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Issue #1603      July 24, 2013

Culture & Life

Vigilantes Rule, OK?

Only in America. Only in America does your local neighbourhood watch go armed. Only in America can an adult white male accost a black teenager on his way home from the shops and demand to know the teenager’s business, threaten him and when the teenager objects shoot him dead – and then successfully plead self defence!

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager in Florida, was black and wearing a hoodie, and that was apparently all that was needed to decide that the lad was acting suspiciously.

No wonder there have been protest demonstrations and accusations of racism in relation to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot dead Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida. Zimmerman, a gun-toting neighbourhood watch volunteer, saw Martin walking home after going out to buy snacks. The 17-year-old Martin was black and wearing a hoodie, and that was apparently all Zimmerman needed to decide that the lad was acting suspiciously.

Zimmerman called the police from his car. They told him not to get out of his car, not to pursue the “suspect”. But he ignored their advice. In his own mind he no doubt saw himself as one of the good guys, keeping the streets safe from riff raff. One of the things that has angered African Americans is the way Zimmerman’s acquittal has given tacit official approval to the concept that African American and potential criminal are one and the same.

The implication in the acquittal is that it is OK for any self-appointed white vigilante to stop and search or question any black youth any where at any time. Civil rights lawyers note that the case is a revival of the racial profiling that was so popular with some US law enforcement bodies a few years ago, until it became indisputable that as a system racial profiling was seriously flawed.

There is very strong feeling among African Americans across the USA that if Martin had been armed and had pursued an unarmed Zimmerman, had accosted Zimmerman and shot him dead, matters would have been dealt with very differently. But African Americans in Florida, as in all the Southern States of the USA, have been living with inequality for several hundred years now.

However, this is not only a question of racial injustice. Race in the US in inseparable from the related issue of poverty, and especially the criminalisation of poverty. The vast numbers of black youth incarcerated in the modern version of slavery – the private run-for-profit industrial prisons – are testimony to the continuing truth and relevance of the charge of genocide levelled at the US government in the 1950s by Paul Robeson and other pioneer civil rights campaigners.

And it is also – and not least – a question of the USA’s ludicrous policies about gun control, policies that put human life way below paranoia on the one hand and the profits of the gun trade on the other. Zimmerman is not a police officer, he is a civilian “volunteer”, but no one it seems has questioned his right to go about the streets armed and clearly dangerous.

Once upon a time, Americans were encouraged to admire men who went around with guns. They were “heroes” of the Old West. But as the West became settled and civilised, the “wide open” towns were tamed and guns were discouraged. In fact, in Tombstone, the Earp brothers made everyone turn in their guns on arrival and pick them up as they left.

Even as the wild west was still being tamed, neighbouring Canada was virtually free of gun play, despite the presence of gold, Indians, “frontier mentality” and all the other things used to excuse rampant gun use on the US side of the border. A different attitude prevailed, one which has persisted to today.

What distinguished the USA from all other countries experiencing problems with guns in the community was the US championing of the morality of capitalism. There are plenty of countries where guns and killings are commonplace: Brazil, Mexico, Sicily – everyone can name a few. All have something in common: black money, organised crime and big profits.

It was not the Wild West that gave guns their big push in the US. It was Prohibition, the ill-conceived attempt to clean up the country’s morals, an attempt which criminalised much of the urban population and forged a willing coalition between organised crime, underpaid and demoralised police and the public. Gangsters became folk heroes and, with the help of the new medium of the movies, guns became sexy and cool.

Capitalism, of which organised crime is an integral part even if its role is usually not spoken of openly, shares the gangsters’ “might makes right” morality as well as many of their methods. Turning armed vigilantes loose on the streets is not the way to keep those streets peaceful and safe.

The use of volunteers to preserve the peace and act as “bouncers” at functions is not new or restricted to capitalism. The Soviet Union made extensive use of them for crowd control and prevention of petty crime. All civic-minded young people were involved in such voluntary security duty. But they were never armed. And race or skin colour – in the multi-racial USSR – was not an issue either.

The main difference however was one of ethics and morality. The ethics of capitalism and the ethics of socialism are poles apart, with totally opposed motivations. The greed and self-interest that underlies capitalism breeds and fosters notions of power and violence. Concern for the community’s needs is perceived as a weakness.

When socialism arms the people it is to help them to collectively meet a threat from outside. Capitalism sells people weapons so that they may defend themselves against each other, an approach that is so inherently anti-human that the mass of the people reject it unless they are constantly and continuously brainwashed to accept paranoia as normal. They are taught to distrust their neighbours, and instead of relying on the collective support of their friends and colleagues for protection, they are actually taught to rely on their own personal gun for “protection”.

And, as the old maps used to say, that way, madness lies.   

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