on “Waiting for José”, and Harel Shapira

In “Bowling Alone”, [Robert] Putnam’s diagnosis of America’s decline is rooted in the loss of civic engagement and the decline in associated life. What America has lost, Putnam argues, are institutions – ranging from churches to book clubs – in which people can come together and do things as a part of a collective, as members of a shared community; what America has lost are Americans who seek institutions; what America has lost is the spirit that is at the heart of our democracy. It is the spirit that Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the eighteenth century and claimed as the source of America’s strength. The Minutemen agree. And the Minutemen have that spirit. What they lack is not a democratic ethos. They are what people like Putnam and de Tocqueville and our whole liberal democratic political tradition want out of citizens; engaged, active, concerned.

From “Waiting for José” by Harel Shapira.

I met Harel about a year ago. He was a student in a class I was teaching at KR Training. As far as I knew, he was just another student. Turns out that’s not quite the case. 🙂 He’s also an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Harel’s sociological interest is in guns, gun culture, firearms education, the culture of armed citizens, and the people within. He wants to understand why people join social movements, and a large part of that is the “doing” of those movements – and so, he seeks to immerse himself in the movements and “doing” them as well. He’s still an observer and tries to remain as such, but yet he must also participate. It’s quite interesting.

Harel wanted to speak with me (beyond class) on some topics. In part because of my role as Assistant Lead Instructor at KR Training, and also in part because of the incident I was involved in on January 5, 2015. More recently, we’ve started talking again regarding phase 2 of his research (which I don’t believe I can disclose at this time, but it’s a logical progression of his research). I have maintained I will always speak about that incident, because in doing so others can learn and perhaps the world can become a little wiser, a little better. We’ve had a few long lunches, talking at great length about all manner of things (and I truly enjoy our talks). But that’s not why I write today.

Harel’s PhD dissertation became a book: “Waiting for José – the Minuteman’s Pursuit of America“. Harel gave me a copy. On a long flight to Seattle I was finally able to read it – and I’m so glad I did.

The book is thought-provoking. It caused me to reflect. It made me think deeper, not so much about The Minuteman movement or guns and gun culture – but about modern society, and our humanness. For this alone, I think this book well worth reading by anyone, and hopefully they too can step back from the specific subject matter and consider the grander implications of modern society in the USA as well as that strange thing we call “human nature”.

The Minutemen

Briefly, the book chronicles a lengthy period of time Harel spent with the Minutemen. These are people who volunteer to sit at the US-Mexico border, watching for “José” to cross illegally, and work to assist the Border Patrol in their capture.

In the pages of everything from local to international newspapers were photographs of camouflaged men prowling the desert, seemingly a moment away from committing violence. You have probably read these articles and seen these images. The liberal media describes the Minutemen as “sorry-ass gun freaks and sociopaths,” while the conservative media characterizes them as “extraordinary men and women… heroes”. In some accounts these people are patriots; in others, they are lunatics.

One thing is certain, these men and women, whatever their given labels suggest, have come to play an enormous role in our country’s debates about immigration. The problem is that our standard judgements, whether damning them or praising them, sidestep the complex dynamics of who these people are and what they do on the border.

Liberal media accounts suggest that when it comes to immigration, what the Minutemen and their supporters lack is sympathy. If only they understood the plight of the people coming across the border, they would change their minds. But if we are to understand the Minutemen, we need to understand how anger and sympathy can coexist.

Harel writes direct from his experience – he’s the one telling the story. He tells of his experiences: his first arrival, his getting thrown out, his return and initial gaining of trust, the times going out on patrol, sitting in the comms room, and other stories of his experiences with these men and women. He works to analyze and understand why these people do what they do, and become the people they become as a part of this movement.

For example, he tells the tale of Gordon. Gordon was a man without the same background as so many other Minutemen – no military, no law enforcement. Just someone who felt a pull to the movement, had no idea how to participate, but had a burning desire to do so. Then how seeing Gordon over the course of two years, how Gordon grew, how he changed, and how being a Minuteman defined his life and gave him solid purpose.

It becomes very easy to dismiss these people because they are different from you. It’s not a movement you’d join, and it seems a little weird, right? So that must mean these people are weird too. And so, they are dismissed as weirdos and written off.

But what Harel works to do? To find and show their humanness.

Because they are human, just like you.

They want to belong. They want to feel worthwhile. They want to contribute. They want to make a difference. They want to be meaningful.

Just like you.

Sure, the specifics will vary – and they even vary within this grouping. But what I found compelling about Harel’s research – and remember, that Harel is very much an outsider in almost every way – is his desire to understand. Sure, he can’t totally remove his own bias, his own filters, but it’s that very lens that makes the book the worthwhile read. Harel is naive, green, ignorant of this world, with his own preconceived notions. Sure it’s interesting to read the picture painted about The Minutemen, but it’s also worthwhile to watch Harel’s own evolution through this experience.

For me, it was especially interesting to watch because the Harel I met and know is not the same Harel as in the book. So for me, it was neat to see that further backstory to enable me to better understand where Harel is coming from, and where he’s trying to go to with his continued research.

It all boils down to a simple thing: to understanding. Why people are as they are. What makes us human. And you will find that they may not be like you, yet you are more like them than you could ever imagine.

Beyond José

To that, Harel’s latest research (as of this writing) has been published in the March 2018 issue of Qualitative Sociology, entitled “Learning to Need a Gun”. I was a participant in the research, I’ve read his paper, and while sometimes it was a hard read, I felt it was an accurate picture. Hard read? Because there are aspects of modern gun culture that are hard to accept, but to me that just means there’s work ahead towards improving how things are.

If you want to go forward with Harel, I suggest you go backwards a bit. Here’s an interview he did with the UT Sociology department back in 2013 that explains a lot about where he’s coming from.

And for the record, there’s a number of things Harel and I do not agree on. But I’ve found him to be fair and honest, and earnest in his research. I’ve also found that I really enjoy our lunches together. He’s engaging, thought-provoking, and open. I greatly enjoy talking with him, even if we may not agree (what a concept these days, eh?).

I know a lot of people are into the work of David Yamane and his “Gun Culture 2.0” research. Harel and David know each other, and Harel presented at Wake Forest back in 2016. If you dig what David is doing, you should also be following what Harel is doing.

And a great place to start? Reading Harel’s book, “Waiting for José“.

One thought on “on “Waiting for José”, and Harel Shapira

  1. Great post. Harel is a great sociologist, and a good human being. He and I don’t agree on everything either, but he tries to understand people on their own terms before bringing his own understanding to bear on them.

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