Cipher Rewound


“Re-” means “again” or “again and again.” It’s also used for re-verting and moving backwards. If you’ve been around for the past year, it’s difficult to say otherwise—we’re moving backwards. Again and again. 

Cipher hopped on the backwards trajectory, dug through the archives, and selected some gems we hope contribute to the current conversation. Past perspectives are alive and well, and through the worn newsprint we watched history repeat itself. We are still failing to understand how difference isn’t a threat. We are still convinced that guns are some kind of divine right. God forbid we still have ignorance sufficient to invite a white male pseudo-intellectual to speak on behalf of Black History month. 

We dedicate the following pages to the student journalists, past, present, and future, who work to move forward.

Over the past five years of the Cipher—since the paper’s founding at the hands of a diverse group of students concerned with the lack of quality, in-depth journalism and variety among media sources from which to choose—we’ve been attempting to document and educate student concerns with our campus, our communities, our nation and our world. We haven’t shied away from discussing race on a personal or institutional level; and despite the headline in 1999 claiming that “change is coming soon,” it hasn’t. So as a call to the administrators, the faculty, the board of trustees, alumni, the support staff and students who make up this institution, we take a look back, to see if things have really changed, and to learn how to not let history repeat. 

– Cipher editorial staff, 4/11/2002

The Ethics of Class 3 Arms Dealing: Cipher Speaks to the “Dragonman”

by Lisa Johnson

Originally published 12-16-2004

Mel reaches a heavily tattooed arm behind him to grab a Mack 10 assault rifle from the wall. Admiring it, he announces with a note of pride, “These are the guns that made America.” The owner and founder of Dragonarms, a shooting range and gun shop east of Colorado Springs, Mel is an expert on gun legality. His store is one of the only class three weapons dealers in the state, meaning that the walls are overflowing with some of the most controversial assault weapons on the market. Signs with messages like “If you come in with a gun out, we will assume you are a robber and shoot” and “Sportsmen for Bush” cover what little wall space isn’t taken up by guns. In the center of the crowded store is a roped-off display of some of the most intimidating-looking machine guns, as well as pictures of heavy duty military weapons setting flame to buildings out on the shooting range. It is a gun control advocate’s worst nightmare.

However, that would probably suit Mel just fine. A burly man with a biker’s mustache and a Brooklyn accent, Mel has a tough but friendly demeanor. He jokes with a customer buying a t-shirt and says, “I don’t sell mediums. I don’t want scrawny guys wearing it while they get beat up and giving me a bad name.”

He’s called the Dragonman because of the flame-breathing metal dragon that arches over the motorcycle he rides around town. His other favorite method of transportation is a black Hummer on top of which he’s mounted two military style guns, capable of taking out a car.

Having sold and handled weapons for forty years, Mel is a man who knows his guns. Of the assault weapon he’s handling, he says, “They outlaw ‘um on the way they look, not really what they can do. They just see ‘um in movies and get scared.”

For example, the bulky weapon he is holding was banned, but not its smaller, equally powerful counterpart. “People who don’t know guns are making the laws,” Mel explained.

And there are many laws to follow. Lengthy background checks are required for every purchase. The Dragonman emphasizes the strict policy: “If you’ve done anything wrong: drinking, getting into fights, anything, it’ll catch you.” 

For every gun sold, the owner has to keep documentation for twenty years afterwards. If a crime is committed with any gun Dragonarms has sold, the police will be knocking on the door for the proof. Yellow forms overflow the backroom shelves. In addition, every ninety days Dragonman receives a visit from the authorities to ensure legality. There is a major flaw in Colorado’s system, according to the Dragonman. “See, we have to do all these background checks, but if you open the paper, there’s plenty of ads in there. And in Colorado, there’s no registration. So if someone gets turned down here, they can just walk up and ring someone’s doorbell and get the gun. If you’re going to do it, do it all the way. That’s bad business,” he points out with disgust.

Mel also monitors almost every space of the shop with video cameras. While in most stores these would be used against shoplifting, Dragonman’s cameras have an additional purpose. Many times, if a person is ineligible to buy a gun, he or she will bring an eligible person, point out the gun, and have that person purchase it for them. This is called a straw purchase, and Mel has prevented quite a few. He alerted the authorities to a Chicago gang that used a friend to purchase forty weapons a month from him and ship them back to Chicago. “People just don’t buy that many of the same gun. It was a neat operation though.” Even more high profile Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attempted to buy weapons from Mel a month before the Columbine shootings. He describes the encounter casually. “They came in here with that blind girl they had and tried to get guns. Usually when those punky lookin’ kids come in, you can tell. I told ‘um to get the fuck out.” His only regret is he was unable to sell the security tape to the media before he turned it in to the authorities.

Mel doesn’t feel guilty for what people do with the guns he sells though. He assumes a tough-guy attitude when discussing his responsibility. “Once it’s out of the shop, it’s their responsibility.” When asked to describe the type of customer he usually receives, the immediate comic response is “weirdos.” From people trying to kill themselves to a woman who wanted a cannon to kill her dog, Dragonman attracts plenty of interesting people. “Most of them don’t pass the background check though,” he assures. There is still plenty of criticism with the guns he does sell. When Andrew Eugene Dorrance shot up a local bar with bullets from Dragonarms, Mel received a lot of flack. “They kept calling me up, saying I was a terrible person. They got my wife crying, but I just hung up on them. You gotta be super-legal to do this job, so I don’t worry.”

He finds much of this resistance frustrating. “This is America! You should have the right to buy anything you want.” When asked what he would say to those who opposed guns on principle, the Dragonman’s response was quick: “I’d tell them to get their heads examined! That’s what Hitler and all those communists wanted to do: take away the guns.” Like many gun rights supporters, he views guns mainly as a means of protection, and one that is necessary for everyone. “Say a robber comes into a house. If the kid watches his parents getting tied up, you’d want that kid to know how to use the gun. You have a right to protect your family.”

And with a firm smack of the table, Mel looks around at the hundreds of weapons that surround him. He has an air of pride when he looks at these guns, a sense of ownership and a sense of rightness. “Really, I’m just a guy trying to make a living.” 

“Yet Another White Guy Thinks He Knows What He’s Talking About”

by Eduardo Gabrieloff

Originally published 03-07-2004

When the speech was over, I approached recent speaker James Heckman, who spoke “in honor of Black History Month,” only to hear what I feared; the man believes that people of color are to blame for the current conditions in the United States. Racism, he believes, is over.

On Thursday, February 21st, James Heckman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, spoke in Gates Commons on “Understanding the Roles of Social Activism and Private Action in Accounting for the Economic Status of Blacks Over the Last Century.” Heckman said he chose the topic because it is something that has interested him for years, and because he was speaking during Black History Month.

Heckman began by explaining that he is somewhere in the middle of this issue; he’s not on the liberal or conservative side of the issue. The Conservative side, he explained, thinks that “The racial gap in earnings between white and black where narrowing at the same rate in the 20 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the 20 years after that.” The liberals, he explained, think that the economic progress was due to the Civil Rights Act.

His argument had four points. First, he said activism by African Americans and steps taken by the government helped. Secondly, policies that expanded freedom opened opportunities to people that African Americans grasped vigorously. Third, that the benefits from the civil rights laws have been exhausted because discrimination is gone, and the disparities today are not caused by discrimination. And last, he said that the social accounting system used to measure black progress is severely flawed because the system does not include people who are not in the workforce.

He showed a list of statistics about African American men in prison. These facts, as he said, are hard for many to believe. According to a U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in 1997 about 30 percent of all black men between the ages of 18 and 39 are in prison. These numbers are alarming.

The way we measure the earnings for people, he explained, does not include people who are taken out of the workforce, including these people in prison. So, the reality of earnings for black people is substantially lower than regularly reported, The Annual Wage and Salary Earnings median is only .06 higher today for African Americans than it was in 1940, according to Heckman’s statistics. Heckman then said that the main source of discrimination for African Americans is not in the workplace. The obvious link here would be that discrimination manifests itself in the justice system, but Heckman made no attempt to discover this link.

Heckman ended his lecture by discussing IQ tests and high school dropout rates, and comparing grades for white students and African American students. He said there is something “I don’t know what,” in the African American family that limits black people’s ability to have a high IQ or obtain good grades in high school.

After this proclamation, he opened the floor to questions. Flora Wilson Bridges, a Riley Scholar for the religion department, raised her hand and began to question his ideas and statistics.

“He wouldn’t have made the statements he made unless he knew people at this school would let him get away with it,” she said later. “I confront racism to survive.” We spoke about Heckman’s insistence that the disparity between whites and black people has nothing to do with racism. “It’s a joke. It was blatant racism, disguised as an intellectual discussion.” I asked her, directly, why she thought he didn’t connect his statistics with racism. “Because he’s a racist.”

When I asked her what she thanks about him being a Nobel Laureate, she described the way people are intimidated by titles. “America bows to titles like Nobel Laureate.” However, she says that she measures intelligence by different standards than many people. She uses “moral intelligence.” “Intelligence is to not brutalize people, because when you do that, it is base ignorance.”

It was apparent when looking at the audience of the lecture that the majority of the people were white. Tim Fuller, when introducing Heckman, said that the lecture was even more relevant at that point because it was Black History Month. To many students, this comes as an insult. Flora said, “Why did the school not get an African American to speak? And why did they let Heckman, a racist from a notoriously racist institution [Univesity of Chicago], come here to abuse a vulnerable people? Why does this institution perpetuate that?”

Leonard Teague, co-chair of the campus Black Student Union, said “It has a lot to do with the school trying to diversify the campus. Bringing him here compromises what this school is trying to do. You know that racism occurs, and he’s trying to say that it doesn’t? It is more indirectly in this generation than in previous generations, but just to say that racism doesn’t occur is completely ridiculous.”

When asked about the campus as a whole, Teague said “there is a notion on this campus that no one wants to deal with racism. To have this guy visit, with his prestige, and say there is no racism, it is like a magnet.” J.T. Garcia, co-chair of the Empowered Queers United for Absolute Liberation says, “A large percentage of the audience that night was white, and that that is representative of Colorado College. It is extraordinarily white. There is a reluctance for people to listen to a challenge of a liberal, white atmosphere.”

This brings up many difficult issues for the campus. Why does the school, with such a commitment to diversity, keep perpetuating racism? Why did the school pay huge amounts of money to bring a white person to bash African Americans? Why does the school lose so many students of color and never question the reasons? Why does institutional racism continue so frequently? As J.T. says, “It’s a feat, every day, to get through class. It’s a feat every day to know that your teacher isn’t on your side.” It is a feat to be a person of color at Colorado College and a stress that I wish I had never had to experience.” 

Local Muslim Community Leader Fights Intolerance Through Education

by Marlaine Gray

Originally published 5-9-2002

The Islamic Society of Colorado Springs is tucked away in a residential district on North Chestnut Street. A long brick building serves as the Mosque. The men worship in the transformed former convenience store, while the women pray in the converted adjacent Laundromat.

Immediately inside the Mosque is a coat rack, two bulletin boards, a table for refreshments, and tacked wooden cubbyholes in which to place shoes. They are empty except for a pair of men’s black dress shoes.

The announcements on the bulletin board relay information about upcoming Mosque and community events. Underneath is the number for a hotline created to “respond to increasing complaints of verbal and physical assaults against Muslims and Arab Americans.” There is also a request for people to support an aid program by giving a dollar a day to “end the sanctions and give life to the Iraqi people.”

The prayer room is sparse. A tapestry containing six clocks is on the wall, showing the five times Muslims pray and the sixth for the Friday service. A black marker line outlines rows on the carpet to align the 70 to 80 men who come in to pray with the east, with Mecca.

“The women pray in a different room which is smaller,” explains Chris Tulp, a Colorado College student who visited the Mosque during his class on Islam. “It has a kitchen in it, so they can provide for the kids, and some toys.”

Arshad Yousufi, past president of the ISCS, remains both a spiritual and secular leader in the Islamic Community of Colorado Springs. Yousufi explains that women must pray behind the men, or in a different room, because “men are so easily distracted.”

In the same breath he emphasizes women’s freedom and opportunities within Islam, citing that over 50% of university graduates in Pakistan, the country he is from, are women.

Today he sits cross-legged in a navy blue wool overcoat and pressed gray slacks in front of a group of CC students, adjusting an overhead projector. In front of him is a binder full of overhead sheets that explain the history, laws, beliefs, and terms of Islam. Today he is also a spiritual educator, clarifying his religion for those who misunderstand.

Yousufi spends a great deal of time correcting media fallacies about Islam. In the past six months he has often taken time to speak with members of the city and of Colorado College. In a “Conversation Between Friends,” Yousufi and Rabbi Irwin Ehrlich from Temple Beit Torah spoke to “share concerns and help dispel misconceptions about religion’s role in these recent events. The conversation focused on responding to Muslim and Arab Americans with tolerance and compassion.”

It is a conversation he will continue to have. Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and the fastest growing religion in the world.  Yet the average American confuses terrorism and media portrayals with its deeper principles. Yousufi agrees that “the media has represented what has happened in Afghanistan correctly, but it is not typical for Islam.”

He likens the American understanding of Islam to that of the three blind mena and the elephant in Aesop’s fable. Each is touching a different part of the elephant, and each has a distinct concept of what the elephant is like. ‘It is like a rope,’ says the man holding the tail. ‘It is like a long, large snake,’ says the man rubbing the trunk. ‘No, it is like the trunk of a tree,’ says the man touching a leg.

“A lot of what I see in the media about Islam reminds me of the elephant,” Yousufi says. “[Americans] have small parts…but they’re missing the whole picture.”

Yousufi believes understanding and tolerance come with education. When asked about how he handled the misconceptions he faced following September 11, he replied with the belief that the best way to achieve peace is through deeper awareness on both sides.”

Yousufi started that “the most important thing is to know and understand Islam, so you know that it is not that different. Or, if it is different… is that difference a threat?”