#WeWillShootBack: Is It Time for Black People to Begin Arming Themselves in America?

by Anna Gibson

Relatives of the victims whose lives were taken in the Emanuel AME church shooting had the opportunity to speak with the shooter, Dylann Roof, a few days ago. In the clip, we see the family of the victims in a courtroom speaking directly to Roof via video. We hear the families forgive Roof for his actions in the church. One-woman states:

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I have known. Every fiber of my body hurts and I will never be the same. But as we say in the bible study… we enjoyed you and may God have mercy on you.”
While people across the United States are filled with grief about this tragedy, black people expressed this grief in dramatically different ways. The varied reactions shed light on a divide that’s occurred for centuries, from the slave rebellions of Nat Turner, to the conversations trending on Twitter today.

Some applauded the family’s spirit of love and forgiveness, celebrating AME Church’s (which historically has dealt with many hate crimes) resilience in the face of tragedy. As such, people on Twitter started the hashtag #PrayForCharleston, which emphasizes the need for prayer and love above hatred.

However, others are taking a different approach. This group, trending on Twitter under the hashtag #WeWillShootBack, critically examines the spirit of forgiveness that Black people are often forced to exhibit after hate crimes. Writer and activist Taurean Brown, @SankofaBrown on Twitter, started this movement and makes a number of valid points about this issue.

He’s cited as saying, “If our community is being unjustly attacked by terrorists, be it police or others, we have a right to defend ourselves.”

This directly mirrors the anger the #WeWillShootBack movement feels toward the terrorist attack against AME church. Roof walked into one of our most hallowed spaces and systematically slaughtered everyone that welcomed him there. Many claim that if the people in the church were armed, this entire situation would have been averted.

For those who want to #PrayForCharleston, bringing a gun into the church is sacrilegious at best. While I can understand where this sentiment comes from symbolically, it can’t be denied that prayer alone doesn’t seem to be saving us. To quote the Bible, “Faith without works is dead.” If we don’t take action in self-defense against the people who oppress us, we will continue to die. When we examine #WeWillShootBack, we see that black people aren’t advocating wanton violence, but the necessity of arming ourselves to ensure our peace of mind.

History has shown us that our willingness to defend ourselves has served our best interests, especially in a society that at one time, used violence against us as a way to maintain the status quo and keep black people in a state of terror. The hashtag #WeWillShootBack takes its name from the seminal work of Akinyele Umoja. We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi examines the legacy of armed self-defense embraced by black people in the Mississippi as well as the terror white people spread in the south. In “We Will Shoot Back,” Umoja says,
“Violence was central to the establishment of white discrimination, not only to seize power for white supremacist but to instill fear and intimidation [in black people]”
Of course, this wasn’t a struggle that was just fought in Mississippi. These terrorist attacks took place all across the United States. Fighting back is a reaction that anyone who’s been assaulted would experience. If you were outside and all of a sudden someone began to hit or shoot at you, your first response wouldn’t be to pray. It would be to defend yourself. Self-preservation is a biological imperative.

Robert F. Williams, President of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, had much to say about the necessity of black people fighting back in the face of oppression. In his “Speech from Radio Free Dixie,” Williams echoes the pragmatism of the Black Power Movement. Williams stated:
“There are some who exhort us not to defend ourselves. There are some who exhort us to invoke the power of love and nonviolence. Yes, they would have us to turn the other cheek even as our women and children are being defiled. Is not self preservation not the first law of nature?”
In short, black people should be praised for their resilience in the face of darkness. Prayer is also our foundation—it helps us regain hope in the face of the hopelessness. However, if we want to experience true and lasting peace, we have to be prepared to defend ourselves against the unthinkable: lynchings, riots, and even our sacred spaces being desecrated due to white supremacy. Faith and self-defense must be balanced in order for us to live a full and peaceful life.

Photo: Washington State Archives

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University who majors in Journalism with a minor in Africana Studies. She seeks to create safe space for the marginalized to tell their stories. If you would like to get in touch you can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook under the name Anna Gibson.

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