May 2, 2021, marks the 54th commemoration of 29 Black Panther Party members and supporters converging on the California State Capitol in Sacramento, armed with guns, to protest the pending Mulford bill legislation to make carrying guns in public illegal. Don Mulford, a racist state senator from racist Mill Valley in the Bay Area, sponsored this bill, with full backing from the National Rifle Association (NRA). At that time, carrying guns in public in California was often as common as carrying a boombox was in the 90s. Still, it wasn’t until Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale started organizing the young Black Panther organization in Oakland to engage in armed patrols of the police that the issue of carrying guns became an issue. The Panthers were interested in challenging the rampant police terrorism that was dominant then, and is still dominant today. Huey, Bobby, and other Panthers would patrol around Oakland, following police cars. When the police got out of their cars to harass African people, as they always did, the carload of Black Panthers would stop, get out with their guns, and recite the proper laws to the Africans being harassed. When the police challenged the Panthers for carrying guns, they would not back down. Instead, they would make it quite clear to the police that if any effort was made to disarm the Panthers, they would defend themselves and the community from attack.
There were high profile incidents like the Panthers showing up armed at the San Francisco airport in late 1966 to escort Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, to an interview at Ramparts magazine in town. Reporters and police challenged the Panthers that day and Huey Newton showed the world how fearless and determined he was to stand up for African rights. Incidents like this one placed the young Panther organization in the sights of local and federal law enforcement agencies. The Mulford Act was a carefully designed and supported measure to cripple the Panther’s ability to perform their armed patrols.
To protest this racist effort, the Panthers coordinated showing up at the capitol on May 2, 1967. Those 29 brave Africans were armed with long rifles, pistols, and every type of gun they could get their hands on. Their intent was simply to wage a protest against the state legislature against the Mulford bill. As they approached the capitol in disciplined formation, it was clear that this would not be a quiet protest. Then governor Ronald Reagan was on the lawn of the capitol speaking to a group of primarily European school children. The children saw the Panthers and thought they were another gun club. The children surrounded the Panthers to ask them questions about their guns. Meanwhile, cowboy super hero Ronald Reagan saw the armed Africans and took off running, leaving the children behind with the Panthers. So much for his Hollywood crafted image as a strong man role model.
The Panthers made their way into the capitol and Bobby Seale read the prepared statement about protecting African people from police terrorism. The Panthers were unsure where to go to observe the legislature in action so they inadvertently (at the advice of a reporter) wandered onto the floor of the legislature which by policy was not open to the public.
The day ended with the Panthers arrested blocks from the capitol for the transgression of entering the legislative chambers. The Mulford bill passed easily, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned up the heat on its illegal campaign to destroy the Panthers and the entire African liberation movement. What we should take from the Panthers action 50 years ago is that African people have always stood up against oppression and that we have done so as Malcolm X instructed “by any means necessary!” This is a critical point because the Panthers bold stance with the guns, although overwhelmingly criticized since it happened, changed the thinking of the African masses. After the Panther patrols, much of the fear was wiped away. The image of these young fearless Africans standing down racist police with their own guns energized the psyche of the African masses. Even today, when police terrorism is still a serious problem, the attitude of the Africans masses is much different than it was 50 years ago. The fact this is also the 25 commemoration of the Los Angeles rebellion is further proof of that. Our people are still dis-organized, but we are definitely no longer afraid. And Huey P. and the Panthers deserve much of the credit for that.
Also, their action should highlight for anyone confused how racist and contradictory the NRA has always been and continues to be. Clearly, they stand for gun rights only if you are rich and white. And, any African who would be an NRA member should change their last name to confused. Our responsibility today is to build on the Panthers legacy of community organizing so that we can build up and create a community consciousness around protecting ourselves and challenging this backward society in an organized fashion. When we can do that, no bill or law will be able to stop us and we will have the power we desperately need and deserve.