It looks like an execution.
In the video, two white police officers tackle Alton Sterling, a black man, and wrestle him to the ground. Within seconds, Sterling appears immobilized, as one officer kneels on his left arm while the other pins his right. Suddenly, one of the officers calls out “he’s got a gun.” At least one of the cops pulls his own weapon and holds it to Sterling’s chest. Five shots ring out, all of them fired by police.
One day later, another video emerged. In it, Philando Castile, a black man, slumps in the driver’s seat of a car, his white t-shirt soaked in blood. A gun pokes through the nearby window, held by a white Minnesota police officer. Next to Castile, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, provides narration. “We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back,” she says. Reynolds claims that Castile was “trying to get out his ID and his wallet” before he was shot.
It’s a too-familiar story, told twice in as many days. An encounter between and officer and a black man rapidly escalates to deadly force. The man dies. Soon, evidence arises that raises grave questions about whether the officers were justified in shooting the man.
There was, however, an unusual wrinkle to both stories. Both Sterling and Castile reportedly were themselves armed. Police maintain that Sterling had a firearm while he was shot, although video reveals that it was not in his hands. In the Castile video, Reynolds claims that her wounded boyfriend “is licensed to carry” and that he “let the officer know that he had a firearm.”
In light of these facts, it is easy to conclude that gun rights only fully belong to white people in the United States of America. Though it does not appear that Sterling was lawfully allowed to carry a gun at the time of his death, all the evidence suggests that he was not threatening the officers or even holding a weapon before he was shot. Meanwhile, based on the available evidence, Castile appears to have done everything he could have done to secure his lawful right to carry a firearm.
We cannot know if police would have reacted differently to the two allegedly armed men if Sterling and Castile were white, but simple fact is that deaths like these keep happening. And they keep happening to black men.
The whiteness of America’s gun laws, and of how those laws operate in practice, is nothing new. Indeed, when black activists took advantage of loopholes allowing them to rather extravagantly exercise their own gun rights, those loopholes were rapidly closed by an icon of white conservatism — the sainted Ronald Reagan himself.
Enter The Black Panthers
On a winter day in 1967, Huey Newton began a protest that bears a shocking resemblance to a suicide attempt, at least to anyone familiar with the history of armed black men’s interactions with police. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, piled into a car with a few of his fellow Panthers and a whole mess of guns. After an officer stopped them and approached the car, he found Newton in the drivers seat brandishing an M1 rifle. An officer asked to inspect the gun, but Newton refused. When an officer asked “what are you going to do with that gun,” Newton blasted back “what are you going to do with your gun?”
Eventually, police asked Newton to exit the vehicle, and Newton did so — but he loaded a round into his rifle first.
This, and a series of equally audacious stunts performed by Newton and his fellow Panthers, are recounted in Gunfight, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler’s history of gun laws in the United States. Newton, who’d taken classes at San Francisco Law School, developed an unusually specialized expertise in what the state’s gun laws did not forbid. Civilians needed a license to carry a concealed firearm, but not to display a gun openly. They could carry a long gun around in public, provided that they did not point it at anyone or otherwise wield it in a threatening manner.
And, perhaps most significantly of all, there was no ban on loaded guns in California’s state capitol.
Newton preached a gospel of equality through superior firepower.
Newton preached a gospel of equality through superior firepower. With “weapons in our hands,” he once said of police, “we were no long their subjects but their equals.” Black Panthers took mandatory classes on socialism, black nationalism and the use of firearms — the later taught by black Vietnam veterans. They wore guns as part of an official uniform. When police pulled over a black person, armed Panthers would often stand on the sidelines and inform that person of their rights.
These antics quickly attracted the notice of Don Mulford, a Republican state lawmaker, who said he wanted to protect people from “bands of armed people” who “move about our streets intimidating and frightening citizens.” His solution was the Mulford Act, which made it a crime to have loaded weapons in public places.
As Winkler recounts, this triggered the Black Panthers’ most audacious stunt to date.
A group of predominantly white eighth-graders were gathered outside the state capitol for a fried chicken lunch with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan when an array of armed Black Panthers, led by Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, marched by to enter the capitol building itself. At the top of the Capitol steps, Seale read a statement against the Mulford Act, which was still being debated at the time, calling on “the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California legislature” which he claimed was “aimed at keeping to black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror and repression of black people.”
The statement read, Seale then led the rest of the gun-toting Panthers into the capitol.
What happened next was a comedy of errors. Though the Panthers intended to bring their protest to the state assembly chamber itself, none of them knew how to find the place where lawmakers gathered to cast votes. So they wandered the hallways, silently and still toting their guns, as the throng of reporters and cameramen surrounding them grew. Finally, Seale stopped and revealed his befuddlement — “anybody here know where you go in and observe the Assembly making these laws?” he asked — and he and his followers eventually found the chamber after being given directions.
It was a dramatic stunt with an inglorious conclusion. Security officers removed the Panthers from the gallery — not because of their guns but because the speaker pro tem was bothered by all the commotion caused by the camera crews. The Panthers left the capitol. And the Mulford Act was signed into law by Reagan, with a new provision added that prohibited anyone but law enforcement from bringing loaded guns into the state capitol.
Yet the dramatic events that led to the Mulford Act becoming law also reveal how quickly white conservative lawmakers were willing to act when the face of gun rights was black. And this response stands in stark contrast to modern day conservatives’ reaction to similar antics by white activists.
When Gun Rights Are White
Remember these guys?
— Denver7 News (@DenverChannel) May 20, 2014
In 2014, a group of predominantly white activists affiliated with the group Open Carry Texas armed themselves with assault rifles and then decided to eat at a Dallas-area Chipotle. The restaurant chain eventually responded with a statement asking customers not to bring weapons into Chipotles because “the display of firearms in our restaurants has now created an environment that is potentially intimidating or uncomfortable for many of our customers.” Nevertheless, no Mulford-style law was enacted in Texas.
Last April, armed gun advocates borrowed a page directly from the Black Panthers’ playbook by descending on the Michigan state capitol for “open carry” day. Yet, while a handful of lawmakers introduced legislation to ban guns in state buildings in response, that bill has thus far gone nowhere.
Open carry advocates have even protested President Obama, with one reacting to the president with Huey Newton-like bluster — “We’re no threat to the president, and the president better not be a threat to us.” And yet Congress appears incapable of doing anything at all to address gun violence in the United States.
The point is not to lionize the Black Panthers or suggest that they should have been treated with the same indifference that has met other groups that adopted similar tactics. There are obvious and perfectly sound reasons why states should not allow guns into their legislative halls.
Rather, the point is that, as the face of gun rights grew whiter over the last several decades, white conservatives grew increasingly more sympathetic to efforts to elevate these rights. The position Ronald Reagan took on guns in the 1960s would make him a pariah in today’s Republican Party. Even the National Rifle Association (which, admittedly, was a far less political organization in the 1960s) supported legislation like the Mulford Act. Indeed, they actually helped shape similar laws in many other states.
You can get white conservatives to enact gun laws in the United States, but it’s hard to do if the face of gun rights isn’t black.