Michi-Gun, Land of A Thousand Contradictions
In my own experience over decades, the state in which we live might be called Michi-Gun, to express our thousand contradictions involving rights, race, rock n’ roll and firearms. As the state motto might read, if you seek a complicated peninsula, look around you.
I. The Motor City Burning
The racial tensions of the 1960s troubled my parents. My mother was fearful of black vengeance. There had been violence, from the beatings and hosing of civil rights protesters, to the shootings and murders of others, which included a white Italian-American activist from Detroit named Viola Luzzo gone south to do civil rights organizing. And in Ann Arbor, 46 miles to the west, when a liberal activist in the neighborhood asked my mom to sign a letter welcoming the first black family to our block, she replied “No, Ann, we DON’T welcome them.”
Returning via Canada’s highway 401 from a 1965 summer vacation to New England with my parents, car problems came up just as we crossed the Ambassador Bridge mid-afternoon, and a trouble light said the 1964 Buick Special was overheating. As we edged off the freeway, my mother was terrified that whatever corner garage in Detroit we could find would prove owned by angry blacks. "What can they do? Insult us?” snapped my father. “If they’re rude to us, we'll go someplace else." The Buick finally staggered into a garage that was run by Mexican-Americans, and they were all delighted to find that my mother spoke Spanish. Regarding Mexicans with guns, I grew up in a home with a postcard framed upon the dining room wall of revolutionary Pancho Villa among péones in white clothes with sharp agricultural tools over a dead government soldier, a detail from a Diego Rivera mural, a souvenir of my mother's trip to Mexico about 1948. She had completed Ph.D. in Spanish Language and Literature, all but her (never written) dissertation. In the Mexican American’s Detroit gas station, an elderly man walked several blocks to an auto parts store for our car’s replacement hose, on his first trip obtaining the wrong one. After six hours, their work put us back on the freeway, to reach Ann Arbor at about 10:00 p.m.
Two years later, July 21 1967, we were in the Buick on our return from Expo 67 in Montreal when highway construction detours caused us to get lost between the Ambassador Bridge and I-94 heading west to Ann Arbor. On our sleepy return from the Canadian World's Fair, the car behaved properly, but construction on the freeway created a detour that carried us through black neighborhoods of Detroit, to my parents distress. My dad was angry, as he often was, about "the damned state highway department", whose Director John Mackey was one more incompetent Irish politician and Democrat like Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanaugh (whose daughter is now in Michigan politics). My mother was more nervous by the fact we ended up in a black neighborhood. Though aware of their tension, the sidetrack was interesting to me. At that preteen age where the sex and violence of teenagers, white and black, was both captivating and menacing, I had a growing interested in their mating rituals, and the bus stops here were filled with black teens laughing and dancing to Motown songs from their transistor radios. Maybe some chart-topping Memphis Soul ones too, like those by notable local C. L Reverend Franklin's daughter, who had to record down south for producers to let her play her rich church piano. Numerous young people, as slim and fascinating and fashionable and sexy as—older siblings?—the Supremes and Temptations on the Ed Sullivan show, cheerfully waited for their buses.
What does this have to do with guns? The sun was going down on the hot summer evening, and we finally managed to get back on the freeway heading west, and got back to Ann Arbor just as it became dark. After several turns, my father found his way back to the freeway, and we reached Ann Arbor as it got dark. That night, about four hours later at 2:00 a.m., as we were safely asleep, a blind pig (illegal bar) was raided by police, which touched off four days of riots or rebellionin Detroit. Governor George Romney called a State of Emergency and called out the National Guard. Over 40 people were shot, many by the National Guard and police.
There was also a cultural shift. In the video documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, members of that record company’s house band, the Funk Brothers, lament that black and white musicians no longer played together in mixed-race bands after the 1967 riots. John Sinclair’s communal household Trans-Love Energies, which become the White Panther Party in solidarity with their African American neighbors’ struggle, could not live comfortably in the Cass Corridor neighborhood near Wayne State University any more, and relocated 44 miles west to Ann Arbor, renting a pair of sprawling yellow houses on Hill Street, several blocks south of the University of Michigan central campus.
And this cultural shift in southeastern Michigan had impact on weapons in my own family household.
II. Daddy's Guns
As a boy, I played Army or Secret Agent with fellow members of my mid-baby-boom demographic. There had long been Daisy air rifles and BB guns, but when we came along, we had plastic war and espionage toys designed especially for us, and marketed in boyishly exuberant TV commercials. Warriors of the World, by Marx (which always sounded Communist to me)! G.I. Joe! Zero M Radio Rifle! Monkey Patrol helmet! There were WWII dramatic series on prime time network television like Combat, the Gallant Men, and comedies like McHale’s Navy. One boy in the neighborhood was the son of anti-Vietnam War activists, and he was instructed to return home if the play turned warlike and involved plastic army men or guns.
Immediate following the Detroit riots in July, 1967, my father ordered a rifle from the Sears Roebuck catalog "to protect the house", envisioning rampaging blacks “marching down Michigan Avenue”, westward to Ypsilanti then Ann Arbor. I wondered why he didn’t anticipate them more easily making the trip by driving big Detroit-made sedans. Pop ordered a Finnish army rifle from the Sears catalog, and went down to their little catalog store, behind their store on Main Street, to pick it up. It was manufactured circa 1940, from Finland’s war against Russia, and he liked to point out how it had been "sport-erized", made more suitable for sport hunters by having its wooden stock cut down at front to expose more barrel.
He actually had two other old guns in the far corner of his basement shop, concealed until he felt I was old enough to be trusted with the knowledge and unlikely to borrow them to play army or secret agent. I don’t think he ever fired them, and the summer Walleye Pike sport fisherman was generally contemptuous of hunters. There was a .22 caliber rifle, small and elegant almost like a ¾-size guitar, with which one could imagine a Gilded Age hunter shooting passenger pigeons. There was a small pistol, a World War One officer’s sidearm, .38 caliber US Navy Colt Model 1895 knockoff, with an oily cloth wrapped around it in a black leather flap holster, given to my dad in the 1930s by a veteran. Like the 19th century bellows camera, Victorian-era hypodermic syringe and needle (Sherlock Holmes’ own?) and 50th Anniversary replica 1876 Edison light bulb, these were some of the museum pieces to found in his dusty, overcrowded basement workshop.
I don't know if my father ever shot a gun. I would not be surprised if my father hadn't proposed to my mom that little Mike be taken to a pistol or rifle range and taught to safely shoot, but she would have forbade him to do that, as she forbade him to teach me to use the machine tools in the shop he assembled in the basement (perhaps largely out of nostalgia, as his father, who died in 1920 when he was 14, was a machinist). She perceived these whirring metal contrivances as weapons of mass destruction to her artistic boy’s little fingers. When I was taking woodshop in junior high he managed to teach me to use the South Bend metal-working lathe to make a candlestick, but he may have convinced her my grade and academic career hinged on me learning that skill at home to do so.
My father had a box of ammunition, but once when he raged in a tantrum, my mother hid the box of loaded shells for it. I found it someplace odd, cleaning the house after my father, who outlived her by twelve years, died.
He loaned the Finnish rifle to a friend of his who hunted, who then moved to Carolina. After a couple requests to my father that he ask for its return, in the 1990s I wrote his friend requesting it back, and the gentleman promptly sent it saying of course he understood why a man would want his father's guns. Like many paternal parenting skills and traditions, this was something my father evidently didn't understand.
III. Guns to Off the Pig
Besides the symbolically violent boyhood games described earlier, there were also apple wars. Our neighborhood was developed from an old orchard, with five trees in my family’s yard, whose produce was good for nothing but throwing at each other. When not involved in those games, I was usually drawing, often encouraging my friends to draw as well, frequently military scenes. With adolescence, our attention turned to listening to, playing and writing rock music, Super 8mm filmmaking, and other artistic endeavors.
The year 1968, when the war in Vietnam raged, and Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, coincided with my early adolescence. The Beatles sang "Happiness is a Warm Gun" and the gun-slinging "Ballad of Rocky Raccoon", and a firing squad shooting took place in middle of the Doors' song "Unknown Soldier". Buffalo Springfield sang the line "There's a man with a gun over there...", ostensibly about police harassment on the Sunset Strip but enervated with the general political overtones crackling though this year of student strikes, race riots and Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia.
By 1970, my folkie group the Bison Boys sang of the slaughter of buffalo (and Wm. T. Hornady's campaign to stop it) in "The Bison Didn't Always Have It So Good." Fall, 1972 Bison Boy Jimm Juback wrote "Viet Vet Baby", singing of a gal who remembered what went "down in old Quang Tri", the songwriter impressed by the veterans filling his classes at Eastern Michigan University as the overseas war wound down. That same year Arthur Bremer, unable to get close to President Richard Nixon, instead shot Presidential candidate Governor George Wallace; “Mars is getting closer every year” wrote Bremer in his diary.
Black activism turned “militant”, and guns were carried openly to proclaim self-defense against openly hostile urban police forces and the FBI. When we visited Cornell University on my prospective colleges tour before my high school ’72-’73 senior year, my father asked me if I remembered the photograph of black students brandishing guns as they left its tower. The Michigan-raised artist Mike Kelley (1954-2012) has written of the inspiration of Black Panther Emory Douglas’ cartoons of gun-toting pigs, like the one of them meeting bullets upon invading a home over the caption "For every bacon there is a frying pan".
University students quoted Mao Tse-Tung’s dictum "Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun", and my high school newspaper office regularly received posters from the Communist-direct International Union of Students in Prague, in solidarity with armed struggle in Vietnam, Palestine, Ireland, in each case a noble woman or man brandishing a gun. The 1970s saw paramilitary, heavily armed radical organizations like Red Army factions in Italy, Japan, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. All members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in California (featuring Uzi-toting heiress Patty Hearst, like a stern evil twin to President Ford's smiley daughter Susan) were immolated except for the rich girl.
Rock music in Michigan, revolutionary violence and guns have some links, especially in the imagery around the two bands affiliated with The Michigan-based White Panther Party, the MC5 and the Up were pictured with rifles and guitars, both revolutionary weapons. While the White Panthers began their platform affirming support for the Black Panther Party program, they added more utopian stuff and depicted themselves as hippies with guns, returning back to the land but defending it from The Man. The MC5 were pictured on their first album’s gatefold in bandoliers of bullets, the Up waving both guns and guitars as they seemingly advanced, a purposeful squad. In the early 1970s, the White Panthers morphed into the Rainbow People's Party, whose logo crossed a guitar, a gun and a collective peace pipe.
Ron Asheton (1948-2009), Stooges guitarist, dressed in a full Wehrmacht uniform for the Stooges’ Los Angeles performance called “Sacrifice of the Virgin” in 1974, and often accessorized with an Iron Cross or other regalia. Asheton played a bombastic hunter in the Troma Productions horror movie "Frostbiter: Legend of the Wendigo", set in northern Michigan. In the last decade of his life, Asheton owned a cabin on Lake Huron several hours north of his boyhood home in Ann Arbor, from which he would fish and hunt.
IV. Girl Guns
For all the righteously macho posturing of the 1960s revolutionaries and their epigones in the arts, Michigan gun use has not been restricted to men. Alongside the Film, School Paper, and Comics high school clubs (in which I’m pictured) in my 1973 high school yearbook, there was the school Rifle club, where one cuddly female senior participant in our class—heartthrob of pacific nerdboys!—was pictured shouldering a rifle.
Guns have interested female creative artists in Michigan. The painter Niagara, living and working all her life in Detroit environs, paints women, fearless and brandishing pistols and civilian or military machine guns, stylistically distanced by time, sixty or seventy years in the past. She was also for a long time musical collaborator (and companion) of Ron Asheton, in the 1990s co-writing wry songs like “Bang Bang” about a woman shooting her abuser and worrying about his blood on the carpet.
More recently, Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s memorable short story "Family Reunion" ends when—spoiler alert!—a teenage sharpshooter picks off the penis of the uncle who molested her, with a single shot from a .22 rifle from across a river. And Melanie Manos, an artist teaching at University of Michigan whose work often has tiny photograph figures dwarfed by nature, exhibited in Detroit in 2014 a video where she was cavorting in the snows of New Hampshire with a long branch, naturally twisted to resemble a rifle, in parody of a hunter.
V. The Michigan Militia
Forty years ago, a bar in Ann Arbor called the Blind Pig featured mature African American piano bluesmen, an influence on my own music and comportment. A bibulous Detroiter in his sixties, Vernon "Boogie Woogie Red" Harrison had a regular weekly slot, fronting a band of white musicians half his age. Roosevelt Sykes from Louisiana occasionally played, as old as (and, wearing double knit suits and wide ties, dressed like) my dad. On a trip to Louisiana in 1995 with Bad Subject Joe Lockard—we presented at the College Language Association in Baton Rouge then took a jaunt to New Orleans—I was ready to get up and play a verse of blues on the piano in a coffeehouse, mostly so I could brag I'd played in New Orleans. But as I approached the piano, the barista stopped his work, turned up the television to hear a report that the McDarrah Government Building in Oklahoma City had blown up from a bomb. Shortly after, suspect Timothy McVeigh was linked to “Mark from Michigan”, Mark Koernke, a member of the paramilitary self-styled Michigan Militia who was brought in for questioning. "Oh, I know him" said a jazz musician friend in Ann Arbor. “Certainly an odd fellow.”
After two decades in California, in 2000 I moved to mid-Michigan to a university teaching job. A colleague described the nearby town we settled in, near a river and Lake Huron “a nice little blue collar town, where only about one in ten adults attended college.” There’s a small shop offering gun repair and Concealed Carry training a block from our house, and a regionally notable one a couple miles down the road. Duncan’s Outdoor Shop, in business over 50 years with a wildlife-mural bedecked full service gun shot featuring gunsmithing, new and used gun sales, ammunition, black powder and muzzle-loading accessories, scopes and sights, Concealed Carry Weaponry and Protection instruction, plua an indoor pistol and rifle range, won the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s “Don’t Lie For the Other Guy Retailer of the Year Award”. Ours is a country of hunters, and is the gateway to “up north”, the woodsier northern Michigan. I have learned the hard way not to expect a car to be worked on promptly in service garage or body shop, not to expect construction work to be completed, if it’s autumn deer hunting season.
I respect the working class hunter. This is the only chance for guys, who work hard for other guys, to get away from daily life, commune with nature in solitude or with a friend. I suspect, for church-goers and not, this is the most spiritual experience they have all year. I hope, in the manner of Native Americans and other traditional hunting peoples, there is a prayer of gratitude for the kill, and that all meat is consumed and all other parts of the kill are somehow employed.
About 2003 Cary Loren assembled a CD called Music is Revolution, a compilation of various tapes from the White Panther Party archives forty to forty-years before. But the Panthers had one deleterious effect upon me. Sinclair fulminated how "everyone in Detroit carries a piece". Shortly after I heard this, when the subject of guns came up in a meeting planning university speakers, I said this to an African American colleague from Detroit, and I won't forget the look of disappointment on her face. I had fallen into a stereotype of her city, interpreted as a racialized one, not realizing Sinclair‘s complications and contradictions as an anti-racist role model.
One can watch on YouTube the shooting of Milton Hall, once a well-known middle-aged African American, mentally disturbed, hollering and hassling street person, as seven white Saginaw police officers fire over forty bullets into Hall, who brandishes a small penknife. There was outrage in Saginaw’s black community, and its sorority women (some my university professor colleagues) hosted a public meeting to voice opinions on the situation. Black Republican Jimmy Greene, curator of wide-ranging Facebook political discussions, thinks it’s a bit hypocritical for Saginaw’s blacks to focus only upon this police shooting when there is a constant shooting of black men (and women and children who get in the way) by other black men, black on black violence which seems to not elicit the same public concern.
Shortly after the Manhattan police strangulation of street vendor Eric Garner and the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting of Michael Brown, I wrote our congressman Dan Kildee, urging him to put forth a bill to create a national policy establishing that any police officer who kills someone would be dismissed from the force, and forbidden any other police work. That way an officer could still kill to save her or his life, but would otherwise seek non-lethal solutions to keep a career.
In 2010 my community mural class developed and painted a mural for a social service agency in Saginaw. One theme they requested we emphasize was END VIOLENCE, as one of the youth participants was a middle school student whose scalp had been grazed by a stray bullet in a drive-by gun battle while she sat on her front step. The wall upon which our twelve painted panels were installed was peppered with bullet holes too.
Gun culture finds another a home in conservatism too, if that’s the proper name for the right-wing radicalism that grips the once-staid Republican party. Coming home from the university in 2013, as the nation prepared for the rollout of Obamacare, I’d pass an 8’ banner covering the fence in someone’s front yard WAKE UP AMERICA BEFORE FREEDOM IS LOST. That summer my wife and I walked by a house in our neighborhood with an IMPEACH OBAMA lawn sign, and asked the family on the porch why they wanted to impeach him. The women and children proceeded to reel off a list of constitutional violations…and then the father came out with with a pistol visible in the holster on his hip, which he probably strapped on when he heard my wife arguing with his out front. We assured them we weren’t the people he said kept stealing his signs, and we left, all cheerily enough agreeing to disagree. This summer, during the retaliation against Hamas rockets in Gaza, he replaced it with a DEFEND ISRAEL sign. This fall the sign is buried among several for state and local Republican candidates all over the lawn.
Southern Poverty Law Center regularly reports organized racists in nearby Essexville, and the obscene parody of a (once-Michigan, now Texan) stalwart NRA gunslinger is rock guitarist Ted Nugent. In July, 2014 I passed a line of traffic stalled as a drawbridge over the Saginaw river rose. I walked up to the small truck flying a confederate flag from a pole and asked the boy (dark skinned, he looked Mexican or Native American) driving why he hated Michigan, since 16,000 men from here died fighting that terrorist symbol, and why he hated America. He was almost crying as he protested he didn’t, whimpering “Sorry, sir” as I stomped off.
VI. The Militia, Yes
A decade ago Vermont artist John Douglas, an interrogator of America’s wars since the 1960s, created a Homeland Security series, virtual militias assembled from multiple pictures of his nude septagenarian body holding an AK-47. More recently, Logan Mooney, a graphic design student and cartoonist for our student newspaper, posted a photo of himself and his friends with .50 caliber rifles as I was writing this. When I asked Logan permission to reprint it here, he confessed there was only one rifle among them, but Photoshop took care of that. And a soft-spoken musical friend, with no interest in hunting, but interest in firearms as examples of fine machinery was given a pistol by his university staff co-workers as a gift upon his retirement. Now I understand why my father’s guns were housed beside his taps and dies, lathe, drill press and vertical miller.
And I too have cradled a gunstock, gently caressed a trigger. One stressful Friday in 1990, I played hooky and took off to a target range in the hills above Silicon Valley with a co-worker at Apple, an Asian American man from Nevada who’d been a trainer when he was in the Army. He started me out on a .22, then a .45, then firing .45 Magnum, and I did pretty good. I'm a guy, and I can see the sexual thrill of automatic weapons (never fired one; maybe someday), but believe they should not be in private hands, unless rigidly controlled. Each town could have specialized shooting ranges for them, licensed and inspected like Nevada brothels.
But what is a well-regulated militia? The Second Amendment upholds it, and I can see how citizens would want any means possible to thwart a foreign invasion and occupation. When I saw the burned bodies of the American mercenaries (Blackhawk contractors), hung from the bridge in Falluja, Iraq, I could only think, Well, we'd treat any invaders like that in my Michigan town too, I hope. Whatever they think of the draconian Sharia law Isis has lain down, I assume at least a third of Iraqis are amused at the recent beheading of representatives of a nation that occupied theirs for several years.
I read the Second Amendment as affirming we citizens can keep our personal guns, but by taking collective responsibility for the defense, on the local micro-level as well as the national macro (billion dollar weapons) one. I would be quite comfortable if I were required to register these, obtain a license, since I suppose I could do as much damage to others with them as with a car, a bike or a dog. For—despite the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 1930s that let men, reassured with mock medical care, die untreated; and despite LSD dosing of hapless researchers by MK-ULTRA in the 1950s and government COINTELPRO provocateurs in the 1960s, and recent NSA spying, and trigger-happy local police departments—I still generally and inherently trust the US government, the public sector, more than I do the private and corporate.
I don’t fear confiscation of my guns, and still have on my To Do list making sure they’re ready to shoot, and taking them to a range and shooting them. For in the event of invasion, if the Bay County Sheriff realizes "This is serious. We're outgunned (wait, where’s Logan and his crew?), and the defense of our town is all down to that unathletic art professor painting in his attic on the west side, and his three antique firearms…", may my aim be true.
Mike Mosher is an artist-designer working and teaching in mid-Michigan. Zapata image from Emerson Kent.com: World History for the Relaxed Historian. Girl with gun from the 1973 Ann Arbor Pioneer High Omega; guys with guns courtesy Logan Mooney (in yellow shirt).