Guns ‘n Threats

“They’re comin’ for yer guns, no doubt about it.”

“Just bury your guns for two years, and then you’ll get ‘em back when we flip the statehouse.”

“Guns don’t kill people. People do.”

“We’re gonna get to the point where you can’t even give a gun to a child.”

“We are not going to be sheep led to slaughter.”

“Don’t let liberal elites tell you what to do.”

“More guns, less crime.”

These are a few quotes from the December 8th (2019) townhall meeting held by Virginia 24th District Delegate Ronnie Campbell (*described in this post). The meeting served as regional Republican Party preparation for the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting to decide on a local Second Amendment, or “gun sanctuary” resolution.  The following night, the Board of Supervisors meeting, ostensibly scheduled to vote on the resolution, turned into a Trump rally. Here is a link to the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors site.  As yet, neither the December 9th minutes nor the resolution itself has been posted.

As you might have seen in my previous post about the townhall meeting, Delegate Ronnie Campbell introduced the gun question by first launching three major GOP talking points—voters’ rights (“Why should everybody get to vote?”), abortion (who gets to decide?), and “you can’t trust the left-wing media” (adding, “Citizens are not well informed.” I’ll say!).  As he introduced these three points, Campbell said, “These are not Republican talking points or anything like that” (um, Ronnie, that’s exactly what these are).  He has been well-trained in Trumpism—appeal to the one-issue voters by making sure to bundle their one issue into the whole package, never distinguishing between or among issues, and never providing actual data or facts.  You can get a crowd good and riled up in this way, which is why the United States is in chaos three years into this tyrant’s so-called presidency.

I attended the December 9th Board of Supervisors meeting with about twenty people opposed to the gun sanctuary proposal and 1180 in favor. We twenty knew the fix was in, but we believed it was worthwhile to show up and have resistance heard.  With several hundred students doing evening activities and competitions at the high school and a host of heavily armed deputy sheriffs all over the school, the atmosphere was tense. I was not surprised by the numbers, nor was I surprised by how this board of our rural county ran the meeting like a Trump rally.  They told people from Lexington City that they would not be allowed to speak until everyone from Rockbridge County had spoken.  This would make sense, maybe, if Lexington City residents did not have (and vote for) the same sheriff as the Rockbridge County residents, did not send their children to the only public high school in our area (Rockbridge County High), and did not work and play in Rockbridge County.  But we do do all of these things, and therefore our voices should also matter.

In addition, the Board allowed two featured speakers before they opened the discussion: Virginia House of Delegates Ronnie Campbell and resident of Rockingham County (one hour north of us) Jennifer Brown, who serves as a regional committee chair for the Republican Party.  Campbell did his assigned part by giving a Trump stump speech, ending his remarks with a loud, cheerleader-like “Vote for Trump!”  Even though she is not a resident of Rockbridge County, Brown was able to deliver her comments as she had at the townhall the day before—as GOP talking points and with no data, no statistics, no real information.  The Board of Supervisors set the tone from the get-go, telling us Dems in the front two rows how this would go.  The set-up was a big middle finger to anyone interested in discussing common sense gun reform and to the reality of a state turned blue.

Of the seventy or so people who spoke in favor of Rockbridge County being a gun sanctuary (although, of course, the resolution itself is quite limited), only four were women.  Three of the four women acceded to the public stage by claiming themselves Christians, wives, and mothers.  This declaration seemed to give them permission to speak. The 66 men who spoke in favor of the resolution performed various combinations of the following: citing their military service; talking about their families’ longstanding ties to Virginia; creating an us/them dynamic, especially regarding northerners and migrants; disparaging lawmakers in Richmond; criticizing “liberal elites”; mentioning, sometimes in one fell swoop and always without historical or political nuance, the Holocaust, socialism, and communism; claiming what God owes them. Some of those who spoke promoted their books and websites; others promoted their shooting ranges. Of all those who spoke in favor of the resolution, one single person advocated for a real conversation between the two sides to see if some form of compromise was possible.

Board Chair Jay Lewis (whose actions from the previous weekend are described here) had told the audience that no waving of signs, heckling, or general disruptions would be allowed.  Second Amendment signs were waved throughout the almost-three-hour session.  When some of us 20 in opposition asked for the Board to follow its own established rules, we were shouted down, being called the “b” word and the “c” word and being told to shut up.  Lewis chided us, but not the others, who received a complicit half-smile and nod.  The intention was to establish a threatening atmosphere, and it worked.  These are the moments at which the Second Amendment folks try to use guns and/or the threat of guns to limit First Amendment rights (especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly). (*See this related Gender Shrapnel post about these dynamics in Charlottesville, 2017.)  Not only did the Board of Supervisors not have our backs, but they actively made our backs a target for Second Amendment backlash.

While I sat in the school auditorium, I received a text from a friend containing a Facebook post from the regional GOP chair.  The regional chair (who at that point was seated five seats away from me) had posted this:

“FB page: Jennifer M Brown
8 hrs ·
Fellow Rockbridge Patriots! There is a woman who is a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge, which is a progressive group of rabid agitators. She has personally threatened a fellow brother of our cause, and I take personal exception to anyone who threatens one of our own. She also is a professor who teaches our youth, which is especially concerning.
She attended last night’s 2A info meeting and made sure to record and take notes what was said. She has reported back to her group and they are planning to be present at tonight’s Board meeting with an agenda.
Please be respectful in your comments and do not engage in any communication with this group. They want us to respond so the media narrative can make our cause look fringe.
We are NOT gun activists. We ARE Constitutional Patriots! #2AStrong”

This spokesperson for the Republican Party said the following that was true: I am a woman. I am a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge. I am a professor. I take notes.  The rest of her statement seems to come from a second-rate Russian bot-farm, but, of course, it is designed only to spread lies and shut people down.  If I wanted, I could establish a case for libel here, especially since this person is impugning my professional reputation. I invite her and anyone to talk to me about my teaching and scholarly accomplishments and about the careful and constructive ways in which 50 Ways Rockbridge has worked in this community.  Bring it. But do not threaten me or silence me.  (*See this NPR report and this Washington Post piece about Virginia delegates receiving death threats.)

It bears mentioning that I reported this libelous post that very night to our newly elected sheriff, telling him that I felt unsafe (1180 to 20; violent name-calling; targeted trolling).  He tried to reassure me by pointing to all the officers with guns.  “Q….E…..D,” I thought.  Armed officers do not make me feel safer. Guns do not make me feel safer.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my field of expertise is cultural studies.  For cultural studies, you learn as much as you can about the history, demographics, legacies, languages, cultural production, and cultural practices of a specific region and apply that knowledge to an analysis of the audio, visual, and written texts produced by people from the area.  I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, for 23 years and have lived in the state of Virginia for 27—half my life, more years than I lived in my hometown of Philadelphia.  The lilt and twang of the local accent no longer strike my ears as different or odd.  The use of “sucker” for “lollipop” or “buggy” for “shopping cart” sounds completely normal.  I know the range of typical last names in the area, from the Clarks to the Zollmans and the Mutispaughs to the Nicelys.  I have ridden my bicycle through many miles of this large county and have seen the mansions and the no longer mobilized trailers with old sweaters stuffed into windows to keep out the rain.  I have been to many of the churches, despite my atheism. This is home to me, even if others see me as a Yankee, a damned Yankee (the kind that doesn’t leave), or a carpetbagger.  I have watched this community grow and change over these years, and I have tried to do so as both participant and observer, understanding my outsider status but also learning how you become a part of a community over time.

Cultural studies practices tell you to understand your own baggage before analyzing that of others.  In a way, I think this practice is the greatest strength and weakness of the Democratic Party.  The party’s hallmarks should be (and sometimes have been): recognition, celebration, and amplification of a diversity of peoples and voices; sincere and well-versed people advocating for competing ideas and duking them out; adherence to executive, judicial, and legislative norms as laid out in founding documents; examination of depth and nuance.  While the Democratic Party falls far short of these ideals, it at least still seems in dialogue with them. Over these past three years, I have asked repeated times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog: To what extent must we politicize kindness and humanity?  If calm, careful, thoughtful, and generous approaches to problem-solving are now old-fashioned, passé, done, as I fear they are, then how do you advocate for what is right in a measured way without always losing to an entrenched, mendacious, narcissistic, racist, sexist, homophobic—an unjust—other side?  Does civility mean that the powerful control the process and ask others to accept it quietly, with no fuss?

Local friends have often talked about hunting—when the season starts; when it ends; what you can hunt; how you hunt it; when you use a bow or a gun; how you train the kids to hunt; how you prepare the meat you’ve hunted; what it means to be in nature in this way.  I have been curious about these issues, which, of all the cultural elements of our region, are the most distant from my own upbringing.  As someone who for years cycled through the hills, mills, hollows, and valleys of this beautiful county, I have seen hunters and signs for hunting.  I have laughed at the image of the yuppy cyclist commingling with the camouflaged hunter, thinking there has to be some kind of cosmic cultural fusion joining us in nature.

I hope I am a careful thinker, and I definitely am an ardent talker.  Don’t let the impassioned expression of my ideas trick you.  I earn my opinions, and I want others to do the same.  If I thought the Second Amendment extremists (which I would define as those who believe the Second Amendment to be more important than all other amendments) were also careful thinkers and also invited reasoned debate, I would want to engage in real conversation with them.  I want to see Republicans take a cultural studies approach to their discussion of common sense gun reform and educational reform in Virginia.  Guns do kill people.  Virginia’s, and the United States’, continuing legacy of violence must be addressed.

The December 8th townhall meeting allowed me to think through the proposed legislation for the Virginia General Assembly session—specifically Senate Bills 16, 18, 51, and 64. (*See this link for all legislation related to weapons.)  The GOP talking points, distributed by 6th District Republican Committee Chairperson Jennifer Brown, read more like rally propaganda than clear education on the actual legislation proposed.  The document, designed only to whip up a crowd, not to provide information, parse ideas, and ask for reasoned feedback, included no links to actual proposals, no direct text, no grounded reality of the issues.  This is propaganda, not education or democracy, and this is the problem with regional, state, and national politics in the United States.

Why do we want to control people, rather than allow them the information they need to make their own decisions?  Isn’t that real liberty, real freedom?  For example, the Rockingham (VA) GOP Committee states in their talking points: “School shootings are relatively rare despite recent media narrative reporting and Democrat messages that would have you believe otherwise.”  They include no data, no links to reputable sources, no verifiable information. (*See this post and this one for actual statistics on school shootings and gun violence. *Also see the Moms Demand Action site and Everytown for Gun Safety.)  I do not want to mislead people.  Why would I?  I just want to share real data, real statistics, on a real problem that has deeply affected the state of Virginia and the United States.  I want a little bit of book learning to go a long way.

What I am about to say will strike you as naïve, and it is.  After all these years here, and after all the thinking about culture and roots and belonging and not belonging, I somehow did not anticipate the profound ways in which Republican talking points would distill themselves, like so much moonshine on a late summer’s day, into just guns.  Guns as power, guns as a God-given right, guns as a community of men and the supporting cast of women, guns as military pride, guns as sacrifice, guns as “sacred honor,” guns as nation, guns as Christianity. Guns as, like you see on the t-shirt in the photo included here (from the December 9, 2019, Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting), Family-Faith-Friends-Flag-Firearms–“Five Things You Don’t Mess With.”  Guns as an old United States that should be able, through education, to embrace a new United States built on community, care, and justice.

Education in the Trumpocracy

(http://www.ushistory.org/us/39a.asp)

Oak Plains School (North Carolina; built in late 19th century for white children)

When the “president” appointed Betsy DeVos to the education secretary post on November 23, 2016, and she was confirmed on February 7, 2017, I groaned out loud, along with many of my friends and colleagues who are teachers.  DeVos seemed uniquely unqualified to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education in that her principal experience with education is having been a high school and college (undergraduate) student.  She has no experience as a teacher, administrator, or educational policy expert. On her own website, DeVos describes herself as “a proven leader, an innovator, a disruptor and an advocate.”  She also uses the word “pioneer” in her self-description. This billionaire and former chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party is co-opting revolutionary language to promote herself and to cement traditional platforms that take us back to the 19th century (or probably before, since positivist, pro-science philosophy thrived in the late 19th century).  If she is a “proven leader,” then the direction in which she is moving her followers is most definitely backwards.  If she is a “disruptor,” then it is due to her utter lack of experience in the educational realm.  This Gender Shrapnel Blog post examines damage wrought by DeVos in the areas of public education, education access and affirmative action (also a Justice Department issue, of course), and Title IX protections for women and transgender individuals.  This is a shrapnel cluster, hitting religion, race, class, and gender.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of The Constitution of the United States (also linked here through the White House site), taken together and interpreted through centuries of jurisprudence, “[build] a wall of separation between Church & State” (Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists).  Garrett Epps’s article in The Atlantic (6-15-2011) uses abundant textual evidence that the founding fathers never intended to build a Christian nation.  For all that the GOP claims to be the party of “constitutional correctness,” the intentional Christianization of our public school system thumbs its nose at the purpose and practice of the First Amendment.  In 2001, DeVos stated, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom” (cited in this Mother Jones article from March/April 2017).  DeVos & Company must feel a dizzying sense of power as they promote Christian charter schools (see here what DeVos did to public education in Michigan) and funneling public monies into Christian schools.  This 3-20-2017 article from The Atlantic explains the ways in which the Trump-DeVos team might dismantle school integration.

In its Manichean view of the world, does the Trump-DeVos axis realize that the tables could be turned and their own children and grandchildren might have to attend public schools dominated by religions other than Christianity?  As a resident of the United States, I believe in the free practice of religion, which means not having religion of any kind imposed in the public school system.  In our area, the moment of silence built into the public school day, the prayer gatherings on public school buses and at public school flagpoles, and the invitation to Christian “inspirational” or “motivational” speakers already demonstrate the much more dangerous and more slippery slope of the DeVos regime in education.  The ACLU warns the same here.

While Jeff Sessions is at the helm of the Justice Department’s initiative to sue universities over affirmative action (described in this 8-1-2017 piece in The Washington Post), Betsy DeVos is to blame as well.  One of the first hires she made in the new post was that of Candice Jackson as acting head of the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  This NBS News (4-14-2017) piece probes how well Jackson’s disapproval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and her anti-affirmative action stance meshes with the mission statement of the OCR.  DeVos does not seem as riled up about legacy admissions to colleges and universities, perhaps principally because they still favor white people. (See related pieces in The Washington Post; The New York Times; Business Insider; The Chronicle of Higher Education; and another in The Washington Post.) The DeVos regime, as part of the Trumpocracy, is all about accomplishing the opposite of the office’s mission.  Again, this is DeVos, through Jackson, leading us backwards.

While we’re on the subject of the now-infamous Candice Jackson, let’s not forget that she has followed her boss’s lead in advocating for men’s rights over women’s in campus sexual assault cases.  The New York Times (7-13-2017) says about Jackson: “Investigative processes have not been ‘fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,’ Ms. Jackson argued, and students have been branded rapists ‘when the facts just don’t back that up.’ In most investigations, she said, there’s ‘not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.’ ‘Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,’ Ms. Jackson said.”  Jackson does not even use the term “rape” or “sexual assault,” but rather, “students overrode the will of a young woman.”  Although Jackson later attempted to clarify the statement, she has made it clear that she does not believe campus sexual assault happens and, by extrapolation, does not believe rapists exist.

In the meantime, Jackson’s boss, DeVos, was meeting with men’s rights activists.  As Jon Krakauer and Laura L. Dunn say in this op-ed (8-3-2017) from The New York Times, “The Department of Education is taking a hard look at its policies on campus sexual assault.  The result may make colleges safer.  For rapists.”  (*See Mili Mitra’s 7-18-2017 op-ed in The Washington Post for an eloquent rationale of the need for a strong DOE and OCR to follow up Dear Colleague letters issued under the Obama administration; see Katz’s and Alejandro’s 8-3-2017 op-ed in USA Today; see also this 1-2-2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post.)

DeVos is also crippling Title IX protections in the realm of transgender rights, as detailed here by the ACLU (3-29-2017), although she is reported to have been initially in favor of maintaining Obama-era protections.  Through DeVos, and of his own accord, Trump is using the transgender community to pander to his base in the face of epically low approval ratings.

None of this is about education (DOE; DeVos) or civil rights (OCR; Jackson).  It is about fake-revolutionary rhetoric and continuing to assert power to the benefit of few and the detriment of many.