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.”
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)
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)