On January 2, 2003, Allen Newsome, 17, attempted to rob what he thought was a pizza delivery man who had come to his apartment building in Harlem, New York City. He used what has been described in various reports as a “pellet gun,” a “BB gun,” or a “toy gun.” It looked, however, like a “real gun,” just as an undercover police officer apparently looked like a “real pizza delivery man.” Newsome was shot and killed.
The news reports on Newsome’s death were used by Brooklyn councilman Albert Vann, and Queens councilman David Weprin to garner support for a bill they had introduced to the NYC City Council to ban toy guns from the city. Obviously they weren’t prescient; they were basing their advocacy on previous cases, such as the August 1998 case of a 16-year-old New York boy bearing a submachine gun water pistol who was shot six times in the legs by polic or the 1994 case of another boy, this one 13, who was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook his toy gun for the real thing.
The Libertarian Party sprung into action. Sensing a threat to our constitutional rights to keep and bear toy guns, Jim Lesczynski, spokesman for the Manhattan Libertarian Party announced a “Guns for Tots” program, to collect and distribute toy guns to the kids of P.S. 72 in Harlem before the ban could take hold.
The Daily Show had a good chuckle. The “Guns for Tots” program itself was not very successful, given that the Principal of P.S. 72 told the students to keep away from those strange white men, and some parents came and denounced the Libertarians as racists.
I bought up the “Guns for Tots” matter to my Libertarian college buddy Jeff, as part of a conversation about the extent to which racism plays a part in Libertarian politics, and in the politics of “self-identified” libertarians. The latter group, to my certain knowledge and from direct observation, includes some outright bigots, and White Supremacists.
Jeff told me, “But I know Jim Lesczynski, and he’s not a racist. He was just making fun of some politicians that he thought were pushing a stupid idea.”
Let’s consider that proposition for a bit. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that somehow Jim Lesczynski has managed to grow up in America without a shred of racism in his entire being, a true example of what another Comedy Central guru, Stephen Colbert says: “I don’t see race. People tell me that I’m white.” Let’s, for the purposes of analysis, grant the hypothetical.
Even granting that extreme unlikelihood, how clueless do you have to be to not understand that, in the context of a discussion about how the police are mistaking toy guns for real guns and killing the holders thereof, that handing out toy guns to young children in Harlem is going to result in the perception that you are in favor of having the police kill young children in Harlem? And Harlem children are the very emblem of “not white.” They may not be all “black” any more, given immigration and such, but there aren’t very many of them who are going to be put in the same racial group as Stephen Colbert.
Moreover, this was a PR stunt. There are about a million issues that are more important to the cause of liberty, however you want to define that term, than whether or not children in a particular city get to have super-soakers. This entire thing was a media event attracting media moths, and the Libertarians went for the flame. And if you are going to go after publicity, if you are trying to make points for your cause, whatever that cause might be, it is up to you to make sure that the right message gets across. Whining about how people “misunderstood” just means that you’ve screwed up.
When I was researching this, my favorite argument against the toy gun ban was that “there aren’t many cases” where children had been killed by police who thought the gun was real. Not “none,” you understand. Just “not many.”
There is absolutely no cannibalism in this navy, and when I say absolutely none I mean there is a certain amount. - Monty Python
Enough hypotheticals. Do I think that Jim Lesczynski and the Manhattan Libertarian Party was being racist? Damn right I do. They could have made their point by handing out toy guns to white kids (and maybe made the point that white kids aren’t so much at risk of being shot by the police for holding a toy gun). They could have kept their mouths shut on this one and kept issuing press releases about medical marijuana and other issues where they’re on the side of the angels. But instead, I’ll bet anything that some of them chuckled and grinned at how “daring” and “politically incorrect” they were being, and how they could really make “liberals” fume, and how cool that made them.
I am also absolutely sure that the idea that they were being racist never entered their minds, because, like so many people, they think that you have to be a Nazi or a segregationist, or some other sort of obvious bigot to be a racist. The idea that there can be unconscious racism, that it can affect the way you perceive others or even yourself and your own actions, never enters their minds.
Libertarians, I think, and I’m thinking here of the real-deal Libertarians, the ones who believe in reason, and individual action and responsibility, and the entire philosophical hook, line, and sinker, are particularly vulnerable to this failing. The problem with a blind spot is not just that you can’t see what’s in it, but also because you can’t see the blind spot either.