Hey, Protesters! Republicans Don’t Really Want Everyone Armed.
If history is any indicator, there’s one thing that could cause the Republicans to quickly change their tune about gun rights in West Virginia: if West Virginia’s broad coalition of teachers and public school workers simply legally armed themselves, shoulder-slinged rifles and hip-holstered pistols, and descended on Charleston, WV to peacefully protest in defense of West Virginia’s public schools.
I suspect this would be the case, because the Second Amendment has never once in American history been legally applied to support the poor, or to support anyone who has challenged the rich and powerful in this country.
Racism and the Second Amendment: A Partial Story
In author and radio host Thom Hartmann’s new book The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, he makes crystal clear how the Second Amendment has been selectively applied throughout U.S. history to preserve race-based power structures in the United States. Author Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz makes a similar argument in her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.
This is why, even though the National Rifle Association promotes the myth that the reason the Second Amendment exists is to allow for an armed rebellion against the federal government, the NRA will hardly ever sing the praises of John Brown’s abolitionist insurgency in Harper’s Ferry.
In the NRA’s telling, John Brown took up arms, (good!) but he was going to disrupt the profitable (racist) power structures of the day (bad!). That’s also why, if you are reading about John Brown from the NRA, you’re more likely to learn about the gun he used than what he was fighting for.
On the flipside, the NRA’s membership routinely flies the flag and proclaims the heritage of another anti-U.S. insurgency — that of the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy, unlike John Brown, was explicitly fighting to preserve the racist and profitable institution and power structures of slavery. (South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States. South Carolina’s Articles of Secession say explicitly that the main reason for secession was, “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery”.)
That history of racism and the Second Amendment is also why the Ku Klux Klan rode ably throughout the South to disarm Freedmen who fought in the Union army. Those Freedmen were often given their rifles instead of being paid, because the United States government was broke after the Civil War. Those Freedmen began performing military drills in public (literally, as a militia of free Americans).
Those veterans were then forcibly disarmed or murdered by the Klan, because they were also black men in the South. With the failure of Reconstruction, the federal government stood by and let it happen, while local law enforcement agencies often included members of the Klan.
This history of racism and the Second Amendment is also why Reagan and California Republicans rallied to pass the Mulford Act to ban open-carry when Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers organized and began open-carrying on the steps of California’s state capitol building in Sacramento in the 1960s.
And it’s why the NRA was basically mum about the police killing of Philando Castile, a young black man who was shot while alerting the police officer that he had a gun, and a license to carry that gun concealed.
The Second Amendment isn’t just about preserving racist power structures in America though — it’s also about preserving class-based structures in America.
Few times was that reality more clear than during West Virginia’s Mine Wars, fought less than 100 years ago.
19th c. Industrialization Put Class Front and Center in America
At the same as the Civil War was fundamentally changing American society (especially in the South), the Industrial Revolution was changing the nature of societies across the planet.
During the Industrial Revolution the world shrunk: the telegraph allowed for instant communication over long distances; the steamship cut transatlantic travel time from a matter of weeks to a matter of days; and the development of a massive transcontinental railroad network meant that goods could be moved across the country nearly as quickly as they could be loaded onto the freight cars.
Thousands of rural workers and Freedmen migrated to increasingly smog-choked cities, and America transformed from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrial economy.
The number of workers entering the cities outpaced the number of new factories being built, creating a situation where workers seeking work outnumbered the jobs available. And that meant that the bosses could dictate the terms of hire. Stockholders and employers benefited from the glut of workers, as they could pit workers against each other in a bidding war to the bottom.
In large part because of these post-war economic conditions, the 19th century and early 20th century are marked by labor struggles that pitted neighbors against neighbors, employers against workers, and states against individuals.
And when workers took up arms, they found themselves facing the same selective application of the Second Amendment as Freedmen did in the South following the Civil War.
West Virginia’s Mine Wars: The Unions Got Their Guns (Taken Away)
In the early 20th century, the country was powered by coal, and as demand for cheap coal increased, labor struggles in the coalfields became bloodier and bloodier.
Like the plantations of the South, the coalfields of West Virginia are remote enough that the coal owners could exploit the workers without fear of public retribution or significant federal oversight.
The military-trained State Police in West Virginia helped create and maintain a system based on a “master-servant” relationship, where the company-masters exercised near-total control over their miner-servants.
By 1921, union miners were selectively disarmed and terrorized by State Police and private mercenary militias, because the union miners challenged the neo-feudal hierarchy that the companies had established over the previous 50 years.
In 1920, journalist Arthur Gleason wrote in The Nation about the living conditions of miners in company towns:
“In the non-union counties, houses are owned by the coal companies. Justice is administered by the coal companies. Food and clothing are sold (though not exclusively) in company stores. The miners worship in a company church are preached at by a company pastor, play pool in the company Y.M.C.A.; receive treatment from a company doctor and hospital; die on company land.”[i]
From Gleason’s description it’s clear that though the miners in non-union counties were nominally free, they lived a life only marginally better than the lives of Freedmen in the post-Civil War South.
And like the police in the post-war South, the police in the coalfields of Appalachia served to keep a clear hierarchy between workers and bosses, and to ensure that the miners knew their place in the neo-feudal structure of the coalfields.
“From the cradle to the grave,” Gleason writes, “they draw breath by the grace of the sometimes absentee coal owner, one of whose visible representations is the deputy sheriff, a public official in the pay of the coal owner.”
As the union movement advanced in West Virginia’s southern coalfields and the United Mine Workers of America started gaining a foothold in the region, the West Virginia State Police began to intervene on behalf of the coal barons, and the duties of the sheriff were extended to “private detective agencies” like the Pinkertons and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.
For all intents and purposes, these “private detective agencies” were mercenaries hired by the company bosses and deputized by the county politicians.
Harold West reported to the Baltimore Sun on the character of these agents:
“These mine guards are an institution all along the creeks in the non-union sections of the state. They are as a rule supplied by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency of Roanoke and Bluefield. It is said the total number in […] West Virginia reaches up to 2,500. Ordinarily they are recruited from the country towns of Virginia and West Virginia […] and frequently have been the “bad men” of the towns from which they came. And these towns have produced some pretty hard characters. The ruffian of the West Virginia town would not take off his hat to the desperado of the wildest town of the wildest west.”
The mine owners and bosses claimed that the State Police didn’t provide enough protection, so they needed to hire extra agents to ensure the protection of their property.
Like the lynch mobs in the South who violently disarmed Freedmen in an attempt to prevent a much-feared racial insurrection, “protection” was often provided through pre-emptive strikes in order to prevent a much-feared class-based insurrection.
“The guards act on the principle,” West explains, “that they must strike first if they are to strike at all, and evidence shows that they have not the slightest hesitancy of striking first.”
From West’s descriptions we know that, at least for a time, the above-the-law vigilante nature of these “first strikes” was functionally indistinguishable from the raiding parties of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-War South.
“No class of men on earth are more cordially hated by the miners than these same mine guards who are engaged to “protect” [the miners] from annoyance by outsiders. Before the state troops went into the region and took their rifles away from them, the mine guards went about everywhere, gun in hand, searching trains, halting strangers, ejecting undesirables, turning miners out of their houses and doing whatever “rough work” the companies felt they needed to have done.”
The Baldwin-Felts detectives were occasionally brought up on assault and murder charges. But according to West, company bosses made sure that bail was always ready; and with company-friendly county courts and prosecutors, it was “rare that charges against them [were] brought to trial.”[ii]
Even after the State Police nominally disarmed the mine guards, agents of the companies were inscrutable — so long as they were acting to preserve the neo-feudal hierarchy of the coal fields.
In an October 1921 Article in The Nation, Arthur Warner submitted an article to The Nation, “Fighting Unionism with Martial Law.” [iii]
Warner’s descriptions in the article show how the mine guards were empowered basically as a coal militia to drive out union organizers.
Warner writes that “For many years [the companies] have employed guards, authorized by the county to carry arms, who have manhandled and driven out of the coal fields union representatives or sympathizers found in or about the mines.”
He goes on to write though that, “in spite of this system of terrorization maintained by the coal owners,” a partial union drive was accomplished in 1920.
The partial union drive served only to stoke tensions between the miners and the companies, as Baldwin-Felts agents began mass-evictions of union miners in Matewan — with the support of West Virginia’s courts!
Warner reports that the courts had “ruled that a company renting houses its employees does not stand in the relation to them of a land-lord and tenant but of master and servant, and may therefore dispossess without notice or legal process.” [Emphasis Added]
Less than 100 years ago in West Virginia, miners were legally considered servants of their hiring company, and their company held legal standing as the miners’ masters.
The courts said the companies weren’t just employers.Or landlords. They were also masters.
And the miners weren’t just miners who could clock out — they were servants, permitted everything only by the companies’ graces.
And in the event of a servant uprising, the Second Amendment has never been applied in support of the servant-class.
Black Codes and Union Cards
In May 1920, the powder keg seemed to blow. Both sides blamed the other for starting the “Three-Day Battle,” but as Warner writes:
“Who knows? The head of the State Police in Williamson says that for some time both sides had wished to “shoot it out.” Doubtless he is right. […] It is estimated that 100,000 shots were exchanged across the river. Residents of the region feared to go out of doors; some in exposed positions had to take to their cellars.”
After three days, when the gunfire settled, martial law was imposed. “The circumstances justified the action,” Warner explains, “there is no reason to criticize it. There is reason to criticize the application of martial law which in practice has been directed only against the striking miners and toward the suppression of union activities.” [Emphasis Added]
While Black Codes worked on the principle of saying “Everyone can do these things, except the Freedmen,” martial law in this case worked by saying “no one can do these things” and then only enforcing the martial law against union miners.
“There is no pretense that the provision against public assemblies is enforced against anybody except union miners,” Warner fumes in his article. Under this selective martial law, “commercial and fraternal organizations assemble at will, the churches and motion-picture houses are open as usual, the Salvation Army conducts its customary parades and meetings.”
On the other hand, Warner continues,“two union miners cannot meet at a street corner without fear of arrest.”
To enforce martial law in the coal fields, West Virginia’s coal-influenced politicians approved an increased pay for State Police privates from $75 to $100 a month (a 33% entry-level pay increase!), and the State Police began recruiting from outside of the state. In 1921, with World War One freshly finished, there was no shortage of former military personnel to join the State Police, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, or to become one of the 800 newly hired “special police.” Warner describes the “special police” as “all in private employ and pay, subject only in the vaguest way to the control of the county or State.”
And under this selective martial law, the First Amendment freedom to assemble wasn’t the only Constitutional protection that was ripped away from union miners and organizers.
Writing for Leslie’s Weekly, war correspondent Boyden Sparkes described the arrival of Captain John J. Wilson to Kanawha County.
“Capt. Wilson searched [United Mine Workers sub-district president Bill] Blizzard and discovered he was carrying a pistol. […] The Army officer asked him if he had a permit, Blizzard produced one signed by the sheriff of Kanawha County. Charleston is in Kanawha. Capt. Wilson returned the gun.”
But the encounter signaled to Blizzard what was to come — selective disarmament of Union-associated miners.
Sparkes reports that Captain Wilson told Blizzard that his orders were to disarm anyone who didn’t have a proper gun permit — to which Blizzard replied, “Know what that means? Our boys’ll be unarmed and those Baldwin-Felts thugs will just shoot ’em down whenever they please.”
According to Sparkes, “A few minutes later Blizzard was on his way up to the line. What he did when he arrived can only be surmised, but when the Regulars moved on up […] at daybreak a few hours later, the miner fighters were coming out of the hills. Their guns had been hidden, probably far back in the black recesses of old coal mines.”
The abolition of slavery led to a re-interpretation and selective enforcement of the Second Amendment, such that former slaves and U.S. veterans were being disarmed in their own homes while the Klan usurped the role of law enforcement in the Old South.
And by the 20th century, the Second Amendment was being selectively enforced not only to oppress individuals along racial lines, but also along class lines.
As the Klan was able to usurp the role of enforcement in the South in the late 19th century, union-busting private detective agencies were able to usurp the role of law enforcement all across the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century — often with the graces of corporate-friendly politicians.
From Haymarket in Chicago to Blair Mountain, West Virginia and Ludlow, Colorado; in mines, oil fields and in urban factories across the country — bosses moved again and again to disarm striking workers, even going so far as to try to have picket signs banned at union assemblies.
And while it’s just conjecture at this point: I suspect that Republicans today would sing a very different tune on the Second Amendment if they arrived to work in Charleston, WV and found a sea of well-armed red-clad teachers and public workers peacefully protesting in defense of West Virginia’s public goods.
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 This practice is still used by private industry today to break peaceful assemblies. Energy Transfer Partners hired a “private security firm” called TigerSwan to assist the company in forcibly removing Water Protectors as they attempted to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.
[i] From “Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals” Edited by David Alan Corbin, p. 18
[ii] From “Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals” Edited by David Alan Corbin, p. 31
[iii] From “Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals” Edited by David Alan Corbin, p. 147