How do we understand the terrifying and tragic reality of mass shootings in the United States as organizers and activists committed to ending war and militarism by confronting its root causes? That's the question we're asking at War Resisters League as headlines are once again ensnared in the debate around gun control -- this time with the lens focused on the incredible work and ferocity of young people who survived the Parkland massacre in February.
Parkland students join the voices of young people and students of color, disproportionately affected by gun violence, who are turning the spotlight not just on guns, but on the root causes of gun violence. As the country poured into the streets to demand change at March For Our Lives, in Washington, DC,11-year-old Naomi Wadler of Virginia took to the stage to lift up the invisibilized deaths of Black girls and women: "I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don't lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential." For communities of color the terror of gun violence isn’t contained to mass shootings, it also comes in the form of beat cops, SWAT teams and the processes of erasure Naomi spoke about.
Militarism is deeply entrenched in US society, and the phenomenon of mass shootings and gun violence in the US must be understood in the context of settler colonial histories of slavery, genocide and white supremacy sustained by centuries of warfare. This month in particular, we stand with the family and friends of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black father who was shot 20 times in his backyard by the Sacramento police. Let us expand our imaginations for a vision of disarmament that not only includes weapons of mass violence on the streets, but a full disarming of the systems of state violence that drive it: the police and military. When demands for disarmament do not extend to policing and militaries, or simply focus on stricter sentencing and enforcement, they play into the criminalization of Black and Latinx communities and erase Black struggle to end gun violence.
Just as the "War on Terror" justifies military aggression and increased repression of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities and countries, much of the debate around gun control reinforces criminalization of poor communities of color. This is despite the reality that 74 percent of gun owners in the United States are men, and 82 percent of gun owners are white. While the specter of "gun violence" casts entire Black communities as inherently violent and criminal -- in spite of decades of youth-led marches, vigils and organizing to end gun violence in Black communities -- the "lone shooter" is instead individualized and frequently followed by speculations of mental illness when the shooter is white. The repeated stigmatization and criminalization of mental health does nothing to end cycles of violence, and instead works against those demanding widespread access to mental health resources, given the realities that those with mental health issues often experience violence, as opposed to inflict it themselves.
We must also continue to challenge the toxic masculinity and white supremacy- both part and parcel of the US military-industrial complex-that drives young men to literally kill dozens of people. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former student who is charged with carrying out the mass shooting in February, was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) program, and had even participated in a four-person JROTC marksmanship team at Stoneman Douglas High School, which had received $10,000 in funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The NRA, called "the largest white national organization in the US," by writer Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, plays into the logic of settler colonialism -- a logic of erasure and replacement -- motivated by profit and enforced along race lines. Dunbar-Ortiz writes that the way of settler colonialism is "the way of the gun, to kill off and control enemies." We don't have to look far to learn who the "enemy" is. The NRA actively lobbies against US participation in international arms treaties, asserting its racist agenda to fuel wars being waged around the world, all to protect the profits arms manufacturers stand to make from war.
And it’s not just the NRA. Mainstream media routinely victimize white "lone shooters" while staying silent on the conditions that give rise to violence in communities of color where inadequate access to resources like education, housing, and good jobs make gun violence a daily reality. As Mariame Kaba, author of the blog Prison Culture and winner of the 2017 War Resisters League Peace Award, wrote back in 2013 on the subject of youth violence in Chicago, "interpersonal violence is a manifestation of oppression. Interpersonal violence is simply the glue that holds those oppressions in place. [We need] to identify and surface those oppressions; the actual root causes of interpersonal violence so that we may eradicate shootings and homicides." Her words resonate today. With mass shootings on the rise and the expansion of policing and surveillance, we see little to no attention given to the root causes of violence: systemic racism, heterosexism, ableism and classism.
As the debate continues around gun control we cannot afford to allow the voices of young people in communities of color to be erased and replaced by over-simplified narratives of inherent violence. It’s time to start listening to young leaders like the members of Connecticut's Hearing Youth Voices who write, "our schools need more than just an absence of guns to be safe," and released this statement outlining what real safety looks like for communities of color. During the March 14 National School Walkout day, Chicago youth from the South and Southwest side walked out with demands to address the conditions that give rise to gun violence in the first place, including the criminalization of Black and Brown students in schools and systematic divestment from public education in Chicago. We urge those engaged in gun reform debates to follow the leadership of communities that are most impacted by gun violence, and to listen to the solutions they bring to the table -- solutions that start with looking at the root causes of violence.
We know that increased policing, surveillance and enforcement don't prevent violence. Let's focus on what does: investment in widespread, accessible and quality community resources alongside transformative approaches to justice. We need community safety that transforms conditions and root causes of violence rather than expanding policing and war.
Emma Burke works with the War Resisters League in New York City. Besides promoting anti-militarism, she has previously worked in movements for environmental justice, land reform and farmworkers' rights. Emma hails from Rhode Island, believes in the power of grassroots fundraising to resource movements for collective liberation, and likes making noise on bucket drums.