Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Stunt Without a Cause

Like a good political cartoon, a political stunt can sometimes drive a point home much better than an essay or a speech. However, to be good at cartoon-drawing, speech-making, or essay-writing it takes a certain amount of finesse and practice. Whereas, a stunt might be pulled off by anybody with the imagination and the nerve.

For instance, there was the Independence Day incident that had reporters with notepads and cameras following two young men carrying eye-catching firearms around in a busy shopping district in Richmond known as Carytown. Before that story is examined more closely, to provide context, here's a little history: 

Regardless of what else might be accomplished, whether they are staged to protest a condition, instill fear in enemies, rally the like-minded, or you-name-it, what political stunts of every stripe have in common is they are all perpetrated to express ideas in ways that send messages to target audiences. Thus, they have something in common with advertising campaigns. 

The Boston Tea Party, which was perpetrated 241 years ago, is one of history’s most famous political stunts. To protest England’s notorious Tea Act of 1773, the self-named Sons of Liberty dressed up like Indians, boarded a ship in Boston Harbor and flung a bunch of tea overboard. It clearly sent the bold Sons' sentiments about “taxation without representation” across the pond to the King of England.

Fast-forwarding to the 1960s, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, which featured Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, received extensive live television coverage that amplified the message of the gathering. Some 250,000 attendees made this pivotal event the largest demonstration anyone had ever seen in the nation’s capital.

Less than three weeks later, in Birmingham, Alabama, a church that had been central to the Civil Rights Movement was bombed; four black girls were killed in the blast. The dynamite was planted by message-sending members of the Ku Klux Klan, white men who wanted to inject a nightmare into the fray.

As different as they were, both of those events in 1963 were political stunts. The antiwar demonstrations that occurred in DeeCee and on college campuses later in the same decade were also designed to express a bitter disapproval of the escalating war in Vietnam in a way that delivered that message to all the world, in general, and policy-makers, in particular.

It was in this era the television industry became entwined with the authors of political stunts in a fashion that has facilitated the promulgation of all sorts of messages ever since. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11’s hijackings/explosions have underlined how cold-blooded message-senders can be, once they cross the line to become terrorists.

Of course, for all sorts of reasons most stunts don’t end up reaching wide audiences. Modern society has grown accustomed to them. Many simply fizzle, or they don’t manage to send a clear message to anybody -- at least not a message than stands out more than the galling look-at-ME factor. Which brings us to back to the unfolding “open carry” story in Carytown, a story that had been brewing for a while leading up to a July 5th article written by Jim Nolan for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
More than 300 people were invited on Facebook to walk down Cary Street on July Fourth with handguns, rifles and other so-called “long guns” proudly displayed. Two showed up — and they were the organizers of the midday event in the family-oriented Carytown shopping district.
Click here to read the entire article.

Once again, context is important. Two or three guys carrying rifles across the parking lot of a suburban gun store won’t get much notice. Two or three guys walking by the Byrd Theatre with rifles might make some film buffs think of the 2012 shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado: 12 killed; 70 injured. And, speaking of Colorado, school children might flash on the dozen students shot to death in Columbine in 1999.

Since there’s no practical reason to have a rifle at hand, to leisurely stroll by shops, it had to make bystanders who saw the reporters and guys with rifles wonder what was going on. While Virginia’s laws would seem to allow for an open-carrying stunt in Carytown, some observers had to wonder if the right to own, carry and use a rifle gives anyone permission to provoke fear on a city sidewalk.

Context.

If the wee parades through Carytown keep up -- with loaded or unloaded rifles, how does anyone know which? -- eventually, dear reader, you know there will be some sort of problem. A child will get scared. A dog will lunge. Or some paranoid having a bad day will...

As for the expectations of business owners in Carytown to make a living, aren't they being trampled over? So maybe the trouble on the public sidewalk will come from an angry merchant confronting the perpetrators of the stunt with a question: weirdo Ayn Rand-ism aside, how far can the rights of an individual be stretched, at the expense of the rest of humanity?

Back to context: Unless they had seen some of the publicity the Carytown Riflemen had garnered leading up to the holiday stunt, how would anyone on the street's sidewalks have known in time to make a difference that they were witnessing a what was meant to be a harmless stunt?

Speaking of messages, from here on, what chance is there a shooter with a growing yen to shoot will hear the call to join the open-carry brigade? In the future, how will anyone know the guys with rifles in Carytown aren’t terrorists without a cause?

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