On July 4, police in Akron, Ohio, arrested around 50 protesters and tear-gassed crowds of people denouncing the ultra-violent shooting death of Jayland Walker by police. Meanwhile, in Highland Park, Illinois, a gunman who had legally obtained a high-powered weapon opened fire on an Independence Day parade, killing six and wounding at least 36.
The day of July 4, meant to mark the day of independence of the United States from Britain in 1776, is a day of rest and celebration in the United States. It is also a day that has historically shed a light on some of the country’s most violent contradictions. In 1852, former slave Frederick Douglass gave his most well-known speech, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
“There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour,” Douglass elaborated.
At the time that Douglass spoke those words, escaped slaves were being hunted down like animals by armed patrols, especially after the passing of the “Fugitive Slave Act” of 1850. Today, the interlocking problems of violence and racism are still very much present, only in different forms.
The United States is oversaturated with firearms. With 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, the US is the only country with more civilian-owned guns than people. The US also accounts for 73% of all mass shootings and 62% of mass shooting fatalities, in so-called developed countries.
If all US police forces were combined into one army, it would have the third largest defense budget. The New York Police Department alone, with a budget of $11 billion, is one of the world’s strongest armies in terms of funding. Even more troubling, the US police receives surplus equipment from what is in fact the most well-funded army in the world: the US military itself. Since 1997, the Pentagon’s 1033 program has channeled more than $7.4 billion worth of excess equipment to over 8,000 law enforcement agencies.
Despite strong opposition movements from below, periodic episodes of violence within policing and civilian life are a common occurrence in US society.
Small armies for every town
The city of Akron, Ohio, cancelled Independence Day festivities as protests against the police murder of Jayland Walker continued throughout the weekend of July 4. Local organization Serve the People Akron claims that Akron police deployed an armored vehicle and a long-range acoustic device (LRAD), a sound weapon which can cause permanent hearing damage, during protests over the weekend. On the night of July 4, police arrested around 50 protesters and deployed teargas, a chemical weapon banned in war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the UN’s Chemical Weapons Convention.
— Freedom BLOC (@thefreedomBLOC) July 6, 2022
Periodically, when US police murder a person or use violent methods of repression against protesters, the overmilitarization of police once again becomes a national conversation. It is not uncommon for a police force to take up the largest portion of a city’s budget, and for small-town departments to have their own SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams. The US as a whole spends $100 billion on police annually, but receives military-grade weaponry at a discount or entirely for free through the 1122 and 1033 programs.
The 1033 program maintains a database of controlled property transferred to law enforcement since its inception. However, over a hundred law enforcement agencies have been suspended from the program for failure to properly keep track of these weapons of war. Many police departments have simply “lost” weapons transferred through the 1033 program. In 2014, a Texas sheriff was indicted for pawning off millions of dollars worth of excess military equipment acquired through the 1033 program to law enforcement agencies and officers, and even to private citizens. At one point, the Pentagon had suspended three entire states from the 1033 program—Alabama, North Carolina, and Minnesota—for failure to comply with inventory requirements.
This overmilitarization is detrimental to the members of the US public, leading to an increase in police shootings. There is also little evidence to indicate that more funds and higher caliber equipment keeps people any safer. Further, police are not even legally required to protect the public in the US. In the recent Uvalde mass shooting, the Uvalde SWAT team and the 40% of the city budget that police were absorbing did little to keep 19 children and two teachers from being massacred.
Police militarization also originated at a time that the state was fighting back against Black-led social movements. The first SWAT team raid ever was by the newly created Los Angeles Police SWAT team against a Black Panther Party office on December 8, 1969.
Protections for profit, not people
This is the system that protesters were up against the night of July 4, as they explicitly called out the Akron police force for their brutal murder of young Black delivery driver Jayland Walker, wounded by bullets over 60 times and handcuffed on the ground after he was already dead.
In many ways, it was also deeply linked to the national phenomenon that Independence Day parade attendees in Highland Park, or those celebrating the fourth of July in Philadelphia, witnessed over the same weekend. In Highland Park, a 21-year-old white male shooter opened fire on a parade, killing 6 and wounding 36, with a high-powered rifle that he had obtained legally. In Philadelphia, the police are still unsure who shot and injured two officers during a fourth of July fireworks show.
— henok Cronin (@henokcronin) July 5, 2022
A majority of people in the US support stricter gun control measures, which would have made it more difficult for the Highland Park or Uvalde shooters to obtain their weapons. Such measures have been stalled in Congress, however, because of the enormous power that the weapons manufacturing lobby holds in government. In 2021, pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) spent a record $15.8 million in lobbying. Since 1998, gun groups have spent $190 million, with $114 million spent since 2013. Gun rights groups have contributed $50.5 million since 1989 to federal candidates and party committees.
From their efforts, gun rights groups won the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005. This law absolves the firearms industry of any legal responsibility for the harm caused by their products, by granting special immunity in lawsuits.
The firearms industry in 2021 was valued at $70.52 billion. As the people of the US are shot in parades, schools, and movie theaters, the gun manufacturers are safe to make their profits in peace.
Gun ownership and gun violence in the United States also has deep historical roots in racism. Although pro-gun groups often tout the “constitutionally-protected” Second Amendment right to own a firearm, for much of US history, Black people were excluded from gun ownership. In the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision of 1857, which excluded those of African descent from US citizenship, Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that Black people could not be citizens, because citizenship would give Black people gun ownership rights. 1967 was one of the only times that the NRA supported a gun ban of any kind, when it supported the California open carry ban following an armed protest by the Black Panther Party.
In 2016, Black father Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop by a police officer in Minneapolis for carrying out his legal obligation as a licensed gun owner: warning the officer that he had the gun. The NRA, which is always quick to comment on the sanctity of gun rights after a mass shooting, was unsupportive. “[Castile] was also in possession of a controlled substance and a firearm simultaneously, which is illegal,” tweeted NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
Many US mass shootings also have a racist character, such as the recent Buffalo shooting on May 14, carried out by a self-proclaimed racist attempting to “prevent [white] genocide” by killing 13 people, 11 of whom were Black.
According to data by the Marshall Project, mass shootings are becoming more and more common in the US. And despite what conservatives claim, police budgets nationally were not defunded, in fact, they grew, especially in places like New York City. As police and military budgets grow and grow, the overmilitarization will result in even deadlier attacks against protesters and other people.
Luckily, there is already significant rage against the growing epidemic of violence in the US, with significant spikes in the anti-gun violence and anti-police brutality movements in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
Will movements from below bring about meaningful change? This is the hope, as those in power seem unwilling to take meaningful action.
At a press conference in Highland Park, Vice President Kamala Harris called for Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons. With the existence of the filibuster, and with so many politicians essentially married to the NRA, the chances of this passing are slim to none. Biden could circumvent this by using an executive order to ban assault weapons, but he has never expressed a willingness to do so.
Kamala Harris on Highland Park mass shooting: “We have to take this stuff seriously, as seriously as you are because you have been forced to take this seriously”
— The Post Millennial (@TPostMillennial) July 6, 2022
As more and more people in the US die violent deaths, it is unclear when the rest of the country will finally decide that enough is enough.
This article has been modified to reflect that the 1033 program maintains a database of controlled property transferred to law enforcement.