Story and graphics by TREVOR RAPP
What does a gun in a hand of a black man symbolize?
Three highly publicized photographs demonstrate the complexity and disparity of portrayals of the African-American gun culture.
In one, an African-American man stands alone in an apartment facing away from the camera, his head slightly bowed, enough to make out an outline but no details of his face. An AR-15 assault rifle with custom grips, a 30-round magazine and collapsible stock hangs from a sling off his back. His left hand grips a pistol of unknown make and caliber that he points at the ground.
In another, smoke explodes from the barrel of a shotgun being held by an African-American man with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a black Nike polo tucked neatly into blue jeans. He wears black sunglasses and ear protection.
In a third, a young African-American man’s face and upper torso fill the camera frame. Graffiti lines the background and tight braids slip out from underneath his black bandana. His chest is bare and he curls his bottom lip under to better show off the two rows of gold-capped teeth. Both his hands, with his index and middle fingers, form imaginary guns pointed at his head.
The first is of Colion Noir, a self-proclaimed “YouTube Personality, Gun Enthusiast, Budding Attorney, Regular Guy who happens to love Guns.” Noir is also a correspondent for the National Rifle Association.
The second is a photo released on the White House’s Photo Stream on Flickr with the caption, “President Barack Obama shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David, Md., Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).” Much debate followed as to whether the photo was genuine or a staged photo-op to appeal to gun rights advocates.
The third is of rapper A$AP Rocky, who was praised by the New York Times for his debut album, “Long.Live.Asap.” the Times described him as being “a Harlem native with an expansive ear … one of hip-hop’s brightest new stars,” and, “a peacock, [rapping] with flair and authority.” One of the hit songs on the album, titled “F**kin Problems,” describes putting “your chrome to your dome,” a reference to putting a gun to your head. Other descriptions include acts of fellatio as making “it pop like an automatic or a nine,” references to automatic weapons and 9 mm pistols.
So what does it symbolize? Does the image of the average Joe portray a means of protection or a sign of paranoia? Is the image of a politician a depiction of high-class recreation or calculated propaganda? And for young, black males and females struggling to create their own identity, does this “art-imitates-life” photo provide insight and inspiration surrounding a successful artist, or social commentary on the numbing allure of becoming someone by racking up “street cred” points?
The answer is multi-faceted, with similar local and national conversations but quite different realities. Most importantly though, it’s a complicated answer that must be looked at through the lens of history, socio-economic factors and influences of the African-American family culture and African-American pop culture.
In the Salt Lake City area the true story for African-American gun violence, or crime for that matter, is not much different than the story for whites, said Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Shawn Josephson.
“It actually is one of those misnomers,” he said. “People tend to think that there is a significant difference [in crime] in the east side [a more densely white-populated area] to the west side [a more densely minority-populated area] and there really hasn’t been over the course of the history of the police department.”
However, the African-American population in Salt Lake City is extremely low. According to the United States Census Bureau, only a mere 2.7 percent of the population of Salt Lake City is African-American compared to 75.1 percent white. When taken in the context of the entire state the amount drops to 1.1 percent.
This makes it very difficult to get a statistical perspective on things like gun violence in the African-American community, Josephson said.
“As far as African-American [population], we are very, very low as far as our percentages go. … One person that’s a bad person can skew the whole percentages,” Josephson said. “I don’t believe [statistics] tell the true story most of the time.”
The same story seems to hold true in local school districts.
Jason Olsen, communication officer for the Salt Lake City School District, said, “We don’t see a greater propensity for violence in schools with a lot of minority students or schools without a lot of minority students. Our concern for school safety spreads across the entire district. It’s not really based on the ethnic diversity of certain schools.”
Olsen admits that concern for school safety was heightened in minority communities post-Sandy Hook, but also says it’s hard to gauge how much.
For example, though an astounding 200 Utah teachers poured into a single concealed weapons class right after the Sandy Hook incidents, Olsen has no way of knowing which teachers have concealed-carry permits, much less how the demographic breakdown is.
“In the Salt Lake School District we abide by the state law, that teachers with a concealed-carry permit are allowed to bring their weapon to school, but that weapon has to remain concealed and in their control at all times,” Olsen said. “Also the key point of what a concealed-carry permit is, is that it is concealed. We don’t necessarily know who would have a weapon and who wouldn’t.”
Later Olsen said, “Were there concerns in those [minority] communities? Yes. Were they greater than any concerns in any other communities? I didn’t get the feeling they were. I think the one thing that especially Sandy Hook has taught us is that acts of violence like this can happen anywhere. … It’s going to take the districts, the students, the community, community leaders, businesses, organizations, it’s going to take everybody to end this problem.”
But even in the apparent lack of a local problem, some Salt Lake City groups have expressed deep concerns about a very different reality of the effect of gun violence on the African-American community on the national level.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch and tri-state conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, wrote a letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch detailing the epidemic proportions of gun-related deaths.
“The leading cause of death among African-American teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008 and 2009 was gun related homicide,” Williams wrote on April 12, 2013. “African-American children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun related deaths in 2008 and 2009 but were only 15 percent of the total child population. Clearly we have a stake in the debate.”
Earlier in the same letter, Williams “strongly” urged Hatch to “support the strongest policies possible, including implementation of a universal background check system; a ban on military-style assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips; and tough new penalties for ‘straw purchasers’ of any size.”
But the presence of strong African-American voices like Williams’ hasn’t been seen much on the national stages. Since the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children, the debate over gun control has raged like a white man’s Nor’easter blizzard, causing a whiteout in the mainstream media that has marginalized the African-American community. It’s a sea of Caucasian talking-heads with only a Black “blip” here and there. It leaves many wondering not just what is the African-American perspective, but where is it?
President Barrack Obama has probably been the most visible African-American in the debate. He made similar comments when he returned to Newtown on April 8, 2013, the place of the Sandy Hook massacre, to drum up support for more active gun control measures.
“I know many of you in Newtown wondered if the rest of us would live up to the promises we made in those dark days … once the television trucks left, once the candles flickered out, once the teddy bears were gathered up,” the Huffington Post quoted Obama as saying. “We will not walk away from the promise we’ve made.”
Those promises included 12 Congressional proposals and 23 executive actions, according to a Jan. 16, 2013, New York Times story, “What’s in Obama’s Gun Control Proposal.” Some of the more controversial points included universal background checks, a ban on assault rifles and pistols that have more than one military characteristic (such as pistol grips, forward grips, detachable or telescoping stocks and threaded barrels), a ban on all rifles or pistols that have a fixed magazine that can take more than 10 rounds and a ban on all magazines or clips that hold more than 10 rounds.
In stark contrast to this opinion are other African-Americans like Colion Noir.
“No one wants to fight for their protection, they want the government to do it,” Noir said in a video posted on the NRANews YouTube channel on March 1, 2013. “The same government who at one point hosed us down with water, attacked us with dogs, and wouldn’t allow us to eat at their restaurant, and told us we couldn’t own guns when bumbling fools with sheets on their heads were riding around burning crosses on our lawns and murdering us.”
But all Noir’s bluster hasn’t necessarily allowed him to break through any publicity ceilings. Noir’s YouTube videos for the past month have averaged 60,000 total views, while Piers Morgan, a white male and frequent gun control advocate and commentator on CNN, still beat out those numbers in spite of drawing an all-time low of 87,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic for his show “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
Still, Noir’s comments prompted a firestorm of blog and Twitter comments from various people. Among them was Russell Simmons, a business magnate who founded Def Jam recordings and Phat Farm clothing.
“Our community is not interested in a corporate sponsored gun group telling us what to do, when their real mission is to make more money for the corporations that line their dirty pockets with rolls of cash and silver bullets,” Simmons wrote in “The NRA & Black People: Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That!” posted on globalgrind.
If the composition of the NRA board of directors is a reflection of its level of commitment to African-Americans, then perhaps Simmons’ mistrust is not off base. Of the 75 members, only four are African-American. Of these four, one is Karl Malone, the former NBA star who played for the Utah Jazz.
“We’re much smarter than that and certainly can see through their motives,” Simmons wrote. “Until they show a real interest in solving the violence problem in our community, they can keep their Yankee hat-wearing spokesman and their African-American ‘campaigns’ for themselves. In the words of another internet star, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.'”
While Noir isn’t the only prominent African-American to reference historical violence enacted upon blacks to promote gun rights, such disparate opinions speak not just to the divisive nature of the debate, but also the depth and complexity that underlies the debate about the role guns should play in the African-American community.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the second African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court, used various references to black history when he wrote in partial support of a 2010 court opinion. In the case involving a Second Amendment challenge to a Chicago ordinance that “effectively bann[ed] handgun possession by almost all private citizens,” Thomas observed that “organized terrorism … proliferated in the absence of federal enforcement of constitutional rights” following the Civil War. In particular, he addressed the Ku Klux Klan and its reign of terror. Thomas wrote that “the use of firearms for self-defense was often the only way black citizens could protect themselves from mob violence.” He added that Eli Cooper, “one target of such violence,” reportedly explained, “‘The Negro has been run over for fifty years, but it must stop now, and pistols and shotguns are the only weapons to stop a mob.”’
Thomas also quoted another man whose father had stood armed at a jail all night to ward off lynchers. That empowering experience, Thomas wrote, left the man feeling hopeful that mob violence could be halted by individual acts of “standing up to intimidation.”
Others have noted the necessity of being armed during the civil rights movement.
“It is a myth that the civil-rights movement was exclusively nonviolent,” wrote Akinyele Umoja, a professor in the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University, in “Black Ambivalence about Gun Control.”
Umoja detailed some of the provocations African-Americans suffered during the summer of 1964. Workers and volunteers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization trying to register local African-Americans to vote, were being harassed by “night riders,” white vigilantes who terrorized the SNCC. One night as a posse of night riders followed SNCC workers from the registration office, an 89-year-old woman armed and organized her children, grandchildren and neighbors and formed an ambush which so surprised the night riders that they never returned.
Umoja said in a phone interview that there was a shift between the 1950s and ’60s in how children got guns. Where before the “elders” took an involved role in teaching their children how and for what purposes to use guns, shifts in the general American culture that made it easier to obtain a gun illegally put more guns in the hands of “unstable elements.”
“It was a rite of passage for rural black families to teach children to use arms as a means of survival, for both food and protection. And black girls were trained to shoot to protect themselves from white rapists,” Umoja wrote in the article, which was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But even deep-seated traditions of armed heroism don’t make for clear delineations among African-Americans on issues of gun control.
“There are some people in our community that don’t identify with either of the positions put out by the NRA or liberals,” Umoja said in the phone interview.
Though the rhetoric can be polarizing, the views certainly are not just black and white among the African-American community. Rather, the nuanced grey areas have to be understood through the many factors shaping and influencing the African-American community.
Umoja wrote in the article about social issues including the destabilization of families due to cuts in the federal government’s welfare system, increased individualism among blacks, declines in the manufacturing economy which employed many blacks, and increases in gang activity and the influx of drugs — all of which have led to an increase in cycles of poverty and gun violence, and by extension a motivation to support gun control.
But the fear of violence among under ground elements within the black community hasn’t erased the memory of violence from outside the black community, Umoja wrote. “Gun control for many black activists is at heart an issue of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-defense. But at the same time, we need to provide economic alternatives for black youths trapped in the drug economy; end the ‘war on drugs’ through decriminalization and the treatment of substance abuse as a public-health issue, and provide accessible and culturally relevant education that prepares black students for professions and entrepreneurship.”
From the Journalist’s Notebook, some reflections:
What does a gun in a hand of a black man symbolize?
For Utahns afraid of an overspill of violence from the 1 percent — a non-issue.
For those tired of being political puppets of a national white gentlemen’s club — white ignorance.
For those tired of being in the crosshairs of white oppressors — power.
And for those tired of looking down the wrong end of it — a call to find more peaceful way to build a community.