Struggling to Find Unity on Gun-Free Zones
My oldest sons are magnets for social attention. Identical twins, mixed-race, each with a nimbus of curls, they garner lots of commentary. When they were babies, strangers stopped to ask after them, to peer into their stroller and coo. People noticed them wherever we went because they were Black and I was white, because they looked exactly alike, because there were two of them. We and they could not be anonymous.
In 2014, when Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson testified to a grand jury recounting the events that led to him shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, he said that he “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Wilson was a little boy up against a monster, in this narrative. Brown stood out. So of course, Wilson used his gun to protect himself against an obviously monstrous Black man. Because of Brown’s death, my sons, their stepfather, and I had “the talk” about how they should behave if they ever talked to police. I made them memorize my phone number. I worried that they’d have to conceal their fidgety energy, to tamp down whatever frustration, anger, and fear they might feel. They’d need to always show their hands—to somehow project that they were not, would never be, a threat. They were four years old.
The following year, en route to school one day, we learned from NPR about the white supremacist murders of Black parishioners in their church in Charleston, South Carolina. Then in pre-kindergarten, my sons had already mastered their active shooter drills at school. Now, not even church was safe. They told me, “Sometimes white people feel very mad, and they take their guns and kill Black people.”
That same month, four days before the June 17 Charleston church shooting, the laws in Texas changed to privilege guns and gun owners, and so weapons were everywhere we went. Churches and hospitals were no longer de facto gun-free zones but were required to post legal signage prohibiting weapons if they wished to remain gun free. While the law was being discussed and voted on in the state legislature, my husband and I felt led to speak during meeting for worship, after worship, and at length during business meeting about the need for refuge from weapons and for Friends to serve as a pacifist bulwark against the encroachment of those weapons into public life. These discussions continued in the months and years following the law’s passage. We were convinced that the meetinghouse property should be an official, legal “gun-free zone.” And we shared that as Black boys, my sons—who had attended meeting in utero—had a healthy and rational concern about guns being used against them. They knew that police violence existed, and they’d heard about the Charleston shooting and were afraid.
Our meeting did not want to post the legal signs prohibiting guns. In conversations and in business meeting, Friends were resistant, dismissive. We were told that the signs were ugly and scary, and they would mar the appearance of the meetinghouse. We needed to remember that the entire city used our beautiful meetinghouse. Gun owners should feel welcome. Energy focused on whether white young Friends and neighbors passing by might feel upset and afraid seeing “no guns allowed” posted. One Friend complained that my pacifism was “extremely negative” and that this was not in keeping with Quaker practice. The language I’d been using came from the 1660 declaration, in which Friends publicly stated: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever.”
Many Friends were also concerned that posting the signs would make the meeting a target, and that we would be unable to fight back. There was a lot of discussion about what everyone would do if someone came to meeting bearing a gun. One Friend said that “Quakers see the best in people,” and so therefore we shouldn’t be afraid of guns in our worship space. Another member, an older white man, told me that he’d watched the Sandra Bland video and found her behavior to be quite rude. She had a terrible attitude with the state trooper who stopped her. But my sons and I had nothing to worry about when it came to police violence, he said, because I was teaching my sons to be “polite, nice, and positive.” Another Friend called me and said that I seemed “very afraid and upset about gun violence,” and asked, how could I feel more hopeful? But I wasn’t really just afraid or upset. I was incredibly, incandescently angry. Racist gun violence wasn’t just some abstract topic my family could put up on a mental shelf while we focused on being more upbeat and likable.
My twins were born during the optimism of Obama’s presidency, but they have never been free of racism. They can’t put it aside when it gets too burdensome. They might be the politest, sweetest boys in the world, who read fat novels, play Dungeons & Dragons, and make popcorn on Friday nights for their little brother. But now that they have passed the invisible threshold of adolescence, they are also identified as “other,” as threatening. And it’s not just the police who see them that way. I often wonder if our Latinx, Asian, and white neighbors do too. Once, when neighborhood parents realized their kids invited mine to their birthday party, my sons were later uninvited, told “there’s not enough room” for them to attend. When my sons have played in the park, neighbors later posted about “scary, urban looking youth” on our neighborhood Facebook group. On another occasion, after their father came to pick them up, neighbors pushing a baby stroller swiveled their heads, staring, and did laps around the block.
Last summer, we watered a community garden using a neighbor’s hose, for which we had received permission. As we got ready to leave, I sent one son to turn off the tap. The man next door stopped him and questioned him: What was he doing there? What was he “up to?” When I knocked on his door to introduce us, to note that we’d lived in the neighborhood for over eight years, and to explain exactly what we were doing, he and his wife shrugged, stone-faced. They didn’t apologize. “We just wanted to be safe,” they told us, as if it made perfect sense to interrogate a 12-year-old boy as to whether he was a burglar. I thought of Ahmaud Arbery, murdered two years earlier while jogging in a neighborhood by vigilantes making sure that a house under construction was safe from trespassers.
In his 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Black history, and the history of enslavement, cannot be disentangled from American history. Nor can it be separated from genuine, clear-eyed patriotism. As he notes, “to proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.” We cannot claim Washington and Jefferson as noble Founding Fathers without also acknowledging that they owned other human beings. Washington’s dentures were not made of wood but of the actual teeth extracted from the mouths of those he enslaved. Jefferson inherited his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings (who was herself the product of rape), and began to rape her when she was an adolescent, eventually impregnating her multiple times. He never freed her. Coates argues that to be a patriot is to hold your nation and community accountable for the immense moral wrongs it has committed. The man who wrote “all men are created equal” did not apply that in his own life. The stain of slavery’s sin affects all of us, a birthmark we can never scrub away.
To stare squarely at history means to acknowledge that stain. It means considering fully our inherited realities, even when they make us feel ugly. While it is unpleasant for white people to think about the realities of racist violence, it’s far worse for Black people to live through it. Seeing a “no guns” sign might be scary for an extremely sheltered white child, but there’s no Black kid in America today who isn’t aware and afraid of real guns used to murder real Black people.
A Friend said that I seemed “very afraid and upset about gun violence,” and asked, how could I feel more hopeful? But I wasn’t really just afraid or upset. I was incredibly, incandescently angry. Racist gun violence wasn’t just some abstract topic my family could put up on a mental shelf while we focused on being more upbeat and likable.
My own Quaker family has been in North America since before the United States existed. I was raised a Quaker, and my sons and I met my now-husband at potluck after worship. We married and became a family under the care of that same meeting a few years later. I have raised my sons with the same values and tenets that undergird my own spiritual life. We recognize that of God in others; we do not use weapons or fight physically; we do not concern ourselves with status; we try to do rather than only say; we speak truth to power; we speak and try to live plainly. Coates’s essay includes images of eighteenth-century written statements from Philadelphia Quakers Amy Hornor and Hannah Dawr manumitting their slaves from bondage. He discusses the role of men like John Woolman in galvanizing Friends toward abolition, and notes the Friends who provided monetary reparations for their emancipated slaves. These are excellent examples.
But here we are, some 300 years on, still grappling with what “equality” means in practice. We’re still witness to Black bodies falling victim to neighborhood vigilantes and frightened, offended cops, and we’re still debating if Black people are allowed to worship in genuine peace. Our family wanted our meeting to post signs demarcating the meetinghouse and First-day school spaces as gun-free zones where everyone could feel safe, an act that we viewed as in keeping with 400 years of Quaker pacifist tradition.
In the end, our meeting decided against posting the legally binding signs banning weapons on the property, as per the change in the state law. Instead, they made a self-made sign and cards merely asking visitors to not bring a gun into the building. These self-made signs were understood to be “less ugly” than the legal signage that my family had requested and did not legally prevent concealed carry of weapons. Also, they were only used when the building was open for explicitly Quaker activities, not for the many weddings, events, or artspace activities that are held in the building. The self-made signs did not apply to the separate building where First-day school is held. My family’s concerns went unaddressed. We never stood aside.
When the request for change comes from (or concerns those) at the bottom of the social hierarchy, those at the hierarchy’s top all too often reject it. Carlton Waterhouse has argued that those with high status will often suggest that the harms of history did not happen, or that victims were somehow deserving of their mistreatment. Those with high status will change the subject, ignoring the needs of real Black boys to feel safe in worship. They’ll offer welcome instead to hypothetical gun-owning passersby. They’ll suggest a Black woman profiled by police for the umpteenth time was incredibly rude, and thus that her death was appropriate. They’ll claim that an unarmed Black teenager was monstrous in size and thus deserved to be murdered by a policeman bearing a gun and a Kevlar vest.
Systemic racism in the United States touches every aspect of our lives, and it’s up to us to address it when we see it. In the seven years since we left, no one from our meeting has asked why we stopped attending. No one has attempted repair.