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How Violent Are We Today?

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              Several years ago, I had lunch with my friend Clarence Jones, who is currently Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He previously served as Dr. King’s personal attorney and also helped draft the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which King delivered during the March on Washington in 1963.

              To that end, I asked Clarence what Dr. King would have thought about progress in civil rights over the fifty-plus years since his death. And Clarence responded with a statement I will never forget: “Martin’s primary commitment was never civil rights. His first and foremost commitment was to non-violence and this country has become much more violent over the last fifty years.”

              I was reminded again of this remark by Clarence Jones yesterday when I briefly watched the trial of three White men accused of killing an unarmed Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, who resisted what the defendants have claimed was their attempt to effect a ‘citizen’s arrest’ of Arbery for allegedly entering the property of a newly-built home in their neighborhood.

              So, here we have on national TV, two trials, one in Wisconsin and the other in Georgia. In one trial the victim who was killed was White, in the other trial he was Black. In the Wisconsin trial the defendant, who was also White, used his assault rifle to defend himself against individuals who he believed were going to assault him because he was protecting the private property of someone else. In Georgia, the shooter and his accomplices used a shotgun to defend himself from a man who allegedly attacked him because he and his accomplices were trying to defend the property of someone else.

              Let’s pause for a moment while I ask my readers a question. Have any of you ever been in the town of Skidmore, Missouri? I’ll bet you haven’t.

              I drove through Skidmore in 1989, when the population was around 350 people, of whom at least half lived on farms surrounding the town. As of today, the town’s population is probably down to 250, along with some dogs and cats. In other words, Skidmore is a rural dump.

              The town, however, became famous or better yet infamous in 1981, when just about every adult standing around the main street on a Saturday afternoon witnessed the shooting of Ken McElroy as he left a saloon and got into his truck. McElroy earned a living by rustling cattle from various farms or stealing equipment from unlocked barns.

              The previous year he had come into town and almost beaten to death the 70-year old owner of the dry goods store who was considered as the nearest thing to Mother Theresa because he extended credit to the local farmers on very generous terms.

              McElroy was convicted of the assault but didn’t serve one day in jail. When he showed up on a weekend day in July 1981 a crowd of 60-70 townspeople confronted him in the saloon and then he was shot by ‘persons unknown’ as he got into his truck.

              This murder, which occurred in daylight and was witnessed by more than forty adults, was never solved. The county cops investigated the shooting, but nobody talked, and nobody was charged. Then the state police showed up, conducted a second investigation,

and again, came up with a blank.

              This shooting then became national news when the FBI was called in. It was referred to in the media as ‘vigilante justice alive and well in the Old West,’ but the results of the FBI’s efforts were the same: no results. The case remains unsolved to this day even though it became the subject of a pretty decent book as well as a pretty crummy Hollywood flick.

              The shooting of Ken McElroy took place before we had cell-phones which took video and of course it took place before we had an internet news cycle which has an inexhaustible appetite for anything which can be described as ‘news.’ In both the current Kenosha and Georgia trials, videos of the shootings taken by onlookers or independent media producers have been shown in court.

              I don’t recall the last time that two trials in two different states were being held at the same time to determine whether defendants were legally protected from criminal charges because they shot and killed someone while claiming to be protecting private property which they didn’t own. In both instances, the shooters took it upon themselves to determine whether the person they killed represented a threat to them or to anyone else. And even if the victims were threatening to attack these self-made community protectors, why didn’t the men with the guns try to back down?

              I’ll tell you why. Because they had guns. And why did they have guns which allowed them to pretend that all they were really trying to do was protect the community from harm? I quote a speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a month before he delivered ‘I Have a Dream’ in 1963: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim; by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing,  we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”

              For all the people who were shocked by the video that shows Kyle Rittenhouse running down the street with his AR-15, just remember that his mother has already raised $460,000 on the internet to cover the costs of his legal defense, and yesterday she sent out a message asking people to donate $100,000 more. She’ll get it, I’m sure.

              Have we become more violent because we have so many more guns? Or do we have so many more guns because violence, pari passu, has become as American as the pie we’ll all gobble down next week? 

              To quote what I never hear from any of the online experts and pundits these days – I don’t know.

While We Wait For The Rittenhouse Verdict…

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              As we await the jury’s verdict in the Rittenhouse trial, I think we need to look at the whole episode from a somewhat different point of view. In closing arguments, the prosecutor accused Rittenhouse of deliberately shooting three individuals because he was an ‘instigator’ of violence rather than defending himself from being attacked. The defense, on the ither hand, claimed that Rittenhouse showed up in Kenosha because he wanted to ‘help’ a community that was being overrun.

              So, on the one hand, Rittenhouse shows up with an assault rifle because he was prepared to help control a mob by using his gun. On the other hand, he came into Kenosha armed with an extremely lethal weapon because, after all, you never know when a situation might get out of hand and self-protection is on your mind.

              Back in 2014, I interviewed some adolescents who were ‘residents’ of the youth jail and were incarcerated for the most serious crimes. These kids were between 14 and 17 years old, and when they turned eighteen, they would be transferred to a state penitentiary to do time for crimes like arson, murder, and aggravated assault (i.e., they tried to kill someone but didn’t shoot straight.)

              I asked each of these kids two questions: 1). How hard was it to get a gun? 2). Why did they need to carry a gun? Answer to Question #1 – they laughed. Answer to Question #2 – they needed a gun to protect themselves.

              If anyone had asked Kyle Rittenhouse these same two questions, I guarantee he would have answered the same way that the inmates in this youth jail replied to me when I asked them about guns. And as far as I’m concerned, what this trial really represents is how we react to a unique form of American culture and behavior, which is vigilante justice.

              We are the only country in the entire world which allows residents in some, but not all states, to stand their ground and respond to a potential threat without first backing down. We are also the only country in the entire world which allows most of its residents to stand in place and use a gun to protect themselves when they choose not to back down.

              If the jury decides to buy Rittenhouse’s argument that he only showed up in Kenosha because he wanted to help protect the good people from a mob, I could understand why such an argument might carry the day. After all, the notion of being a ‘good Samaritan’ goes all the way back to Biblical times.

              But if someone wanted to help out people in distress, why show up with an AR-15? Isn’t that the role and responsibility of the cops? Isn’t that what we pay them to do?

              What has the gun business been selling since they discovered back in the 1980’s that nobody was all that interested in going out into the woods to take a shot at Bambi or Smokey the Bear? They’ve been selling the idea of vigilante justice because how can anyone wait around for the cops to show up?

              Know how Merriam-Webster defines vigilante? It’s defined as a ‘self-appointed doer of justice.’ Which is no doubt what Kyle Rittenhouse thought he was doing – representing justice by standing in front of a mob with his AR-15.

              Know what Rittenhouse was representing? Nothing but his young, stupid self. Which happens to be, unfortunately, what happens when you let a 17-year old walk around with a weapon that is designed to do one thing and one thing only, namely, to end human life.

              Anyone who wants to delude themselves into thinking that Kyle Rittenhouse was carrying a ‘sporting’ gun, has a brain that is about as capable of producing a realistic thought as Herman Mermelstein, who happens to be my cat.

              And by the way, that previous thought should also be applied to one of the victims of the onslaught – George Grosskreutz – who showed up at the scene with a Glock pistol that he no doubt was carrying to help him provide first-aid to some of the people in the street.

              Frankly, I’m surprised that in the more than five hundred wrongful shooting demonstrations last year, that there weren’t a lot more vigilantes who tried to protect represent justice against an unruly or dangerous crowd.

              Maybe Americans aren’t all that violent even though they own somewhere between 300 million and 400 million guns.

What’s The Kenosha Trial All About?

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Last night when I watched the news report on the Rittenhouse trial, for a moment I thought I was back in 2013 watching a report on the trial of George Zimmerman, who was accused in Florida of killing a Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, the previous year. Except in the Florida case, the shooter was White, and the victim was Black. In the current trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the shooter and all three victims are or were White.

On the other hand, what makes these two episodes eerily similar is that in both situations, a civilian armed with a gun took it upon himself to confront an unarmed man who may or may not have represented any kind of real threat.

In the Florida case, there was no question that the victim, Trayvon Martin, was unarmed. In the Kenosha incident, one victim had a gun but the other two victims between them were ‘armed’ with a plastic bag.

The good news is that at least in this case, we don’t have to listen to the mindless racism that immediately swirled around the killing of Trayvon Martin, particularly after Obama got involved. And let me make one point very clear – the racism was all directed at the Black kid, not the other way around. But at least this time the racists can crawl back under their rocks and shut the f**k up.

What is similar, however, is that the Kyle Rittenhouse defense fund is alive and well, with more than $500,000 donated on his behalf, including money from some law-enforcement guys who should know better than to ever put up money to defend someone accused of showing up at a public rally with an AR-15.

So, even though the lines are a little fuzzy in the Kenosha case as opposed to what happened to Trayvon Martin, the bottom line is that this incident proves one thing and one thing only, namely, that two people are dead and another may be spending the rest of his life behind bars because two guys couldn’t show up in a public space without taking along their guns.

Why did Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum go to the Kenosha march for George Floyd in the first place? They both claimed they were present to ‘help out.’ So why bring their guns? If they believed that the situation was so dangerous that they needed to be armed, why didn’t they just stay home?

The first thing the cops should have done in Kenosha, and as far as I’m concerned it should be SOP in every situation where a crowd gathers for some kind of ‘peaceful’ protest, is to declare the location to be gun-rein. No guns. That’s it. And there’s absolutely nothing in the entire history of 2nd-Amendment jurisprudence which says that public authorities have to relinquish their responsibility to enforce community safety in order to allow members of the public to maintain their gun ‘rights.’

I don’t care what the yahoo element in Gun-nut Nation wants you to believe, there aren’t any unlimited ‘rights’ in the Bill of Rights. The government has what is known as a ‘compelling interest’ to keep the peace and maintain community safety, so don’t tell me that either Rosenbaum or Rittenhouse deserve to be seen as ‘good guys’ because they showed up with their guns.

So, Kyle Rittenhouse is going to say that he was only ‘defending’ himself because Rosenbaum had a gun. But Rosenbaum didn’t point his gun at just some other passer-by. He pointed it at Rittenhouse because Rittenhouse was carrying a gun.

And by the way, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the altercation between Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum happened just because they were both involved in a mass demonstration about George Floyd. What happened between them is exactly what happens on streets all over the United States which results in 250 people getting killed or injured by gunfire every, single day.

We have gun violence because two or more people, almost always men between the ages of 16 and 30, get into an argument, neither one can (God forbid) back down, and then one or both of them pull out a gun.

Do either of the combatants pull out Grandpa’s old shotgun or a bolt-action hunting rifle like my Remington 700 which is sitting somewhere around my house? No.

They pull out an AR-15 or an AK-47 or a Glock or some other handgun and bang away.

And whichever one is arrested after killing the other, of course he’ll say that he was just ‘protecting’ himself or ‘protecting’ the neighborhood from the other guy.

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