This wide-ranging anthology uncovers the hidden histories of community armed self-defense, exploring how it has been used by marginalized and oppressed communities as well as anarchists and radicals within significant social movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Far from a call to arms, or a “how-to” manual for warfare, this volume offers histories, reflections, and questions about the role of firearms in small collective defense efforts and its place in larger efforts toward the creation of autonomy and liberation. Featuring diverse perspectives from movements across the globe, Setting Sights includes vivid histories and personal reflections from both researchers and those who participated in community armed self-defense. Contributors include Dennis Banks, Kathleen Cleaver, Mable Williams, Subcomandante Marcos, Kristian Williams, George Ciccariello-Maher, Ashanti Alston, and many more.
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About the Author
scott crow is an international speaker and author. His first book, Black Flags and Windmills was included on NPR’s Top Summer Reads of 2015. He is a contributor to the books Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab, Witness to Betrayal, The Black Bloc Papers, and What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation. Until 2012, Ward Churchill was a member of the leadership council of Colorado AIM. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and currently a member of the elders council of the original Rainbow Coalition, founded by Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.
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Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense: Approaches toward a Theory
Notions of Defense
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
In this essay, I will try to sketch a set of potential practices, praxis, and thinking centered on the narrow use of what I name as liberatory community armed self-defense. This distinct concept draws upon the histories of community self-defense, as practiced by various groups of people worldwide, and from the liberatory principles derived from anarchist and anti-authoritarian traditions.
The concept of community armed self-defense is a distinct development from grassroots social and political organizing models and notions of community defense, which at their core assert the right of oppressed peoples to protect their interests "by any means necessary." That would include signing petitions and voting on one end of the spectrum to extralegal means of direct action, insurrection, or rebellions on the other. The Black Panther Party, for example, engaged in community defense not only through their armed patrols but also through their survival programs, which opened health clinics and free schools in poor black neighborhoods otherwise lacking these kinds of services. This essay is an attempt at a critical reassessment of liberatory community armed self-defense: to reenvision the histories and analysis, to examine the praxis and bring these lessons forward to future engagements, and to broaden and strengthen our tactics and responses to crisis.
In the first part I attempt a brief working definition and explain how this range of actions differs from those of standing militaries, guerrillas, or other types of armed forces and combat engagements. The section that follows develops some emerging principles or ethics rooted in the anarchist values of egalitarianism and power-sharing.
A Working Definition
Liberatory community armed self-defense is the collective group practice of temporarily taking up arms for defensive purposes, as part of larger engagements of self-determination in keeping with a liberatory ethics.
I am proposing liberatory community armed self-defense as a distinct idea born of a reassessment, spanning decades, of the historical experience of armed struggle and broader theories of the right of self-defense.
Self-defense usually describes countermeasures employed by an individual to protect their immediate personal safety, and sometimes their property. Within the U.S., self-defense is discussed almost exclusively in legal terms relating to "rights" recognized by governments or constitutions, and only occasionally as human rights. By limiting the discussion to the rights attached to individuals, this framing fails to consider community interests, structural violence and oppression, and collective actions. The discourse thus completely neglects the defense of communities as such, and especially leaves out the political demands of people of color, women, immigrants, queers, and poor people.
Community self-defense in any form is not defined by laws but by ethics based in need (to protect) and the principles of anarchy (whether people call it that or not) by which groups of people collectively exercise their power in deciding their futures and determining how to respond to threats without relying on governments.
As a concept, liberatory community armed self-defense attempts to take into account unrecognized types of violence and the limits marginalized groups face in their ability to determine their own futures or collectively protect themselves. For example, in 1973, when the American Indian Movement took up arms to defend "their people" in the occupation at Wounded Knee, they did so to bring attention to the horrible living conditions on the reservations and the violence their communities faced both from a lack of basic services and from armed vigilante squads. The town of Wounded Knee was not itself under attack, but it represented what First Nations were facing everywhere. AIM's stand was a clear example of community armed self-defense, but it doesn't fit neatly into existing typologies of self-defense.
Some Important Distinctions
Liberatory community armed self-defense is different from other forms of armed action for two major reasons. The first is that it is temporary but organized. People can train in firearms tactics and safety individually or together but would be called on more like a volunteer fire department — only when needed and in response to specific circumstances. Second, and possibly more importantly, power-sharing and egalitarian principles are incorporated into the group ethics and culture long before conflict is ever engaged. These two overarching ideas separate it from most armed conflicts.
For instance, right-wing militias — like the anti-immigrant patrols of the Minutemen Militia along the U.S./Mexico border, or the racist Algiers Point Militia operating in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — have nothing to do with the type of community armed self-defense rooted in collective liberatory principles. These militias are built on abstract fears and racist beliefs, conspiracy theories, and a macho culture where the strongest or loudest is the leader. They are typically organized in military-type hierarchies with no real accountability to the people in civil society and the communities they operate within. These types of militias are far too similar to the types of the groups the people profiled in this book have had to defend themselves against.
That said, the adoption of armed tactics in any conflict or threat situation always has the potential to morph temporary defensive measures into permanent military hierarchies unless conscious efforts to counter that tendency and share power are maintained. A liberatory approach is necessary to minimize, or at least mitigate, that danger.
Below are quick summaries of more common armed conflict group configurations. They are listed here to provide a very rudimentary understanding and to draw both distinctions and parallels between them.
Armed Forces/Law Enforcement
Organized mechanisms of Power that use state-sanctioned "legitimized" violence to maintain the status quo of unequal power distribution. They tend to be highly organized and hierarchical. Examples include police departments, private security firms, and national militaries.
Small groups using hit-and-run military tactics in a form of asymmetrical warfare. Examples include Fidel Castro's communist 26th of July Movement during the 1960s Cuban Revolution or the anarchists operating within the Kurdish region under the banner of International Revolutionary People's Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF) during the Rojava revolution.
Paramilitary or Militia Organizations
Volunteer citizen military formations composed of nonprofessional fighters who train together for potential combat. In the U.S., these groups typically oppose the federal government but inhabit a subculture and organizational structure derivative of the professional military. Examples include the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Historically, the use of intentionally indiscriminate and horrific violence against civilians to create fear in furtherance of a political, religious, or ideological aim by nonstate actors. Examples are the Army of God in the U.S., al-Qaeda, and ISIS. The term is sometimes cynically used by politicians and media to describe any opposition, such as the Earth Liberation Front and Greenpeace.
Armed Propaganda/Propaganda by the Deed
Violent actions meant to inspire others and spark insurrections or revolutions. Tactics include, but are not limited to, bombings, armed takeovers of buildings, armed expropriations from banks, and assassinations. These actions are usually followed by communiqués sent to media stating the political reasons for the actions. Groups like the Angry Brigade in England and the Red Army Faction in Germany were examples of this.
Also known as rebellions, these events are characterized by open resistance of masses of people against Power/authority. Usually precipitated by a spontaneous triggering event, and not organized beforehand. The "spark" for the uprising has usually been preceded by longer-term unaddressed grievances.
The armed component should never become the center; otherwise we risk becoming standing militaries. To avoid that, and to equalize power as best we are able to, a liberatory analysis is necessary to nurture those who are learning to exercise their power, and for those who need to be accountable to their groups or communities. The liberatory framework is built on anarchist principles of mutual aid (cooperation), direct action (taking action without waiting on the approval of the authorities), solidarity (recognizing that the well-being of disparate groups is tied together) and collective autonomy (community self-determination).
Defensive arms should be used only for the goals of collective liberation and not to seize permanent power, even if their use could potentially, and possibly necessarily, escalate conflicts. In any case, arms are not the first line of defense and are only taken up after other forms of conflict resolution have been exhausted.
The use of arms is only effective for the long term if it is part of a dual power framework. Dual power means resisting exploitation and oppression, while also developing other initiatives toward autonomy and liberation as part of other efforts in self-sufficiency and self-determination.
Those engaged with guns should hold the same power as others involved in other forms of community defense or self-sufficiency. Carrying arms should be seen as a privileged task, with the same importance as childcare, growing food, or taking out the garbage — and not more. To maintain a balance of power, rotate all armed tasks and training among all those willing to participate. All firearms training needs to include dynamic and evolving liberatory ethics and practices in addition to how-to and safety. Within any training or operation, there should be an emphasis on challenging internalized assumptions about class, gender, and race to interrupt typical gun culture.
Reflections and Questions toward a Theory
These notes are only a beginning. Many questions remain, including those concerning organization, tactical considerations, the coercive power inherent in firearms, accountability to the community being defended and to the broader social movement, and ultimately, one hopes, the process of demilitarization. For example: Do defensive engagements have to remain geographically isolated? Are small affinity groups the best formations for power-sharing and broad mobilization? How do we create cultures of support for those who engage in defensive armed conflict, especially with respect to historically oppressed people's right to defend themselves? What do those engagements of support look like? Additionally there are many tactical considerations and questions to be discussed and debated to avoid replicating the dominant gun culture. How do we keep arms or arms training from becoming the central focus, whether from habit, culture, or romanticization?
The ideas in this essay come from two decades of dissecting and reassessing my own life, as well as many long conversations over the years with others who took up arms in varying contexts. One of the collective thoughts that emerge from all of those experiences is that none of this should be taken lightly. Careful thought and practice will be necessary to avoid many unintended consequences.
There can be an end to the senseless violence for domination or resources. But if we want to transcend violence in the long term, we may need use it in the short term. We thus need to ask ourselves some tough questions about our approaches and our methods. When is armed engagement appropriate? How would we want it to look? How do we create cultures of tacit or direct support and include people who would never themselves engage in armed defense? How will we keep from centralizing power? When do the consequences outweigh the benefits? There are no blueprints; we have to create this together step by step. We need to challenge ourselves and overcome our self-imposed limitations and shed our preconceptions of what resistance and liberation are like. When we do, we will gain confidence in potentially using deadly tools with a liberatory consciousness. That means we have to understand that the values of power-sharing and openness are every bit as important as the power of carrying loaded weapons.
For me, collective liberation is not about fetishizing arms as the only true means toward freedom but about exploring the options in a realistic and thoughtful manner. Arms will never offer the only answer to exercising or equalizing power. Only we can do that, but they can be a deterrent against real threats, and can greatly expand our tools of liberation!
Politicians Love Gun Control: Reframing the Debate around Gun Ownership
Neal Shirley/North Carolina Piece Corps
Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? ... There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation. ... It is not the unloved who initiate disaffection, but those who cannot love because they love only themselves.
— Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In the United States, I am often told, the "culture war" is in full effect. Heated debates around controversial issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and religion in public institutions abound. In many of these cases there is undoubtedly some level of grassroots support for the various entrenched sides of the debate; the elite Human Rights Campaign, for example, does manage to successfully pull away millions of dollars from queer folks every year. But on the level of policy decisions, the actual positions adopted in these "cultural wars" are usually decided by elite members of such groups, manipulated into thirty-second sound bites, easily simplified into emotional appeals, and transformed from an issue of freedom or liberation — the ability to love and relate to anyone of any gender one chooses, for example — to an issue of institutional and legislative policy — the ability to experience all the institutional privileges of marriage, which will continue to be denied to those who choose to not have their relations sanctified by a government.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about those supposed culture wars is how similar the major actors are to each other. Both sides are represented by well-dressed, well-funded, usually white individuals, whose organizations are large, bureaucratic, extremely hierarchical, single-issue, and not electoral in focus. We are reminded more of governments competing for territory or corporations aggressively trying to buy out each other's production facilities, with all the passive inhabitants or workers held in the balance, rather than an authentic, grassroots social movement directed at casting off society's repressive mores.
Somewhere in the midst of these cultural wars, and fitting into this pattern quite nicely, lies the issue of gun control. Though as a public controversy it may have been surpassed in recent years by other "cultural" topics, gun control remains an extremely divisive subject. Because this debate cuts to the heart of the meaning of government itself and thereby is directly related to the success or failure of liberation movements throughout the world, and because pro– and anti– gun control stances in this country are both usually characterized by racist, capitalist, and progovernment discourse, I am hoping to contribute to a complete reframing of this debate.
Primarily this reframing depends upon two things: one, a look at historic and contemporary social movements where access to firearms has been a decisive factor and, two, the perspective that government is best fundamentally characterized as the "monopoly of force" in a society. This means simply that a government is the only institution or group of people in a society which can "legitimately" use violent coercion against others. For example, if a family is evicted from their home at gunpoint by a police officer, that cop's violence is not punished but is in fact financially rewarded by our society. If that same family physically refuses to leave, however, they will end up behind bars. Whatever one's opinion about government may be, it is clear that the legitimacy of this state violence is not innate but constructed in our society by this same group of governing people in their very power position. I am defining government as the monopoly of force, because I think this is the simplest, most common, and least controversial definition available, and because it reflects back on the decisive nature of any debate on whether or not civilians should have access to weapons. I am defining government in this way because it helps us to orient ourselves in the direction of creating a more peaceful, secure society that is not founded upon violence, which is something I believe nearly everyone (except perhaps politicians and weapons industry bosses) on both "sides" of the gun control debate desires.
Excerpted from "Setting Sights"
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Table of Contents
Preface Scott Crow ix
Foreword Ward Churchill xi
Introduction scott crow 1
Analysis And Theory
Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense: Approaches toward a Theory Scott crow 7
Politicians Love Gun Control: Reframing the Debate around Gun Ownership Neal Shirley/North Carolina Piece Corps 14
Gun Rights Are Civil Rights Kristian Williams Peter Little 30
Notes for a Critical Theory of Community Self-Defense Chad Kautzer 35
Three-Way Fight: Revolutionary Anti-Fascism and Armed Self-Defense J. Clark 49
The Liberation Gun: Symbolic Aspects of the Black Panther Party Ashanti Alston 68
Desire Armed: An Introduction to Armed Resistance and Revolution Western Unit Tactical Defense Caucus 74
Mischievous Elves: Defending a Broader Concept of the Self Leslie James Pickering 79
Antagonistic Violence: Approaches to the Armed Struggle in Urban Environments from an Anarchist Perspective Gustavo Rodríguez 82
Ten Ways to Advance Liberatory Community Armed Self-Defense North Carolina Piece Corps 92
Histories Of The Twentieth And Twenty-First Centuries
Russian Anarchists and the Civil War, 1917-1922 Paul Avrich 97
Not Only a Right but a Duty: The Industrial Workers of the World Take Up the Gun in Centralia, Washington, 1919 Shawn Stevenson 105
The People Armed: Women in the 1930s Spanish Revolution Anti-Fascist Action UK 113
Schwarze Scharen: Anarcho-Syndicalist Militias in Germany, 1929-1933 Helge Döhring Gabriel Kuhn 121
Other Stories from the Civil Rights Movement: A Spectrum of Community Defense Lamont Carter scott crow 131
Negroes with Guns: Oral History Interview with Mabel Williams David Cecelski 143
Self-Respect, Self-Defense, and Self-Determination: A Presentation Kathleen Cleaver Mabel Williams Angela Y. Davis 147
Repression Breeds Resistance: The Black Liberation Army and the Radical Legacy of the Black Panther Party Akinyele Omowale Umoja 154
Drifting from the Mainstream: A Chronicle of Early Anti-rape Organizing and WASP Nikki Craft 168
Oka Crisis of 1990: Indigenous Armed Self-Defense and Organization in Canada Gord Hill 176
We Refuse to Die: An Interview with Dennis Banks scott crow 185
Ampo Camp and the American Indian Movement: Native Resistance in the U.S. Pacific Northwest Michele Rene Weston 191
Mujeres en Acción: Indigenous Women's Activism within the EZLN Laura Gallery 201
Twelve Women in the Twelfth Year: January 1994 Subcomandante Marcos 207
On Violence, Disasters, Defense, and Transformation: Setting Sights for the Future scott crow 216
Gut Check Time: Violence and Resistance after Hurricane Katrina Suncere Shakur 230
Breaking the Curse of Forgotten Places in Mexico Simón Sedillo 237
Feminism, Guns, and Anarchy in the Twenty-First Century: A Southern U.S. Story Mo Karnage 248
Defending Communities, Demanding Autonomy: Self-Defense Militias in Venezuela's Barrios George Ciccariello-Maher 257
Toward a Redneck Revolt Dave Strano 263
Defense in Dallas in the Twenty-First Century: An Interview with Members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club Interview scott crow 268
Trial by Fire: Democracy and Self-Defense in Rojava Alexander Reid Ross Ian LaVallee 272