Social Justice, Libertarianism

“What are you going to do with your gun?”

Black Panthers

Black Panthers at the California Capitol

The most recent issue of The Atlantic has a fascinating article by Adam Winkler on “The Secret History of Guns.”  It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I was especially impressed by Winkler’s account of the role played by the Black Panthers in opposing gun control in the late 1960s.  The article begins with a brief account of the Panthers’ famous 1967 demonstration at the California state Capitol, where around 30 young black men and women showed up carrying “.357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45 caliber pistols” — loaded.

But an even more striking anecdote involves an encounter between Huey Newton and the Oakland police.  Newton had discovered during his time in law school that carrying guns openly in public was legal, and the Panthers began doing so as a matter of course.

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.

The altercation continued, drawing a crowd of onlookers.  And even after Newton (loudly) informed the officers that “if you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine,” the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.  Newton was correct – they hadn’t committed any crime.

For the Black Panthers, the right to own and carry weapons was more than just an important civil liberty – it was the guarantor of liberty, the last effective block against tyranny.  The gun, they claimed “is the only thing that will free us – gain us our liberation.”  On the Capitol steps, Bobby Seale proclaimed that

The American people in general and the black people in particular [must] … take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless. Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.

In addition to openly carrying their firearms in public, 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.

For me, this article provides a dramatic illustration of a fundamental theme of bleeding heart libertarianism: the special importance of liberty for oppressed and marginalized groups.  Today, we see opposition to gun control as a primarily white, male, Republican issue.  But it was exactly that white, male, Republican group that was the most vociferous in supporting gun control when the people carrying the guns were young, black, militant men and women.  The suppression of liberty in the case of guns – much like the suppression of liberty in the case of drugs – was largely motivated by racist fears about the abuse of that liberty by the “other.”  And even if the suppression of liberty is perfectly general in form, it is almost always the marginalized “other” who suffers most by its loss.

This isn’t to say that the Panthers were right that the gun is the only thing that would win them liberation.  I’m far from an expert on the relevant history, but from where I stand  Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance seems to have had a much greater influence as a political strategy than the Panthers’ more confrontational approach.  Still, even if gun ownership was strategically insignificant, it’s worth considering its symbolic importance.

An armed policeman confronting a disarmed civilian is the picture of inequality.  In the face of such inequality, citizens can request that the police respect their rights, regardless of the fact that it is clearly in their power not to do so.  But by openly carrying firearms, the Panthers did two things: they made vivid the generally peaceful and responsible exercise of liberty by young blacks, in contrast to the daily, terrible abuse of that very same liberty by the police.  And, second, they showed that they viewed their rights as something to be demanded as a matter of justice, not requested as a an exercise of charity.  That is a sentiment that ought to resonate with libertarians, especially bleeding heart libertarians, more than it currently seems to.

You can read more from Adam Winkler in his book, Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

  • Hyena

    If you did that today, they’d shoot you for “being a threat”.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting post, and I am a gun owner who cherishes this right of self-defense. One quibble, however. You say: “But it was exactly that white, male, Republican group that was the most vociferous in supporting gun control when the people carrying the guns were young, black, militant men and women.” I have followed the politics of this issue for about the last 35 years (I am dating myself), including the activities of the NRA. The NRA membership consists overwhelmingly I would say of white, male, Republicans. It is a powerful political force, but so far as I can remember has NEVER favored gun control generally or for any particular minority. Nor can I remember any significant Republican politician favoring some tailor-made version of gun control designed to take guns out the hands of minorities. Maybe you have evidence for your claim that I am missing–what is it please?

    • Did you read the article?

      • Anonymous

        No (unfortunately), but I have now, and readily admit that the author describes events of the mid-to-late 1960s of which I was unaware. Having said this, I am still not sure you are entitled to your generalization. The article largely relates to the activities of the Black Panthers in California in 1967, and your statement is considerably broader than that (at least I didn’t understand it as relating only to the California Panthers of 1967).

        Also, the article makes clear that federal gun control legislation in the 1960s had broad bipartisan support, as was required to pass laws through a Congress controlled by Democrats. Furthermore,  the suppresion of black gun rights in the Jim Crow South is the responsibility of the Democrats, who were in control. Finally, the author does not claim that the NRA ever favored legislation that discriminated against blacks.

        • I claimed that “it was exactly that white, male, Republican group that was the most vociferous in supporting gun control when the people carrying the guns were young, black, militant men and women.”  I think there’s reasonable textual support for this claim in the article: in its account of Mulford and Reagan’s support of gun control, for instance.  I’ll grant you that the disarmament of Southern blacks was more a Democratic policy than a Republican, though the “white” and “male” shoes still fit.  Racism seems to have been a major driving force in the movement, and to have had ample support from both political parties.

          • Tykenek Wright

             I find it interesting to note that you added a slightly  off subject personal opinion to bring in the subject of “white racism”, while “black racism” was not mentioned once. This is an odd omission since the majority of the article is about the Black Panthers, which  is well known to be a highly racist organization. Usually, if a writer manages to find a good thing to say about a racist group, for instance, Skinheads, it is generally surrounded by a tidal wave of derogatory statements. The absence of that here speaks volumes.

          • Michael Breuker

            And let’s not forget how the parties have changed. The “southern, white, male, conservative” who supported racist government policies prior to civil rights were democrats. The party itself changed, and so the southern, white, male, conservative politicians switched parties, pushing out the “Lincoln Republicans” and forming the religious-conservative “states rights” driven GOP we see today. The history of all of that is complicated, but it is important to remember when referring things that the democrat or republican parties did in the 50s and 60s because the parties just aren’t the same anymore. It is important to learn from the actions that were taken, but which party took those actions is not as relevant.

        • Damien S.

          The Democrats of those times are the Republican base of today.

        • R.L. Styne

          Anything they can do to bash white male Republicans, they will, Mark.

  • We need to remember that the NRA changed a lot in 1977, at the “revolt in Cincinnati” when the rank and file threw out the previous leadership by types we’d now call “Fudds” – the “hunting and sporting” crowd.  Neal Knox and Alan Gottlieb were two of the ringleaders wanting to push the NRA in a direction that would support self defense as a primary mission.  Gottlieb is now head of the Second Amendment Foundation and working with some very distinctly Libertarian attorneys such as Alan Gura is taking a view completely compatible with the Panther’s early views.

    As to the Panthers.  They absolutely started out right.  Their problems really started as a result of a fundraising drive.  They found a cheap source for copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” somewhere and realized they could sell them on the UC Berkeley campus for double what they paid.  It was capitalism at it’s finest: buy a book on “revolution” from hey, actual “revolutionaries”!  Brilliant.

    ‘Cept then they did something stupid.  They actually opened the damn things up themselves and read it.  Ooops.  And that was the start of their downfall :).

  • Fernando Teson

    Sorry, Matt, but this doesn’t do it for me. Gun control is not  one my issues, but a photo of armed Maoist militants is not the best way to advertise whatever good libertarian arguments there may be against gun control.

    • I kind of thought that might be your reaction. 🙂  

      Of course, I don’t sympathize with their Maoism either.  But that aspect of their ideology seems pretty irrelevant to this issue.  They were speaking up for a group of people who had suffered what just about any plausible theory of justice would regard as oppression.  And if *that* kind of oppression doesn’t justify the carrying of arms, I wonder what would?  Would the suffering of the American colonists?

      • Fernando Teson

        Two points:
        No, I don’t think that the situation of African-Americans in the mid-1960 warranted armed rebellion.
        But more important, the Black Panther’s Maoist ideology was far from irrelevant. It showed that they were not principled: they cared about what they saw as THEIR mistreatment, not about mistreating people generally, since had they been given political power, they would have mistreated everyone else (as Mao was doing even as this picture was taken.) In other words, when a Black Panther says “I’m against oppression” he doesn’t mean what a liberal means by the same utterance. What the Black Panther means is “I’m trying to overthrow people who have power over me so when I reach power I can oppress millions.”
        Romanticizing violent groups is not the way to make the argument against gun control. Not only are the premises of the argument flawed, but strategically this plays right into the hands of gun control advocates.

        • Just to clarify, I asked if it warranted the “carrying of arms,” not “armed rebellion.”  I think that’s a pretty important difference.

          As for your point about the Panthers and Maoism, I concede that the implementation of a Maoist system involves its own form of oppression.  But that doesn’t mean that what the BP’s identified as the oppression of blacks was *not* oppression, nor does it mean that they were not justified in combating it. 
          I don’t think the BPs should be romanticized either.  Their Maoism is not defensible.  Nor are some of their specific acts of violence.  But demonization is as much a distortion of reality as romanticism. 

        • Damien S.

          Being denied the right to vote, being denied jobs and good housing, and being treated as second class citizens doesn’t justify armed rebellion?

          • Fernando Teson

            I don’t have anything new to say about that old debate; I’m content to rest on Martin Luther King’s arguments.

          • Damien S.

            Didn’t he say “they listen to me because they know Malcolm X is the alternative”?

            And what if MLK’s methods hadn’t worked?

  • I suspect that every single year more African Americans have their liberty curtailed in the most drastic way imaginable – when they are shot dead by people using guns, even legally owned guns – than ever had their liberty advanced by the Black Panthers.

    • Really? Because to say so is to say that the Black Panthers did NOTHING for the African-American community at large. Now, the Panthers were before my time, but I’ve heard quite a bit about them from the generation before mine, who seem to look at them in much the same way that Mr. Zwolinski does – extremists, but people who were willing to stand up to a society that didn’t seem to have a problem with murder as means of social control.

      Firearms are a problem in a segment of the African American community. Name for me one community for which this is not true. But to say that the answer to this is allow a certain group of people to monopolize violence (and most of the effective defenses against same) and then hope that this never bites you in the butt seems to be wishful thinking. Better is to work for a society where people condemn violence even when they are the beneficiaries of whatever its results are. Simply increasing restrictions on guns does nothing to advance that cause.

    • Many situations do unfortunately continue where blacks are shot dead.  Gangs in impoverished neighborhoods.  Innocent bystanders catching stray bullets during fights over drug turf due to the War on Drugs making narcotics artificially lucrative. And, of course, those nuts walking around in matching uniforms with badges…

      Is the gun really the issue, rather than the reasons people point them at each other?

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  • Anonymous

    Matt, thanks for posting the link to the article and your thoughts. 

    It’s interesting how polarizing the 2nd amendment is. I think suspect there’s an interesting connection here with how people view rights (inherent versus granted/specified).

    I also think it’s interesting that few here seem to have paid attention to:

    OPPOSITION TO GUN CONTROL was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. 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.

    (Emphasis added)

    As Hyena aludes, it’s clear that we have a serious problem with police abusing their power as well as an institutional bias of police being above the law. Anyone who peruses Radley’s  blog will be familiar with the issues. 

  • Anonymous

    How do we know that cop was a Republican?
    “International Union of Police Associations – AFL-CIO chartered union uniquely for law enforcement and support personnel”
    “The I.U.P.A’s history started in 1954……”

    • We don’t, or at least, I don’t.  My claim was about the political response to the Panthers, not the police officer’s.

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  • white fear of black revolution; black fear of white subjugation – cops with guns, lynch mobs with guns and the overwhelming large white majority. who can wonder that fear and desire for self determination prompted young black men to embrace guns as both a symbol of power and as a powerful tool; or that members of the white majority would react with one of their tools of power to try and counter that action:  legislation and police.  But what comment does this make about the right to carry guns?  many people, whether white and replublican or black and maoist or any other combination, many people want to employ power on their own behalf, and when that power works against them they react against it; guns certainly fall into those designs of power for many – but again what do these anecdotes say about the RIGHT to own guns.  very little to me.  Constitutional Libertarianism is a thing which stands above anecdotes and the choices of mobs or of social movements. it is a thing of principle based in maximizing individual free action, but it is not anarchy.  there must always be a balance there to protect the minority.  democracy must be free, it must be of the people, but it can never trample the rights of the minority whether or not they can defend themselves.

  • I would not go near Adam Winkler’s book Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America without double-gloving and a face mask. It’s a piece of blatantly duplicitous and absolutely rotten “scholarship” that approaches the issue of the individual right to keep and bear arms from the perspective of (and to the purposes of) an advocate of unrestricted government infringement of that right.

    Winkler is yet another of the enemies of individual freedom and a worshiper of government power. Therefore – and in no uncertain terms – to hell with him.

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  • Danllo

    Let me help you to understand a commonly overlooked nuance. When you say, “… from where I stand Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance seems to have had a much greater influence as a political strategy than the Panthers’ more confrontational approach. ”

    The powers that be were motivated to work with MLK’s non violent approach once they saw Malcolm X’s and the Black Panther Party’s armed and violent approach to gain their rights. With out these groups, MLK’s movement would have largely been suppressed and ignored.

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