Nicole Chavez et al., CNN, October 25, 2020
When two loud bangs rang out on the streets of Lafayette, Louisiana, no one knew where the gunshots came from as protesters gathered to demand justice for another Black man killed by police.
Among the crowd was a group of armed Black men and women who call themselves the “Not F**king Around Coalition” or NFAC. The group did not run toward the gunshots or break formation. Instead, they kneeled on the ground amid the confusion, and then walked away after their leader shouted, “fall back! fall back!”
The all-Black, Atlanta-based group has grown in size out of frustration during a summer of protests against questionable policing and the deaths of countless Black people at the hands of police, said their founder John Fitzgerald Johnson.
Their presence has caused a stir in the cities they’ve visited and the group has drawn some criticism after people accidentally fired a weapon during two of their rallies, including the one in Lafayette.
Started in 2017, the group has marched in Stone Mountain, Georgia, calling for the removal of the nation’s largest confederate monument; Brunswick, Georgia, for Ahmaud Arbery; Louisville, Kentucky, demanding more transparency in the Breonna Taylor case; and most recently Lafayette, Louisiana, in the name of Trayford Pellerin.
Along with protesters rallying in multiple US cities, largely White groups have also showed up and asserted their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Unlike many of those groups, Johnson says his group emerged as a response to enduring racial inequality and police brutality.
“We’re not ‘effing’ around anymore with the continued abuses within our community and the lack of respect for our men, women and children,” Johnson told CNN.
The all-Black group, Johnson said, intends to protect, self-police and educate Black communities on firearms and their constitutional rights.
“We are not against anyone,” said Johnson, who is also known as Grand Master Jay.
Large Black armed-groups aren’t something often seen in the US. The most well-known was the Black Panther Party established in 1966 after the shooting of Matthew Johnson, a Black teenager killed by police. The group has since mostly disappeared.
NFAC already stands apart from other groups across the country, Thomas Mockaitis, a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat,” told CNN.
“In one sense it (NFAC) echoes the Black Panthers but they are more heavily armed and more disciplined… So far, they’ve coordinated with police and avoided engaging with violence,” he said.
NFAC’s members clad in black have raised their fists and shouted “Black power” in at least three cities without major incidents but days of tensions have preceded their rallies.
When the NFAC marched in Louisville, they were met by an armed, largely White extremist group called the “Three Percenters.” The two groups yelled at one another but were kept apart by riot police. Shots were fired at the event when a NFAC member dropped his weapon and injured three other NFAC members with buckshot. Johnson has said it was an accident.
Earlier this month, the NFAC headed to southern Louisiana after seeing a Facebook post from US Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents the 3rd District. The September 1 post on Higgins’ campaign page, which has since been removed, included photos of Black armed demonstrators and warned that if such protesters came to Lafayette he would “drop 10 of you where you stand,” according to CNN affiliate KATC.
The protest ended peacefully despite the arrest of a person who police say accidentally fired a weapon at the event. The NFAC said the person was not part of their group.
There isn’t one way to police armed groups because every state and city has its own rules but authorities tend to take a “very cautious, almost kid glove approach” with them, said Carolyn Gallaher, a professor and senior associate dean in the School of International Service at American University.
For Judson L. Jeffries, a professor of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University, the NFAC’s priority so far has been stopping police brutality and it would be interesting to see how the group’s behavior and ideology evolves going forward.
The group could follow Martin Luther King Jr’s train of thought, he says, showing “a great deal of patience and love for those who were oppressing him” or align more with Malcolm X who favored self-defense against White violence.
“I hope we don’t get to the point where we witness shootout, open warfare between police departments and these (armed) groups,” Jeffries said. “I can’t help but wonder if we are nearing that point because there’s only so much punishment you can clip on a group of people before they respond likewise.”
Johnson won’t disclose the membership numbers but said his group grew “exponentially” after the Louisville march and after they dropped the age limit from 21 to 18 years old.
And for some people like Kristen “K.C.” Colemon and her 9-year-old daughter, the group is seen as a symbol of empowerment rather than fear.
“It was beautiful to have a group showing America and White groups that we are not backing down,” Colemon, a hairstylist from Knoxville, told CNN.