What the Panthers Meant By Self-Defense: Race, Violence, and Gun Control
NOTE: Portions of this blog post are reformulations of my Master’s Thesis “Picking Up The Gun” completed for the M.St. in U.S. History at the University of Oxford in 2015.
[This is a guest post based on a paper that was presented at the Center’s 2022 Firearms Law Works-In-Progress Workshop.]
The Supreme Court in Bruen continued to advance the cause of the gun rights movement, and race played a role in the decision. Putting aside his comments in his oral argument, which invoked the specter of a certain racial incident implicating New York’s concealed-carry laws, Justice Alito’s concurrence calls attention to the racial impact of New York’s gun licensing scheme. Alito cites an important brief filed by black public defenders who rightly noted that the New York law overwhelmingly criminalized black citizens. As Darrell Miller has noted, gun rights advocates often invoke the racist histories of gun control measures in order to justify striking down regulations. But just because such laws have had a racially disparate effect doesn’t mean that gun control laws are racist per se. Instead, the racially disparate impact of gun laws shows that the U.S. legal system is not just complicit in, but actively facilitates, a racial distribution of harm. The policing, punishment, and imprisonment of communities of color, specifically black communities, is inextricable from the “compounded disadvantage”, structural neglect, and trauma that can follow a bullet leaving a gun. Gun laws and gun violence have represented two sides of a coin in American life: (1) they systematically leave poor people, people of color, and especially poor communities of color vulnerable to harm, while also (2) defining public safety as the assuagement of a white public’s sense of fear.
Gun violence in America is primarily defined by race: look to the shooting in Buffalo, the killing of Jayland Walker, and the firearm homicide rate which during the pandemic climbed to its highest level in decades. Black men are almost 22x as likely to die as white men of the same age. Black women are 5x more likely to die by firearm homicide than white women and across the CDC’s demographic groups, black women saw the sharpest increase in gun deaths. The most recent onslaught of mass shootings (in Uvalde, Highland Park, Denver and Greenwood Park), coupled with deaths by suicide and normalized “everyday” gun violence, reflect the costs of having more guns than people and the consequences of a political ideology focused on the rights of armed individuals. The notion of a personal entitlement to lethal self-defense reveals that the gun rights movement is perfectly willing to let some people die in the name of some people’s sense of safety. In this post, I consider a hallmark example of how race defines and distorts conversations about gun violence: the California state legislature’s response to the armed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
The Black Panthers and the Mulford Act of 1967 are often cited respectively as evidence of the need for black people to arm themselves in a racist America and how legal systems respond to black people who are armed. Both of these understandings shortchange and misrepresent why the Black Panthers carried arms and what their political objective was in doing so. Bearing arms exposed the complicity of a legal system because the Panthers knew that, as Huey Newton wrote in 1973, “if we used the laws in our own interests and against theirs . . . the power structure would simply change the laws.” Plainly, the Panthers were not worshippers of the Second Amendment nor shotgun acolytes. Instead, the Panthers sought the radical transformation of a violent society in which their communities were being routinely attacked on all fronts. Since history and tradition may have an outsized role in how firearms are regulated in America, the Panthers can shed light on the role the state plays in maintaining social inequities that (1) normalize racial subjugation and (2) naturalize forms of violence that have been only exacerbated by the mass proliferation of certain guns.
A nuanced political analysis led the Panthers to invoke Second Amendment rights, but they picked up guns because of the violence of the state. When the police killed Denzil Dowell, an unarmed black man, in April 1967, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale visited Dowell’s family and began an armed police watch. Bay Area police had killed or brutalized numerous unarmed black people in just the prior year. The Panthers monitored police activity and, following the model of the Los Angeles Community Alert Patrol, they documented arrests and brought photographers to capture police stops. These armed acts were only “one form of self-defense”—as Newton wrote, the Panthers project was one of “self-defense against poor medical care, unemployment, slum housing, under-representation in the political process, and other social ills that poor and oppressed people suffer.” This is not to downplay, dismiss, or denigrate the Panthers encouraging black people to arm themselves in order to defend themselves against police violence and/or vigilante terror. There is a long important history of armed black resistance in the U.S. Rather, it is to underscore the Panthers’ explicit concern with state violence and the complicity of the legal system in the myriad harms oppressed people face.
The Panthers challenged the structural neglect of and systematic extraction from poor communities of color. This meant, and means today, re-conceptualizing violence: violence is not just the affirmative act of causing bodily harm, it’s perpetual surveillance, defunding of schools, and mass criminalization that leads to mass incarceration. It’s the churn of America’s prisons and jails which devastates communities, leads to people being unable to obtain jobs because they have a criminal record, fuels concentrated poverty, and creates conditions that exacerbate interpersonal conflicts insidiously impacting every aspect of life. The Black Panthers acted in self-defense against these systems, cycles, and structures; their political strategy of bearing arms cannot be divorced from these concerns.
This conception of self-defense is what got the Panthers in trouble. In response to calls from the Oakland community, the Panthers—armed—directed traffic outside of Santa Fe Elementary School. As Bobby Seale recounts, “kids were getting hurt and killed regularly” by motorists. When the Panthers inquired of the city council whether a stoplight could be put in place, they found out that the city had already approved a traffic light for the intersection but the light would not be installed for a full year. The Panthers started arriving at the intersection, with their guns, to stop traffic when schoolchildren needed to pass. An alarmed driver called the police, who soon showed up, berated the Panthers, and began directing traffic themselves. As Panther Joan Tarika Lewis has recalled, the traffic light was installed within several months—much sooner than the original construction date—and, as Newton explained, “the purpose was served.”
That same month, the Panthers stood outside Walter Helms Junior High School. A group of mothers had arranged to meet with the principal because of a long-standing and pervasive problem of white school officials using physical violence on schoolchildren as a form of discipline. On April 11th—according to a memo requested by Assemblyman Mulford—a boy “had been misbehaving and the school authorities had obtained permission from the boy and his guardian to discipline him.” When the boy returned home, his mother immediately took him to the doctor: her son’s head was badly bruised. At the request of “three carloads of mothers”, on April 17th the Panthers stood outside the junior high school as black parents met with the principal. A patrolling police officer took note of the Panthers and called for backup, including the Chief of Police. Huey Newton let the police officers know that he—and the Panthers—were exercising their legal right to bear arms. Before police officers could decide how to respond, the parents finished their meeting and left with the Panthers. Days later, according to Mulford’s records, 300 of the 1500 students at Helms were kept out of school by their parents in protest. Soon after, Mulford—with the help of the National Rifle Association—introduced state gun control legislation banning the carrying of loaded firearms in public.
Assemblyman Mulford publicly emphasized the race-neutral nature of the legislation: he said that it sought to restrict white supremacist groups like the KKK as much as it did black groups like the Panthers. Some have emphasized this framing to suggest that the NRA in the late 1960s was developing a general stance against extremist groups obtaining firearms. But the legislation the NRA actually helped write was based on data and reports about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. During the drafting process, Mulford collected volumes of information about the Panthers. Mulford received newspaper clippings, personnel files, and internal police records; he requested information on the Panthers’ recruitment meetings and protests; he was influenced by letters from fearful white constituents and by the media frenzy surrounding the presence of armed Panthers in public places. The Mulford Act—an already drafted piece of legislation that was specifically expanded after the Panthers showed up armed at the California state capitol on May 2nd—was signed by Governor Reagan by the end of July 1967. But the crux of the Mulford Act was created in response to the problem of what the Panthers meant by “self-defense”: monitoring the police and challenging the racial capitalist status quo.
The Panthers’ platform was radical, revolutionary and responsive: it sought to defend the community from violence, expose the systematic distributions of harm, and create a world where all people had food to eat, a place to sleep, and could be safe. As Curtis Austin, Donna Murch, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Peniel Joseph, Robyn Spencer, and Sean Malloy have all emphasized: the Black Panthers were an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist organization committed to the radical transformation of society. While different chapters of the Party and different historical moments involved certain political shifts, it’s important to note that (from the Panthers’ founding) armed self-defense was about defending communities from the various forms of violence that the U.S. legal system routinely facilitates. To use the Panthers as emblems of the gun debate in America means recognizing their political analysis and organizing strategy. The Panthers didn’t venerate the Constitution or revere the Second Amendment; they studied constitutional and criminal law closely because they knew that policymakers were invested in making white citizens feel safe, not prioritizing the well-being of all.
Firearm regulation, policing and criminalization, and other legal forms of subjection all underwrite the unequal society that is America; a society that systematically leaves some people extremely vulnerable to trauma and injury. Making sense of America’s gun culture, the “gun debate”, and violence in American life is impossible without accounting for who the armed individual imagines they—in self-defense—might need to shoot. Creating a safe world for us all means refusing a legal system that has been, and continues to be, shaped by some people’s sense of safety at the expense of, largely, black lives. We don’t have to live in, and deserve better than, a subway shooter’s world.