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Mass Killing in Popular (Mis)Memory

By Caroline Light

In solidarity with the victims or the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando
In solidarity with the victims or the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Photo credit: Exile on Ontario St

This week we shoulder the weight of our grief and outrage after yet another mass shooting by a heavily-armed gunman, this one directed at patrons of an LGBTQ night club in Orlando on Latin night. Forty-nine innocent people are dead and more than fifty wounded. Once again we struggle to make sense of the senseless, asking how we keep following the same nightmarish script. But just as the loss feels most raw, and some of us may be tempted by reductionist appeals to xenophobia, it is urgent for us to take stock of the cumulative effects of our nation’s violent past.

This nation was founded on chattel slavery and settler colonialism, which required armed violence to sustain. Starting very early, our nation’s legal apparatus and culture worked in tandem to grant to some—originally European-descended, property-owning white men—access to tools of mass violence, to fortify white property and political power in the name of self-defense. Centuries ago, as Europeans claimed land that was already occupied, the calculated murder of Native populations guaranteed the ascendency of white Manifest Destiny. It is difficult to calculate the millions of Native lives lost, some to systematic mass killings—where entire villages were wiped out by white men with rifles—and others to famine, displacement, and the (often deliberate) spread of disease. In one instance alone, in Pound Ridge, New York in 1644, armed Dutch men obliterated a sleeping village of approximately 500 Lenape. Similar atrocities proliferated, culminating in the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890, where between 150 and 300 Lakota died at the hands of U.S. Soldiers.

Justified as necessary to national protection and expansion, these mass killings were largely characterized as “Indian wars” in which both sides carried equal responsibility. More recently, we have been able to see them as massacres, as genocidal efforts to eradicate an entire people, but our history books often fail to name them as such. Their mischaracterization in popular memory sanitizes the violence of U.S. history, perpetuating what Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls the mythology of pre-colonial North America as “a land without people.”

There are other brutal precursors to our current state, in which mass murder has become a common occurrence. Shortly after slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment, white men armed with the newest firearms and weapons decimated entire African-American communities. They did this in cities throughout the U.S.: in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, with an estimated death toll of 150; in New Orleans in 1866, where 238 were killed; in Atlanta, Georgia in 1906, with the loss of between twenty-five and forty lives; in East St Louis in 1917, with a death toll estimated between forty to 150. It happened too in 1921, when whites firebombed Greenwood, an affluent Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street. An estimated 300 were killed, and almost $2 million in property was destroyed.

These mass lynchings were often characterized as “race riots,” a terminology that downplays the deliberate—often state-sanctioned—white supremacist effort to neutralize Black competition for political power and capital. Homicidal outbursts of armed masculine rage were not exceptional; rather, they proved vital to the nation’s development as a center of (white) capital, defended by the use of selectively-circulated weaponry.

As we look back today on these atrocious crimes against humanity, the connection to contemporary mass shootings may appear tenuous. Certainly there are striking differences between today’s tragedies where individual (most often, but not always white) men attack unsuspecting groups of unarmed people and massacres where large groups of armed men—often acting with state complicity—sought to eradicate entire communities whose existence and independence challenged the powerful.

But the shootings in Orlando and Charleston have their roots in a tradition of violent resistance to minority groups’ tenacious struggles for equality. The targeted individuals were routinely subject to systemic violence and exclusion, including—but not limited to—hate crimes, police violence, and hyper incarceration. Even against overwhelming odds and pervasive violence, each targeted group resisted the exclusionary terms of U.S. citizenship, by standing up against the theft of land and property; by resolutely participating in the political process; by stubbornly insisting on their humanity.

From colonial times to the present, our nation’s legal structures have long allowed easy access to military-grade weapons, particularly to those who would serve existing power structures. While contemporary mass killings may appear to be perpetrated by individuals on singular, twisted “missions,” their violence is often grounded in the same exclusionary ideologies that fed past massacres, mis-characterized as “race riots” or “Indian wars” in the historical record.

Today, when we call what happened in Orlando an “act of terror” without similarly naming these past instances of mass killing, we make a similarly reductionist mistake. And by placing the blame on “foreign” ideologies, we evade responsibility for structural heterosexism and racism, as well as our toxic reliance on guns. Whether they declare their allegiance to religious or political dogma, those who secure “the latest” in firearm technology to kill innocent people enact a tradition that is as American as the proverbial apple pie. Recognizing these points of historical continuity is the vital first step to changing this toxic script. 


About the Author 

Caroline Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and author of forthcoming Beacon title Stand Your Ground: America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense (Spring, 2017). Light’s Ph.D. is in U.S. history, and her research and teaching address histories of immigration, citizenship, and consumer culture through the intersecting lenses of gender, race, and sexuality.