Remember When a Black Militia Group Occupied a Government Building Nearly 50 Years Ago

Armed members of the Black Panthers Party stand in the corridor of the Capitol in Sacramento today, May 2, 1967.  They were protesting  a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public.  (AP Photo/Walt Zeboski)
Armed members of the Black Panthers Party stand in the corridor of the Capitol in Sacramento today, May 2, 1967. They were protesting a bill before an Assembly committee restricting the carrying of arms in public. (AP Photo/Walt Zeboski)

Nearly 50 years ago, a group of armed Black Panthers entered the California state Capitol to protest a gun control bill.When armed militants seized a government building in Burns, Oregon, on Saturday, stating their willingness to “kill and be killed” and promising to stay for “years,” the official response was cautious and restrained. Many onlookers wondered whether this would still be the case if the militants were people of color instead of white people.

If you’re not familiar with the history of protest in the U.S., you might not know that the armed occupation of government buildings hasn’t always been just for white guys. In fact, on May 2, 1967, a group of 30 Black Panthers walked into the California state Capitol building, toting rifles and shotguns and quickly garnering national headlines.

Just to be clear, there are a world of differences between the Black Panthers’ demonstration and what’s happening in Oregon now (although it is noteworthy that you have to go back to 1967 to find an example of something even remotely analogous). The two groups employed different tactics, fought for different causes and — predictably — elicited different reactions in vastly different places and times. But the 1967 incident serves as one example of the way Americans tend to respond to black protest — which some say is always likely to be vastly different from the way Americans react when it’s white people doing the protesting.

In October 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense as a small community organization based in Oakland, California. Its members — including the 30 people who would travel to Sacramento the following May — believed that black Americans should exercise their constitutional right to defend themselves against an oppressive U.S. government. At the time, California lawmakers were trying to strip them of that right, and the Black Panthers wanted to tell the U.S., and the world, that they found this unacceptable.

Among other things, the Black Panthers’ agenda involved taking up arms and patrolling their communities to protect against rampant racism in policing. And that’s what they did in the first few months of the party’s existence, carrying guns openly in compliance with California law, driving around their neighborhoods, observing arrests and other law enforcement activity — effectively policing the police. Newton was even known for packing a law book alongside his rifle that he’d recite from when informing an officer that a civilian’s rights were being violated.

The patrols weren’t meant to encourage violence. The Panthers were committed to using force only if it was used against them, and at first, their mere presence appeared to be working as a check on abusive policing. But the Panthers’ willful assertion of their rights — like the day Newton reportedly stood up to a cop in front of a crowd of black onlookers — was unacceptable to white authority figures who’d come to expect complete deference from black communities, and who were happy to use fear and force to extract it.

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Source: Huffington Post | Nick Wing