Gun Rights and the Black Panther Party: A Talk on February 21, 2014

UPDATE 2/15/2014: The talk has been rescheduled to Friday, February 21, 2014 at noon. It will still take place in Bryan Hall Faculty Lounge, Room 229.

In my Ph.D. program, each fifth-year student gives a formal, hour-long presentation of research from the dissertation. It’s a wonderful tradition and I’m excited to be giving my “diss talk” soon. You are invited. The talk will take place February 14 21, 2014 at noon in the Bryan Hall Faculty Lounge at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the abstract:

Defensible Selves: The Black Panther Party and the Right to Bear Arms

In the last half century, the Second Amendment has transformed from a “revolutionary” tool of leftist minority groups to a rallying cry for white supremacists and the far right. This paper examines the Second Amendment’s volatile racial politics by looking to some discredited or ignored narratives of arms bearing that appear in minority performance and discourse. Homing in on the emergence of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966, the paper analyzes the early Panthers’ theatrical armed protests, including “police patrols” aimed at protecting black neighborhoods from police brutality and an iconic open-carry demonstration at the California State Capitol. Broadcast images of organized, legally armed African Americans provoked public fear and outrage, leading to a drastic new gun control measure nicknamed the “Panther Bill.” This swift legislative response laid bare the extent to which the Constitution’s ideal arms bearer is popularly imagined as a white, male property owner defending colonized space—not a politically active African American with life and liberty to protect. The Panthers’ embodied political speech drew from and recast familiar narratives of self-defense, tyranny, revolution, peoplehood, and individual self-determination. By reconfiguring popular Second Amendment myths, they perhaps offer a way to reframe present-day gun debates. The right to bear arms, more than a question of domestic policy, is fundamentally tied to how we imagine the nation—and how we imagine the horizon of violence that keeps the nation whole.

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Prospecting in The Martial Imaginary

Both halves of Legal Lacuna have been cramming for comprehensive exams and producing our dissertation prospectuses this spring, and I’m happy to report that we’re now both ABD. This magical point of the PhD program—all but dissertation—is when some aspiring academics chuck it all and go to law school. Luckily, that ship has sailed for us. Instead, we are heading full steam into our respective projects.

My dissertation examines race and militarism from World War II to the post-9/11 era by analyzing what I call “the martial imaginary.” This is the field of images, signs, narratives, values, and feelings that surround and structure representations of the military. The dominant martial imaginary—the one we are taught by school and Hollywood—is where we find stock elements of literature and reportage about war. The soldier carrying his wounded brother away from battle. The ultimate sacrifice. Flags, monuments, and more flags. This is where we sublimate the “horrors of war,” as they say, into palatable narratives of heroism and patriotism. But the twentieth century showed us that the martial imaginary is also rife with dissonance and moral danger. The alienated veteran driven to his (it’s usually “his”) breaking point. Soldiers run amok, killing for revenge or profit. Interchangeable Third World villages laid to waste. In this sense, the martial imaginary is where we negotiate collective beliefs about violence, the nation, and, increasingly, globalization and American hegemony.

As a conceptual device, the martial imaginary foregrounds the figures, gestures, objects, and emblems we associate with the military, and detaches them from the more familiar “war literature” paradigm. It allows us to see how these elements operate far outside the space-time of war, appearing throughout American literature and culture in both recognizable and abstract forms. I begin by observing that literature, visual media, performance, and discourse by and about racial minorities often feature troubling or seemingly anomalous expressions of martial (of or relating to the military) power. These expressions include, among other things, governmental violence enacted inside the U.S. against minorities (think Japanese American internment or the zoot suit riots) and resistive uses of military style and gestures by radical minority activists. To the extent that the military is (supposed to be) an instrument of the U.S. as a unified, sovereign nation-state, these expressions challenge core nationalist beliefs about American democracy and state power.

Black Panther Party for Self-Defense demonstration against new gun control legislation, California state capitol, 1967.

The “texts” I have chosen range widely and include, to name a few, the Black Panther march on the California state capitol in 1967, Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit (1978), Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1982), and the popular Berlin Wall tourist site known as Checkpoint Charlie. Following the wisdom that you shouldn’t write your first chapter first, I’ve decided to start with Chapter 2, “Regulating the Militia: Spectacles of Black Power and the Right to Bear Arms.” The chapter examines how “militant” activists of the 1960s and 1970s manipulated and recast a racialized martial imaginary, most notably with the Black Panther Party using the Second Amendment as the basis for its campaign against racist policing. I argue that gun rights are fundamentally connected to how we imagine the nation—and how we imagine the horizon of violence that keeps the nation whole.


Daring Rescues, Dead Babies, and ‘Another Vietnam’

As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Bao Le, who died aboard the Kirk

The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.

It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.

NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.

We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.


Virginia to Finally Get Its ‘Ass-Phalt’ Off People’s Ancestors

The controversy over a historic slave and free black cemetery in downtown Richmond appears headed, finally, for a reasonable resolution. The Burial Ground for Negroes (c. 1750-1816), which currently lies under a parking lot at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been the subject of community protest and an unsuccessful lawsuit.

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that VCU plans to remove the asphalt from the parking lot, which is slated to be turned into a memorial under a deal between the state, the city, and VCU. VCU will use state funds for the removal. But it’s still unclear how soon the work will be done, since the new plans depend on a budget amendment that won’t take effect until July 1.

I’ve been following this story since last fall, when I began researching the site’s history and analyzing the legal case that arose from it. Richmond was a major slave trading center, and the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood where the cemetery lies was once “ground zero” of the city’s slave trade, according to a documentary film by Shawn Utsey. The cemetery was always an abject space, located on flood-prone land adjacent to Shockoe Creek. It was near a notorious slave jail, as well as the gallows where Richmond’s most famous slave rebellion leader was executed. Over the years, the area experienced waves of redevelopment, much of it racially inflected, as black homes and businesses were torn down to make way for Interstate 95 and other structures. With such a sensitive history, it was no wonder that emotions rose when VCU purchased the 1.6 acre site in 2008 and began using it as a parking lot.

In early 2010, Sa’ad El-Amin, a former Richmond City Councilman and a divisive figure in local politics, filed a mandamus petition seeking to force the state to find the cemetery’s historic boundaries so that the site could be properly preserved. The suit was dismissed, as the standard for mandamus was clearly not met.

However, the case was instructive because it demonstrated the obstacles that descendants of slaves face when they seek to access or protect from desecration the burial sites of their possible ancestors. Due to conditions of slavery and racial inequities that continued after Emancipation, many descendants do not know or cannot prove their ancestry and, therefore, do not have standing to sue under the common law for cemetery access. (Alfred Brophy wrote a great article on cemetery law, available on SSRN.) El-Amin, not being able to prove direct descent from anyone buried in the cemetery, was limited in his legal options. The controversy, therefore, had to be resolved in the political rather than legal arena, and as such it was subject to the vagaries of local politics in a city that has historically “buried” its ugly racial past.

As with most conflicts over the dead, this one is really about relations between the living. Last fall, El-Amin stood in front of the Richmond courthouse and spoke to reporters about his mandamus suit and another suit he filed over the cemetery:

“We are here to get VCU’s asphalt off of our burial ground,” El-Amin said on the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building downtown, elongating the first vowel, as in “ASSphalt.” One can only imagine, El-Amin said, if the shoe were on the other foot.

“What do you think would happen if I drove over to Hollywood Cemetery and parked my car on one of those Confederate generals?” he asked.