The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police.
Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale decided to fight back. Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was ‘either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property’ of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves ‘by whatever means necessary.’ Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. ‘Article number two of the constitutional amendments,’ Malcolm X argued, ‘provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.’
Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that ‘the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.’ They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley. In time, the Panther arsenal included machine guns; an assortment of rifles, handguns, explosives, and grenade launchers; and ‘boxes and boxes of ammunition,’ recalled Elaine Brown, one of the party’s first female members, in her 1992 memoir. Some of this matériel came from the federal government: one member claimed he had connections at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, who would sell the Panthers anything for the right price. One Panther bragged that, if they wanted, they could have bought an M48 tank and driven it right up the freeway.
Along with providing classes on black nationalism and socialism, Newton made sure recruits learned how to clean, handle, and shoot guns. Their instructors were sympathetic black veterans, recently home from Vietnam. For their ‘righteous revolutionary struggle,’ the Panthers were trained, as well as armed, however indirectly, by the U.S. government.
The Panthers, however, took it to an extreme, carrying their guns in public, displaying them for everyone—especially the police—to see. Newton had discovered, during classes at San Francisco Law School, that California law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible, and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way.
In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. ‘I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,’ he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school.
‘Who in the hell do you think you are?’ an officer responded.
‘Who in the hell do you think you are?,’ Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.
Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.
‘What are you going to do with that gun?’ asked one of the stunned policemen.
‘What are you going to do with your gun?,’ Newton replied.
By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, ‘If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.’ Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.
The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the ‘baddest motherfucker in the world.’ Newton’s message was clear: ‘The gun is where it’s at and about and in.’ After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice.
Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city. When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.’ Seale was incredulous. ‘The Capitol?’ Newton explained: ‘Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.’ Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers ‘loaded down to the gills,’ to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control.
I posted this in response to the following article where the new right wing excuse is to blame hippies for gun control or some such.