Armed Intimidation, Police Violence, and the Gun Violence Prevention Movement

BY Mary Bernstein

The chaos of the past four years culminated in an insurrection inspired by outgoing President Donald Trump in an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. The Capitol police, compared to the show of force they presented to peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors just months earlier, made comparably little effort to block the mostly white insurrectionists.[1] As the invaders entered the Capitol, congressional representatives and senators were forced to don gas masks, barricade the doors of their chambers, and flee to a secret location as Trump supporters banged on the doors of terrified Congressional members and staffers[2] and some called for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence.[3] As a result of the attempted coup, six people died,[4] including one officer who died by suicide just days later.[5] The coup attempt came as no surprise to those in the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement who have long worked to end both armed intimidation and racism in policing.

But the coup attempt made clear a) the racial bias that led many of the Capitol police to consider the invaders harmless rather than a threat, although the intruders scaled walls and broke windows as they entered the building illegally and b) the fact that the police were needed to protect members of congress and others in the building. GVP activists have long treaded this fine line between recognizing that sometimes the police are necessary while simultaneously recognizing the threat posed by police, especially to racially oppressed communities. Victor Rios (2012: loc 162), in summarizing his experiences growing up in Oakland and those of the Black and Brown youth he studied, noted that the police were there “to arrest family and friends for petty acts but not to arrest the main drug dealers and victimizers who continued to prey on my community.” We see a similar dynamic if we compare the kid-glove treatment of the insurrectionists by the police to the show of force directed at peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors.

Mostly Black and Brown GVP activists have focused for decades on ending community gun violence which I define as violence produced by the conditions of institutional racism, segregation, concentrated poverty, lack of access to jobs, quality education, and other services, as well as crime control strategies that produce mass incarceration (Carter, Parker, and Zaykowski 2017; Garland 2001; Hinton 2016; Butler 2017; Pager 2008).[6] As Forman (2017:11) observes, “African Americans have always viewed the protection of black lives as a civil rights issue, whether the threat comes from police officers or street criminals” (Forman 2017:11). GVP activists from racially oppressed communities have envisioned and piloted strategies that decenter the police by diverting those at risk of committing or becoming a victim of gun violence away from the criminal justice system toward community groups that can transform lives in positive ways. Arrest is a last resort. In this way, GVP activists make Black and Brown communities safer from both police and community gun violence (Bernstein in progress).

Until recently, community gun violence and police violence have received insufficient attention from the broader GVP movement (e.g., Goss 2006). But in my ethnographic and interview based research (e.g., Bernstein, McMillan, and Charash 2019), I have witnessed a growing coalition of local, state, and national organizations working cooperatively across racial and geographic lines of difference to reduce all forms of gun violence. While these alliances are not easy, a few examples illustrate their potential to create broad social change. In the 2019 GVPedia conference that took place just before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, GVP activists came together from around the country and created the Denver Accord, a comprehensive plan to address all forms of gun violence. Among other comprehensive changes, the Accord linked ending racial inequities in policing to ending gun violence and provided a variety of recommendations to accomplish this goal as part of a national agenda.[7] The young survivors from Parkland Florida who created March for Our Lives in the wake of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have worked to make ending community gun violence as central to their agenda as ending mass shootings. Connecticut Against Gun Violence is calling on the state to launch the Connecticut Initiative to Prevent Community Gun Violence in order to fund community-based violence intervention programs (Connecticut Against Gun Violence 2020). The Newtown Action Alliance continues to work to end armed intimidation in their town by banning guns on public property.[8] The Community Justice Action Fund takes a holistic approach to ending community gun violence, stating, “We will work to pass policy on all levels of government that is reflective of communities of color, as well as fight back against any policies that will lead to mass incarceration, or other forms of discrimination.”[9]

As a result of the advocacy of GVP activists and others, I expect that once he is sworn in, President Biden will move quickly to repeal the notorious and eponymous memo penned by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions[10]right before he was fired by Trump. The Sessions memo made it harder for the Department of Justice to investigate and “to reform serious patterns and practices of excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement”[11] in order to create systemic change. The Sessions memo undermined these pattern and practice investigations by removing the requirement that departments show improvement even if consent decrees are issued and making it harder to launch investigations in the first place.[12] Repealing the Sessions memo will go a long way toward ending racist police practices. I also expect that there will be more money allocated to fund violence interrupters who work to prevent gun violence in urban areas through mediation and providing services rather than via surveillance and arrest.

Finally, the attempted takeover of the U.S. Capitol coupled with other recent events such as the neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville in 2017, about which Trump commented that there were “‘very fine people’ among both the white supremacists and the counter-protesters,”[13] and threats to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer by paramilitary groups,[14] may create a policy window to ban assault-style rifles and open carry of guns, especially on public property or at protests. As GVP activists point out, without Washington DC’s strict gun laws,[15] the insurrection could have been even more deadly.[16]



Bernstein, Mary. In Progress. “Protecting Black Lives: Beyond the Overpolicing/Underpolicing Paradox.”

Bernstein, Mary, Jordan McMillan, and Elizabeth Charash. 2019. “Once in Parkland, A Year in Hartford, A Weekend in Chicago:  Race and Resistance in the Gun Violence Prevention Movement.”  Sociological Forum 34(1)1153-1173.

Butler, Paul. 2017. Chokehold: A Renegade Prosecutor’s Radical Thoughts on How to Disrupt the System. New York: The New Press.

Carter, TaLisa J., Karen F. Parker, and Heather Zaykowski. 2017. “Building Bridges:  Linking Old Heads to Collective Efficacy in Disadvantaged Communities.” Sociological Forum 32(S1):1093-1111.

Everytown. 2019. “Gun Violence in America.” Retrieved January 29, 2019 from

Forman Jr., James. 2017. Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Garland, David. 2001. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Giffords Foundation. 2018. “Gun Violence Statistics.” Retrieved August 27, 2020 from

Goss, Kristin A. 2006.  Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Connecticut Against Gun Violence. 2020. “Please help make the CT Initiative a reality.” Email sent over the signature of Melissa Kane, 12/7.

Hinton, Elizabeth. 2016. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pager, Devah. 2008. Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rios, Victor M. 2012. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: NYU Press (Kindle Edition).








[6] African American men comprise the majority of gun homicide victims and are ten times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide (Everytown 2019).  Of the approximately 12,246 gun homicides each year, between 479 and 1000 gun deaths––depending on the source––stem from officer involved shootings (Everytown 2019).  Thus community gun violence accounts for the overwhelming majority of Black and Brown people who are murdered and also results in close to 100,000 nonfatal injuries per year (Giffords 2018).











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