As Election Day draws closer, commentators are issuing apocalyptic warnings about potential coups, street violence and President Trump not conceding if he loses.
But there’s another frightening election scenario I dread as a Black man — and that few people seem to be talking about.
It’s what happens if an armed Black person clashes with an armed White person at a protest and bullets start flying.
Images of such a confrontation could upend the presidential race, hobble Black Lives Matter and undo much of the White support for racial justice that surged during the George Floyd protests this summer.
Such a scenario may seem implausible, but it’s only a camera click away because of two trends.
A number of armed, far-right White groups emboldened by Trump’s “law and order” message are confronting anti-racist protesters across the nation. And there is a growing Second Amendment movement among Black Americans who are forming their own armed groups.
What happens if these two movements collide?
Why more Black people are buying guns
FBI Director Chris Wray reflected some of that concern recently when he said he’s worried about violent clashes between far-left and far-right groups at racial protests this fall.
Such a confrontation almost came to pass this summer when hundreds of heavily armed members of a Black group called the “Not F**king Around Coalition” converged in Louisville, Kentucky for a protest against police brutality after the death of Breonna Taylor.
They were met by an armed, largely White extremist group called the “Three Percenters.” The two groups yelled at one another but were kept apart by riot police. Shots were fired at the event when a NFAC member dropped his weapon and accidentally injured three other NFAC members with buckshot.
The NFAC also marched on a Confederate memorial in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in July. With some members dressed in black paramilitary uniforms and carrying ammunition belts, they looked like an updated version of the Black Panthers.
One of their members grabbed a megaphone and called for a showdown with White vigilante groups.
“I don’t see no White militia, the Boogie [Boogaloo] boys, the Three Percenters, and all the rest of these scared-ass rednecks,” the man said as he cradled a rifle in his lap. “We here, where the f**k you at? We’re in your house.”
The leader of the NFAC did not respond to an interview request from CNN.
A group of armed Black people also marched earlier this year in Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot to death after being chased by at least two White men.
Not all of these Black groups are challenging White vigilante groups. Many say they formed for a variety of reasons: to protect protesters, to assert their Second Amendment rights and to guard their communities against corrupt police officers as well as White supremacists.
One member said that Black people “can’t just sit there when your family gets murdered or people get murdered.”
Black people not aligned with these groups are arming themselves as well. Organizations of Black gun owners are reporting huge surges in membership. More Black women are buying guns. Many members of these groups said they joined because stories about Black people being killed by White supremacists convinced them they needed to be armed.
Michael “Killer Mike” Render, a hip-hop artist and activist, captured some of this mounting anxiety in the Black community when he recently urged Blacks to embrace their Second Amendment rights. Render released a statement addressed to Black people in which he said, “the only person you can count on to protect yourself and your family is you.”
“I put this statement out because the police cannot always get to you on time, and the world is not a just place,” Render said. “We cannot assume that everyone who wears a police uniform is just and fair.”
I’ve heard similar attitudes in conversations with friends and family members. A Black pastor shocked me when he told me he was thinking of getting a gun because of rising racism, and so were many of his fellow pastors. A friend recently told me he’s stocked up on guns because he’s seen more White, self-styled paramilitary groups in public.
“I ain’t going back to slavery,” he said during a phone call.
The Black right to bear arms
Black people turning to guns amid rising racial tensions is nothing new. Black newspapers in the late 19th century encouraged Black gun ownership to protect their readers against White vigilantes. Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells armed themselves.
Even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed gun permit after his house was bombed. Armed supporters once guarded King’s home, stocking it with so many guns that one advisor called King’s house “an arsenal.” King eventually abandoned guns for self-defense after fully committing himself to nonviolence.
“The Jim Crow period, where …. [Black Americans] didn’t have the protection of law enforcement and [faced] mob violence, would have been considerably worse but for the fact that Black people in the South were armed and offered some resistance,” says Robert J. Cottrol, a legal historian and author of “The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere.”
Yet White America has traditionally been leery of Black people with guns. One historian, in a 2016 column in The Washington Post, said, “The right to bear arms has mostly been for White people.”
The Black Panther Party, for example, was destroyed in part by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies because photographs and videos of armed Black men sparked deep fears among some White Americans.
A White man carrying a gun in public is seen as a patriot, a Black man a thug, the comedian D.L. Hughley once said. This is the double standard that Black Americans have long lived under.
It’s also why some worry that images of an armed Black person defending themselves could backfire even if that person has credible claims of self-defense. Critics of Black Lives Matter could use such an image to turn White support against racial justice protests, said Allissa V. Richardson, author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism.”
“I do worry that the movement will be derailed by the wrong image,” she said, “an image that many people are quite frankly waiting to see so they can say, ‘I know we shouldn’t have supported this.'”
Others could use a similar image to swing a presidential race. It’s happened before.
An infamous campaign ad evoking fears of Black violence is widely credited with helping George H. W. Bush win the White House in 1988. The ad featuring a grainy mugshot of a dark-skinned Black prisoner named Willie Horton, who, after being released on furlough, raped a White woman and stabbed her boyfriend.
The ad implied that Bush’s opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, was soft on crime. Bush won in a landslide.
One image of violence could wipe out years of racial progress
I know this is supposed to be a new America. The Black Lives Matter protests this summer may have been the largest movement in US history. Countless White protesters stood shoulder to shoulder with Black people in the streets. Corporations and sports teams are taking stands for racial justice.
For the first time in the nation’s history, the US may have what one writer calls an “anti-racist majority.”
But one powerful image of a Black person wielding a gun could wipe out much of those gains. Just as the George Floyd video sparked a movement, the wrong video could grind it to a halt.
And the context of such a video may not matter. Many Black people only have to consider some notorious recent cases of police violence to conclude the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to them.
Philando Castile, a Black man, was legally carrying a concealed weapon when he was shot to death by police during a traffic stop in 2016 near Minneapolis. Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman in Fort Worth, Texas, was shot to death by police in her home last year after she pulled a gun from her purse one night after hearing a noise in her backyard.
And Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Louisville after her boyfriend, who was legally armed, shot at officers after they forced their way into her apartment one night with a no-knock warrant. Taylor’s boyfriend said he didn’t know they were police because they didn’t identify themselves, though police maintain they did.
“We’ve tried to practice our Second Amendment rights, but we see that we can’t do what they can do,” said Richardson, author of “Bearing Witness,” referring to White gun owners.
This double standard is why I dread what could happen if a Black man did what a White teenager is accused of doing in August in Kenosha, Wisconsin: shooting three White demonstrators, two of them fatally, at a public protest.
President Trump refused to condemn the teenager and suggested he was acting in self-defense. The teenager’s attorneys said he was acting in self-defense as well. Now some White Americans hail him as a hero and a patriot.
I suspect the reaction would be different if that teenager was a young Black man.
The backlash could be even worse now
This aversion to Black people with guns is so ingrained in the American psyche that one disturbed Black shooter can tarnish an entire movement. That’s what happened in 2016 when a Black military veteran shot and killed 5 police officers during a protest against police brutality in Dallas, Texas. The gunman had no formal connection to Black Lives Matter, and the organization condemned the shooting.
But the tragedy changed the perception of Black Lives Matter “in an instant.” Critics blamed the attack on the protest group, and BLM lost momentum.
“A lot of the progress in the movement was reversed and then the question became, should Black Lives Matter be on a terrorist list?” said Richardson, author of “Bearing Witness.”
The recent shooting in Compton, California, could have a similar impact. On September 12 an unknown person ambushed and seriously wounded two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies as they sat in their patrol car. Surveillance video caught images of the shooting, but the race of the shooter is unclear.
Several relatives and friends called me afterwards, expressing the same sentiment I hear after every high-profile shooting: “God, I hope he ain’t Black.”
Today, the backlash could be even worse. President Trump has used racist language to mobilize his base. Drivers are plowing into crowds of peaceful protesters. Some now warn the country is “spiraling toward political violence” that threatens democracy itself.
I’m not asking that responsible Black gunowners disarm.
Cottrol, the historian, says Black people shouldn’t abandon their Second Amendment rights over concerns about how some White people may react. He asks, “Are you going to make your right to stay alive contingent on the perception of others?”
I’m apprehensive about another question:
What happens if a Black vigilante group issues a challenge, but this time there’s a White vigilante group that’s willing to accept?