All screenshots of Mafia 3 courtesy of 2K Games

White Supremacy, Black Liberation, and the Power Dynamics of Gun Violence

'Mafia 3' understands why the black radicals of the 1960s would turn to guns for protection.

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Mar 19 2018, 5:00pm

All screenshots of Mafia 3 courtesy of 2K Games

This article is part of a special series on the intersection of guns and games. For more, click here.

“The easiest, simplest thing we do is give up,” says Charles Laveau, host of a pirate radio station in Mafia 3’s New Bordeaux, a fictionalized, 1968 New Orleans “Let everything go and do exactly what we told: be good obedient niggers. But what kinda life we leadin’ then? The violence goes away, but along with it goes dignity, our pride.”

Laveau’s concern is clear, and though the game is set in the late 60s, it is resonant even today--just ask the folks who clapped when a character in last month’s Black Panther told us that “death was better than bondage.” But Laveau isn’t simply advocating for death, he’s joining a tradition of black radicalism that argues for armed resistance against racial and colonial oppression, and between his words and the actions of protagonist Lincoln Clay, Mafia 3 urges us to consider an aspect of the raging gun debate that is often left by the sideline.

Much of the recurring debate about guns in America centers on the creaking unwieldiness of the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, and was originally intended to protect D.I.Y. militias during the colonial period. Gun-control advocates tend to talk about how the founders never foresaw high-powered rifles being invented, or how background checks should be required for gun purchases. The ignored downsides of background checks, such as the vilification of mental illness, and Muslims, reveal tellingly narrow perspectives among its proponents.

The narrowness doesn’t end there: Not only is after-the-fact gun-control a panacea of questionable effectiveness, it ignores the political history of guns in America. And it ignores the perspectives of the poor, the colonized and the people of color in this country, who continue to experience the realities of that history, and for whom relinquishing guns to a lethal state is an unappealing prospect at best. Getting to the root of this perspective means understanding the role the Second Amendment has played in shoring up white supremacist and colonialist violence in this country.

Still from Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution courtesy of PBS

In “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes that “...when firearms were no longer needed to appropriate Indigenous Peoples’ lands, the firearm became a representation of ongoing racist domination--a kind of war trophy--not just of Native Peoples and their territories, but of African Americans and the world.” Introduced while (soon to be ex) English colonists ravaged Indigenous communities in order to capture and speculate on their stolen land, the Second Amendment’s purpose was to help support their right to efficiently do so with the most effective tools at their disposal. These constitutionally protected militias then evolved into slave patrols, assembled to enforce slavery and limit free movement of black people before and after the civil war.

In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale decided to test the unspoken racist boundaries of the Second Amendment, which have always assumed the whiteness and maleness of the American gun owner, and started The Black Panther Party For Self-Defense. Despite the legislative changes brought about by the southern civil rights movement, Newton and Seale, in recognition of the country’s bloody roots, the legacy of slavery, and the daily violence visited upon them by the state, decided that armed self-defense would make a more powerful statement both to the state and to the black communities they hoped to organize. As Frantz Fanon, a major inspiration to the Panthers put it: “The mobilization of the masses, when it rises out of the war of liberation, introduces into each man’s consciousness the ideas of a common cause, of a national destiny and of a collective history.”

The Panthers emerged from an unstable and oppressive situation, based out of a depressed and deindustrialized Oakland, California. At the time, Oakland’s police force was no more than 4 percent black (Phil McArdle, “Oakland Police Department History 1955-1993”), and would regularly frisk, harass, beat and shoot Oakland’s poor black residents. The Watts riots of Los Angeles had happened only a few years earlier, the ‘67 Detroit riots a year later. Into this mix came the Black Panthers, heavily armed with pistols, shotguns, and rifles, walking tall and facing up to cops with a swagger and a sense of dignity that shocked everyone, the state most of all.

In effect, the Panthers were taking the same exhibited force and weaponry that had historically been used to oppress poor people of color and turning them into symbols of defiance, icons of resistance. As Newton wrote: “There is a world of difference between 30 million unarmed, submissive black people and 30 million black people armed with freedom and defense guns and the strategic methods of liberation.”

Mafia 3 employs this same energy in the fantasy it empowers, tapping into the militant and pro-gun spirit of groups like the Panthers with its choice of hero (a militant, black Vietnam war-vet) and its setting (a southern town boiling over with racism in 1968). While it sits comfortably within an extensive stable of games where shooting people is the primary method of interaction, Mafia 3, through its black power-inspired hero and roiling 60’s setting, surfaces a different, rebellious vision of what guns ought to be used for, and who ought to wield them.

Guns are usually employed as tools of enforcement in games. Military shooters lead the pack, but plenty of shooters involve performing as a stand-in for the state. Ubisoft’s The Division, an infamous example, features smartly decked out fascist paramilitary soldiers, sent to murder looters and escaped prisoners in a lawless New York, making it the ultimate far-right fantasy. Even games where your character lives on the other side of the law, like the Grand Theft Auto series feature transgression willingly made in the service of the same capitalist goals that motivate the rest of society.

But in Mafia 3’s New Bordeaux, the proper and lawful state of things is untenable for Lincoln Clay and those in his community. Whether it’s Klan members in the surrounding suburbs, or hyper-vigilant racist cops in the streets, Clay is in permanent peril, a stranger under siege in unfriendly turf. He begins the game on a normal GTA-style track to criminal success, but is abruptly shoved off of it with a bullet and an epithet. The world wants him to disappear, and his course through the game involves carving space violently back.

Crashing Klan rallies and shooting up cop cars feels liberating and transgressive even as it is safely enclosed within the narrow escapist limits of a videogame. It remains transgressive, however, for the same reasons the Black Panthers regally posing for photos with rifles and African spears was: it challenges the unspoken understanding that the Second Amendment is only for white people, that a “well-regulated militia” could also define a band of black brothers and sisters from the ‘hood, including veterans, students and ex-convicts.

The modern gun-control debate fails to consider the experience of poor black men and women in dealing with the police, even today. With cops in many American cities willing to open fire at the slightest provocation, and who view black people as displaying naturally “violent tendencies,” is it so outlandish to worry about giving up your own guns to an enforcing body that is more than happy enough to use them on you?

Part of Mafia 3’s appeal is its ability to represent the daily indignities and frustrations that might lead someone to feel this way. Pass by an officer on the street and he will snap his head in your direction, warn you to watch your step, and end with a diminutive put-down like “boy” even as Clay towers feet above him. Wander into the wrong store and have the cops quickly called on you for daring to trespass as a black man in a whites-only establishment. And when the cops do arrive, it is with guns drawn and blazing.

This fits neatly into the paradigm many violent games like to employ: Forcing the player to engage in self-defense by tossing their character into a hostile environment, be it literal hell, future dystopia or foreign military exercise. This serves as an ethical cover for all the killing you’re about to do.

Where Mafia 3 departs from this is in its empowering, fantastical elements, and the sense of restored dignity this fantasy restores. After all, is there anything more satisfying than being able to punch the lights out of a store clerk who says your kind doesn’t belong here, who is threatening to bring the police down on your head? Is there any form of escapism more apt, in this current stage of American politics, than being able to dance on the hood of a cop car as the writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn does in this tweet about Watch Dogs 2 (a game with its own promise of escapism and empowerment that nevertheless commits some irredeemable trope-laden missteps along the way):

It is telling, and dispiriting, to see how the efforts of the Black Panthers to transform their own fantasy into reality ultimately turned out. In “The Revolution Has Come,” Robyn Spencer laments that for the Panthers, “[the] gun turned out to be a weapon turned on them more than they ever turned it on others.” The Panthers were one of the main targets of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO operation, which sought to undermine and dismantle black activist organizations (the clear precedent behind Session’s call to surveille Black identity extremists). Several of the Panthers’ members, like Bobby Hutton in Oakland, and Fred Hampton in Chicago were shot by police. Many more were charged with crimes and incarcerated, including both of the Panther’s founders, Newton and Seale, at various points. The speed and efficacy with which the Mulford Act prohibited carrying loaded weapons, despite severely limiting the gun rights of all California citizens, points to the state’s frantic response to the perceived threat of black men and women arming themselves as thoroughly white folks freely did in the rest of the country. To this day 61% of gun owners are white men.

Most media reinforces the image of guns as tools belonging solely to state actors: the government, police and the military. This includes games, which despite their reckless veneer and faux punk-rock attitudes are as conservative about who gets valorized in their violent narratives as any other mainstream, well-funded art form. Mafia 3, even as it sidesteps many of the political motivations of the era, still allows me to exist outside of the normal boundaries of heroism, still allows me to hold my head high as a black man and take revenge when slighted, instead of turning the other cheek as black people have always been expected to.

Distrust of the state and its enforcing arms, like the police, comes from a very real place. This distrust comes from squad cars rolling up and asking questions while you’re walking home alone, shining their spotlight in your direction or just driving slowly and menacingly by. It also comes from seeing cops walk free, after every shooting; suspended with pay and then quietly reinstated a few months later. The weight of this reality is heavy, and playing games that position you as some version of an unaccountable super cop doesn’t lighten it much.

Total disarmament may be as much a fantasy as militant black revolution, steeped as this country is in the legacy of settler-colonialism, genocide and slavery. The gun has played its role in every step of this process, and threatening its availability to white Americans only leads to boosted sales. But the Panthers showed, and Mafia 3 reflects, that it is possible to wrest the fantasy of empowerment and the righteous myths away from the colonizers who captured this land. The organizing potential of this fantasy to build movements and to help one another should never be discounted.

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