politicians obliterate any semblance of logic to blame mass murder on our communities collectively.

And these forces have only become a greater, clearer threat to numerous groups in the United States and elsewhere. “As a reminder,” Gallagher writes,

the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 and who Trump was praising as fine people chanted “F*ck you, f*ggots.” One of the marchers later released a video game that required players to break into a gay nightclub and shoot people.

The connection is clearest when it comes to so-called Straight Pride events. The call for such a get-together in Boston is being organized by a small group with a record of white supremacism and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Another Straight Pride event in California is being run by a group that says Western Civilization is being destroyed by the “inherent malevolency/evil of the Homosexual/Sodomy Movement.”

With a president unleashing “rants” laden with the language of threats—the one “posed by everyone who represents all the changes happening in American society,” including the greater prominence and mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ people, per Gallagher—the risk of hate-fueled violence spikes.

The Doing

So, with the stakes so stark and our political-cultural moment so alarming, what is to be done? The answer, no matter the specifics or individual nitpicking, must be everything we can.

We must stand in solidarity with all members of our community—particularly those who long have suffered the worst, most consistent violence, like queer people of color and trans Black women above all—across a greater range of social and political contexts.

In the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando three years ago, the outpouring of support around the world offered a glimmer of hope and enormous material support to those grieving. From tens of thousands gathered in Orlando to an intimate remembrance ceremony organized by the Sitkan people of Alaska, an MLB team’s dedication—and donations—to the victims, as well as countless other events and record-breaking fundraisers, that is the energy needed to combat white supremacist-linked violence.

We must also stand against those who endorse ideologies of violence and we must stand against their apologists. That means opposing politicians who court the NRA and cloak white supremacist thinking under strained language, while supporting—vocally, financially or otherwise—their opponents. It means direct advocacy, too – making the calls, sending the emails and voting the profiteers, purveyors and enablers of hate out of office for good. All of it.

And this, in turn, leads to the next opportunity, possibly the one with the least required individual effort and the simplest single route toward effecting collective change.

For those of us in the community with the capacity to do so, we must use our economic and financial weight to sway actors in positions of influence as well. Marketing and business journalists have paid greater attention to “LGBTQ buying power” in the U.S. and global economies over recent years, as leaders, trendsetters and consumers alike. Organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence—named for two survivors of separate assassination attempts—are good starting points.

Given that suicide is prevalent in our communities, especially among younger queer Americans, and given that guns are involved in tens of thousands of deaths by suicide annually in America, the imperative of gun control extends well beyond white supremacist killers. Suicide prevention nonprofits and survivors and families’ support networks deserve as much support as possible – as much as broader gun violence prevention groups.

Corporations profligately enriching anti-LGBTQ politicians and organizations deserve frank, unceasing condemnation. Those which impliedly endorse white supremacy—through ad spots during Tucker Carlson’s vile ethnonationalist tirades on Fox or through providing the online infrastructures supporting white supremacists’ social media platforms, e.g., Amazon—deserve no less scrutiny and outrage. (Although, simultaneously, we ought to consider the ramifications of “privatizing” internet regulation and pressure public regulators in kind.)

 

This isn’t a call for every queer American to join their local PTA, run for city council, volunteer for progressive campaigns, phone bank for nonprofits and otherwise reconfigure their entire life all at once. (If you feel so compelled, though, that’s great, too!) No, there’s really no “perfect” activist or “perfect” ally to be found in reality. Instead, it’s a matter of seeking constantly greater awareness and of maintaining constant forward movement, taking the small and big actions that sustain and propel a movement. (That’s it; no sweat, right?)

Gun violence is “just” one of many, many issues affecting us all, directly and indirectly. But with the last weekend’s dark reminder of how that violence has become bound up in an ideology of hatred, a metastasized political movement endangering all those at the margins of our society, it needs to be a more-central pillar of LGBTQ activism and conversation.

At the outset, I said Cow Mountain was the first place I ever fired a gun, but the truth is it was the last place, too. It was fun, truly, but the ease of firing a lethal weapon and the unease of seeing weapons of war cavalierly hauled about the California countryside left me unsettled. It just wasn’t something I could do again, personally, without judgment and with respect to those responsible individuals who feel differently.

In a society where white supremacist ideology spreads and deadly weapons are widely available—in a society where many young men, in particular, feel no compunction about using weapons, including deploying them to kill as many people as possible—lawful, responsible users of firearms are not the issue. They can no longer be used as a shield, deflecting energy and attention away from gun regulation reforms wholesale, either. Enough.

This is deadly serious. It’s past time to stop talking and start doing.

This is the opinion of one of the contributing writers of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of other writers or the magazine.

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