Second Amendment supporters often are concerned with citizens being able to protect themselves against home invasions or government overreach, but a number of Connecticut groups are defending themselves against a different threat: racism.
Racial-justice activism has been on the rise in the last few weeks, set off by a white nationalist group’s efforts to recruit members in Connecticut. Organizations that demonstrate to protect the rights of Black and brown people say that facing off against potential hate crimes is perilous on an unlevel playing field. If counter-protesters come armed, they want to come armed, too.
“Being armed has allowed us to secure our safety as a unit. There are groups that … go against what we stand for. … That can be a very dangerous situation especially with our experience of being attacked at certain rallies and events,” said Aleena Durant, a member of and trainer at Self Defense Brigade.
“Being armed brings us safety in case of an emergency. We arrive armed not to pose a threat or make anyone afraid or anything like that. It’s more for our safety as a unit.”
Durant and other activists of color would not say that they would carry a firearm at any particular place or time, out of concern that they will be targeted by police or counter-protesters. However, organizational leaders are unanimous in their support for armed self-defense, when the need arises.
“Armed self-defense has changed the entire landscape of organizing in Connecticut and has given people with guns and training a sense of confidence,” said Cornell Lewis, founder of the Self Defense Brigade. “Self-defense is a legitimate part of the Black experience.”
Tellingly, the only activist interviewed who admitted he would be armed at a recent protest was a white man, from the ally group John Brown Gun Club. He identified himself only as Dan to protect himself from harassment. Still, he said police treat armed white people better than armed people of color.
“I believe it tends to be a more congenial conversation with us, although there are exceptions for that. I don’t want to paint too negative a picture. There are many cops who play nicely with Cornell. But there tends to be less suspicion or antagonism about our arms and our right to bear them,” Dan said.
John Brown Gun Club was founded in the spirit of the 19th-century firebrand and Torrington native, a white man who went to his death defending the abolitionist cause.
Self Defense Brigade teaches hand-to-hand combat, knife skills and well-practiced, disciplined collective action against hostilities. If members want to learn gun skills, Lewis refers them to experts at a rifle range.
The Huey P. Newton Gun Club was named after the founder of the Black Panther Party. Cassandra X, a member, said a great deal of its focus is gun ownership and training for Black women, to protect them from sexual violence. It also stands in solidarity with other racial justice organizations in time of protest.
Cassandra X said the first line of action she promotes is always to attempt a civil conversation with hostile people or groups. But members are well-trained and prepared if civilities do not succeed.
“We want to see how far these people are willing to go before we can meet at the yellow line and have a conversation face to face,” she said. “This is what we line up for and stand for. We are at all times respectful and disciplined. However, should someone feel the need to cross boundaries and disrespect us, I will address it.”
Activists say they do not carry guns hoping to fire them. They hope they don’t. Simply the appearance of guns, or antagonists’ knowledge that activists have guns, is enough to de-escalate a tense situation.
“The value of being armed is really about leveling the playing field in systems of power. The gun is a tool of power and can be used in incredibly problematic, dangerous, violent ways,” said Dan. “It also can be used to balance the power. … The threat is lessened if people are armed in response.”
West recalled a rally in the Quiet Corner, which he organized at the request of activists in that town.
“The neo Nazis, skinheads and the white supremacists contacted me on social media saying, don’t come up there,” West said. They went anyway. In advance of the rally, West contacted state officials and local law enforcement to inform them that they would be armed at the protest, “but not to start anything.”
“We got up there. The racists stood across from us, walking back and forth between the trees, watching us. I believe had we not said we were going there armed it would have been different, that in spite of the police they would have tried something,” he said. The event proceeded and ended peacefully.
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New Era Young Lords, a community resource group that focuses on mutual aid and other basic needs for underserved communities, is an ally organization with racial justice groups. Alyssa Suitter of NEYL said gun ownership is useful because it is naïve to think hate groups will relate to peaceful calls for harmony.
“When it comes to certain groups, with these people they’re not about ‘All Lives Matter.’ They don’t care about that. … It’s a whole different level of toxicity,” said Suitter, who is white. “We can go up to these people all we want saying ‘peace’ and ‘love’ and bop people on the head with flowers and say ‘let’s all love each other.’ They don’t want that. If we go in there and we’re not prepared, it’s dangerous.”
West agreed. “We could be praying, looking up into the sky, waiting on the morality of the oppressor to change. No, no, no, that ain’t happening,” he said. “We’d better be prepared. If we pray to God and God doesn’t answer, we have to be prepared.”
Suitter said bringing guns to protests is a way to say, “We’re here and we’re allowed to do this as well.”
Even though the Second Amendment applies to all Americans, activists say they often feel targeted because society tends to view Black gun ownership more negatively than white gun ownership.
“It’s always radical when people hear Black people exercising their Second Amendment rights,” said Keren Prescott, founder of Power Up Manchester. “They don’t say anything when white nationalists are talking about the NRA, but the minute that Black people want to do it, it becomes this big story. It’s a constitutional right.”
Susan Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.