The Case for Self-Defense

by William Richardson

What we have seen with the Trayvon Martin case is a community watchman who is socially white (his actual race is half Hispanic) shoot an unarmed black teen, the police not arrest him and the federal government not step in to even consult on the case until there were hundreds of protests and millions of people calling for justice. All the while this was going on the same police who were supposed to investigate this case are shooting up unarmed black teens, men, and women in our communities across America. Let’s also mention for coverage that the feds was allowing our military to murder US citizens and kill foreign civilians in the many countries where they have deployed troops.

Yet Trayvon’s family (total respect to them) and our black “leaders” wanted to bring Zimmerman to justice through the proper authorities. What is wrong with this picture? We are asking people who kill us and hate us (and kill and hate other people too) to protect us from people who hate us and kill us. This is my argument against trusting the police or any authority to achieve justice for the African community when they are part of the system that created the conditions that led to Trayvon’s death in the first place.

Let’s look at something else. We are dealing with police who are in many ways above the law, individual whites who seem to have an itchy trigger finger whether they are a security officer or a community watch captain, and of course neo-Nazis and the Klan who have already decided that a race war is the perfect solution to racism in America. Our people’s response: stay peaceful and organize non-violent protest in a nation where the largest non-violent protest in history didn’t event faze its leaders when they decided to invade Iraq. We also will refuse to take up any direct action tactics and stick to, in addition to non-violent physical protest, writing our congressmen and state senators to repeal laws that allow this kind of violence to happen although we have seen in all the many legal changes in America black people are still an oppressed people. Oh let’s mention that while we do all this white racists and the political/economic elite have no regard for your humanity or life to listen to any of these protests. This is my argument against non-violent, passive resistance and protest.

Our people can’t hope to achieve any measure of security and safety for the foreseeable future if we bank on principles, which although ideal, are just plain wrong for us to hold on to in light of the situation at hand. We are dealing with a violent racist system. Although most white people are good, honest people the ones who are indeed actively racist and seek to affirm the racist system are armed and dangerous. By armed and dangerous this of course includes weapons but it also includes things such as political power over our communities (à la “Stand York Ground”), economic control over our wellbeing, and social control over the conversation on race. These forces come together to make it deadly to be black in America and make it so that at this point in history, like in the late 60’s, passive political action ceases to be a viable option as a response to racism. How many more black bodies will we have to bury before we understand that our only option to survive, let alone change, this society is rebuilding the legitimacy of self-defense as an organizing tactics and philosophy for our people.

Self-defense as a principle and organizing tactic became popular in our community after the non-violent Civil Right movement literally was killed off by the police and racist whites in the last 60’s. At that point our people, especially the youth decide to start defending themselves. This didn’t just include protecting ourselves from the police but also from economic and political exploitation. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was the most famous of these groups. Because of their own internal weaknesses and to a larger degree the violence of the FBI groups in our community lost that spirit of self-defense and moved towards the political action and avenues we still use today. There is an immense need to rebuild this principle and start a new Self Defense Movement today to protect our communities and assert our right to protect our lives and loved ones. We have to remind the world that we have a right to resist our oppression, by any means necessary, up until the point when our oppressor decides to stop attacking us. Below I would like to lay out some principles that this new Self Defense movement needs to be built upon in order for it to be successful.

Self-Defense as I’m using it here is the principle of using defensive tactics of a political, social, economic, or physical nature that seeks to deny an oppressor opportunity to exploit or otherwise harm an oppressed group. This includes tactics and actions meant to bolster the power of an oppressed community to prevent the possibility of such attacks happening in the future.

We should assert in this movement:

  • That it is our god given right to protect our lives from those that attack us
  • That we are allowed to do whatever is necessary to resist attack or oppression
  • That we are within our rights to ignore and/or break laws or norms that perpetuate the oppression of our people or any other people

What we should resist in this movement: 

  • Using unnecessary force to resist attack (shooting someone in the foot for throwing out a racial slur)
  • Responding with an unequal amount of force
  • Actions that can be seen as collective punishment (kicking every white person you come across because one white person wronged you)
  • Offensive force that takes away life or property in excess of what’s necessary to stop oppressive violence

Some people may look at this as too radical but at least it pushes the conversation forward and at least give us a way of organizing ourselves so that we can prevent anymore Trayvons from happening and if we can’t at least be able to mount some kind of response that will actually achieve justice. If there is a better way, it needs to come out now because what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years has not worked. I would like to end with this quote from Frederick Douglass that I think encapsulates my thoughts on the topic quite well:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” 
–Frederick Douglass
*note: This article was lifted from Red Sociology, a blog run by Buffalo-based revolutionary activist William Richardson. It can be found here.

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