“Use of Weapons”

I have an old friend, whom I have known off and on for half my life. I knew him when we were boys, and now I know him as a man; he’s funny, insightful, and generally a good friend. He was among the first to recognize my cutting for what it was. He also owns guns.

Whenever I was over at his apartment, he would get out his latest acquisition, put it together and show me the parts, occasionally demonstrating grip or aim. His eyes would always light up as he did so. For my part, I was nervous, and it showed; he would always take pains to show me that the safety was on, that the gun was unloaded, that I was safe.

Thing is, I was never for a moment worried about what the gun could do to me. I was worried about what the gun was doing to him.

You see, I’ve held a weapon in my hands before. I’ve felt the rush of power that goes through me when I do. It is thrilling. It is a little intoxicating. It is, perhaps, a primal thing — an old human instinct to  pick up a rock or a stick to use as a tool to make oneself stronger and safer.

Trouble is, weapons are tools made to inflict harm… and therefore made to exert power. That I know all too well, and I am reminded every time I look at the scars on my arm. When I held a weapon, things became clear; I had a measure of power over my pain and over my life. My knife gave me a way to dominate my problems. I was raised to not harm others, however, so I became my own target; I couldn’t hurt anyone else. Besides, I wasn’t dealing with my actual problems, just trying to simplify things with a thrill. So I have felt both a weapon’s allure and a weapon’s damage. And it hurt.

In fact, it hurt both ways.

When I see a weapon, therefore, I see its effects in both directions. I see the damage it can do to others: whose lives will the weapon claim? Whose body will be rent by it? Who will mourn? Who will hurt?

I also see the damage the weapon can do to its wielder: who will they stop seeing as people, and start seeing as targets? Who will they feel they have control over? Who will they feel they can dominate and coerce? What problems and disputes will they be tempted to simplify or resolve through using weapons, or threatening to? How will the weapon alter their anger? Their fear? Their grief? Will they take it out on others? On themselves?

Perhaps my history — first as a Quaker, then as a cutter — has misinformed me. Perhaps people with weapons need not be so altered; perhaps all those who defend the Second Amendment are well aware of the intoxication of going armed and doing harm, and guard against it; perhaps they are well aware of how much responsibility lies on them when they carry weapons or allow others to do so. Perhaps they are aware of the potential consequences and are content to run the risk.

Still, no matter if I am misinformed about the mental damage on the users, I feel at least a little qualified to speak to the physical damage done on the targets; I’ve seen the blood I’ve drawn, staunched the deep wounds I’ve inflicted, felt the pain I’ve dealt out. And I know that when it comes to weapons, power through doing harm is their only purpose; even when used as deterrents, it’s the potential for damage that gives them their power. They work by hurting. Hurting is their work.

So I think of innocents in the line of fire. I think of those like me who turn their weapons on themselves in a desperate bid at controlling something. I think of those who really are guilty of something, but are never given a chance to atone. I think of all those who love the targets, and their pain. And finally I think of what weapons did to my mind, that addiction to power and dealing pain, and wonder what might happen to other weapons users.

So no, I don’t trust weapons, from the pocketknife up to the atom bomb. I don’t trust their power and I don’t trust the hands that wield that power, be it a lone wolf or someone in uniform or just someone like me. People are not always healthy, after all.

And so for the sake of all, I don’t use a weapon anymore, and I hope others will think twice about using them as well.

(I am indebted to Iain Banks, who first used this title.)


Four Stories: Shawn

This is a work of fiction, based on actual events, but the characterizations and dialogue are my own invention. See the note on “Four Stories: Jon” for more details.


“Even if I did,” Shawn said, “why would I tell you?”

“I’ve got four good reasons why,” the cop said. “Mark Renninger. Tina Griswold. Ron Owens. Greg Richards. They were good officers, and they got killed for being good officers, and we’re trying to find who killed them.”

Shawn stared the undercover right in the eye. I got a lot more reasons why I shouldn’t tell you, motherf***er. Oscar Grant. Sean Bell. The brother in New York, funny name… Amadou Diallo, right. I could go on.

“Asshole, we could haul you down for obstructing justice,” said the cop with the rifle.

“Justice? That what you call it?” Shawn said. He regretted it instantly. They’d beat his ass for sure for that. But man, was it worth it.

There was a lot of yelling, but in the end the cops turned him loose. They didn’t have anything on him, anyway, except sassing them. Which wasn’t an arrestable offense, not with the reporters right there.

But when they catch up to Maurice, there’s nothing that’s going to stop them. Mad as they are right now, he could scratch his crazy ass and they’d shoot him dead. “Reaching for a weapon,” they’d say. Like Lovelle Mixon. Or King. F***, both Kings. FBI definitely shot Martin, after all.

They’ll shoot Maurice for sure.

Shawn was not exactly tight with his cousin — more like an uncle, really — but Maurice was good people. Sure, he played a little fast and loose with the law, but you had to, to get by. And he was always, always there to help out his family. He’d helped Shawn move, loaned him his car once or twice, stuff like that.

Yeah, FBI killed Martin, like they killed those other two… the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, right.

Maurice was also completely nuts, talking about how he could fly, that he was Jesus. If he was Jesus Christ, Shawn was the Angel Gabriel. And killing cops? S***, there was nothing more stupid than killing cops, even if cops did drop brothers every day of the week without even thinking or getting busted for it. But crazy or not, Maurice was family. Good people, or was when he wasn’t out of his mind. And you didn’t turn over family to the law because he was nuts, or turn him over for anything, especially when the cops would just be itching for an excuse to waste him.

Shawn wasn’t going to make it easy for them to do that. Keep the cops off his trail for a while, let things cool off, then have him go in, nice and peaceful, no guns. They’d take one look at him, call him crazy, ship him off to Western Hospital for a while, and then when he was back on his feet, he’d be back on the street, good as new.

Shawn glanced up at Beacon Hill ahead of him. Now, there was an idea…. he reached for his phone to call in a fake tip. Let the cops wander around in the woods for a while.

Not going to make it easy. You take care of your own.

Four Stories: Eric

The following is a work of fiction of my own invention, based on actual events. See notes on “Four Stories: Cassie” for more details.


Eric sighed and shook his head. These kids, he thought. They don’t understand at all.

“Open the door!” he repeated in his most commanding tones.

“We have demands!” the answer came again.

I’ll bet you do. I got demands, too: get off your lazy, whining asses and let people who want to learn get to class.

Eric turned away from the door to meet with the other officers. “We’re working on the basement windows,” the cop from the LAPD said quietly. LAPD generally looked down on college cops, but this one knew he was on Eric’s turf now, and was generally being respectful.

“Try to keep the property damage to a minimum,” Eric advised. “We’ll just wind up paying for it… we’d make the kids pay, but they’d probably claim they couldn’t afford it.”

The officer smiled. “Yeah, right.”

“These kids, they just don’t know how lucky they have it,” Eric said. “Luckier than I’ve ever been in my whole life.”

I put myself through school doing hard labor. And it wasn’t UCLA, neither, it was community college. I worked nights for starters, then extra shifts, anything. I worked my ass off for my degree. Built myself up from nothing, broke my back putting food on the table. Now here they are: world-class schooling available for them, and they’re throwing it away for a temper tantrum. Messing it up for everyone else, too. Typical white brat nonsense. Don’t they know the value of an education?

Another officer arrived, one of Jon’s UCLA police. “We’re in downstairs.”

Eric nodded. “We’re good, then. Let’s get things back in order.”

Four Stories: Jon

The following is a work of fiction, based on actual events. The encounter between police and suspect were based visually on an actual incident, seen here at the Seattle Times website. Photo by Mike Siegel of the Times. All dialogue, characterizations, and actions are solely my invention.


Four down.

“All officers, I have a heavyset African-American man heading south, 800 block of Maynard,” came a voice on Jon’s radio.

Jon glanced around. He was headed south on Rainier… he flipped the lights, blasted the siren for a second to get people’s attention, and whipped across two lanes onto Dearborn.

“Be careful,” the dispatcher warned. “Wait for backup.”

“I’m nearby,” Jon said. “There in 60 seconds.”

Chill, Jon told himself. Use the rage, don’t let it use you.

About five patrol cars reached the target all at once, and there was already a photographer on the scene. A plainclothes officer had detained the suspicious person by the wrist; another officer had a rifle cradled in his hands. Jon grinned like a wolf. Yeah, that’s right, show them that we don’t f*** around when it’s one of our own. Put the fear of God into them. We take care of our own.

After all, without that, how could anything be kept under control? Criminals were harassing good,  law-abiding people in the streets. It was always the thin blue line between murderers and rapists on one hand, and citizens on the other — and now four of that line were dead. Jon could feel eyes on him, and even with the other officers nearby, even with the rifles and sidearms, he felt very lonely.

The plainclothes officer was handling the questions. “I’m gonna have to go talk to their families,” he was explaining to the man he’d stopped. “I have to look at their wives and their kids and tell them I did everything I could to find the man who killed their husband, or their dad. So if you’re not telling me something, I need to know it.”

“Even if I knew anything, why would I tell you?” the detainee said.

“I’ve got four good reasons why,” Plainclothes said. “Mark Renninger. Tina Griswold. Ron Owens. Greg Richards. They were good officers, and they got killed for being good officers, and we’re trying to find who killed them.”

The man looked him in the eye and said nothing.

The officer with the rifle tried a different approach. “Asshole, we could haul you down for obstructing justice.”

The black man raised an eyebrow. “Justice? That what you call it?”

“Okay, that’s it,” Plainclothes snarled. “Motherf***er, if I don’t beat everything you know out of you,”

“Hey, chill!” Jon said quietly. “Cameras.”

The plainclothes officer let out a sigh. “Let him go. It’s not the suspect, we’ve got nothing on him.”

The black detainee nodded, straightened his coat in a satisfied fashion, and walked on.

“You know the hardest part of this job? The people who don’t let us do it,” the plainclothes said.

“F***ing aye,” Jon said. “They tell us, get tough, keep the peace, break heads. They tell us, lock him away for the rest of his life. But they yell ‘brutality’ any time we try to arrest a guy who’s even wriggling, and let f***s like Clemmons out on bail or parole, and ignore us the rest of the time… unless they need us. Then it’s, ‘I called two minutes ago. What took you so long?'”

“Everyone’s gonna love us for the next few days,” the officer with the rifle said morosely. “Like when Tim Brenton was killed, or the Oakland officers. Lots of calls, lots of emails… I mean, I appreciate the support, but I wish, just once, that they knew what it’s like to be out here. Really knew. Juggling everything, always having to make the tough calls…”


The plainclothes straightened up. “Okay! We keep looking. Clemmons is out there somewhere, and we will find him. Good hunting, everyone. Now move!”

Jon swung back into his car. Every day he put on his uniform; every day he holstered his gun and prayed he wouldn’t have to use it. So far his prayers had been answered. But he knew he would not hesitate, if it came to that. No way to bring the dead back to life… but he could stop any other cops from dying.

You take care of your own.

Four Stories: Cassie

The following is a work of fiction. While based on actual events, none of these characters are real and the interactions mostly invented. One exchange of words, beginning with “Police! Open the door!” was taken from a Democracy Now! segment, found here and originally viewed at Feministing; All other dialogue and characterizations are entirely of my own creation.


“They’ll get through eventually,” Alan said, bracing himself next to Cassie, “but we’re not going to  make it easy for them.”

Cassie hung onto the door handles with all her might. The cops were coming. Well, UCLA campus police, technically, but still: cops. People in uniforms with badges who were allowed to carry weapons and make arrests.

Right now Cassie’s only weapon was her own dead weight, holding the doors to Wheeler Hall shut fast. She and her friends had occupied Wheeler to challenge the decision by the University of California Regents to raise tuition in the UC system by by a third. That kind of price hike would make it impossible for a lot of low-income students to attend the UC. This wasn’t about the budget crisis, as the organizers had said: this was about what the elites valued. The UC system gave a world-class education, and it was open to all — unless the poor got priced out. Again.

I can’t believe they’re trying to do this, Cassie thought. Don’t they know the value of an education?

So here Cassie was, taking direct action. They would occupy Wheeler Hall until the Regents heard their demands, which were simple: rehiring laid-off workers, maintaining one dorm building for low-income students, and keeping a fair contract for the only immigrant-owned business on UCLA campus.

“Anyone can do well in this country if they work hard,” Alan had said in the meeting the night before. “Well, that’s kind of true. Anyone can do well if they have access to education. Right now the Regents are proposing to deny access to thousands of hard-working people, people who will be trapped in the cycle of poverty as a result.”

The doors shook, bringing Cassie back to the present. “Police! Open the door!” a voice shouted.

“We have demands!” Cassie shouted back.

“Open the door!” came the answering bellow, a voice that brooked no discussion at all.

“They’re really not listening,” Cassie said, despairingly.

“Why should they?” Alan said. “They have guns.”

She held on tighter.

Four Stories: Prologue

Many of you will have heard of the shootings in Lakewood, WA on November 30. Maurice Clemmons, a mentally unstable man, shot and killed four police officers who were having coffee. Two days later he was himself shot and killed by Seattle police.

A week and a half before the shootings, a group of students occupied a building on the UCLA campus to protest the increase in tuition. Watching videos of the affair, I saw several instances of police brutality — mild, but real — and also a telling exchange of words between a protester and an officer.

All this fueled swirling thoughts of law enforcement, justice, and violence, and I struggled to find the right way to speak to the issue. I’ve finally worked it out.

This week, I’ll be posting one part of the response per day. It’s an experiment in serial blogging, taking one massive post and spreading it out. If it’s successful, I’ll be able to publish some of my larger pieces. So check back routinely.

While you’re waiting, you could also check out “Sodom and Gomorrah” or “What Have You Done?” They are related to “Four Stories” only by the theme of violence, but I still find they are the most important words I have ever said out loud.