Jacqueline Luqman: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
The nation is enduring a long period of unrest. Complete with protests in the streets and violent responses to those protests coming from the police, and from armed individual citizens, as well as organized militias. And while there’s plenty of conversation that needs to be had in organizing spaces about training for establishing tight security for these actions, the question of how do Black people keep ourselves safe when largely white militias have seen our protests against fascism and against racist police terrorism, as their call to mobilize and act against us? We can continue to protest, and we absolutely should. But is it time to have a serious conversation about armed self-defense for Black people? And how do we go about it for it to be effective, and provide us safety?
Here to talk about this with me is Dr. Akinyele Umoja, professor in the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, and author of the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. Dr. Umoja, thank you so much for joining me today. Dr. Umoja, I’ve been wanting to have this conversation for months, months. But it never seemed like the right time because this is a sensitive topic. But I think now is the right time to have it. So, I want to start this conversation, actually, with the topic of gun control because, for so many decades in this country, the conversation about guns and Black people has, oddly enough, been centered around the topic of gun control. So, do you think this framing of the public discussion of Black gun ownership that centered mostly on urban crime has impacted the way Black people have viewed gun ownership over the past few decades?
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Yes. I think there’s a lot of contradiction, a lot of misunderstanding around this whole effort of gun control and particularly tying it to crime in the Black community. I just want to say that there’s a tension in our community around that particular issue. Number one, historically, that going back to our period of time of being enslaved in this country, it was illegal for Black people to have guns. And then, coming out of emancipation, coming out of enslavement, I should say, into emancipation many of our ancestors wanted weapons to protect themselves, protect their families, as well as to hunt. And since we were mostly rural, and as a way to supplement our diets. But even then, after emancipation, there were different efforts to disarm Black people. But we still, as we fought for some sort of rights, as citizens fought to have the right to bear arms.
On the other hand, I think, and I would say, I’m 66 years old, when I was growing up as a teenager in Compton, California, we started to see guns in the hands of some of the more unstable elements in our community and we had deaths. When I was a senior in high school, I remember I couldn’t go to parties for a certain period of time because there had been people killed at parties.
And then, we always questioned how certain guns got in our community. Automatic weapons, things of that nature. Again, in the hands of not elders in the community, not people who were leaders, community leaders, but some of the youth who sometimes had a criminalized mentality. So, I think that dilemma, and seeing that increase not only where I lived in Southern California, but across the country, particularly with the rise of the influx of drugs in our community that created a feeling of [un-safety 00:04:29] on some people’s part. So, the answer that was posed to us was gun control guns out. Take guns out of the community, gun buyback programs, things of that nature.
The question is this, is with some of the legislation and particularly targeting taking guns out of the hands of Black people sometimes the emphasis on taking guns out of our hands, on one hand, makes us more defenseless. Number two, it’s not necessarily a answer to making us more safe within our community. Most of those weapons that I talked about I saw accelerating in our community wasn’t from the purchase of legal guns. It was done oftentimes through the underground economy. I would say, from my experience, what’s going to solve that is us having more community consciousness, us strengthening our families, us developing economic alternatives for our youth. It takes them out of the underground economy into a economy that we can control ourselves and the community. It comes from us beginning to have stronger relationships with our youth again.
Another one of my experiences is when I was growing up, there were street organizations, what people call gangs, in the community, and I saw a lot of conflict. It wasn’t guns, it was really more fist fights, knives, things of that nature. But when we had the development of the Black Power Movement with the Malcolm X Foundation, with the Black Panther Party, with the US Organization, many of those elements joined those organizations, and they began to be involved with more positive activity.
So, the answer for the, what’s called, crime in our community, I would say, happens through us being more organized. It happens through us having economic development. It happens through us strengthening our families. Not someone coming in and taking guns out of the hands of our people, which might create more repression.
We see, at this particular time, that our communities are over policed anyway, there’s excessive policing in our communities, and this will lead to more militarized policing on one level, they’ve become more militarized, and they come into our communities and target our youth. It’s our jobs to, again, work with our youth, work with our families and try to strengthen ourselves, where this doesn’t become a problem for our elders, and for our children, and the community, and people who might be vulnerable. So, that’s what I would say.
Gun control has been used as a weapon. We saw it in Oakland in the 1960s, when the Black Panther Party, as they began to begin to patrol the community and monitor police violators in our community, I should say, when that began to happen there was legislation to take guns out of the hands of the Black Panther Party, and to eliminate their armed patrols. And, in fact, we heard nothing from the National Rifle Association.
Jacqueline Luqman: That’s interesting. It’s interesting that you would end that point there because I feel like through the influence of gun control legislation, and the demonization of gun ownership for some people but, at the same time, the demonization of gun control legislation when it comes to white gun owners these gun buyback programs, like you said, that target particularly poor Black citizens who will turn in a legally owned gun for 3 or $400 because they, literally, need to buy groceries, or pay their rent. And these are things that I lived through, here in Washington DC, through my high school years because I’m 54 years old, so I lived the same experience. So I really do feel like, Dr. Umoja, that we are a population of people who are very skittish about owning guns.
And, aside from that, we have a difficult time being approved for a license for a gun when we try to own one for several reasons. Then, people feel that they would be criminalized for owning a gun, even if they have a license to carry. We’ve seen that happen with Philando Castiel.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Exactly.
Jacqueline Luqman: And then, through all of that, we’ve got all of that, throw all of that in the pot Doctor, and the summer of 2020 happens. George Floyd’s public lynching by four Minneapolis cops sets off a wave of national protests that have been sustained by even more police killings across the country, and the spread of coronavirus exposing the hypocrisy of capitalism, and the system that it is. But we’ve seen protests against police terrorism before. And we’ve definitely seen the police repression of those protests before. But Doctor, this time, the response of armed white people and organized militias has added an element to these uprisings that I think many people in the streets weren’t prepared for, especially the younger generation. So, I wonder if you think that people should have been prepared for this kind of violent response? And why do you think so many people were caught unawares by the possibility of right wing violence?
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Well, I think, we went for the okey-doke. And that’s just real. And I don’t just blame young people. We had a movement, a Civil Rights Movement in this country, which was a movement for us to be included into American society. And then, lo and behold, in 2008, we had the epitome of that movement when a Black man was elected president of the United States. And where, as we celebrated, we were told it was a post racial society. Other people did arm themselves. Other people did [inaudible 00:11:15]. And this motion, this reaction, I should say, after the election of Barack Obama to president of the United States is what led to Donald Trump being elected. This reaction of white people feeling the country is being taken from them. Whereas Black people feeling that we’ve achieved, and we have arrived. Whereas we think about it, this consciousness and this awareness of the level of murder, killing of Black people by not only police, but vigilantes and security guards did not start with George Floyd, right?
Jacqueline Luqman: Right.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: We had a tremendous uprising of our people after the killing of Trayvon Martin. And, again, with the killing of Mike Brown. And then, there’ve been several other cases in between that have made our people aware that we’re not secure. The white supremacist going into the church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killing our elders while they’re praying, while they’re there to study the scripture this shows that even our churches aren’t sanctuaries any longer, right?
Jacqueline Luqman: Right.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: And Birmingham in 1963 also tells us that historically, that our churches have been targeted. So, there is a growing consciousness going back to, again, I would say the killing of Trayvon Martin to the day of Black people that we can’t be protected. The government is not willing to protect us. And we have to protect ourselves. We have to protect our elders while they pray in church. We have to protect our children.
But the thing I think we have to do more so than even owning guns, that’s a part of it, I think we have to get organized. That’s the most powerful weapon we have as a people. And this was said by Marcus Garvey over a century ago, it’s organization, that we have to get organized. Some of us are part of organizations already. And the organizations we’re a part of need to have a sense of security. But we have to begin to see as a community, we got to watch our backs, that we have to protect each other.
You mentioned a book I wrote, We Will Shoot Back.
Jacqueline Luqman: Yes.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: When I looked at those communities in Mississippi during the 1950s and ’60s, they had more of sense of watching each other’s back, of protecting one another, of looking out for one another. And this is something we have to regain. I think, as I said, we went for the okey-doke. We began to believe because segregation laws were eliminated that we were safe. And we believe as we began to elect Black elected officials that we were safe. But no, we need to begin to organize, to protect ourselves.
You’ve heard of the organization, The Deacons for Defense?
Jacqueline Luqman: Yes.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: And I remember interviewing, for my book, one of The Deacons for Defense. And I asked him, “Well, why did they end?” They said they felt when they had Black people now as police officials, then they didn’t need that function of The Deacons for Defense anymore. But he said, that was one of the greatest regrets he had in his life. That they needed to stay organized. They needed to continue to protect our communities. And so, I would say, we have to get organized. We have to get politically conscious. If your organization you’re in right now, don’t have a policy for community self-defense, you need to find one who has that policy.
And I will say this, also, study and research these organizations. If they just popped up don’t particularly go for that because we know in the past, even our enemies have formed organizations to lead our people astray. So, make sure the organization has a track record, make sure that they care about their membership, and care about people in our community. Make sure they have a sense of service of our community and they’re not just trying to become new rulers of our community. Make sure they don’t follow the tactics of our enemy. We don’t need a Black Ku Klux Klan. We need Black people who are freedom fighters, and freedom fighting is directly the opposite of what the Ku Klux Klan is. So, we don’t need more authoritarian leaders in our community. We need to have people who are about serving the community, politically educating people, and helping people to be more liberated.
Jacqueline Luqman: I mean, you answered like three of the questions that I had in all of that. And all of that is so important. And I think the question that always sticks in my mind that I’m sometimes afraid to ask Dr. Umoja because it seems so simple, but sometimes it’s the simple questions that trip people up. So, I’m just going to ask it. People say all the time, especially in these liberation circles, we need to be organized. We need to be organized. I think people on the right understand what that means, because I think they’ve clearly out organized us. But what does it mean for us, in our community, to be organized? It’s one thing to join an organization, but what does it mean in the context of not just liberation, the struggle for liberation, but incorporating armed self-defense in that struggle, and where we might want to fit? And I know you gave a lot of that just now. But how can people understand what being organized means in this long struggle for liberation that is not anywhere near over. It’s more than just being in an organization, isn’t it?
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Well, you mentioned a long struggle for liberation. So, I would say number one, you have to look at what the leadership of the group is. Is it a group that’s experienced? Does it have experience? Then, if they have experience, what is their track record? How have they been relating to other Black people not only locally, but even in the world? Because we know this is a global struggle. So, what is their perspective not only in terms of policy with Black people inside of the United States, but how do they relate to Black people in Africa? How do they relate to the struggle in Cuba who’s been supportive of black liberation inside the United States and around the world? How do they relate to the struggle of Indigenous people in this country? So, what type of alliances, because we know that we can not fight these battles by ourselves, right?
Jacqueline Luqman: Right.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: We have to be involved in a world struggle, international struggle as both King and Malcolm saw.
So, I think you have to look what’s their perspective on change? How do they see change coming about? But, again, looking at their experience and track record is most important. How do they treat you? And do you have the right to express your point of view? Is there a sense of democracy in the organization, or is it all just top-down? How do they relate to brothers and sisters in the community? How do they relate to our elders? If they say something like, “I’m not my ancestors,” I would run because honoring our ancestors is honoring our elders. Honoring our ancestors is only honoring our history. And we know that those who not do not study their history are doomed to repeat it. So, it’s important that they have a perspective of history.
Again, you might have a younger organization that don’t have experienced leadership. So, do they have a relationship with elders in the community that do have experience? That have experienced things like the counter intelligence program of the FBI and dealing with the police, or being sold out even by Black [mis-leaders 00:00:20:09]? So, these are questions. And that’s why I challenged folks study first to figure this out. Study and examine and leaders, then go and check them out. Excuse me, I said leaders, the organizations. Check them out and see what they’re about. See if they truly trying to serve our people, or is it just about somebody’s ego? So, these are the things we have to check out.
And the thing about the ego is very important because that’s what destroyed many of our movements in the past. If think about an ego, somebody just wanted to be the baddest brother in the community, have as many women as they could have.
Jacqueline Luqman: Tell the truth.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Or have money. So, we have to check out [inaudible 00:21:02]. It says character is all that’s requisite. So, we have to check out the character of the people who are in leadership of the organization. Sometimes the grassroots, the rank and file members are cool, but the leaders is what you got to pay attention to also.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow, that is really incredibly important information that goes so far beyond just joining somebody’s organization to say that you are organizing and doing some things-
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: But I will say this too.
Jacqueline Luqman: Yes?
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: If you are already a part of a organization and it could be your fraternity, your sorority, your NAACP chapter, your church, your mosque make sure they have a policy around protecting and defending ourselves. And make sure you have a policy that talks about the liberation of our people inside the United States and globally, because we need to bring as many people together and form a united front. And we need to be protected block by block, by block, by block. It’s not going to be just a small group of people that’s going to bring about the freedom of our people. Or is capable of protecting our folks in what we have to deal with right now. We need to make sure as many people are armed and conscious as possible, and form a network or, what many of us call [inaudible 00:22:31] a united front.
Jacqueline Luqman: Wow. And the last question, Dr. Umoja, and I encounter this question quite a lot from people who are newish to the liberation struggle, or at least the protest movement that is the latest iteration of the actual liberation struggle that we’ve been in all our lives. This question of non-violence, I get it all the time. I organize with antiwar folks and other people, who have different focuses in challenging the system. And they always say, “You have to declare that you are going to be non-violent, or else we don’t want to organize with you.” How do you handle those kinds of stances? The equation of self-defense with violence, and the demand that we repudiate violence in protecting ourselves in our struggle for liberation.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Well, if that’s what they want to do just allow them to do it. But those of us who believe that we have to protect ourselves and protect our community, maybe even protect them if necessary, The folks that are non-violent because as I looked at the struggles that happened in the 1960s, the many of the ways that non-violent people survive was through the protection of people who believed in armed self-defense. In many communities you’re not going to get support from the police. The police was the Klan oftentimes, right?
Jacqueline Luqman: That’s right.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: The federal government did not have their back, for the most part. So, it was people in the community who provided protection for folk. But I would say, let them do what they believe they have to do. Non-violence can be an effective, disruptive tactic. We saw it in the city and movement. We saw it during the freedom rides and things of that nature.
But, at the same time, there are those of us who want to make sure that, again, our elders can pray in church [inaudible 00:24:34]. That our children are protected. There are some people who are not going to listen. The philosophy of nonviolence is that, ultimately, that you can transform the hater to being somebody who could join us in beloved community. And there are some people who that’s not going to work with. And we don’t want to lose our lives in that process. And we don’t want to see other people lose their lives.
But, at the same time, I commend brothers and sisters who want to fight on that level. And we, certainly, support your right to make that choice. But, at the same time, they have to support the right of Black people who want to be safe, who want to be healthy, who want our children to be healthy. And who believe our Black lives matter, and willing to use any means necessary to make sure that our lives are protected and safe.
Jacqueline Luqman: We definitely want to build that community, that beautiful community. And we would welcome those who would want to be a part of that community. But we have to be very clear that there are some people who do not want to be a part of that beloved community. And we need to have a plan for what we do about that.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Do we think Donald Trump wants to be a part of that community? I don’t think so.
Jacqueline Luqman: See, I wasn’t going to say that.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: There’s some Proud Boys and other groups, we think they … and they’ve had a chance. I mean, Dr. King has been dead since 1968, so that message has been out there. And Black people have certainly reached their hands out to these haters to form community. But no, that hasn’t happened. And there’s still a significant amount of this country who are not embracing that. And, again, we have to make sure we’re safe.
Jacqueline Luqman: Well, I really do appreciate the time that you’ve spent with me today, Dr. Umoja, to break this issue down because, like I said, it’s a sensitive topic. We have to be careful about how we talk about these things in public, especially since we know that we’re targeted. We know that having a conversation about armed struggle, and arming ourselves draws more attention to ourselves. But, I think, we’re at that point where we just have to have the conversation, and set some things straight, so that we can map out our own path toward liberation. And if people want to join along, that’s wonderful. But at least everybody knows where we stand right now. So, thank you so much for joining me today and having this discussion with me, Dr. Akinyele Umoja, Appreciate it.
Dr. Akinyele Umoja: Thank you, Jackie, for having me, for having this conversation. And we’re going to say to the audience to take this conversation to your family, take it to your friends, take it to the barbershops and beauty shops, and whatever organization or religious community you belong to. We need to have this conversation in our community. As Jackie said, it’s too late already, but we got to get prepared, we got to get organized.
Jacqueline Luqman: That’s right. As Kwame Ture said, “We have to organize, organize, organize.” And this is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. I am definitely my ancestors in the belly of the beast, Washington DC.
Studio: Will Arenas
Post-Production: Oscar Leon