All art by Frances Smith

I Am Young and Black and I Don't Want to Die

How can you feel safe when black death is everywhere you look and tools like guns only seem to make you more of a target?

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Jul 11 2016, 5:45pm

All art by Frances Smith

I grew up around guns. Both of my parents were Cleveland police officers, and my mom always kept a black 9mm in her Brahmin purse, right next to the eyeliner and lipstick. My dad would tuck his piece in the small of his back, in between his wifebeater and blue jeans. It didn't matter where we went—the park, the movies, track meets, birthday parties—the guns came along with us. But I wasn't taught to revere killing machines—in fact, my parents did everything they could to demystify guns so I never developed a weird fetish for them.

Mom and dad didn't take me to shooting ranges or give me a crash course in gunslinging because as police officers, they had a unique understanding of how dangerous it is to be a black gun owner in America. They already knew what some are beginning to recognize in light of recent tragedies like the police shooting of legal gun owner Philando Castile in Minnesota. Stories like Castile's say to many blacks that the right to bear arms isn't even close to universal. They say that when we are holding a firearm, even if our paperwork is legit and we're not doing anything wrong, we might still be perceived as a menace and targeted for state-sanctioned violence.

I called my dad as soon as I saw the horrific video of Castile's shooting last week. If you haven't seen it, it features the man's girlfriend Diamond Reynolds sitting in the passenger seat of their car describing how her boyfriend, who's bleeding to death in the driver's seat, got shot five times by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. The way she tells it, the couple was pulled over for a busted tail light, and the officer asked for Castile's license and registration. As he reached for his wallet in his back pocket, he told the officer he had a gun and a permit to carry.

According to Reynolds, that's when Officer Yanez opened fire with several rounds, killing Castile.

I wanted to talk to my dad after seeing the video because he's been in that scenario—both as an officer pulling over drivers, and as a black man getting stopped for bullshit. He has often told me these kinds of stops are some of the most vulnerable situations you can find yourself in as a cop, because you just don't know what to expect when you walk up on a random car. And on the flip side, my dad has long tried to prepare me for getting stopped for "driving while black," because he knows how officers who harbor a racist fear of young black men can escalate situations to the point where the innocent civilians are gunned down for no discernible reason.

Of course, that fear my dad's warned me about isn't borne out of thin air. It's played an important role in the way blacks have been dehumanized in our society to justify everything from our subjugation during slavery to mass criminalization today. There was a time when the idea that blacks literally had tails and were a savage subspecies was fodder for legitimate conversation among educated whites. Although most mainstream folks don't speak in those terms anymore, the abhorrent perception of blackness as some kind of harbinger for barbaric wickedness still colors American life.

It was there in 1989, when Donald Trump took out full-page ads in New York City calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, determined that authorities take the lives of the since-exonerated Central Park Five. It was there when Hillary Clinton described some kids as "super predators" to justify the 1994 crime bill that fueled the mass incarceration of blacks to the point that there are now nearly 1 million black men in jail. It was there when former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson justified his shooting of Michael Brown by describing the unarmed teenager as a "demon." And I believe that it was there when Yanez put four bullets into the body of Philando Castile last week.

When we're made out to be monsters, it's much easier to slay us or deny us equal rights under the law. Just as blacks were only considered three-fifths of a person at America's inception, today we're lucky if we're able to exercise our rights as citizens three-fifths of the time, especially when it involves openly carrying a weapon. A white man like Jim Cooley can walk into an airport in post-9/11 America carrying an AR-15 and not face any problems except for fielding a few questions from cops. But a black man like Darrien Hunt is shot in the back by police for cosplaying with a fake samurai sword. White men in Medina, Ohio, not far from where I grew up, can casually walk down the middle of the street sporting firearms, while a black man gets gunned down at a Walmart in the Southwest corner of the state for holding a BB gun he picked up off a rack in the store.

You'd think this disparity in treatment between black and white gun ownership might turn into something of a rallying cry for the gun advocates like the National Rifle Association. But on the contrary, although the group calls itself America's "longest-standing civil rights association," it has supported efforts to keep guns out of the hands of blacks in the past and has failed to support blacks who've been gunned down for exercising their rights in the present.

In reaction to the brazen open-carry protests of the Black Panthers in the late 60s, the NRA put its support behind the Mulford Act, passed to deny California citizens the right to carry loaded weapons in public in 1967. Supporting gun control appears out of step with the NRA's mission as we know it today, but when you add race into the fold, the organization has sometimes behaved uncharacteristically.

When I saw the video of the shooting of Castile, I naively assumed the group would come out in full force in support of the slain gun owner. I mean, the NRA's executive director came with a blistering op-ed in USA Today only a couple of days after the mass shooting in Orlando, extolling the rights of gun owners in the US in the face of the tragedy. And it only took a few hours for the NRA to issue a message of condolences to the police officers who died in the mass shooting that took place in Dallas on Thursday. But with the Castile's shooting, they just posted a milquetoast Facebook status a day and a half later that didn't mention Castile's name or take a stance on his murder.

Unfortunately, police shootings like the one that killed Castile happen all too often. Fatal shootings by the police are up 6 percent in the first half of this year compared to same time in 2015, according to the Washington Post. And of those shootings, blacks are (still) 2.5 times more likely to get shot by the cops than whites.

Violent tension between cops and blacks goes back to the very inception of law enforcement in the United States. There are actually academics who believe policing in America traces some roots to the slave patrols tasked with catching Africans who tried to escape bondage. And some of us have already made the connection between modern police shootings and the lynchings that were prevalent during slavery and Jim Crow. Of course, if you go by the numbers, more blacks were killed by police in 2015 than were lynched in 1892, the peak year for lynching in the US.

It's impossible to be young and black and aware of all of this history, to watch the tragedies of today, and not feel a sense of helplessness—like your life is no longer in your own hands. So even though my parents never wanted me to have or own a gun, there's a part of me that's afraid, that sees myself in the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, and longs for some kind of protection.

And I'm not alone.

Lots of young blacks are turning to firearms today. Support for gun control fell by 14 percent in the black community between 1993 and December 2014, according to a Pew poll. And that same survey showed 54 percent of blacks believe guns protect people more than they put them at risk, up 29 percent from 2012.

It's no wonder groups of young black people who see guns as a political and practical survival tool are forming all over the country.

One organization is the Black Women's Defense League in Dallas, which trains its members in the fundamentals of self-defense with firearms and taps into the open-carry protest legacy of the Black Panthers. And there are outspoken blacks like the rapper Killer Mike, who basically called for blacks to start arming themselves in the aftermath of the Charleston Church shooting by white supremacist Dylan Roof. And then there's Colin Noir, the black, NRA-sponsored Second Amendment advocate I met earlier this year at a gun range in Texas.

At the range, I told Noir I was worried about him—that having guns might put a target on his back for all the cops out there whose racism fuels their fear of black men like us. But Noir responded that he was scared for me because when the day comes that my life is actually in danger, I wouldn't have a way to protect myself or the people I love.

When I think about owning a gun, I think about my parents and how disappointed and afraid they'd be if they saw me brandishing one. But I also think about their age, their fragility—how will I be able to protect them the way they protected me without a gun? And how will I keep my own wife and kids safe in a world where I can get gunned down in a pew in a church or on my way back from the corner store? I wonder where I'd keep the gun and how I'd carry it. Would it fit in my black leather backpack with my work laptop? Would it slip into the back of my Robert Geller jeans?

I also think about what I'd do with a gun. Would I even know how to use it? I think about heinous, reprehensible killers like Micah Johnson—the black man who murdered five officers in Dallas last week and injured seven more, as well as two civilians—and what it means to actually shoot someone, take a life, and silence a soul. What makes it acceptable to kill in one situation and unacceptable in another, when the toll is just the same? I think about Trayvon Martin, and whether a gun would have saved his life the night George Zimmerman hunted him down like the slave patrol and shot him dead on the concrete. And I think about Philando Castile and wonder if he'd still be here if he hadn't had a gun on him when that punk-ass pulled him over last week.

The one thing all three of those black men have in common is that they're dead. And the one thing, maybe the only thing, I'm certain of anymore is that I don't want to die.

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