Copwatching and Its Connection to Gun Control
The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
Copwatching and Its Connection to Gun Control
Yes, we do defend our office as we do defend our homes. This is a constitutional right everybody has, and nothing’s funny about that. The only reason they get mad at the Black Panther Party when you do it is for the simple reason that we’re political.
—Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was murdered in his sleep by the Chicago police and the FBI, December 4, 1969
More than anything else, the debate over the Second Amendment and guns has revolved around race and profits.
While usually framed as “sportsmen” and “self-defense” issues, neither, in fact, has been a primary animating force within the politics of the promotion of gun ownership and the relaxing of gun-control laws. The decisions, by both state and federal governments, have, in almost every case, had far more to do with race or money.
California in the 1960s, for example, and its governor Ronald Reagan were largely in favor of the ability of anybody who wanted to own a gun not only to own that gun but also to carry and wave it around in public, even if it was loaded.
But the first major modern-era rumblings of a white freak-out about Black people owning and carrying guns began in a big way in February 1967.
That month, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton walked out of the Black Panthers’ office in Oakland with, as Seale recounted in his book Seize the Time, a .45 pistol, a .357 pistol, “a couple of M-1” assault weapons, and “three or four shotguns.”1
As they walked to their car and got in, a police car drove by. Within minutes, police surrounded them.
Sitting in their car, Newton gave his driver’s license to the first police officer to walk up to the door and demand it, and, as Seale wrote, “Huey had a big M-1 sitting to his right with his hand on it. I had this 9mm sitting beside me, and Huey had this M-1 at his side.” There were four other Black Panthers in the back seat, including Bobby Hutton.
“Can I see that pistol there?” one of the police asked Newton, according to Seale.
Pointing first to his pistol and then to the rifle, Newton replied, “No, you can’t see the pistol, nor this [pointing to his rifle], and I don’t want you to look at it. You don’t have to look at it.”
After some back-and-forth with the police, Newton, who’d taken law classes in San Francisco, said, “We have a constitutional right to carry the guns, anyway.”
Seale writes that Newton stepped out of the car with the M-1 in his hand and jacked a round into the chamber as the police backed up.
“Who do you think you are, anyway?” Newton asked the police.
Another couple of cops were urging the growing crowd around the car to disperse, and Newton yelled out to the crowd, “You have a right to observe an officer carrying out his duty. You have a right to. As long as you stand a reasonable distance away, and you are a reasonable distance. Don’t go anywhere.”
Newton then proceeded to call the officer interrogating him a “low-life scurvy swine” and “a sharecropper from racist Georgia.” He added, “If you draw that gun, I’ll shoot you and blow your brains out!”
The cop accused him of “turning the Constitution around,” but Newton held his ground. He continued to berate the cops until they finally left.
That, Seale wrote in Seize the Time, was when he realized that Huey Newton was “the baddest motherf---er around.”
That confrontation led the Black Panthers to form what they called Copwatch Patrols, traveling around the streets of first Oakland and then other cities with police scanners, showing up any time police performed stops on people in Black neighborhoods.
The stories are well known, and one could arguably draw a direct line from the Panthers’ surveillance of police to the many video captures in the second decade of the 2000s that have shown so many unarmed Black men and women being killed by police officers.
Newton and Seale cranked up the volume a few months later, on May 2, 1967, and immediately got the governor’s attention.
Ronald Reagan was preparing to meet and share lunch with a group of eighth-graders visiting the state capitol when Newton, Seale, and nearly 30 other Black Panthers showed up.
Armed with everything from pistols to 12-gauge shotguns, Seale pulled out a prepared statement and read it to the students and people in front of the capitol: “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.”2
Then they climbed the steps to the capitol building and walked right in, fully loaded guns and rifles in their hands.
Reagan and the white California legislators freaked out.
“There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” Reagan said later that afternoon.
Shortly thereafter, Republican assemblyman Don Mulford of Oakland, with bipartisan support, introduced into the California State Assembly a law, later known as the Mulford Act (AB-1591), to ban people in California from carrying loaded weapons in public.3 It was enthusiastically signed into law by Reagan on July 28.
Gun control, it seems, was just fine with Reagan and his white legislator friends so long as it was first applied to uppity Black people.
Over the next decade, state after state passed gun-control laws like California’s, as well as a federal law, until May 1977, according to Adam Winkler in his book Gunfight.4
That month saw the takeover of the NRA by Harlon Carter, a lobbyist for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. The takeover was in response to the decision by the NRA’s board to move the group’s headquarters from Washington, DC, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, then a hotbed of gun activity and publications.
Alarmed that the NRA was going to abandon their lobbying efforts, Carter, most likely with the help of weapons manufacturers, was elected VP of the NRA and pushed to keep the organization in DC, where he could lobby Congress for laxer gun controls.
His side won, and the interests of the gun manufacturers have, apparently, driven the major behaviors of the NRA ever since.
The desire to disarm Black people, and the desire to sell more guns, were seemingly in direct conflict.
The solution that American law enforcement has chosen for centuries is to selectively kill Black gun owners while ignoring white gun owners, even when they point their weapons at federal officers, as supporters of Cliven Bundy infamously did in 2014.5
As Mara H. Gottfried wrote for the Minneapolis–St. Paul Twin Cities Pioneer Press on July 7, 2016, “The death of 32-year-old Philando Castile appears to mark the first time a Minnesota permit-to-carry holder had been shot by police at least since the current permit law took effect in 2003.”6
Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Castile, was acquitted by a jury in June 2017.
Castile had not threatened Yanez and had not pointed his weapon at him; to the contrary, when first stopped, he told the officer, using the technique suggested by the NRA in numerous venues, that he had a licensed firearm in the car with him.7
Apparently, since the days when Reagan’s California established rules for carrying loaded weapons, those rules of behavior apply only to white people who are licensed to carry.
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