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Photo by Bob Studzinski

I belong to one of the historic peace churches. Where I worship there is a sign in the hallway that has become dear to me. It is known as the Quaker Peace Testimony, a Declaration to Charles II in 1660. It says, "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world.” It goes on to describe the spirit of Christ, as the writer sees it. The language is lovely and poetic. 

I would never carry a gun to a public protest, and I have been in many protests and demonstrations, especially against the U.S. government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes counter protestors screamed in our faces or blocked our way or created a gauntlet through which we had to walk while being screamed at in close proximity. In one, I wondered afterwards why the DC police stood by and let the screaming and blocking happen. 

I have never owned a gun and have no interest in owning one. I don’t remember ever  touching a gun. I know very little about them. Last week, I watched, along with others in this country, as men, and some women, carried guns, in the open, to the steps of the Michigan state capital and then into the capital building. 

If I was a reporter covering the story of that protest and some of the protestors appeared carrying guns, I would want to ask one or two of them, “Why did you decide to bring a gun to this demonstration, and carry it out in the open?” Because they made a decision so different than the one I would make and because this virus and lockdown have created such a climate of fear and panic amid a storm of daily conflicting opinions and information, I would be genuinely interested in their response. It may help with understanding.  I would want to include their comments in my story on the protest and others like it, protests that have been written about in various ways all across U.S. and international newspapers with reporters saying the gun-carrying protestors are “Right-wing extremists,” “White Supremacists,” and “Nazis.”  I have read of Swastikas and Confederate flags and nooses being present.  

If I was there with my notepad, I would ask: “What are you protesting, and why are you here with a gun?”  When I was a reporter for a paper in North Carolina years ago, I often knocked on doors in what many thought were dangerous neighborhoods, or I talked to people out in the street, so I could learn and get a clearer picture of an incident or a trend. 

More recently, while working in rural areas where many people own guns, know about different types, perhaps collect them, I have come to understand that Second Amendment rights advocates may be hunters or sportsmen who use guns, but they also argue that the purpose of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, the right to bear arms, is to protect the citizens against government tyranny. I may not agree with this. I may not have thought about it as deeply as many people obviously have.  The gun-carrying man at the Michigan capital may have government over-control, even tyranny, on his mind as the government has recently ordered businesses closed, rendering many unable to work.  Some of the signs in various protests have read, “Let Me Work” or “I Want to Work.” Perhaps the government is becoming or has become what this protestor fears the most? 

I do not think I would be afraid to politely approach him and ask him my questions. His gun is out in the open, as is legal in that state and others. I may not agree with that law. I have male friends, gun owners, who tell me that they would not carry a gun openly in that situation, because they feel that it would scare people and would send the wrong message and may even distract from the message the protestors hope to convey. And yet, this man with a weapon in the open, has come to the place where he feels so desperate or cornered or emphatic that he has made this decision. 

I would want to hear from him because he is very different from me. One of my friends said that the governor in Michigan prohibited people from fishing on their boats during this lockdown. I have not researched whether or not this is true. But I know from learning about people very different from me, who own guns, maybe farm, hunt and fish, build and fix things, work outdoors a lot, that if the state or federal government told this man he could not work to support himself and his family, maybe his business was forced to close – and we were not sure how long this government control would go on – and, in addition, he could not fish on a public lake in his own boat, he would not like it. At all. He may even begin to feel desperate and angry and trapped. He may decide to go to a public protest and carry a weapon openly. 

I do not believe I would be afraid to approach this man to ask my questions because his message (and even his weapon) are in the open. The barrel of the gun is pointed downwards, however. I do not believe I would be afraid of getting shot. Though I have no interest in owning a gun and know almost nothing about them, and may not agree with the laws that allow some people to have them, in rural areas where I have worked, I have known many men who own guns and who do know a lot about them. They may collect them, clean them, build them, use them safely for hunting or other sports. They may believe guns are needed for protection. I am not entirely sure what they do with their guns. However, I have never been afraid that they would shoot me. I know many are kind-hearted men, law-biding people engaging in lawful activities, laws that I did not create, may not agree with or even fully understand. And yet, I have often felt safer with some of these men, who have become friends, than I have felt in the past with some people I have known, sadly, people who do not own guns, never have but who do their malice in cowardice and in secret. 

More than 20 thousand people gathered in Richmond in January to support Second Amendment rights. I read that there were no injuries, no arrests, and that participants even picked up their own trash. I thought that was admirable. As for Confederate flags in Michigan (not sure about the Swastika or why it would be singled out for a picture on the news), a flag is just that – a flag. Some people may be wrong about it, but who am I to interpret what it means to someone else? A flag does not shoot someone. A person does. I may think it’s inappropriate to carry a Confederate flag to a protest, but it is not against the law. 

Similarly, I could stand on a street corner with a sign that says, “All wars are wrong” or “This war is wrong. End it” and someone could scream in my face that I was unpatriotic, hated this country, was a traitor, or was helping to get their son killed, their son who was fighting in a war that I was protesting. In the early days of the U.S. war in Iraq, a war most of the public agrees now was a horrible mistake, I remember a news commentator criticizing protestors aggressively on TV: “Once troops are committed, you shut up!” he said. He would have not liked me standing on that corner with my sign. Others critics may say I was not supporting the soldier, for instance, or I was lowering the morale of the troops because those troops may see Americans carrying signs against the war while American soldiers were getting shot at in another country. If troop morale is low, troops may be more vulnerable to getting shot and killed, critics may argue (or shout in my face). All these charges have been leveled against peace activists who protest the money and lives spent on the government’s wars. Some have said that soldiers fight in wars so that I am able to stand there with my sign. Some have said that conscientious objectors were wrong to object while some men were drafted to fight and others volunteered. I may not agree with or understand this thinking. 

So, if some guy wants to show up at an anti-lockdown protest with a Confederate flag, I may think he’s wrong, I may not like the flag or its history. I may agree with people who think it’s racist. Or I may not. The guy may be racist, or he may not be racist at all. The guy may be wrong about the flag. He may not know or be misinformed about the flag’s history or its meaning to some people, but I cannot jump inside his head and know what that flag means to him at that time when he has decided to bring it to carry. It’s a flag. It doesn’t shoot someone any more than my anti-war sign shoots someone. He has a right to carry as dumb a sign or flag as he wants to.  He has the right to think that my sign is dumb or naive or misguided. 

I would never show up at a protest with a sign that says “Jesus is My Vaccine,” but I have seen that sign in a picture of an anti-lockdown protest. I could be wrong or deluded or not have enough information, but I get a flu shot most years and take my teenaged son to get them too. I took my children to get all doctor-recommended vaccines. I know that many people feel strongly about vaccines and their risks or harms. I often question government and media information and often do not trust it initially and seek alternative sources. I remember being overwhelmed and sad at Target recently, trying to pick water bottles for my sons that were good quality and did not have BPA, which I read could cause cancer or other health problems. I wondered why in a country with expensive bureaucracies, tasked with testing products and ingredients for public safety, would a mom like me have to stand there for almost an hour, worrying about which water bottle would be safe to buy for my sons. 

Many men at anti-lockdown protests are wearing desert camo. Do they have desert camo in the middle of spring in the U.S. because they bought it at an army supply store, or were they sent to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I could ask them.  Most of the population in this country acquiesced, or even rallied support, while both Democrat and Republican politicians  voted year after year to fund those wars, sending about 8 percent of the population, mostly men, to multiple combat tours, some as many as 8 or 10 tours, which is physical and psychological savagery. That many deployments have caused immeasurable harm and often permanent mental and physical injuries.  Previous wars sent men into combat once, sometimes twice; these multiple deployments are unprecedented. At Fort Bragg, one of the largest military bases in the world, I learned that most of the population at the base and the surrounding town voted for Trump – and probably will again. I have wondered why this is. We could ask and listen. This issue may be worth thinking about and reading about in our newspapers and magazines as we are entering another presidential election in several months. 

Journalists have noted that anti-lockdown protests have few or no black or brown people present. I was pleased to hear an NPR story this past weekend on who is doing the so-called essential jobs during the government lockdowns. The answer is black and brown people, mostly women. They are changing bed pans and giving baths in nursing homes, working in chicken factories, checking groceries, working at drive-through fast food places. I see many Mexican men laying pipe, repairing roads, running power lines. Black and brown people may not be attending protests because they are working, harder than most people in ordinary times and even harder now, or they are exhausted, working at jobs others often do not want to do now – and did not want to do before lockdown. This virus panic exposes important socio-economic, race, and class issues. 

Highly paid TV or large media journalists, politicians, and bureaucrats still have incomes and are able to work from home computers. When they question where black and brown people are at anti-lockdown protests, I may wonder -- who is cleaning their houses, taking care of their elderly parents, doing their hair and make-up and nails (if they are on TV), tending their yards and gardens, nannying their children?  Who is doing the farm work and working in the dairy plants? 

In this time of crisis, panic, and confusion, I think we have a lot to learn from people different from us but who probably want many of the same things all of us do. I would not carry a gun to a protest, but that guy in Michigan and I may have common concerns. I also dislike government over-control, lockdown and widespread panic and confusion.  Further, I have protested the government’s control over war-making with its ensuing waste, losses, and destruction. The guy with a gun in Michigan and I may both have old parents and children in school. We may share worries about sickness and death, getting information we need to care for ourselves and our families, being able to make decisions about work and having enough money to survive and provide for children as they need us. In this time of world-wide panic and confusion, with information changing very day, we may learn by thinking independently, by talking and questioning dominant narratives that too-often pit us against each other.  

Christine E. Black's work has been published in The American Journal of Poetry, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod International, The Virginia Journal of Education, Friends Journal, Sojourners Magazine, English Journal, Amethyst Review, and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Pablo Neruda Prize. Her essays have been published in Off-Guardian, Cold Type, Global Research, Joyful Dissent, and other publications.