Thursday, October 21, 2021

OPINION: My experience covering a pro-gun rights march

September 29, 2021
<p>Pro-gun advocates gather for the annual Second Amendment march on Sept. 23 at the Michigan Capitol. </p>

Pro-gun advocates gather for the annual Second Amendment march on Sept. 23 at the Michigan Capitol.

Photo by Sheldon Krause | The State News

As a woman and a journalist, pro-gun rallies aren’t for me. 

Last week, a few other members of the State News’ city desk and I made the trip over to Michigan’s Capitol building to cover the annual Second Amendment march taking place on the lawn. It was a jarring experience for a few reasons: the rain was freezing, there were more weapons than I’d ever seen in a public space and it was my first time covering a protest like this. 

I went in with a decently good idea of what to expect — there’s no shortage of coverage of those who attend these types of events — and with a healthy amount of trepidation. At this point in my life, I’d seen my fair share of videos of reporters being verbally or physically harassed while covering right-wing protests, and it was hard to gauge going in whether or not this would be that type of crowd. We were warned by our editors to err on the side of caution and to leave as soon as we started feeling unsafe, and with that in mind, we covered the event until the rain and our class schedules pushed us out. 

We never ended up leaving for lack of safety, but the environment was nevertheless not one that felt welcoming to us. We worked our way around the event, asking people questions and listening to the speakers. The one thing that seemed to happen every time I spoke to someone was this infinitesimal shift in demeanor when we announced to people that we were reporters. People’s friendly expressions turned ever so slightly guarded, and we were greeted with a few looks of genuine anxiety when we identified ourselves. It was a bit like the thing your mother tells you when you’re a kid and you’re afraid of spiders — don’t worry, it’s more scared of you than you are of it. 

These people probably didn’t know that I was nervous talking to them and being at their event, but it was a pretty well-established theme that they did not have a positive relationship with the media. Various speakers at the event talked about how gun owners were always being misportrayed as extremists or terrorists in the news, and that they didn’t feel they could trust journalists to report objectively on their movement.

On our end, it felt like they saw us as part of their larger enemy, aligned with the politicians and businesses that they felt shortchanged by. Their rhetoric felt harsh and not quite cohesive with the event’s message that pro-gun activists are reasonable, regular people who just want to keep their guns in the house. 

For me, it was difficult at first to coexist in my anxiety about the event and the reality that my job as a journalist is to go places that feel uncomfortable sometimes to get people the information they need. If reporters always stayed in their comfort zones, we wouldn’t have coverage of Watergate or Afghanistan or the riot on Jan. 6. We wouldn’t have the information we need to make smart decisions about our place in society.

The one problem with that is that nobody wants to get hurt or be put in positions that scare them, and it can be hard to do the mental wrestling match that is figuring out if the information is worth the apprehension (information nearly always wins). But the point still stands that journalists should never have to feel unsafe in these situations, regardless of how people feel about the state of the media. We’re in a unique position where our job is one of the few out there that everyone has an opinion on, and there is a huge faction of American society that sees us as public enemy number one because of the work that we do. 

This event was both a learning experience and an exercise in patience for me: I’d never covered something this big or which tested my own levels of social tolerance so much. Beyond everything else, it’s just plain weird to stand in the middle of a group of people who are incredibly different in worldviews and backgrounds from yours, knowing that you can’t insert any of your opinions into the way you cover them and their cause. 

When I didn’t feel a weird sense of apprehension as a journalist, I felt a very familiar sense of apprehension as a woman in a male-dominated space. I’d estimate that the event was at least 85% men, and the centering of masculinity as America’s greatest strength by the event’s keynote speaker Doug Giles didn’t exactly establish the organizations present as a welcoming place for women. There’s something to be said about being in the minority in any crowd that feels slightly hostile towards you, but there’s a lot more to be said when the majority are practicing open carry of large rifles in an enclosed space.

I wasn’t necessarily concerned for my physical safety — there was a pretty heavy police presence and I was never by myself without another reporter — but there was a constant sense that in a different set of circumstances, where these people knew what my thoughts were about their cause, things could have been much messier. Many of the speakers cited formative life experiences that made them adamantly pro-gun rights, and in the same thread, my formative experiences make me the opposite. 

While many of the folks at the march seemed open to a conversation with someone they disagreed with, it can be hard to overcome the fact that they were speaking from an inherent place of privilege that most women, LGBTQ+ folks and people of color aren’t afforded in the conversation about gun rights. The participants at the Capitol were nearly all white and male, and the atmosphere created by some speakers perpetuated an overall vibe of homophobia that made it clear that their movement had only had space for a narrow demographic of people.

It’s common knowledge that Black and transgender people are targets of violence on a daily basis, something that should have fallen under the gun right’s movement’s conceptualization of bearing arms for self-defense, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people in the crowd last Thursday whose views on gun rights didn’t have addendums of their views on race and gender. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but the crowd’s enthused reaction to Giles’ inflammatory statements on masculinity carried a fair amount of weight when considering attendees’ views on sexism and homophobia.

It’s hard to feel like you’re in a space that’s safe for women when the people there are clapping and cheering when the keynote speaker says that feminism is bringing America down. It’s even harder to feel like you’re in a place that’s safe for anyone who isn’t cisgender and heterosexual when the keynote speaker is praising the Chinese government for “outlawing sissy men."

And people are agreeing with him.

Saying that your movement is nonpartisan and inclusive to anyone who supports the right to own a firearm doesn’t hold up so well when half of your speakers have less-than-savory thoughts on the advancement of women and LGBTQ+ people. 

All of this doesn’t mean that I regret covering the event or that I think we, as a news platform, should deny coverage to events we feel uncomfortable with. It just means that journalists exist outside of the stories they put out, and it’s important to make sure that our safety and mental wellbeing isn’t put at risk by the work we do.

I’m lucky to work for the people I work for, but there’s only so much control we have over how people treat us when we go out into the world. This definitely won’t be the last event like this I attend, or the last time I feel out of place and uncomfortable in my job. It’s a strange state of knowing that this is a reality while also acknowledging that I’ll never be completely comfortable with these situations.

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