Toward the end of the Los Angeles edition of the March for Our Lives rally this past Saturday, a group of five black children from the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard took the stage in front of City Hall. The program was now in its third hour, and the sun was high. The ebullient, elbow-to-elbow crowd in Grand Park had thinned out considerably, and we could now hear the Jesus Loves/You Must Repent guy with the megaphone off in the distance, droning on about how guns don’t kill people. Yet these young activists still earned loud cheers that drowned him out, especially when the last of them, Ahmed Abdullah, proudly introduced himself and said that he was eight years old.
The crowd kept encouraging the young Black Lives Matter activists as they lamented, through rhyme and fiery speech, how their black lives have been criminalized from the crib. The oldest of the group, a 14-year-old girl named Thandiwe Abdullah, hardly paused at the end of her poem before declaring, with every last bit of enunciation that she could muster, that “it is important, that when we talk about gun control, that we uplift the black bodies that continue to be gunned down in streets and targeted in our schools.” After naming African-American victims of gun violence, perpetrated by police and George Zimmerman alike, the young activist emphasized that the disproportionate danger black and brown Americans face from guns is why their voices need to be at the forefront today. Her demand that we hear from the black youth was so pronounced that the word “black” sounded as if it had three syllables.
We heard much the same earlier that same day from Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old girl from Alexandria, Virginia who electrified the Washington, D.C. rally with her truths about black invisibility in the gun reform debate. On March 14th, she added a minute to her elementary school’s walkout, extending it to 18 minutes to honor both the 17 Parkland victims and Courtlin Arrington, a black high schooler gunned down a week earlier in Birmingham, Alabama. “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” Wadler said. “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”
What both Wadler and the young Los Angeles activists said echoed a clarion call that, to the credit of the Parkland survivors, has resonated throughout this burgeoning drive for change. The teenage leaders behind it have prioritized inclusiveness and recognized the layers of oppression that lie beneath the surface of any conversation about gun violence. And as I watched these girls speak and listened to massive crowds cheering them, for a moment it seemed like the very thing we’ve been waiting to see ever since the civil rights movement was reinvigorated in cities like Ferguson: White people had come to a Black Lives Matter rally. For years, many activists have wanted white Americans to join the fight in the streets en masse. In that regard, Saturday felt like the inception of a civic miracle.
Then, I checked my phone, and shook my head. I finally regained some internet as I was walking away from City Hall shortly after the rally ended. Right before my battery died, I learned about what Killer Mike did.
The Atlanta rapper had pre-recorded a segment for NRATV, the National Rifle Association’s broadcast outlet, in which he argued strongly for gun rights. The video went online during the March. Killer Mike, half of the fierce hip-hop tag team Run the Jewels, filmed a pre-recorded chat with NRATV host Collins Iyare Idehen Jr. (who is also black, hence the stage name “Colion Noir”). In the video, Idehen added an introduction to the video directly challenging the March organizers. “What are you really marching for?” said the host, apparently unable to discern that from the event’s title. “Because from where I’m standing, it looks like a march to burn the Constitution and rewrite the parts you don’t like in crayon.” Idehen’s corny screed set the tone for a conversation in which both he and Mike question the “wokeness” of black gun control advocates and show condescension for the hundreds of thousands of marchers who took to the American streets. It was less an interview than it was propaganda for the NRA, arguably the most powerful political organization outside of the criminal justice system that works consistently to create societal acceptance of untimely black death.
We expect that kind of absurdity from Idehen, who on Saturday chided the Parkland survivors again, saying that no one would know their names had their classmates and teachers not been murdered. While Mike’s opposition to an assault weapon ban was one of his only disagreements with Bernie Sanders during his time as a 2016 campaign surrogate, the video serves as an education for anyone who doubts his commitment not just to guns, but gun culture. Mike proudly recounted how he forbade his children to participate in National Walkout Day, saying that, “If you walk out that school, walk out my house.” Killer Mike even finds space to give caustic NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch some dap, buying into her February CPAC remarks about the media not caring about black gun victims, as if the NRA is scheduling town halls on Chicago’s West Side for families grieving loved ones lost to gun violence. It was nauseating to watch Mike lend his legitimacy with black audiences to an organization that exploits racial anxiety in order to encourage white people to buy more guns. He must have forgotten the NRA’s support of the 1967 “open carry” ban in California, which Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law after the Black Panthers entered the state capitol while armed. Or that the NRA virtually ignored the killing of 32-year-old school nutrition supervisor Philando Castile at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, shot to death as he calmly informed the cop that he had a weapon in the car. Add on the NRA-backed Stand Your Ground law that protected Zimmerman after he killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. At a time when legislative gun reforms could strike a blow against an organization that benefits from the criminalization of black communities, Mike, perhaps unwittingly, chose to lend them his celebrity for their cause.
This NRATV video won’t derail anything this movement is accomplishing, of course. Most Americans, by quite a margin, already backed major gun reforms and that support has spiked since Parkland—per a Politico/Morning Consult poll in late February, 68 percent of registered voters support tougher gun laws. Even Republicans, especially those running for statehouses and Congress in a midterm year, are feeling the pressure. Pope Francis is on board, telling his Palm Sunday flock, “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout!” Now a group of high schoolers has organized an inclusive movement from the ground up—one that actually recognizes white privilege and includes other young activists of color who have been fighting many of the same battles, yet haven’t received a fraction of the public attention or acceptance. Yet at a moment when Mike could have shone a light on the good works of young black activists working to end gun violence—not access to guns—he chose instead to ridicule them for the pleasure of an NRA audience. That is the very definition of “not helpful.”
That’s why I don’t know if I was so much alarmed as disappointed as I watched a black hip-hop artist who is as politically engaged as Mike buy into the messaging of the NRA and saying stuff out loud like “In Wakanda, everyone had guns and spears and everything else you needed.” Perhaps he envisions himself as a Killmonger, offering weapons of war to the dispossessed – all while believing that he had not himself become the enemy whom he opposed. It is one thing to see a prominent African American gun owner advocating for his people to take arms to guard against racial terrorism and the state that kills them so indiscriminately. Those are debates that we should be engaging in, gun reform movement or not. But when black gun owners preach that message on the NRA’s platform, they risk turning a potentially revolutionary message into a commercial.
Killer Mike put out a lengthy mea culpa video via his social networks on Sunday night after a day of catching hell (and garnering support from his Run the Jewels partner El-P, who publicly supported the March and blasted Idehen’s remarks). But his apology was also somewhat bizarre. Mike went on and on about how “I am your ally, young people” after mocking the very notion of allyship in the NRATV segment. He insisted that “My interview with said organization, who we all don’t agree with, was supposed to be something that continued a conversation” about African-American gun ownership, he said into his phone as it recorded. But what conversation is actually happening? Emphasizing that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mike said that wanted to sit down with “people who I might not always agree with.”
Even drawing upon his history, I wouldn’t be so bold as to presume how Dr. King would have dealt with today’s NRA. I do feel comfortable guessing that last Saturday, the good reverend would have likely been on a stage alongside his granddaughter Yolanda Renee in Washington, or other young people like those I saw in Los Angeles. The civil rights giant likely wouldn’t have been sitting on NRATV, denigrating a nonviolent drive to end violence. None of us can be Dr. King, but this #NeverAgain movement is plainly following his example. I can only hope that folks like Mike understand that now.
Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez speaks at March for our Lives. Watch below.