Review: Setting Sights
Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense. Edited by Scott Crow, with Foreword by Ward Churchill (Oakland: PM Press, 2018).

I often have difficulty expressing an opinion on the gun rights movement, because my views are so ambivalent.

Principled arguments for gun rights based on resistance to unjust authority resonate strongly with me. I’m very aware of the historic association of limitations on gun ownership with issues of social control of the working class, going back to the Game Laws in Britain, to racial policing in the American South under slavery and Jim Crow to the present, and the role of armed worker self-defense in a host of confrontations with cops, soldiers, and Pinkertons. I acknowledge the role that armed self-defense has played in situations ranging from the workers’ militias that thwarted Franco’s July 19 coup in half of Spain, to Robert William’s defense of the NAACP in Monroe, NC, to the Pink Pistols today.

Unfortunately, such cases are almost totally obscured in mainstream U.S. culture. The groups that scream the loudest about government tyranny are, objectively, the most privileged, and have the least reason to complain.  They are, overwhelmingly, white dudes who think they’re being “oppressed” because they have to see women in hijabs, people of the same sex holding hands, people speaking Spanish, etc., in public places, and aren’t allowed to kill them. Hence the politics of “Take America Back.”

What’s more, these self-designated denouncers of government tyranny and upholders of the right of resistance are hypocritical beyond belief when it comes to real-world cases of government abuse of power. Groups like the NRA and Oath Keepers are the first to stand up for the police when they murder unarmed black people — not to mention when they murder black people like Philando Castile exercising their right to bear arms in open carry states. And of course, we all know that “stand your ground” applies only to white people.

On top of all that, US gun culture — as you might expect, given its overwhelming whiteness — is also associated with a lot of other toxic baggage. This culture is not informed by the history of legitimate armed resistance, but by American Exceptionalism, settler history, all the messianic weirdness coming out of the Second Great Awakening that makes America a travelling religious carnival freakshow, and the whole Scots-Irish “culture of honor” thing, as well as with the amazing level of violence in American society.

So fuck the so-called gun rights movement up, down, backwards, and sideways, every day of the week — and twice on Sunday.

Against this background, Setting Sights is an especially great achievement. Setting Sights, as editor Scott Crow writes, “covers people and communities who have resorted to armed self-defense as part of their struggles for liberation, justice, or basic human rights.” It’s an anthology of commentaries on the issue from representatives of the marginalized groups whose voices are usually drowned out by mainstream American gun culture:  People of Color resisting police abuses, women, workers, and the LGBT community.

As American Indian Movement activist Ward Churchill argues in his Foreword, the “founding fathers” who wrote the Second Amendment, and the white slavers and settlers who are so centered in the historic gun culture, were themselves the government tyranny against which armed self-defense was and is needed, right up to present-day Y’all Qaedists like Cliven Bundy:

It can be argued, and rightly so, that since the society on behalf these principles were set forth was composed all but exclusively of white settlers — this is to say, invaders — it was everywhere and always the aggressor, and consequently had no basis upon which claim [sic] a right to self-defense, armed or otherwise.

In every case, it was the other side — the Natives killed or driven off their land, the African-Americans hunted down by slave patrols or terrorized by white paramilitaries under Jim Crow — who had the right of self-defense, and the side celebrated in the mythology of American Westerns who deserved to be shot down like dogs.

Churchill also raises the question of how armed self-defense ties in with diversity of tactics in contemporary justice movements. These two themes — the historic legacy of armed resistance by marginalized groups, and their role in present-day resistance to structural oppression — are the themes of most of the writings collected in this book.

But armed resistance is only one half of the picture. The other half is building, here and now, the counter-institutions that will grow and coalesce into the successor society. Armed resistance exists only as a means to an end: protecting our right to engage in the act of building, and protecting our counter-institutions from the capitalist state’s attempts to destroy them. This process of construction is that end.

It of course remains possible to counter the worst conditions structurally imposed by the existing order through a process of consciously detaching from it. This devolves upon the (re)building of subjugated communities through the organization of grassroots initiatives to maximize their capacity to approach or attain self-sufficiency on the basis of local resources, human and otherwise. Food production — community gardening even in “hard core” urban areas, as is being done in Baltimore, for example — to improve nutrition and reduce living expenses in inner city “food deserts” has been successfully taken on as an organizing focus in a number of locales. So too has the refurbishing of unlivable dwellings and dilapidated or abandoned public use facilities, establishing community-based health care services and educational programs ranging from mentoring and tutoring to whole schools, building or acquiring alternative energy sources such as solar panels and wind generators, revitalizing local parks and establishing recreational centers, providing both childcare and eldercare, as well as neighborhood transport and security services.

Much of this effort has been undertaken and often expanded through the organization of co-ops both within and between communities pursuing similar agendas, facilitating trade in a variety of locally produced foodstuffs and other commodities as well as the pooling and sharing of technical skills, experience, and labor. The co-op model has also been used in (re)establishing small shop manufacturing and corresponding job opportunities within largely disemployed communities, thereby reducing the burden of necessarily participating in the broader cash economy.

It’s worth mentioning that editor Scott Crow was also the author of Black Flags and Windmills, which among other things devotes considerable space to a first-hand account of the terror tactics used by law enforcement and corporate mercenaries against the predominantly black population of post-Katrina New Orleans. So his interest in the subject of this anthology is not merely academic.

This is not a didactic book in the sense of lionizing armed community defense in particular. As Crow writes at the outset, it may be a relatively minuscule part of the entire range of community tactics, compared to the prefigurative institutions Churchill mentions in the block quote above; the anthology simply aims at a thoughtful consideration of such self-defense efforts as part of the mix, and surveys some important examples of their use in the past.

In his kickoff essay, Crow emphasizes among other things the anarchist principles that should guide armed community self-defense: that “the armed component should never become the center,” and it should never be aimed at taking state power.

The first part of the book consists of general essays aimed at defending the principle of armed self-defense, and recuperating libertarian arguments for gun rights from the right-wing white chuds who have misappropriated them.

The second part is a series of case studies ranging from the Russian and Spanish Civil Wars, to the Wobblies at Centralia, to the Black Panthers, to such contemporary movements as the Zapatistas, the self-defense militias of the Venezuelan Barrios, and the Kurdish fighters in Rojava. And, as we might expect, New Orleans in 2005.

I highly recommend this book. The general analysis is thoughtful. Although some of the topical chapters on the earlier part of the 20th century — particularly those on Russia and Spain —  cover fairly well-worn material, it’s always worth another look. And some of them deal with subjects — like Redneck Revolt — that don’t get nearly enough attention. Questions of diversity of tactics, the pros and cons of pacifism, and civilian resistance are major topics of debate these days, and Setting Sights is an excellent contribution to the literature.

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