Into Black America’s Call to Arms
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICES) So why y'all can't tell us the truth about what happened to Breonna Taylor? 'Cause the truth is, you see, y'all tried to sing, and they ignored you. Y'all tried to chant, and they ignored you. But when it got to the world stage, people with guns heard about it. And then we came knocking. And guess what? They didn't lie to us at all.
Trymaine Lee: Late last month, a group of Black protesters lined the steps of the Kentucky State Capitol building. They were were dressed in all black paramilitary gear, black boots, black masks, heavy vests. They held semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. And they stood still in formation. (BACKGROUND VOICES) Barely moving except to chant, throw a Black Power fist into the air or rest their hands on their weapons. (BACKGROUND VOICES)
The scores of protesters were part of the NFAC, the Not F***ing Around Coalition, except they don't abbreviate the F. They're a militia, Second Amendment advocates organized to help Black people defend themselves. And they were there to demand justice for Breonna Taylor.
Archival Recording: (BACKGROUND VOICES) It's not just the people of Louisville that you owe an explanation to. You owe an explanation to Black people, period.
Lee: Four and a half months earlier, Breonna Taylor was gunned down to police officers inside her Louisville apartment. Taylor was an emergency medical technician and dreamed of becoming a nurse, starting a family. Just after midnight on March 13th, while Taylor was in bed with her boyfriend, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to burst into their apartment as part of a drug investigation.
They were serving a no-knock warrant. Taylor's boyfriend fired his gun. He said they never announced themselves, but police refute that claim. The police fired several rounds, striking and killing Breonna Taylor at just 26 years old. No drugs were found at the scene.
One of the officers involved was fired. But there have been no arrests or charges made in her shooting. That ordeal along with the ones that came before and the ones that followed, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake have more Black people realizing...
Jeneisha Harris: I could be another Breonna Taylor.
Lee: As a response more people are saying, "Maybe it's time to protect myself. Maybe it's time to get armed."
Philip Smith: I think it's a chance to defend yourself. We're getting shot anyway. Black men are getting shot every day. It hasn't stopped. It hasn't stopped with George Floyd. We are still getting shot. Black men like you and I who aren't doing anything wrong. We're just going to the store. So not having a gun is not gonna change the narrative at all. Having a gun will.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today a look at the growing call to arms coming from Black America. According to background check records, more than 12 million guns have been sold in 2020. And Black gun ownership is leading the way.
A survey from the National Shooting Sports Foundation found that gun dealers reported a 58% increase in Black customers in 2020, the most rapid growth of any ethnic group. As COVID-19 and high profile killings have laid bare the vulnerabilities that Black people face. Could gun ownership be the path to safety, self-sufficiency and freedom? Jeneisha Harris is 24 years old. She's a senior at Tennessee State University in Nashville. She grew up just a few hours away in Memphis.
Harris: Home is Memphis, Tennessee, in a very small community called Orange Mound. Outside of Harlem, it is the first community to be built and ran by Black people.
Lee: She's an aspiring pediatric psychologist. But first and foremost Jeneisha is an activist.
Harris: I always say that my activism is the root of the things that I lacked growing up. Health care, food, resources, education. I started my free breakfast program where we feed about 35 to 100 children every single day that's still ongoing. I'm actually headed there after I leave here.
Lee: That free breakfast program Jeneisha runs in north Nashville is a direct continuation of the type of programs the Black Panthers started back in the 1960s. Jeneisha says the Panthers have helped to inform her politics.
Harris: Radical for me is going against the status quo, going against what's normal, going against what feels comfortable.
Lee: In addition to her free breakfast program and after-school tutoring program, Jeneisha has directed much of her activism toward getting Confederate monuments and statues torn down.
Harris: I've been arrested twice in the past year and a half for my activism around the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Harris: If you touch me, I swear to God it'll be the last time y'all touch anybody else.
Lee: Forrest was a Confederate general. He was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His bust is displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. (BACKGROUND VOICES) In July just a month ago, the Tennessee State Capitol commission voted to remove the bust. But only after years of protest.
Lee: (BACKGROUND VOICES) This drew national attention in February 2019.
Archival Recording: It was a target of community unrest here in Nashville. Now the future of a bust of a Confederate general will be discussed next week.
Lee: Around that time Jeneisha's work started to become known in the Nashville area. But with that came some unwanted attention.
Harris: They labeled me as an extremist. I'm too radical. I've had disgusting articles written about me being this dangerous person. And I'm five feet. I'm 98 pounds. I couldn't kill a fly if I wanted to. There are people when I go to the grocery store that have spit on me, that have thrown things at me simply because they recognize me and my voice and being on TV for leading protests and leading civil disobedience actions.
Lee: Have you ever felt that your life or your safety was actually in danger because of what you believe in, your activism?
Harris: Absolutely. I've had people send letters hand-delivered to my home. I've had to relocate to a new apartment. I've had to get a security detail at the age of 23.
Lee: Having a security detail isn't uncommon for prominent activists today. The Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party of Nashville offered to provide armed men to accompany Jeneisha to public events. But that protection, it's not around the clock.
Harris: I thought about the unfortunate possibility that my life could be taken simply by being home, being a Black woman, being at home by myself, being a target. I had a conversation with a fellow comrade who asked me a question that was very burning. And he said, "What do you do when your security goes home?" I couldn't answer that question. Because I didn't know.
Lee: It was the first time she wondered, "Should I get a gun?"
Harris: The ironic thing is even in the midst of being in the most dangerous situations of my life, I was still anti-gun. Like a lot of different Southern families, we always had a shotgun and a rifle upstairs in the attic if need be. But it was not embraced at all.
It was actually something that we shied away from. It was associated with crime. And I also come from a very religious background. So we didn't really believe in owning something that could potentially take a life away. I remember my cousin bringing over a gun. And I remember my grandmother saying, "Get it away. Just get it away."
She was very frightened. She didn't want to look at it. She didn't want to be around it. She didn't want it in her presence. And that meant something for me. And I asked her, "Why is this so profound for you?" And she wouldn't explain it. To this day, she would never explain it. And I think the silence behind that reaction spoke so loudly for me.
Lee: Jeneisha also thought about her uncle.
Harris: He was a great man. He loved his family, had great relationships with his kids, was a great father, was a great uncle. I've never grown up with a father in my life. So he was that father figure. And so one night he was leaving a club. And shots were fired.
And he ended up being murdered. This was August of 2014. It was about a week before I left for college. And so yeah, it was very rough. I was traumatized. I can remember always walking the opposite way of police officers because I saw a gun.
Or if, you know, I'm at a college party and, you know, there's a security guard with a firearm, I don't even want to go into the party anymore. And so it really controlled my life. And I just didn't think that adding more guns to communities was the best idea. And I was just very firm in my belief of not owning a gun. That these guns are dangerous. They take lives. And I don't want to be a part of it.
Lee: Then on May 25th, a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. The video went viral. Protests spread.
Archival Recording: No justice. No peace. No racist. No peace. No justice. No peace. No racist. No peace.
Lee: Jeneisha helped organize a rally in Nashville.
Archival Recording: Miss Jeneisha Harris, please step up. (APPLAUSE)
Harris: A lot of George Floyd, made a speech.
Archival Recording: I do not want to hear that all lives matter when our lives are not being healed. (BACKGROUND VOICES) When our lives are not being oppressed. (APPLAUSE) When our lives are not fighting for freedom that we should already have in the land of the free. (APPLAUSE)
Harris: I was leading people to a nearby police precinct at this protest, thousands and thousands of people, for answers, for demands. I stood on top of a police car. And I was trying to, you know, get the attention of people to let them know the next step. Things got of control. Infiltrators started, you know, throwing rocks and damaging police cars.
Harris: (BACKGROUND VOICES) I jumped off into the arms of a friend. And we ran.
Lee: The police car Jeneisha was standing on was vandalized and damaged. Nearby windows were broken and a fire was started on the ground floor of the courthouse. The mayor issued a curfew. The governor brought in the National Guard.
Harris: They were, you know, shooting rubber bullets. And we went home that night.
Archival Recording: If you do not to be arrested, leave the premises.
Harris: And so (SIREN) I was actually very proud that I did not get arrested that specific protest. (BACKGROUND VOICE) But five days later, they sent the warrant.
Archival Recording: A metro police issuing warrants for the arrest of three people accused of destroying a police cruiser. This was Saturday during the riots that night.
Lee: (BACKGROUND VOICE) The charge was felony aggravated rioting.
Harris: I'm normally arrested in the midst of the protest. So I didn't understand why five days later the SWAT team shows up to my apartment. I'm very, very confused.
Lee: Jeneisha wasn't home at the time, but says her apartment complex let her know what was goin' on. The Nashville police denied sending a SWAT unit to her apartment. But Justin Bautista-Jones another activist initially charged with Jeneisha also claimed that SWAT showed up to serve his arrest warrant.
Harris: I called a friend. He picked me up. We went to the precinct for me to turn myself in. And in the spirit of Sandra Bland and so many other Black women who are not with us today. So I remember tweeting, "If anything happens to me, I did not kill myself."
I know what comes with this life of activism. I've studied Fred Hampton. I study Malcolm X. I've studied Dr. King. I've studied so many people who are not with us. I just turned 24 last week. And I'm very young doing this work. But I'm not naive in knowing that there's a price to pay for freedom. And sometimes that price is death. But if I did lose my life, it was because I died in the fight for freedom, not because I killed myself.
Lee: But the time Jeneisha got to the police precinct, news of her arrest warrant had spread. Her tweet about not taking her own life had gone viral. And then just like that, the police and the district attorney changed their tune.
Archival Recording: So metro police just telling us that riding charges against Justin Jones and Jeneisha Harris have been dropped.
Lee: Jeneisha was relieved. But the experience stuck with her.
Harris: I thought about Breonna Taylor being at home and how she was literally martyred as these people bombarded her apartment. And so for me I thought I could be another Breonna Taylor. My politics towards guns shifted. I went from being totally anti-gun to a light bulb switching in my head saying, "Hey, maybe you do need to be armed."
Lee: Jeneisha isn't alone in wanting to get a gun. After the break, we'll look at how this trend is playing out nationally and find out whether Jeneisha takes the leap to get one. Stick with us.
Lee: This year between the chaos of COVID-19 and the terror of white violence, more Black people are turning to their Second Amendment right as their most right, the right to live crumbles before them.
Smith: It should scare the hell out of you. It scares the hell out of me. And I've got multiple guns.
Lee: Philip Smith is 61 years old and lives in suburban Atlanta. In 2015 right before President Trump entered office, he started the National African American Gun Association with a single member, himself. His goal was to create a place to address the specific concerns of Black gun owners, training people, helping them to get licensed. Since 2015, Philip has seen interest in Black gun ownership rise steadily.
Smith: Every city, every state in the country, folks are joining. Three years ago on average we'd probably get four or five people a day. Now we get ten or 15, 20 people an hour.
Lee: Wow. 2020 has been a really big year for NAAGA. In the 36 hours surrounding the killing of George Floyd, Philip saw a spike.
Smith: We had 3,000 people join.
Lee: And the numbers have continued to increase.
Smith: Every day. I can look on the log and say, okay, 40 people joined in the last hour. So we're consistently getting these numbers now. And I'd be lying to you if I did not say some of the social unrest and some of the realities of the pandemic and food shortages and all that stuff.
People have been a tendency to really look at things very, very clearly, with clarity, when their life is in danger. I had many people who were anti-gun two years ago. And they called me up or emailed sayin', "Hey, Phil, I went and bought a gun."
Lee: According to a 2017 Pew poll, three in ten American adults report they personally own a gun. And the rates vary by race. 36% of white people, 24% of Black people, and 15% of Hispanics report owning a gun. Exact numbers are hard to pin down. But Philip estimates there are about six to eight million Black gun owners in the U.S.. His organization represents 40 some thousand of them.
Smith: And again, 'cause I talk to brothers every day, all types, doctors, engineers, Ph.D. candidates, poor, unemployed, federal workers, state workers, law enforcement, ex-FBI, military, a lot of military guys. And it amazes me even with the success and the history that they have, there's still sometimes this underlying thing. Like, "Is this cool, Phil? Is this okay what we're doin'? Do I have this right?" And I always tell them, "Yeah, brother, you have the right. You have a right to do that."
Lee: His goal is to win over as many Black members as possible including from other gun organizations like the National Rifle Association.
Smith: We cannot keep asking other groups to say, "This is important to us," and they say, "That's not important to us," and then get mad at them. We knew that ten or 15, 20 years. The message is pretty clear. They're not worried about your interest. So you need to have your own voice at the table.
Lee: For Philip, if you're a Black person in America, havin' a gun is non-negotiable. He also thinks that every Black person, legally of course, should carry a concealed weapon at all times.
Smith: So that you can at least defend yourself legally. Had Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia here in Atlanta, in the city where I'm at, he was just joggin', lookin' at houses like my wife can do every weekend. And he was just joggin'. And three guys in a truck come up to him and hop out with a shotgun. At that point, if I'm him, I'm pulling out my gun. I'm not sayin' I'm gonna win the negotiation. I'm gonna get a shot off or two, if you guys mess with me.
Lee: It's gonna be a negotiation. Either way, we're gonna have to actually negotiate.
Smith: Exactly. And I'd rather go to court being judging by 12 than carried by six at a funeral.
Lee: His organization teaches its members that the right to arms for Black people at least has consistently been under attack.
Smith: Back in the 1600's, 1680 I believe, when some of the first slaves came to Louisiana, one of the first things that the governor of Louisiana did, he installed a law that any African American, any slave at that time. We weren't African Americans. We weren't even human.
If you saw him or her with a gun, spear, anything deemed a weapon, you had the right to kill them on the spot. And you would not be persecuted. No questions asked. No questions asked. And that law was uniformly utilized in the Deep South, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky.
Lee: There was also the 1857 Dred Scott Decision that ruled Black people were not meant to be protected by the rights of the constitution. The Supreme Court said that one of the main reasons behind the decision was the fact that granting full constitutional rights to slaves would mean they could, quote, "keep and carry arms wherever they went." And after slavery, Southern states enacted Black Codes which prevented the formerly enslaved population from owning firearms. At every stage in our country's history, there's been an attempt to keep Black people from having guns.
Smith: Those laws have been used to control us. When we tried to go get guns we were given every excuse and in some cases, and in most cases, just denied, saying, "No, you can't have guns." And had law enforcement and the judicial system back up that perspective unfortunately. I always use the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Sacramento when they showed up at the capitol with their shotguns.
Lee: Some older folks might remember this moment. It was in protest of the 1967 Mulford Act, a Republican bill to repeal California's open carry law. The bill was motivated by the Black Panther's police patrols, a system of self-policing where they do neighborhood checks and follow cop cars when a Black person got pulled over.
Standing to the side with their guns, they'd shout legal advice and remind people that if anything bad happened, the Panthers would protect them. On May 2nd of 1967, 30 members of the Black Panther Party gathered at the steps of the California State house carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and 45 caliber pistols.
Archival Recording: White society is responsible for this. And then they go on to say the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense believes that the time has come for Black people to arm themselves against this terror, the terror of the white people presumably, before it is too late.
Archival Recording: Because we can go inside somewhere. Isn't there a spectator section?
Archival Recording: We got these Black Panthers up here with signs on the campus floor.
Archival Recording: Am I under arrest? Take your hands off me if I'm not under arrest.
Lee: Here is Panther's co-founder, Bobby Seale.
Bobby Seale: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense calls upon the American people in general and the Black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California legislature which is now considering legislation aimed at keepin' the Black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder, and the oppression of Black people.
Lee: This protest scared lawmakers and lobbyists including the NRA which supported strictly gun regulation in part to keep guns out of the hands of Black Americans. Then governor Ronald Reagan who would eventually become a proponent of gun rights had this to say.
Ronald Reagan: But I would think that some of the deals that been suggested such as not carrying a loaded weapon on a city street or in town, this might certainly be legal. And there is absolutely no reason why out on the street today a civilian should be carrying a loaded weapon.
Lee: The image of Black people with guns has always been frightening for white America. And that was part of the Panthers' point, to get attention and make it clear that there is no room to be messed with. It's also part of what drove the Not F***ing Around Coalition to protest (BACKGROUND VOICES) with military style gear in Louisville earlier this summer.
Lee: But to Philip, he's not sure the displays from these Black militias are the best approach to making Black Americans safer.
Smith: I'm not gonna down anybody for sittin' down and thinking about the best way they need to express themselves to come to a solution. Because they all come from the same place. We see our community being hurt. We see our community being attacked. We see our community, our Black men and women, getting for the most part executed. And we're tired of it. We are very, very tired of it.
I may not agree with the method. But I understand where it comes from. I may not agree with their posturing. But I understand where it comes from. I may not even agree with them even existing as an organization. But I understand where it comes from. But if you ask me, "Do I think that's the best route to go in terms of some of the other organizations that are out there?" No, I don't.
I think all you're providing is a photo shoot for journalists. What are you doing? What are you really doing? Do you just want to recreate the Black Panthers? I've seen real Black Panthers when I was ten years old. 'Cause I'm from Northern Cal in Oakland. I know what real Black Panthers look like. So you want to copy that? Cool. What's your goal?
Lee: How do you think society in America might be different if more Black people were armed?
Smith: Our history in this country would be dramatically different. We wouldn't be having Jim Crow. We would not have had Black Wall Street where a whole economic engine of Black folks in the state of Oklahoma were just destroyed over night if we all would have had guns. The gun changes the narrative. You don't wanna mess with someone that can protect themselves to the ultimate extent which is, "Either you kill me or I'm gonna kill you."
Lee: Anti-lynching crusader, Ida B. Wells, once said, quote, "A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home. And it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give." And even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our country's most famous proponent of non-violence applied for a concealed carry permit after his home was fired bombed in 1956. But Jeneisha Harris, the activist from Tennessee, isn't quite there yet.
Harris: No. I will be honest. I'm not 100% ready to own a gun. Sometimes I get so passionate about this work, I can be what I like to call a hot head. And that's why I'm doin' the work on myself in therapy. I'm doin' the work of researching gun laws, Tennessee gun laws, federal gun laws so that I am equipped with the tools to be able to hold this responsibility. It's such a great responsibility, this item, this thing can literally take the life of someone. And so if I have a gun, I want to be responsible in a good way.
Lee: Do you think owning a gun might actually draw more violence or draw, you know, law enforcement to you in a different way?
Harris: I think about that a lot. I think about imagine if they see it on my hip and they label me as even more of a target. That's been one of the reasons why I haven't started the process to own a gun yet. Because I think about them tellin' lies. "Oh, she tried to reach for it. And that's why we shot her. Oh, she was attempting to shoot us back. And, you know, this is why we ultimately killed her."
Lee: Blackness plus a gun too often equals criminal in the eyes of law enforcement. Think about Philando Castile who was shot in Minnesota during a traffic stop after revealing to an officer that he had a legal handgun, or John Crawford killed by police officers in an Ohio Walmart while holding a BB gun that was actually on sale in the store.
Compare that to Kyle Rittenhouse the white teenager accused of shooting protesters, then walking past police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Or Dylann Roof who murdered nine Black church members in South Carolina and then after arresting him, police brought him to Burger King.
Harris: And so again my mistrust for law enforcement is very profound. And anything can happen.
Lee: There are a lot of people who would say there's already a problem with gun violence in the Black community. You know, adding more guns to the mix isn't the answer. Are there people in your circles, activists included, who are urging you against gun ownership?
Harris: Some people have a rhetoric of, "There's so much gun violence in Black communities. Why do we want to add more violence by giving guns in a legal way?" Even with the violence in Black communities, there's violence in all communities, in white communities, in Asian communities. And so that's not a perspective that I align with. Just to give context, many people think that way.
I do have people in my life that are totally against all things guns for a lot of reasons. We're from the hood. And we've seen our friends and our family members be gunned down. And it's very traumatizing. But on the flip side, I have so many comrades, so many activist friends, so many people in my life that are gun owners. Very close friends that are gun owners. I have two uncles who own guns who have been trying to get me a gun for Christmas, for my birthday. And I've just been like, "No, no." But I'm actually going to the gun range with one of my uncles soon.
Lee: Have you fired a gun before?
Harris: No, I have not.
Lee: When you think about the prospect of the gun range and firing that gun for the first time, are you nervous, excited?
Harris: Very nervous.
Lee: What are you feelin'?
Harris: You know, the trauma, you have these flashbacks. And even now just thinking about firing a gun, I think about all of the bullets that have been fired to kill unarmed people. I think about the gun that was used to take away my uncle's life. I think about those things replaying as I shoot a gun for the first time. So I'm not looking forward to it. But it's something that I'm pushing myself to do.
Lee: Are you willing you think to take a life to protect your own?
Harris: I battle with that question. And I'll be honest. I do not have the answer right now.
Lee: But Jeneisha says she might not have a choice.
Harris: It's do or die for me. It's being unarmed and basically waiting for someone to hurt me or harm me. Or it's I get over this fear, I work through this fear, I heal through this fear. And I'll take the steps to educate myself to own a gun. And I defend myself if need be. So for me it's do or die.
Lee: Into America is produced Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.