The Hypocrisy of American Rights: What Constitutional entitlement means in a nation created unequal
First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
I am always amazed at the times when Americans complain that they have their constitutional rights while sitting idly by while some of those rights are being completely ignored by their government. I have heard more rhetoric about “our rights” this year than I have at anytime I can remember. In the heat of a worldwide pandemic armed white men stormed the Michigan Capitol building demanding that the government open up the “economy.” They used their 2nd Amendment rights they claimed, to bear arms and intimidate their governor while being pushed to do more by President Trump.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” – Donald Trump, 17 April 2020 Tweet
The second amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
What was going on in the country when the Founding Fathers were debating the 2nd Amendment? At the time the United States was busy taking land from the Indigenous communities by sheer force while keeping millions of enslaved Africans at bay with massive doses of violence including the use of those “well regulated Militia.” Section 8, Part 15 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”
What insurrections and invasions were they afraid of? Obviously invasions by foreign nations were a concern but just as importantly, Insurrections by the enslaved masses of Africans and invasions into white spaces by the Indigenous people who’d had their lands stolen from them were near the top of the list of threats felt by the founders of this nation. Americans love to talk about the Founding Fathers and Constitution but most don’t know it very well nor do they understand what was going on at the time it was written. That document was not written in a vacuum. There were things going on which made the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia a place where certain things were debated and others were ignored. One of the central threads that the debates centered on was the fear of blacks and Indigenous people.
Due to the fear of slave insurrections, enslaved and free black people had quite severe restrictions on their movements and the possession of guns throughout the early years of the republic. A 1750 New Jersey law designed to control blacks stipulated:
“That if any Negro or Mulatto Slave or Slaves shall be seen or found from his or their Masters House, after the Hour of Nine at Night except on their Masters or Mistresses particular Business, or shall be seen to hunt, or carrying a Gun on the Lord’s Day; the Constable or Constables of such Town or Precinct, on Information or Knowledge thereof, shall and are hereby required and directed, to apprehend and carry such Negro and Mulatto Slaves before the next Justice of the Peace, who shall order such Negro or Mulatto Slave or Slaves, if found Guilty, to be whipped as by the preceding Clause of this Act is directed.
A 1715 Maryland law had similar aims.
“That no negro or other slave within this province shall be permitted to carry any gun, or any other offensive weapon, from off their master’s land, without license from their said master; and if any negro or other slave shall presume so to do, he shall be liable to be carried before a justice of peace, and be whipped, and his gun or other offensive weapon shall be forfeited to him that shall seize the same and carry such negro so offending before a justice of peace.”
In 1792 Virginia passed a similar law.
“No negro or mulatto whatsoever shall keep or carry any gun, powder, shot, club, or other weapon whatsoever, offensive or defensive, but all and every gun, weapon, and ammunition found in the possession or custody of any negro or mulatto, may be seized by any person, and upon due proof thereof made before any Justice of the Peace of the County or Corporation where such seizure shall be, shall by his order be forfeited to the seizor for his own use ; and moreover, every such offender shall have and receive by order of such Justice, any number of lashes not exceeding thirty-nine, on his or her bare back, well laid on, for every such offense.”
Contrary to what most of us learned in school, Africans did not sit idly by and accept their captivity. They fought back all the time. They fought back on the slave coffles in Africa where they were forced to walk sometimes hundreds of miles in shackles to arrive at the European trading posts referred to as slave castles like Elmina and Cape Coast Castles in present day Ghana. They led mutinies onboard the slaving ships that transported tens of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. These ships were outfitted with cannons to protect them from pirate ships but also from the Africans who fought for their freedom on these ships with any weapons at their disposal.
Once they arrived in this land they continued to fight for their freedom. Slave insurrections were very common and the founders of this nation were aware enough to put protections into the Constitution to protect whites from the inevitability of insurrections. Insurrection is defined as “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government.” Africans and Indigenous people had every right to revolt, rebel and resist the unjust laws written by whites who wanted to keep their foot on their necks.
“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
– Claude McKay, poem 1919
The suppression by historians of the history of insurrections by enslaved Africans tells us a lot about why so many have blamed Africans for slavery by saying they “allowed themselves” to be enslaved and did not fight back. Most Americans probably believe this to be the case because this is what we learned in school by an absence of stories about Africans fighting their enslavement. There are a few exceptions that some heard about but probably not in school. Examples include the Gabriel insurrection of 1800 in Virginia, the Denmark Vesey led rebellion in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina and the Nat Turner rebellion in Southhampton County, Virginia in 1831. We are rarely told of any others.
The Spaniards enslaved Africans on this continent in what is now the United States beginning in the 1500s. The first documented slave revolt here occurred in 1526 in the Spanish colony of Allyon on the coast of what is now South Carolina. In 1938 historian Joseph Caphas Carroll wrote the first detailed history of slave insurrections in the US. His book, Slave Insurrections in the United States 1800-1865 details many of the stories of American slavery ignored by other historians. He spoke of the difficulty of finding details of these insurrections in his preface to the book.
“The information about them was consistently suppressed by the master class for fear that it might be a means of exciting other slaves to revolt. The trials of conspirators were usually conducted behind closed doors, so that the true state of affairs was an absolute secret, so far as the general public was concerned. For this reason the sources are exceedingly sparse, and scattered here and there over wide areas of territory.”
Like so much else in America, the Constitution was deeply embedded with thoughts of black people in mind. However we are never told that in history class. We read about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and scarcely a word is said about the Africans enslaved in this land at that time. I’ve heard white people complaining that black people keep bringing up slavery from so many years ago. Yet at the same time they opine about the Revolution and Founding Fathers and Constitution ad nauseam.
Americans love to discuss the ideals of the founders while blatantly ignoring the bigotry and racism of these men. I’ve had in recent weeks some stranger on Facebook accuse me of denigrating the Founding Fathers good name. These men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were not “my” founding fathers. These men continued a system which held my ancestors, stolen from Africa, in chains to make them and their new nation wealthy. They had great ideas, but black people were clearly not included in the “people” they carried so much about. Collectively they had no desire to end the captivity of Africans. Placing a clause in the Constitution which ended the slave trade in 1808 was not a move to end slavery, just the commerce in humans because they felt the natural growth of the enslaved population would make it so that importing more human beings from Africa would no longer be needed by that time to satisfy the greed of southern state representatives at the convention.
To ignore the role black people and Indigenous people played in the rationale behind the Second Amendment is simply hypocritical. White people using the powers vested in them by superior weapons, developed over centuries to slaughter other white people on the continent of Europe, struck out to use those same weapons on people they encountered outside of their homelands who had crude weapons in comparison. Columbus wrote in his 1492 journal about the Arawak people’s first encounter with Spaniards and he made mention of this.
“They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
This is the man that America celebrates as its discoverer. Columbus Day is a national holiday and yet most fail to see that fateful day in October 1492 from the perspective of the people he called ignorant, and potentially fine servants that could be so easily subjugated. That 1526 insurrection in Allyon against the Spaniards was instigated in collaboration with the Indigenous people who were tired of whites encroaching upon their lands. Whites feared the relationship between the Africans and Indigenous people because they recognized each group saw them as a common enemy. These fears were never far from the minds of whites. Likewise in the British colonies, they feared a collaboration between Africans and those white indentured servants who were treated as lesser human beings as well.
In Gloucester County, Virginia in September 1663 the two groups plotted rebellion together. Unfortunately for the leaders of that plot, a turncoat by the name of John Berkenhead turned his back on his black brothers and their white allies by telling of the planned insurrection. The colonists were so pleased with Berkenhead that they granted him his freedom, and a substantial amount of tobacco. They moved to annually celebrate the 13th of September by passing a resolution.
“Since the least mercy we receive from God’s hands challenges our daily thanks, whether it be not fit for so transcendent a favor as the preserving of all we have from utter ruin, deserve not to have an annual solemnity celebrated to keep its remembrance. Resolved that the 13th of September be annually kept holy, being the day those villains intended to put the plot into execution.”
The fear of insurrection led whites to put slave patrols into their laws as a means to protect whites and control their ability to quickly put together an armed counterattack. These slave patrols would eventually become the basis for organized police departments.
When insurrections did occur they were forcefully beaten down by armed white militias. The plotters were punished severely by the most barbaric means. In 1712 New York City saw the largest slave insurrection to date. The Africans were joined by a small group of enslaved Indians. They were quickly routed and the executions began. One plotter was broken on the wheel, while nearly two dozen more were executed on the gallows, one was burned with a slow fire, “in order that he might continue in torment for eight or ten hours and continue burning in said fire until he was dead and consumed by ashes” according to a contemporary witness account.
There continued to be more revolts in New Orleans in 1718, Charleston, South Carolina in 1720, Virginia’s Rappahannock River Valley in 1722, Gloucester and Middlesex County, Virginia in 1723, Boston in 1723, Savannah, Georgia in 1728, Williamsburg, Virginia and again Charleston, South Carolina in 1730, in Burlington, Pennsylvania in 1734, as well as numerous mutinies aboard slaving ships at sea.
This led South Carolina’s governor to ask for passage of the 1740 Negro Act which banned blacks from being away from home without a pass, allowed any white person to examine, question and arrest or beat a black person without such pass. This type of behavior comes to my mind when I think about the white men in Georgia who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in a so-called attempted citizens arrest.
Another huge plot occurred in New York City in 1741. Once again the Africans had white co-conspirators. On February 28 the plot began when numerous private homes and businesses were set on fire. Several men and women were arrested in the ensuing weeks and months. No lawyers would defend the Africans and their white co-conspirators turned their backs on them, placing all of the blame for the planned insurrection in their laps. All businesses in town were closed so that whites could witness the executions of the black plotters. Two per week were hanged and one man was burned alive to the wild shouts of adoration by a large white audience. Altogether thirteen blacks were burned to death in chains, eighteen were hanged and twenty one were forced out of the province. This barbarity would be the precursor to the public lynchings which became commonplace one hundred years later.
Word of the fires in New York spread throughout the remaining colonies. These types of planned insurrections continued on land and at sea leading up to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Americas Founding Fathers were well aware of the danger of insurrections and clearly showed that by the words in the Constitution. Whites having the ability to freely bear arms and the assignment of white men to well regulated militia was seen as a necessity by whites to protect themselves from Africans and their partners in insurrections.
As we have watched people around the country being brutalized by police in peaceful protests following the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, it allows us to see how easily a black person who is minding their own business can be killed by police and vigilantes. A group of armed white men taking “the law” into their own hands when murdering Ahmaud Arbery shows the “herd mentality” we saw when blacks were lynched across this country.
When four police officers arrived on the scene over an assertion that George Floyd used a counterfeit bill, that number of officers was clearly not necessary nor was any type of force needed to handle such an innocuous situation. The no-knock warrant leading police to burst into the home of Breonna Floyd and her boyfriend are an example of how police around the country are given permission to skirt the Constitutional provisions in the Fourth Amendment.
The words, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” articulated in the Fourth Amendment mean little to the families of Floyd and Taylor. The Constitutional rights of both were violated. I doubt that the Founding Fathers meant no-knock warrants when they mentioned “and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” What’s even more egregious is that the man they were looking for when they murdered Taylor was already in police custody. Her boyfriend fired in self defense thinking as anyone would, that someone was breaking into their residence as they slept.
The President has or will soon send heavily militarized agents — without identification badges to Portland, Chicago, Kаnsаs City, Milwaukee and Albuquerque under the guise of protecting government property and fighting violent crime. What many see with this tactic is a tool to further divide us and plant seeds of hatred in the minds of some whites who already despise the Black Lives Matter protests. We see through this transparent ploy. The law-and-order rhetoric which helped elect Nixon in 1968, and Reagan in 1980 is once again being used to win over white voters. When federal agents tear gas the mayor of Portland, abduct citizens, tossing them in unmarked vans we are one step closer to the end of so-called democracy in this country.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said we are approaching being a fascist state.
“The violent tactics deployed by Donald Trump and his paramilitary forces against peaceful protesters are those of a fascist regime, not a democratic nation…I asked him (a legal adviser for the head of national intelligence) again and again what was the constitutional justification for what the Trump administration is doing in my home town and he completely ducked the questions and several times said, ‘Well, I just want to extend my best wishes to your constituents.’ After I heard him say it several times, I said my constituents don’t want your best wishes. They want to know when you’re going to stop trashing their constitutional rights.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon issued a joint statement denouncing the President.
“Last month, the Administration tear-gassed peaceful protestors in Washington, D.C. Now, videos show them kidnapping protestors in unmarked cars in Portland – all with the goal of inflaming tensions for their own gain. While Portland is the President’s current target, any city could be next. We live in a democracy, not a banana republic. We will not tolerate the use of Oregonians, Washingtonians – or any other Americans – as props in President Trump’s political games. The House is committed to moving swiftly to curb these egregious abuses of power immediately.”
When Trump said weeks ago he wants to protect monuments and federal buildings instead of concentrating all of his efforts on protecting Americans from the coronavirus pandemic the die was cast.
He has denied Americans their Constitutional rights in Portland yet those who complain about their rights being denied by being told to wear masks barely utter a word about peaceful protestors being denied their Constitutionally guaranteed rights. Where are those gun-toting white men who claim they care so much about the Constitution as it is being trampled on by the President who supported them months ago?
We lie to the world that Americans have the right of free speech and they laugh at us and point out examples of this not being the case all around the country. We are the laughing stock of the world right now. We are now in the eyes of many around the world, a sh**hole country the term that the President used to refer to nations populated primarily by people of color, saying they should not be welcomed as immigrants to the US. The shoe is now on the other foot as he has bungled the pandemic so badly that 33 nations including China, Japan, the 27 nations of the European Union, and the Bahamas won’t allow Americans to travel to their shores. Canada and Mexico will not allow nonessential travelers from the US to cross their borders. How ironic that we closed off our border, restricting immigrants who passed through Mexico and now they’ve turned the tide on us.
When we hear talk about “rights” and “freedoms” being protected it is clear that the rights and freedoms of only select groups are seriously considered. Former NFL coach Mike Ditka said those who protest by kneeling during the national anthem should “get the hell out of the country.” So obviously he and those like him believe “the freedom of speech” guaranteed in the Constitution don’t apply to these athletes.
The hypocrisy is astonishing.
“Our forefathers were not the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us. We were brought here against our will; we were not brought here to be made citizens. We were not brought here to enjoy the constitutional gifts that they speak so beautifully about today. Because we weren’t brought here to be made citizens–today, now that we’ve become awakened to some degree, and we begin to ask for those things which they say are supposedly for all Americans, they look upon us with a hostility and unfriendliness.” – Malcolm X, 29 March 1964