The fatal police shooting of John Crawford III after he picked up a BB gun from the store shelves is not just inciting protest from the left; it is also inciting the open carry movement.
Over the weekend, members of Ohio Open Carry showed up at the Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio, where Crawford was shot, carrying guns in one hand, including rifles, and signs in the other that said, “I am John Crawford.” Some of the protesters also wore masks associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous. Ohio has an open carry law, meaning individuals who legally possess their guns are entitled to carry them openly in many public places. That doesn’t mean police can’t respond to individuals who threaten to use those guns against someone, but it does mean that they are more likely to encounter many individuals who are doing nothing more than carrying a gun openly.
Open carry advocates’ protest this weekend aligns them with a different cause than their typical rallies, which have involved walking armed into public establishments — including Wal-Mart — aiming to assert their rights to carry guns openly, rather than to stand in solidarity against racism and police brutality. Many of these protests have had the adverse effect of causing companies to announce that they will no longer allow open carry on their property. And a similar outcome may emerge from this case, with at least that one Wal-Mart committing to stop stocking the BB gun Crawford was carrying on their shelves.
If John Crawford were white, if he did not look like he were ‘from the hood’ [as some have alleged], I think he would still be alive today.
The protesters aren’t quite like Crawford. While protesters carried deadly weapons to their protest, Crawford picked up an unloaded BB gun on store shelves intended primarily for target-shooting and small-game hunting that he likely intended to purchase. He wasn’t even carrying the sort of firearm covered by Open Carry laws when he was killed, even if the 911 caller or police thought it was.
But the protest does represent a convergence between the left and the right on at least one point: Crawford might not have been killed if he were white.
“I’ve said from the very beginning that race was a factor,” said Virgil Vaduva, who founded Open Carry Ohio. As someone who has long openly carried a gun and associated with others — mostly white — who do the same, Vaduva has first-hand experience with how white gun carriers are treated, even in that very same Beavercreek Wal-Mart where Crawford was shot. Vaduva says he has openly carried his gun there. “If John Crawford were white, if he did not look like he were ‘from the hood’ [as some have alleged], I think he would still be alive today.”
“The open carry community tends to be white, kind of maybe middle class, folks who may not necessarily see eye to eye with the liberal spectrum folks and this situation kind of in a very interesting way brought us together on many issues,” Vaduva told ThinkProgress.
In fact, protesters with another larger movement organized by the Ohio Student Association asked the same question that the Open Carry protesters are asking: “Why Was John Crawford gunned down in an Open Carry state?”:
OSA, a statewide social justice group that has been protesting for weeks, was invited but did not attend the open carry rally Saturday. OSA’s Malaya Davis said her group has remained neutral on Open Carry’s activities, but that “we … know that they were exercising a right in the state.” She added, “It just also showed that John had a right to be in the store and not be criminalized for any reason and the result is that he’s no longer here.”
On other points, Open Carry’s agenda diverges with the racial justice movement. That’s in part because Open Carry advocates object as much to police stopping men with guns — whether or not they are racially profiling — as they do to police killing them. And as Salon’s Heather Digby Patron points out, gun rights activists have not been particularly vocal about police shootings of young black men in which the victim was not carrying a gun.
The Ohio Student Association also launched a new round of protest efforts this week, after marching 11 miles from the Wal-Mart to the courthouse as the grand jury deliberated. Now that the grand jury decided not to indict officer Sean Williams — and surveillance confirms that Crawford wasn’t doing anything wrong — OSA and some members of the national social justice group Freedom Side started occupying the Beavercreek Police Department Monday until the police chief meets with them on Wednesday. They are asking that the department fire or disarm Williams, that the department bring criminal charges against 911 caller Ronald Ritchie (who told the 911 dispatcher Crawford was pointing his gun at customers but later backtracked from that story), and that the department overhaul police training and protocol on the use of force. OSA is also planning a larger “mass mobilization” on October 18, at which they hope to attract protesters from around the country.
Vaduva articulated similar wishes to ThinkProgress. While one of the primary goals of all of Open Carry Ohio’s protests is to make the public aware of the state’s open carry law, he said in the case of Crawford, he, too, would like to see Ritchie held accountable. And he would like to see Williams fired if not federally prosecuted.
As for police training, he said he already asked that of police three years ago, when an individual called 911 on him for having a gun at a restaurant. At the time, he had a beard and was wearing a knit hat, and speculated “Maybe I looked a bit too much like a hippy.” Vaduva said the 911 caller described him and his friend as “two crazy guys” but police didn’t take that as a trigger to shoot or even injure him. And he said in the years since, he has dressed nicely while carrying his gun and has never had an incident.
“Unfortunately Beavercreek is a white town,” said Vaduva, a self-described libertarian. “Race was a factor. I am certain.”
There have been dozens of protests since Crawford’s death, according to local news outlet WDTN. But they haven’t garnered the same attention as those in Ferguson, with little tension thus far between police and protesters.