Ferguson (MO) Circa 2014, California Circa 1967, the Death of Denzil Dowell, the Black Panther Party, and Open Carry Laws

Black-Panther-Party-armed-guards-in-street-shotgunsBy Elaine Magliaro

Nearly fifty years ago, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale established the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. According to Steve Wasserman of The Nation, the two “brash upstarts” from Oakland, California “quickly garnered a reputation for their willingness to stand up to police harassment and worse. They’d made a practice of shadowing the cops, California Penal Code in one hand, twelve-gauge shotgun in the other.” Charles Pierce (Esquire) said that in those days “the police were knocking off black folks with an alarming regularity.” In 1967—about six months after Seale and Newton established the Black Panther Party–“a black man named Denzil Dowell was blown away by a shotgun wielded by the police in North Richmond, an impoverished, largely black suburban community outside Oakland.”

Steve Wasserman reported that the police said that Dowell, a construction worker, “had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the back and head; they claimed that he had been caught burglarizing a liquor store and, when ordered to halt, had failed to do so.” Wasserman said that the “coroner’s report told a different story.” Dowell’s body “bore six bullet holes”—and “there was reason to believe Dowell had been shot while surrendering with his hands raised high.” Dowell’s mother believed that the police had murdered her son—but an all-white jury found that the young man’s death was “justifiable homicide.” Wasserman said that many people in North Richmond didn’t agree with the jury’s decision.

Wasserman wrote that soon after the trial, Newton and Seale started “meeting with the Dowell family, investigating the facts of the case, holding street-corner rallies, confronting officials, arguing that only by taking up arms could the black community put a stop to police brutality. Newton and Seale were fearless and cocky—even reckless, some felt—and itching for a fight.” One Sunday, while Newton was at the Dowell’s house, police came knocking at the door. When Mrs. Dowell opened the door, Newton later recalled, “a policeman pushed his way in, asking questions. I grabbed my shotgun and stepped in front of her, telling him either to produce a search warrant or leave. He stood for a minute, shocked, then ran out to his car and drove off.” Wasserman said that Newton felt emboldened after that confrontation—and that both he and Seale planned a rally that “would prove unforgettable.”

Wasserman quoted an excerpt from Joshua Bloom’s book Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party to explain what happened next:

The Panthers showed up armed and in uniform and closed off the street. Word had spread and almost four hundred people of all ages came. Many working-class and poor black people from North Richmond were there. They wanted to know how to get some measure of justice for Denzil Dowell and in turn how to protect themselves and their community from police attacks. People lined both sides of the block. Some elderly residents brought lawn chairs to sit in while they listened. Some of the younger generation climbed on cars.

Several police cars arrived on the scene, but…kept their distance. A Contra Costa County helicopter patrolled above. According to a sheriff’s spokesman, the department took no other action because the Panthers broke no laws and, as required, displayed their weapons openly. Neighbors showed up with their own guns…. One young woman who had been sitting in her car got out and held up her M-1 for everyone to see. The Panthers passed out applications to join their party, and over three hundred people filled them out. According to FBI informant Earl Anthony, he “had never seen Black men command the respect of the people the way that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale did that day.”

Yet, these black men and women who carried their guns openly—which was legal in California back in 1967—weren’t hailed as heroes…as were the followers of Cliven Bundy, a white man and scofflaw who recently had an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. No, according to Charles Pierce, the black men and women who open carried back in the day “scared the bejesus out of white people, and the cops weren’t too enthusiastic about it, either.” Those black folks with guns were, in fact, the incentive that led a Republican state assemblyman named Don Mulford to propose “a bill that would ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public throughout California.”

Wasserman wrote:

Several days after Dowell’s death, alarmed by the Panthers’ growing prominence, California legislator Donald Mulford introduced a bill to ban the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Newton responded by upping the ante and in early May dispatched thirty Panthers, most of them armed, to Sacramento, the state capital. They were to show up at the capitol building as the bill was being debated. The police confiscated their guns soon after they arrived but later returned them, as the Panthers had broken no laws. The Mulford Act passed. The Panthers were instantly notorious, and images of their armed foray were splashed across the nation’s newspapers and shown on television. It was a PR coup. Soon thousands of young blacks joined the party, and by the end of 1968 seventeen Panther chapters had opened across the country. One enthusiast, quoted in a major feature story in The New York Times Magazine, spoke for many when he said: “As far as I’m concerned it’s beautiful that we finally got an organization that don’t walk around singing. I’m not for all this talking stuff. When things start happening I’ll be ready to die if that’s necessary and it’s important that we have somebody around to organize us.” 


Speaking in language that today would make Wayne LaPierre cry like a child — the NRA of the time was curiously supportive of the Act in question — Don Mulford said he was proposing his law to keep us safe from “nuts with guns,” especially the ones who lived in “urban environments.” (No, you don’t need the Enigma machine to decode that one.) The law passed. Governor Reagan signed it, and that’s how history was made.

NOTE: I know my post hasn’t touched on the subject of Michael Brown’s death and what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. I thought some of you might make a connection. Do you think there is one to be made?


The Ghost Of Ronald Reagan (Esquire)

Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers—A new history of the party is too close to its subject, and misses the human drama. (The Nation)

Cliven Bundy, Patrolling Militia Groups in Nevada, and Sovereign Citizens (Flowers for Socrates)

Sean Hannity, Jon Stewart, and That Racist, Gun Totin’ Welfare Queen Cliven Bundy (Videos) (Flowers for Socrates)



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7 Responses to Ferguson (MO) Circa 2014, California Circa 1967, the Death of Denzil Dowell, the Black Panther Party, and Open Carry Laws

  1. Annie says:

    How would it be received if the protesters in Ferguson walked around open carrying like in the Bundy Ranch protests? Why did the Feds hold their fire, why did they not fire tear gas canisters, use smoke bombs, loud sound weapons? Why were those people treated a differently? Because they were white and all were loaded for bear? How about those Tea Party protesters proudly open carrying their guns durin all those Tea Party rallies? The double standard is very apparant.

  2. swarthmoremom says:

    “The double standard is very important” Yep, Today, someone with a knife was shot and killed.

  3. James Knauer says:

    Given German police fired all of 86 bullets last year and half of those were warning shots, we are left with boys pretending to be men who like to shoot. The Ferguson cops didn’t choose their race but they are sure choosing which stereotypes to persist in the present. If you have to shoot six times at an unarmed person, even one who is “bullrushing” (whatever that is), it’s because you were already terrified out of executing Plans A – Y. And that terror was there long before the first 911 call arrived in Ferguson.

    Only dash cams and head cams and unholy lawsuits are going to have any hope of denting this Papers, Please mentality the cops have. And the advice from a 17-year vet from the LAPD? Do as I’m told or get hurt.


  4. swarthmoremom says:

    http://www.opb.org/news/series/gunstories/within-gun-restricted-germany-firearms-are-a-privilege-not-a-right-/ “In Germany, you have to have a good reason for owning a gun, like if you’re a sport shooter, hunter or in rare cases, a gun collector. You can’t buy a firearm simply for personal protection—self-defense doesn’t count as a necessity here. The yearlong licensing process involves written tests and shooting practice, and costs several thousand Euros. Every applicant is background checked. And starting this year, every gun owner is tracked on a national register.”

    • James Knauer says:

      Swarthmoremom, why do you think we never see any women pulling triggers? It’s so stark, and yet we never discuss it. Half the population is missing from the conversation. Whither the imbalance and why can’t we talk about it, do you suppose?

      Thank you for the link!

  5. swarthmoremom says:


    FERGUSON, Missouri—”Talk to anyone in Ferguson and you’ll hear a story about the police. “One of my friends had a son killed by the Ferguson Police Department, about 10 years ago,” said Carl Walker, a Vietnam veteran and former parole officer who came to show his support for demonstrators in Ferguson. “They wouldn’t release the name of the officer who killed him. Why wouldn’t you release the name?”
    Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

    Jamelle Bouie is a Slate staff writer covering politics, policy, and race.

    “The cops said he shot at them—case closed,” said Al Cole, referring to a cousin who was killed by Ferguson police in 2000. “Even as a teenager, 13 or 14 years old, I’ve been slammed on police cars … now I try to avoid riding through Ferguson.”

    “Some police say they saw me at a house, pulled me, said I fit a description, locked me up, and found out I was on parole,” said Craig Beck, who was watching demonstrators under the shade of a burned-out QuikTrip convenience store. “They said I threw a plastic baggie, which they didn’t have when they took me into custody.” He continues: “I beat the case, but you know, this isn’t new. This happens every day.”

    Everyone—or at least, every black person—can recall an incident. Everyone can attest to friends and relatives who have been harassed, assaulted, or worse by the police.”

  6. Elaine M. says:

    The NRA once supported gun control
    It may seem hard to believe, but for decades the organization helped write federal laws restricting gun use
    Steven Rosenfeld, Alternet
    Jan 14, 2013

    In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA labels as the height of tryanny. The 17th Amendment outlawing alchohol became law in 1920 and was soon followed by the emergence of big city gangsters who outgunned the police by killing rivals with sawed-off shotguns and machine guns—today called automatic weapons.

    In the early 1920s, the National Revolver Association—the NRA’s handgun training counterpart—proposed model legislation for states that included requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon, adding five years to a prison sentence if a gun was used in a crime, and banning non-citizens from buying a handgun. They also proposed that gun dealers turn over sales records to police and created a one-day waiting period between buying a gun and getting it—two provisions that the NRA opposes today.

    Nine states adopted these laws: West Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Oregon, California, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Connecticut. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association had been working to create uniform state laws, and built upon the proposal but made the waiting period two days. Nine more states adopted it: Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

    State gun control laws were not controversial—they were the norm. Within a generation of the country’s founding, many states passed laws banning any citizen from carrying a concealed gun. The cowboy towns that Hollywood lionized as the ‘Wild West’ actually required all guns be turned in to sheriffs while people were within local city limits. In 1911, New York state required handgun owners to get a permit, following an attempted assassination on New York City’s mayor. (Between 1865 and 1901, three presidents had been killed by handguns: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley.) But these laws were not seen as effective against the Depression’s most violent gangsters….

    The legal doctrine of gun rights balanced by gun controls held for nearly a half-century.

    In November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy with an Italian military surplus rifle that Owsald bought from a mail-order ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. In congressional hearings that soon followed, NRA Executive Vice-President Frankin Orth supported a ban in mail-order sales, saying, “We do think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”

    But no new federal gun control laws came until 1968. The assassinations of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were the tipping point, coming after several summers of race-related riots in American cities. The nation’s white political elite feared that violence was too prevalent and there were too many people—especially urban Black nationalists—with access to guns. In May 1967, two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill, prompting then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to comment, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

    The Gun Control Act of 1968 reauthorized and deepened the FDR-era gun control laws. It added a minimum age for gun buyers, required guns have serial numbers and expanded people barred from owning guns from felons to include the mentally ill and drug addicts. Only federally licensed dealers and collectors could ship guns over state lines. People buying certain kinds of bullets had to show I.D. But the most stringent proposals—a national registry of all guns (which some states had in colonial times) and mandatory licenses for all gun carriers—were not in it. The NRA blocked these measures. Orth told America Riflemen magazine that while part of the law “appears unduly restrictive, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

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