The Bounty or the Bullet
April 4, 2014
I am regularly upset by the politics, mores and consciousness of the United States. And today America is in profound crisis. Just this week a Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC has ruled that across the board limits on individual campaign contributions violate the First Amendment. What this means is that preexisting campaign finance reform, put in place to limit the power of money in deciding an election, has almost entirely been destroyed. We already know that a 2010 Citizens United decision allows corporations to be considered as individuals, have their rights protected under the First Amendment, and no limitation on campaign spending. Although direct contributions to elections remained regulated, “independent expenditures” were not. Enter the super PACs (“independent-expenditure only committees" AKA super Political Action Committees), heavily funded by individuals, corporations, , unions and other groups, that led to the most expensive presidential election on record. And now with McCutcheon (human) individuals no longer have limits on how much money they can give to a campaign. Although I am no longer limited in contributing to a campaign, billionaires are also afforded the same right. Therefore, a conservative U.S. Supreme Court is steadily codifying the ability for the rich to control the democratic process.
This latest injustice goes hand in hand with deepening economic inequality in the nation. The rich control the game. And the reason they control the game is because they believe in Social Darwinism, free-market capitalism and most importantly, the notion of scarcity. As an African feminist, I seek to hone in on this notion of scarcity; that there is not enough; that those who ‘have’ must control (and hoard) and those who ‘have not’ but be controlled. I also think this notion of scarcity easily explains the American obsession with guns. However, in order to move forward into a world of great equality and justice, Americans must embrace notions of bounty or suffer the effects of economic, psychological, and physical violence. Scarcity is the most extreme and dangerous notion facing humanity. The psychology of scarcity fueled the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, European Colonial Expeditions, Genocide of Native Peoples, Neo-Colonialism, American Slavery, Jim Crowe, and the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex, among other disasters.
Scarcity is a psychological paranoia that on the one hand there aren’t enough resources available on earth for everyone to thrive and, on the other, one must pathologically consume/control what is available in order to survive. In this way, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that promotes overconsumption which actually leads to scarcity. On a deeper level scarcity legitimates elitism as those at “the top” are farthest from having the least and therefore have earned the right to control everybody else with all their “stuff”—which is usually money and what money can buy.
The gun is an old bedfellow of scarcity. The history of the gun is particularly fascinating. It begins with the discovery of gun powder by the Chinese as far back as 850 A.D. and the European incorporation of gun powder in warfare, first with cannons. By the 1360s somewhat cumbersome handguns and rifles were in use and eventually dueling pistols come in vogue between 1750 and 1850. Given that U.S. was officially founded in 1776, the gun was integral to winning the war against the British and American nationhood goes hand in hand with the gun.
What’s more is that the gun has a very long and sordid history with people of African descent. Guns featured significantly in the relationship between European slavers and the African gatekeepers who foolishly colluded with Europeans in trade of arms for human souls. One of the few articles on this subject of African complicity in the European slave trade and the role of guns was written for The Guardian. Ghanaian journalist and Editor Cameron Duodu notes how a keen deception by Europeans transferred the psychology of scarcity to Africans. African power brokers became paranoid that without arms, they would be vulnerable to a new game of warfare by neighboring communities who managed to attain guns from one of the many other European nations descending on Africa in search of human chattel. Most historians would attest that African leaders who colluded with slavers, did not fully understand the magnitude of their transgression, but they too are responsible nonetheless.
Furthermore, in the U.S., the Second Amendment that invokes “the right to bear arms,” as so many love to quote, was likely put in place in order to appease southern slavers of African people. During the ratification of the Constitution, southern plantation owners needed assurance that they could legally suppress a slave rebellion, a major concern, so the Foundng Fathers included an ammendant to assure that right. After the Civil War, blacks in the south were regularly denied the right to self-defense via ownership of guns, a racist holdover from the early days of The Constitution when no black person could own guns—with some possible exceptions in Free States. And as recently as the 1960s when the Black Panther Party adopted public display of guns and a philosophy of armed self-defense against threats of racially motivated violence, the modern era of the gun began. An incredible article by historian Adam Winkler for The Atlantic provides a great deal of this history. In fact, Winkler asserts, modern gun control was born from fear of The Black Panther Party and other leftist black radicals which led to a series of regulations to control firearms in the late 1960s. But by the late 1970s, after the dismantling of the Civil Rights movement and assassination of its leadership, the fear of blacks with guns became the right of whites to bear arms, once again. At this point, it’s important to grasp that guns, especially in America, have always been used to defend white supremacy whether through Manifest Destiny in overtaking Native land, suppressed slave insurrection, defanging black radicals, or policing the mostly black and brown Prison Industrial Complex.
On April 3, 1964 El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, AKA Malcom X gave his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” to a congregation at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio On April 4, 1964. He would be assassinated in February of the following year, shot to death in front of his wife, Betty Shabazz, and four children. Three men were convicted for the shooting, though the only man to admit involvement is his assassination, Thomas Hagan, was released in 2010. The speech came after an awakening by Malcolm X to the universal African struggle for human rights and sovereignty. Although he still invoked a philosophy of gun use in self-determination, he believed America could have a “bloodless revolution” in assuring the human rights of African Americans particularly with the right to vote. In his speech he said, “This is why I say, it’s the ballot or the bullet; it’s liberty or it’s death, It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.” He continues, “[with respect to ideological divisions within the black community] I’m not for separation and you’re not for integration, what you and I are for is freedom!”
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated by racist James Earl Ray who used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle to kill the civil rights leader in Memphis, Tennessee. On April 3rd –four years to the day after the “Ballot or the Bullet”—King gave his last and one of his most moving orations, popularly known as “The Mountaintop Speech.” During the forty minute speech he reflects on having almost died from a stab wound to the chest several years earlier. Since that moment he accomplished a great deal (including landmark legislation to assure voting rights for blacks—the 1965 Voting Rights Act that since has been gutted) and now, he assurred the audience, he had fulfilled his purpose. He said, “Let us stand with a greater determination; let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
As an African feminist, I recognize that scarcity, gun violence and the leadership of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. come from a long, complex and sorrowful history of men warring over control. Malcolm X and MLK (who too owned guns for self-defense and was protected under armed guard though he preached nonviolence) were flawed, but great leaders trying to navigate a white patriarchal society and searching for the gateway to freedom from a long violent past. Although people are still being lynched today, as in the suspicious death of Alfred Wright in fall 2013, currently under federal investigation; criminal justice continues to benefit the rich while punishing the poor as in the case of billionaire pedophile Robert H. Richards IV and unfortunate homeless mother Shanesha Taylor and racial inequality continues to batter the right to vote; there is an opportunity here. We must turn away from notions of scarcity that legitimate gun violence and turn to a conscious recognition of bounty—what we do have and how we can make it thrive—or else we will suffer the sharp proscription of Malcom X between liberty and death, the bounty or the bullet. As MLK said “we have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” I would urge we have a duty to make a better world.