Jeremiah Williams was taking meticulous notes in a blue composition book.
In the middle of Black Guns Matter’s first session in a four-week training series, on July 25 at Philly Firearms Academy in Callowhill, he sat writing. The session, from armed weapon education group Black Guns Matter that many attendees discovered through social media, is their answer to police brutality, easily among the most pressing national issues of the day.
Put simply: Black Guns Matter believes the best way to combat police brutality is to get armed. And so, in Philly, Black Guns Matter offers beginners’ resources to primarily black participants seeking to protect themselves, from police or whomever else. They do not encourage violent altercations or shootouts with police, something that’s oft misunderstood. Founder Maj Toure says he’s been getting plenty of hate mail. Rather, they teach firearm safety coupled with stress management for police stops to have better outcomes.
From 2007 to 2013, Philadelphia Police shot almost 400 people, according to the Department of Justice. The rate of police shootings locally has fallen sharply, but concern in the city persists. Toure sees the group (he doesn’t keep a count on how many members or participants they have) as an avenue to discuss fixes for police brutality, but also the city’s gun crisis. Their logic: Participants may leave better equipped to handle anxiety when cops approach, and so, they’d be more composed during neighborhood disputes also. Looking beyond Philly, BGM is in the middle of planning a 13-city tour, with dates to be released, that they are fundraising for on GoFundMe.
Toure’s goals are by turns both measured and ambitious. It’s not that he’s convinced that Black Guns Matter can save the world, but it’s a place to start amid a society fraught with racism, classism and misogyny.
“We’re not saying that just because people are informed about their Second Amendment rights, that everything else magically is fixed. We’re saying this is one amendment that’s going to defend our constitutional right to defend ourselves so we can start to use our other rights to fix those other systemic problems.
“I think the ‘powers that be’ have a vested interest to keep some of that ignorance and chaos going. And we just not gon’ settle for that no more.”
At the first session, seats quickly filled in the narrow first floor classroom at the gun school that Monday night, so more participants just stood, all the way back to the establishment’s front doorway. The roughly 80 who gathered on a hot July night could be easily placed within an observed trend. Black gun ownership has risen some, according to Pew polls that show 19 percent of African Americans were gun owners in 2014, a four percent increase over the year before.
Black guns clubs are on the rise in the U.S. as well, a trend observed by Philadelphia Daily News and Mother Jones. There’s a comparable group to BGM based in Dallas that pairs gun education with police brutality protection, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. But that group’s style is lot closer to the Black Panthers, as you might suspect. The club’s co-founder told the Washington Post that the sniper who killed five officers in Dallas last month had attended events held by their brother-group, the People’s New Black Panther Party, but none of their armed functions.
This first lesson had quite a lot on the docket for discussion. There were gun basics— safety, best practices, storage, etc. There was clarifying of the knottiness of local laws. There was advice to offer on how to stay calm when a police stop can make one anxious or flustered. The organization has been attracting national press. The first session took place during the first night of the DNC, while 15,000 reporters were in town. “Hey everybody in Facebook world,” says Maj Toure to the New York Times’ Facebook Live audience. (So far, nearly 47,000 people have watched.)
The panel then introduces themselves. Jose Morales, an NRA-appointed training counselor with certifications in multiple disciplines, is the owner of the gun school where the lesson is being held. Minista Jazz is a facilitator and teacher, who explains she’s there for the “emotional intelligence” aspect. Then, “my name Maj. That’s it,” Toure says simply, and encourages questions. “We don’t want this to just be a feel good, we talkin’ good, we here, we look cool and all of that. We need your information to get there.”
Earlier in July, two police killings elicited a national outcry, both with extremely graphic videos that went viral. Alton Sterling was shot multiple times in Baton Rouge on July 5, while two officers pinned him to the ground outside of the convenience store where he sold CDs. Sterling was carrying a gun. Officers said he brandished the weapon at them. The store’s owner said he didn’t.
The next day, Philando Castile was pulled over in Falcon Heights, a town outside of St. Paul, with his girlfriend Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds and her daughter in the car. Reynolds said that Castile, who had a concealed carry permit, informed the officer that a gun was in the vehicle. The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, said Castile moved when he was told not to. Reynolds says Castile was merely reaching for his ID, as directed. She Facebook-Lived the aftermath, showing a moaning, bloodsoaked Castile as she described her account of what had transpired. These two victims were both armed. According to The Guardian’s police shootings database The Counted, out of reported police killings in 2016 so far, nearly half of all victims had a gun on their person. Fifteen percent had no weapon on them of any sort.
“If you have a license to carry, practice this in your mind. Role-play it when you’re going to and from work. What would I do?” Morales instructs the audience. “‘Officer, I’m a legally licensed concealed carrier, I have my firearm on my right hip, what would you like me to do?’ Again, very, very simple. Again, no sudden movements. And again, defer back to the officer because everyone just wants to get home. Any questions?”
A man in the audience replies: “I know this may not sound… So, I’m 43 years old, I’m tired of having that type of feeling where I got to have a conversation with my son.” He wondered when officers might treat him like a white resident, or a suburbanite. “When are we not going to have this conversation where we have to do all this extra to make them feel comfortable in the situation?”
“Let me rewind this… Very good question,” Morales begins. He himself had been stopped a couple years back. “Totally understand we’re tired having to defer, like, ‘Okay man, again I have to do this?’ It really isn’t bowing down to the police officer, it’s actually following protocol,” he says. The audience is mostly silent now, rapt with attention. “All you gotta do is lower your four windows, turn your lights on, keep your hands at 10 and 2, answer their questions and don’t make any sudden moves.”
The man begins to respond, but Morales keeps talking, over any interruption. He recalls a time where he was stopped: “[The officer] goes, now that I see you have a license to carry, you have to hand me your gun. Wrong. Wrong. He was wrong. I’ve never had an argument with a police officer or my wife that I won without a lawyer, so I know better.” That got laughs.
It’s anything but clear that Morales’ approach works. Listing the steps simply doesn’t really leave room that the behavior of someone stopped by police would be up for interpretation, and that this interpretation could be affected by perspective, or cognitive or cultural biases. Last year, a trio of linguists observed that the officers who stopped Sandra Bland may have misinterpreted how much she was cooperating, based on her responding with rhythmic patterns and intonations typical to how African-Americans speak.
Thinking in terms of good and bad people, and good and bad intentions, may be too shortsighted for understanding how perceptions affect police stops. “Bad, evil people are not required here,” said Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt in reference to biases, in a talk on policing and race at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival. “Instead the focus is on regular people who fall victim to the associations to which they are exposed despite their intentions and despite their desires.”
Between December 2012 and December 2014, the percentage of black respondents who said that having a gun protects against crime, rather than ramps up risk, leapt from 29 percent to 54 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The share of African Americans who support gun rights grew from 24 percent to 34 percent in nearly the same time span. There doesn’t appear to be newer data from the last two years that can point to a proven link between this uptick and police brutality prevention. Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham and the author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, sees African Americans turning to arms due to police tension as a recurring event rather than a recent phenomenon.
“To put this in perspective, the thing to realize is this is unfortunately a very, very old story,” he says. “Go to any period that you want… that’s a longstanding worry.”
Jasmine Holmes Young drove to the BGM session from Coatesville. She’s not a gun owner, “but I have my license,” she tells me; she calls the informational session, on the heels of Castile’s death, “divine timing.” Castile’s death has moved her to get armed.
That Castile himself was armed on the day that police fatally shot him is not a deterrent: “It makes me feel even more that I need to protect myself.”
Williams, after showing me his notebook, said it wasn’t recent events that brought him there. He doesn’t have a gun yet either; he’s still in the “considering it” stage. “You want to be prepared for anything,” he says. “Crazy things just happen, just like that.”
Jazz might call a wild moment “having an oops.” She’s lived in Philly, but she’s currently based in Brooklyn. In a single high-stress moment, someone could be carrying the whole of their lived experiences, “from their childhood, all the way up,” she explains in an interview. “So how do we defuse all that?”
She has an acronym that she teaches the group.
“A lot of times we move way too fast. So FAST to me stands for fear, anxiety, stress and also tension. We’ve experience all of the things so when any of those things come up, we tend to move. We have to know what our triggers are, slow down and get a grip,” she tells everyone. “We have to be aware of our emotional triggers so we’re not walking around with loaded guns. Because guys, the human mind is the most powerful concealed weapon there is.”
Toure says he’s been a Republican for as long as he’s been registered to vote. (It was totally a 2A thing.) He did vote for Obama the first go-round, but in 2012, “I didn’t re-up” he says — he voted, but he wouldn’t say for whom. He says he’s a member of the National Rifle Association, for now, but he’s reconsidering that; he wants to look into his membership and the organization some more.
He didn’t seem to be into telling me too many personal details. He’s insistent that his background shouldn’t be a topic, but rather the mission must be. He did tell me that he grew up around 17th and Lehigh, but his family moved around North Philly. He’s 29, and he’s a musician. You can find his 2005 album Solutionary Vol. 1 on Spotify. He’s still rapping— the rap expresses his activism, and he says the cash from that will go back into what he’s doing with Black Guns Matter.
“I’m a flawed dude with a lot of problems presently, trying to figure out at least this portion of it,” he says. “I think anybody under a certain socioeconomic [status] has had very similar experiences to me— white, Spanish, Asian. If you’re from a hood, you probably have similar things. The only difference is I am owning that I got a lot of things wrong with me and I’m trying to do the work.”
He first came across a gun at 15, maybe. It was illegal; it was in the house.
“The first response of a young person who isn’t trained is, ‘Alright let me walk around with this,’” he says. “Fortunately, I didn’t hurt myself or anybody else. It was just stupid.”
An Army vet uncle showed him the difference that knowledge could make. “That’s part of the reason I know that with the information specific, people change. Because I was that person.”
He doesn’t profess to be an expert. That’s where Morales comes in. He reached out to Morales pretty much off the rip, based on the instructor’s reputation. Toure speaks up plenty to his own experiences, but he also often moderates questions that he’ll leave to Morales, who’ll also stand to give mini-lessons.
“Brother with the Phillies hat,” Toure begins to call on someone else.
The brother starts telling a couple stories: “Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve been in two separate alterca— well, two situations with police. One on the turnpike with a state police officer, in which I put my firearms up underneath the stickers on the dash. Arms out the window with all my cards. He didn’t notice it and it was a different situation after he did.
“Second altercation,” he continues, “I’m down at the unemployment compensation center. They see my firearm when I’m sitting there filling out an application. They call the police; 10 police come, and a whole situation. My question is— is there somewhere I’m can read where the laws— Are they allowed to take it off of me? Do I submit it to them? What’s the policy. Is there somewhere written in a law? Do I give my gun up? And the second part… Do you have to tell an officer that you have a firearm?”
Morales is sorry he didn’t hear the whole line of questions, but the last one he caught. “Pennsylvania is technically a non-disclosure state. You’re not required by law to inform a police officer that we are legally licensed and carrying a firearm. We don’t—
The man interrupts, “The police officer told me I have to inform every officer when—”
Morales and Toure both jump in, but Toure wins the floor. “Listen, first and foremost, let me say this: The police lie.”
Some of the audience laughs. “Well, they don’t know,” Jazz reacts.
“No, they know,” he corrects her. “A lot of times they know and they straight-up lie. We know that. Listen, I get the whole, peace and love, kumbaya, get both sides of the equation. My hood is here. We know that they lie.”
Some in the audience murmur in agreement. “They do lie,” another man says.
Toure presses on: “The key for me is to make sure you make it home. And rumble them in civil court. Because when they lie, they creatin’ a paper trail… A web of lies that you can now choke them with… .”
According to Pew’s 2014 data, 60 percent of blacks favor gun control. The common perception is not to associate blacks with legal gun ownership. There are several societal and historical factors that contribute to this. Possibly, the most obvious one is prejudice.
Robin Wright, a researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, explained to the New York Times last month that even card-carrying good guys contend with deep-rooted stigmas. “It’s really just getting at what we know to be a pervasive stereotype of blackness and criminality,” she told the paper. This stereotype impacts unarmed victims as well, of course. Consider the choices made in the depictions of Michael Brown, the teenager whose death spurred unrest in Ferguson. Carrying a weapon can intensify misperceptions. “If you see a black person with a weapon, you don’t assume that it’s legal,” Wright said.
And of course, it wasn’t always. Even Pennsylvania permitted slavery until 1780, and this was a Quaker colony. No black person here could legally bear arms before that year. Other states passed slave codes, not to mention statutes that followed emancipation. Not that laws weren’t passed after that. Until last winter, Michigan was the only state to have gun registration boards at the county level. They had them since 1927, after Ossian Sweet, a Detroit doctor, was exonerated of murder charges. He gathered a group of friends and relatives to protect his house, armed, after he moved into a white neighborhood. Shots were fired from Sweet’s house at the mob that had gathered outside, wounding one man, killing another.
Pro-gun historian and legal scholar Clayton Cramer is keeping a list of race-fueled firearm legislation. Gun rights activists sometimes point to statutes like these to condemn gun control measures more generally on a moral basis. Now, it’s important to note that gun laws have been passed for plenty of other reasons too. But the history of race and gun laws is ugly. Toure says BGM keeps this history in mind in its programs. “To not do that would be almost stupid,” he says.
Then, the party line in black politics is to be pro-gun control. Johnson refers to this as an “orthodoxy” that set in during the ’60s and ’70s as the black elite allied with white progressives.
Groups like the Huey Newton’s Black Panthers and Assata Shakur’s Black Liberation Army made quite clear that the struggle for equality was an armed one. In 1967, in direct response to the Black Panthers tactics, Don Mulford, a state Assemblyman from the Panthers’ home county (Alameda) proposed a bill to ban the open carry of firearms. The Panthers showed up at the California Assembly in protest that May. Thirty activists marched to the capitol and came inside the statehouse, rifles in hand. The protest has been called both an invasion and an occupation. The Atlantic also called it this: the start of the “modern gun-rights movement.”
The NRA had supported gun control measures before, and it supported the Mulford Act, the Panther-inspired open carry ban, which of course was only helped along by their historic protest. But gun control legislation passed during the civil rights movement didn’t sit well with all NRA members, and, according to the Atlantic, it kicked off a series of internal disagreements that eventually molded the group into the fierce pro-gun organization we know today.
But before that happened, other civil rights groups, especially those working to usher in a new day in black politics, reached a crossroads on this issue.
The pro-gun factions of the movement “forced black moderates, already buffeted by urban tumult, either to expend precious political capital to brace up the tradition of arms or to back away from it,” Johnson writes in Negroes and the Gun. The moderates to which Johnson refers include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins.
When interacting with an officer, Toure also explains to the audience, context is everything. How he addresses a cop during a traffic stop would change based on the policeman’s demeanor. Whether the gun was on him. Where he was stopped exactly.
Toure expands later to me that he does not think this complicated at all. Living in an inner-city neighborhood gives residents a “Spidey sense,” he says, deciphering impending danger, making quick decisions on who (and who isn’t) worthy of trust. “Our life is predicated on that,” he says.
“I don’t know if the officer has had a good day, a bad day, I’m aware of all of these things,” he adds later. “Everyone, your choices are very important. However, when you’re under the gun, when you have financial constraints and all of these things, your choices have a bigger impact, and there’s a smaller room for error.”
Much of Toure’s advice is identical to what police might tell you. Officers are to be respected. Protocol is to be fastidiously followed. Where he deviates is his last resort.
“If I’ve done everything right? I rather be judged by 12 than carried by six,” he explains — that’s to say he’d rather shoot an officer and have a jury hear the case than have pallbearers carry his coffin at his funeral. Some Second Amendment advocates believe — and proclaim this knowledge on T-shirts and bumper stickers — that a bad guy with a gun can be stopped by a good guy with a gun. In a sense, Toure’s contention is that police can be the bad guy.
Toure begins to tell those gathered that he wants BGM’s intentions to be clear. As he describes cops, he clarifies: “I’m not going to agree that every police officer is bad. I’m not going to do that.”
(BGM organizers say police are welcome at their sessions. A Philly Police rep tells Billy Penn in an email that no officer has attended any, and that the department isn’t “familiar with the group.”)
“That’s irrelevant,” a woman begins to say.
She speaks up: “I’m sorry but the elephant in the room— this is called Black Guns Matter, so let’s adjust it from our perspective. We gotta keep it a bean,” she says, Philly slang for keeping it real. Sure, students could be perfectly in compliance, she says, but “we have to address this perspective of this institution that is…”
“Murdering,” Toure offers strongly.
“Right! Murdering!” she agrees. She seems flustered, but continues to try to state her argument. She starts to question how police behave during a stop: “You’re not going to get a chance to—”
“Wait,” he stops her. “I disagree with you there. Let me tell you something. Again, some of us are going to die. Okay? Accept it. If you’re rumbling for the things that you’re rumbling for, there’s the potential that you may die. With that being the case, if you ain’t willing to rumble, don’t rumble.”
Toure begins to cite examples on how things can change— marijuana’s legal in Colorado; African Americans aren’t expected to ride in the back of the bus anymore. “So don’t say that they won’t. I don’t give a fuck what they think,” Toure tells her. He repeats: “Some of us in this rumble are going to die. If you can’t accept that, step to the side and get sidelined. The information is to secure that we don’t (die).”
The woman insists she’s trying to make a separate point: Why not acknowledge that police often treat blacks differently? “You’re not saying it with our perspective,” the woman insists. “Here’s the thing that you should talk about— the ‘get a grip.’” she says referencing Jazz’s lecture. “A police officer, they’re the one for real, for real who needs to be getting a grip.”
Toure is with her. The crowd applauds. Jazz pipes up, “Everybody, actually. Everybody needs to get a grip.”
Jazz is sensing an us versus them dynamic. The woman clarifies: That’s not what she’s trying to say. Toure interrupts to commend her passion, but explains that he wants everyone to get their questions answered, including hers. And with that, they return to the gentleman who wanted to know if he has to tell cops that he’s packing.
Yeah, there’s no state law that mandates Pennsylvanians to tell officers immediately when they are. Pennsylvanians must show their license to carry to an officer, though, “upon lawful demand.”
Toure believes that Castile’s death could have been preventable. He wants to be clear: the officer was wrong, but in the same situation, he would’ve acted differently.
“I’m not making furtive movements,” says Toure. A furtive movement is a stealth-like and suspicion-raising act. The officer said Castile moved when he was told not to; Castile’s girlfriend said he was reaching to get his ID, as directed. “Does that justify the officer? Hell no! He should get locked under the fucking jail,” says Toure.
“Furtive movements” as a term have been scrutinized in recent years for multiple reasons. For one, it’s not always clear what one is due to its vagueness. Then there’s the question of its usefulness as a measuring stick for risk. Stanford analysis of New York stop-and-frisk data found that furtive movements had been cited in more than half of 600,000 stops, and yet a weapon had only been found in 1 percent of these stops. The research showed that blacks were more likely to be frisked and “subjected to physical force” in a furtive-movement stop than whites.
But even if the term were without critique, that Toure is defaulting to the officer’s account over Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, remains striking. This conservative magazine, for instance, is not. I asked him about that again later.
“I wasn’t in the car. I wouldn’t say he definitely made a furtive moment. To me, it looks like that,” he says. “To me, [the situation] only makes sense if he made a furtive movement.”
He says BGM emphasizes the importance of protocol because they want to teach people not to react that way. “You can’t not do the proper things and then get mad when someone handles you improperly.”
“And you gotta remember, he got pulled over multiple times,” says Toure, pointing to how Castile had been stopped 52 times since 2002. “Mr. Castile had survived 50 times without getting shot and murdered, so I’m pretty sure he might’ve knew what he was doing. It’s a little strange to me that something such as a traffic stop ended with this man’s life being taken.”
With Black Guns Matter, one can sense the genuine desire in the air to fly in the face of a notion that there’s nothing that we can do. To give black citizens another way, with book learning, a heightened emotional IQ and sermons on law and responsibility.
And these solutions hinge on perfectly reasonable values: Follow the law and proper procedures, and you’ll get home safely. If the officer acts illegally after you did everything right, the courts can resolve that. The allure of Black Guns Matter is that of any (would-be) antidote.
In 2015, the Philadelphia paid $8.6 million in taxpayer dollars to settle 126 misconduct suits. It is rare for a cop who killed someone to be criminally prosecuted, and rarer still for them to be charged with homicide. Even rarer than this are police who see prison time.
Sticking to protocol is only logical. “One would think that sensible instructions like these should reduce the likelihood that an interaction with police will turn violent,” Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania tells Billy Penn in a statement. “But there is no such thing as a guarantee that police won’t use excessive force. Parents of Black children have been giving similar instructions to their kids for years. Yet, there are far too many examples of people following police directions and still becoming the victims of excessive force.”
Shuford is right, the language at Black Guns Matter isn’t too different from how many African-Americans speak at home already, but it’s perhaps more sophisticated. And it takes place at a gun school.
Over the last couple of years, a story that’s proliferated across media outlets is how black parents often have to have the talk or the conversation with their children.
There’s a funny ring to that. As if it’s a single, mandatory conversation, akin to telling the kids about the sex, the birds and bees. For African-American families, the talk is hard and uncomfortable, but it has to be done. Only instead of talking about how the body changes and what sex really is, it’s a conversation centered on the risk inherent to one’s blackness. The child might be getting to that age, but something more specific than puberty, more life-threatening than life-changing: When they’re old enough that someone might think they’re “turn[ing] into a large scary black man.” (A black parent for a New York Times short really said it like that.)
In my house, it wasn’t a solitary conversation. It was a regularly acknowledged truth that blacks received different treatment from police, and a perennially made-plain prerequisite that I could not react any kind of way if that happened to me.
Castile was a card-carrying good guy. He lived in a non-disclosure state.
It’s not clear that Black Guns Matter would’ve saved him.
But for Toure, it’s perfectly clear. So, he tells the audience, “this is not a game. This is not a joke. This not something to laugh about and be cute about. People are being murdered. And they’re being the good guy. Mr. Castile had his license to carry.
“So let’s just be very clear that the reason this is very important is because we’re trying to make sure that the general public, our hood, is maintaining the standard. Because then if it goes left, we did everything so whatever happens, happen to you.
“But we gon make it back home.”