DC to San Pedro
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
Just before noon on June 22, legendary civil rights leader John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia, went to the well of the House of Representatives and did something never done before: He began a sit-in on the House floor, calling for a vote on gun safety legislation.
Fed up by years of inaction, obstruction and hollow “moments of silence” instead of life-saving action, Lewis decided that doing something more radical was the only way to get something sensible done.
“Those who work on bipartisan solutions are pushed aside,” Lewis noted. “Those who pursue common-sense improvement are beaten down…. Reason is criticized. Obstruction is praised. Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, Orlando — what is the tipping point? Are we blind? Can we see? How many more mothers, how many more fathers need to shed tears of grief before we do something? We were elected to lead, Mr. Speaker. We must be headlights and not taillights.”
An Act of Civil Disobedience
Lewis went on to directly invoke his own personal language of civil disobedience.
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary,” Lewis said. ‘Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way…. We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something, we have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.”
The sit-in drew worldwide attention, thanks to streaming via social media, after the House cameras were turned off. It lasted only 26 hours, as House Speaker Paul Ryan hurried the session into a premature adjournment, days ahead of schedule. But Democratic House members vowed to take their sit-in back to their districts over the July 4th break.
On June 27, Rep. Janice Hahn made good on that promise with a community sit-in at Port of Los Angeles High School.
But a profound underlying question must be answered if the power of 1960s sit-ins is to be realized again today. Decades of deep, hard work had preceded the civil rights sit-ins, with groundwork being laid intellectually, in the courts, in the culture and in the streets. The Civil War amendments had ended slavery, given blacks the right to vote and ensured equal protection of the laws.
That great leap forward was savagely reversed by the turn of the century. It culminated in Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine, enshrining a new official racist constitutional order. The eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement, two generations later, required decades of far-sighted strategic efforts to undermine this deceitful political consensus. Sit-ins bore fruit as one of the most powerful civil rights tools because they helped catalyze a moral, legal and political transformation 60 years in the making.
With that in mind, before the sit-in Random Lengths asked Hahn what congressional Democrats were doing to lay groundwork that might help the sit-in evoke change. Her initial response was to highlight how successful the first sit-in had been, how quickly House Democrats had organized themselves.
But when pressed, Hahn expanded her scope.
“Social media really generated an enormous amount of support for this all over the world,” Hahn said. “We were hearing from people in Germany and France, so I feel like that…has already laid the groundwork for people…. People have been really frustrated. We’re going to hear tonight from people who had loved ones killed by guns many, many years ago, and were frustrated that no one ever did anything. So I think this is a chance to give hope to people that maybe, just maybe, we can get something done.”
There’s no doubt the raw materials for action are there or that social media have empowered people in new ways. But the example of the Arab Spring — especially in Egypt — warns us that enduring progress cannot rely on social media and a sudden outpouring of activism alone, no matter how sweeping it may be. The nature of what more is needed must be grappled with deeply, in a manner similar to that of Thurgood Marshall’s mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston. He devised a multi-decade strategy for undermining the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Some glimpses of what this might mean eventually emerged in the course of the community sit-in.
Hahn began that evening by playing a recording of Lewis’ remarks, which began the House sit-in.
“When I got up to speak I spoke of one-year-old Autumn Johnson from Compton, who was killed in her crib,” Hahn said. “It was one of the most heartbreaking funerals I [have] ever gone to, seeing little Autumn in her little coffin, knowing that her life was over because of gun violence.”
After Hahn, others spoke of their own personal tragedies.
“Gun violence is an epidemic; it affects each and every one of us,” said LaWanda Hawkins, who founded Justice for Murdered Children in 1996, after her only son, Reggie was murdered.
“Their lives affect our lives,” she said, speaking about the Sandy Hook victims. “We don’t know what they were going to contribute, and see we missed out because they ain’t here.”
The Shoes of Murdered Children
Photo by Phillip Cooke
As a haunting reminder, Hawkins brought her memorial: the shoes of murdered children.
“Unless you’ve had a murder in your family you just don’t know what it does to you,” said Amanda Rodriguez, from Parents of Murdered Children. “I do. I walk in those shoes every day of my life. My nephew Brendan Hansen was murdered on May 17, 2010, shot in the back several times.”
Shannon Ross spoke briefly to honor her cousin Melanie.
“I want you to see her face because I don’t want her to be forgotten,” Ross said. “So she died right here in San Pedro at the tender age of 17. She was a victim of gun violence … while I don’t know the stats, I did know my cousin and I love her very much.”
“My story is a little different. Unfortunately, the results are the same,” Lori Baker said.
In February of 1977, Baker’s father had been extremely depressed under a doctor’s care, but he was able to go out and get a gun. The next day he shot himself. Thirty years later, Baker’s younger brother committed suicide as well.
“I shouldn’t be the survivor of two suicides and I want to fight for the mentally ill to not have access to these things,” Baker said. “It’s just not right.”
“I lost my first born Dec. 19, 1992,” Basil Kimbrew said. “I’m a grown-ass man, but I cry for my son every day like I cry for all these people. I’m a sniper. I’ve seen death, but when you see kids die, it makes you different.”
Complementing the flood of personal testimony, Dr. Roger Lewis, chairman of Emergency Medicine at Harbor UCLA, was on hand to provide an overview of the terrible human cost.
“One in 16 people that we see in trauma centers has been shot,” said Lewis, who has 29 years of experience. “So, one in 16 who need trauma care didn’t fall at home, they didn’t fall in a bathtub, they didn’t fall from a ladder, they didn’t get into a fight, they got shot. In fact, we see as many people shot in the trauma system as we see involved in fights of any sort, except that the people who are shot, one in 14 die…. We see almost exactly one gunshot wound victim a day…. This is an everyday occurrence in our community.”
An Ill-Conceived Perception of Gun Violence
In the midst of this entire testimony Torrance resident, Arthur Schaper, spoke up, using the National Rifle Association’s most clichéd talking points: “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” Arthur Schaper, of Torrance, said.
Just before sitting down, Schaper went even further, repeating a pro-NRA myth that even the NRA’s own history refutes.
“The first members of the NRA were African-Americans because they wanted to shoot the Ku Klux Klan,” Schaper said. “I’m not going to take their guns away.”
In June 2013, Politifact rated this claim, “not only inaccurate but ridiculous — Pants on Fire.” This, after first noting that “the NRA itself says the group was formed by Union Civil War veterans to improve soldiers’ marksmanship.” The NRA was formed in New York, in 1871, hundreds of miles from the nearest KKK chapter. It also favored gun control measures for more than a century, before a right-wing faction took over the organization in the late 1970s.
Schaper also tossed out that Martin Luther King owned a gun—but that was in 1956, when his house was bombed, before he became deeply immersed in the philosophy of nonviolent struggle. By the 1960s, King abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense.
“When you do a sit-in, you do it to get rights, not take rights away,” Schaper claimed.
But in 1960, Southern racists argued the exact opposite: Sit-ins were aimed at taking away white people’s right to discriminate — a right that Rand Paul defended on the Rachel Maddow Show when he first ran for Senate. In a sense, a central purpose of the sit-in movement was to alter the public’s perception of whose right to do what was truly fundamental, and central to what America was meant to be.
The same is true with the gun violence sit-ins today. Even before Schaper spoke, Laurie Saffian, co-chairwoman of Women Against Gun Violence, spoke to this point.
“We hear a lot about the Second Amendment,” Saffian said. “How about the right to life? How about the right to go to the hair salon? Or, the movie theater? Or, your church? Or, your school? Or, your neighborhood and your shopping mall without fear of being shot and killed? How about that right?”
After Schaper spoke, Random Lengths publisher James Preston Allen added, “In the Constitution there’s also the right to life liberty and pursuit of happiness. And that right actually precedes the Second Amendment.”
In fact, as recently as 1990, former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, called the notion of individual right to own guns, “A fraud on the American public.”
What’s changed since then is not the Constitution, but how right-wing activists have profoundly mislead the American public, the same way that they did after the Civil War, establishing segregation in spite of the egalitarian language in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
What San Pedrans saw illustrated at the community sit-in was microcosm of the larger struggle that needs to be engaged. One aspect of that struggle is simply shifting from rhetoric to common sense specifics, as illustrated by a Quinnipiac University poll released June 30. The poll found 92 percent of voters, including 92 percent of gun-owners and 86 percent of Republicans, support universal background checks on all firearms sales — a dramatic disconnect between congressional Republicans and even their own base.
What saves Republican lawmakers from having to do anything is political rhetoric—aka “propaganda”—nothing more, nothing less. Quinnipiac also found that only 50 percent of the same respondents support “stricter gun control laws,” while 47 percent are opposed.
“In short, many voters simply don’t equate mandatory background checks with ‘gun control,’” Quinnipiac Poll Assistant Director Tim Malloy said in a statement published by the Associated Press.
This is only one piece of a much larger puzzle, but it’s a starkly illuminating one: there’s actually an enormous bipartisan consensus out there, if only we can talk about concrete reality, which is why the sit-in format holds so much promise. But the deeper problem will take a lot longer. Why are so many people persuaded by the rhetoric in the first place? Why do so many believe in a fraudulent version of what the Second Amendment even means?
“It is no exaggeration to say that our nation’s gun policy is paralyzed by a series of fallacies — arguments that appear sound on first hearing, but crumble when subject to careful thought and analysis,” wrote Dennis A. Henigan, former vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in a forthcoming book, Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People : And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control.
Careful thought, by itself, is not enough to free us, Henigan notes.
“I am not arguing that destroying the NRA’s mythology will be sufficient to overcome the NRA’s political influence,” he wrote. “I believe, however, that the gun lobby’s political power will never be overcome until these myths are destroyed. Political power is not unconnected to ideas.”
This is similar to what the founders of the NAACP realized at its founding in 1909, along with many others who struggled for decades in the shadows to prepare a way for civil rights struggle to finally blossom in the sun.
Our fundamental way of thinking about rights — who has them and what they are — needs to be reconceived. “I have rights too, okay? As do we all,” said long-time neighborhood council activist Doug Epperhart, who survived a shooting at the Olympic Park Neighborhood Council two years ago. “I think the most important right is that we shouldn’t have to fear terrorists, but we really shouldn’t have to fear our fellow citizens. Because this isn’t radical Islam; it’s not some overseas group. This is Americans, killing innocents,” Epperhart said.
Freedom from fear was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” articulated in 1941. It is, at bottom, what everyone is seeking: powerful reference point in moving our way forward.