Charles C.W. Cooke picked up on this in August of last year:
A new group calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club launched armed self-defense patrols Wednesday with one stated purpose: to protect Dallas neighbors from police.
Group leader Charles Goodson said recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown by a white police officer is only part of the reason for the new Dallas patrols.
The group is named after Huey P. Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s who was killed by a rival militant in 1989.
It’s quite reasonably possible to be of two minds about this development. As Cooke points out, plenty of black Americans already carry, and sensible people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are unworried about that.
Cooke is also correct to point out that it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when southern states, in particular, made it very difficult, or even impossible, for their black citizens to keep and bear arms.
He points out further that California’s Mulford Act, which prohibits publicly carrying arms except by permit (whether open or concealed carry), was passed in 1967 because of the spectacle of armed Black Panthers protesting outside the statehouse in Sacramento. In Cooke’s view, that approach qualified as a racially motivated reaction: California legislators banned public carry for everyone because they were uncomfortable with Black Panthers bearing arms openly – emphasis on the “black.”
Well, maybe. But imagine that the many white participants in the anti-police protests of the last six weeks came to them waving firearms around. Would state legislators and average Americans really feel more comfortable with that than with Black Panthers coming armed?
I’ve seen two video clips from such protests already (here and here) in which black men showed far more obvious character and self-control than the other people present, who have been a mix of white, black, and “ethnic minorities.” Those particular black men may or may not care to arm themselves, but I would trust them with sidearms, where I wouldn’t trust some of the demonstrably foolish people who are there with them.
A tough issue to parse
The issue here is character and purpose, not race. But measuring character and purpose is not an exact science. It poses a puzzle that law can’t really solve. Please keep that in mind in the rest of this post: I’m not proposing that we can or should make laws that distinguish between valid and righteous reasons for carrying, and anti-social, disruptive reasons for carrying.
I will affirm that there is such a difference, however, and that observers are right to recognize it. It’s one thing for a person to carry because carrying is what he does, for a set of interlinked reasons having to do with responsibility, personal security, and a belief about man and the state.
It’s another thing – and definitely not the same thing – for a person to carry because he wants the police, and all people of a different race, to know that he is ready to shoot when he feels unhappy with whatever may be going on.
With this latter person, the police and all the other citizens will find it hard to predict what his behavior will be. There can certainly be legitimate disagreement with what he thinks is worth making threats over. Should any one of us use weapons – guns or nightsticks or any other kind – to scare off voters from a polling place, for example?
If being armed is meant to convey to police that the armed individual will pick and choose what lawful orders he cooperates with, why should we treat that reason for carrying as if it’s the same thing as carrying for personal protection? Many people see the personal protection purpose as a valid one, but find the resisting-the-cops purpose to be at least questionable.
That said, a lot of people could foresee a situation in which they themselves didn’t agree that the force of government was being used against them in a lawful way. They may think the Black Panthers are wrong – they may think all radicals are wrong, from Communists to the Ku Klux Klan – but they also recognize that government isn’t always right. Government can be wielded improperly. The last thing a free people needs is to have everyone disarmed because some people have the wrong purpose for carrying.
These discussion points reveal that it’s a tough issue. NRO’s Charles Cooke offered one perspective in August: that Black Panthers arming themselves to patrol the community doesn’t amount to very much.
Arming up for disruption
A recent piece at VICE clarifies what this development is about, however. And if it would bother you for skinheads and Klansmen to roam the streets with weapons, proclaiming their reasons for distrusting and wanting to intimidate their fellow citizens, it should bother you for the Huey P. Newton Gun Club in Dallas to do it too.
Here’s what they have to say.
On a warm fall day in South Dallas, ten revolutionaries dressed in kaffiyehs and ski masks jog the perimeter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park bellowing “No more pigs in our community!” …
Men in Che fatigues run with weight bags and roll around on the grass, knife-fighting one another with dull machetes. “I used to salute the f***ing flag!” the cadets chant. “Now I use it for a rag!” …
In Dallas, several dozen black militants stood at attention in front of a field officer, holding assault rifles and AR-15s. “This is perfectly legal!” the leader bellowed. “Justice for Michael Brown! Justice for Eric Garner!” came the hoarse cries from the formation. “No longer will we let the pigs slaughter our brothers and sisters and not say a damn thing about it,” the leader answered back. “Black power! Black power! Black power! Black power!” …
At the park, I ask [gun club founder Charles] Goodson what he thinks would happen if an armed black self-defense group like his had appeared in Ferguson. As we talk, a drill sergeant behind him commands a pair of grappling members to fight for their lives. “I think it would really wake America up.”
What does that mean, exactly? That a group like Goodson’s would have swarmed Officer Darren Wilson when he tried to stop and question Michael Brown – a young man who had just robbed a convenience store? Does it mean Goodson’s group would have prevented Wilson from doing his job? Does it mean they would have killed him on the spot for ultimately shooting Brown? What?
Clearly the Huey P. Newton Gun Club isn’t talking about being armed for self-defense. It sounds like they’re talking about being armed for the purpose of escalating standoffs with the police. Maybe they’re talking about making their neighborhoods too dangerous for the police to enter – and imposing their own order on those neighborhoods, gangland-style.
Race politics to the fore, not gun rights
Here are the Houston Black Panthers in parley with Open Carry Texas, which imagined at one point that it might have common cause with the New Black Panthers:
Days after Michael Brown was shot in August, Houston’s New Black Panthers, community leaders, and Open Carry Texas leaders sat down at a folding card table by a Walgreens to attempt to discuss the proposed march through Fifth Ward. Fifteen Houston police officers, along with a detachment of New Black Panthers carrying assault rifles, stood by. The clean-cut, middle-aged, white Open Carry leadership had arrived unarmed and looked befuddled. The tone of the neighborhood leaders was openly hostile.
“You’re coming into Fifth Ward, into the black community, as an insurgence,” Krystal Muhammad, of the New Black Panthers, said.
“I beg your pardon?” replied David Amad, of Houston Open Carry.
“You are an insurgence,” Muhammad repeated.
“Let me just say, just for the record, we don’t want you here,” said Kathy Blueford-Daniels, the neighborhood president of Fifth Ward.
“Do you even care how people who live here feel?” Quanell X asked Open Carry Texas founder C. J. Grisham.
“I absolutely care,” Grisham said.
“If you’re coming to help, don’t tell us how you’re going to help us,” Quanell X said. “Ask us if we want the help.”
The negotiations quickly devolved into shouting, and the Houston police stepped in to break up an ensuing fight. Quanell X told Open Carry that if they marched, they would be matched “gun for gun.” After stomping off, Grisham paused for a post-meeting interview with a local TV station. “I still don’t understand why we’ve got to have racial division,” he said. “I don’t even understand why this is a racial issue.”
VICE’s obviously youthful author continues:
Open Carry Texas’s attempt to bring Fifth Ward residents into the fold failed, just as the NRA’s attempts to diversify have. “We saw it as a move of intimidation—we didn’t see it as people expressing their Second Amendment rights,” Darren X says. “They have other places to do that than the black community. The black community is full of guns. We already know our rights when it comes to guns.” The concerns facing black gun owners are fundamentally different from those facing white gun owners, and it’s not hard to imagine that the ancestors of the white Texas gun-rights crowd were, at one point in time, instrumental in keeping black Texans disarmed and compliant. Goodson hopes the Huey P. Newton Gun Club will continue to grow and eventually become a mainstream gun-rights organization, the “black alternative to the NRA.”
Well, not exactly an alternative to the NRA, which emphasizes firearm safety:
In downtown Dallas, members of the Indigenous People’s Liberation Party—young Latino Communists in olive fatigues and berets, carrying rifles on twine shoulder straps that look like they date back to Castro’s Granma landing—join the [Huey P. Newton Gun Club] march. One member of the IPLP carries her rifle upside down and another lets his gun flop against his back and into the faces of those marching behind him.
The patrol and march on which VICE’s Aaron Lake Smith accompanied the Huey P. Newton Gun Club had a civic purpose whose overtones were rendered weirdly menacing by the armed approach (emphasis added):
The Huey P. Newton Gun Club is staging another armed patrol through Dixon Circle. Afterward, the group will deliver the Dallas Communities Organizing for Change report on police violence to the US Attorney’s office downtown. As the members gather and strap on their weapons, a police helicopter circles lazily overhead. The mood is tense. “When you go up against the state, you have to stay focused,” the Chairman mutters.
He seems preoccupied by the poor turnout. Only a dozen or so members arrive—eight have weapons, some of them quite old. Goodson’s AK-47 looks like it was last used in the Afghan-Soviet War. In contrast, Darren X holds a brand-new, glistening AR-15. “We know our puny weapons won’t be able to match Dallas police one for one,” Goodson says, “but what they fear is seeing us with weapons.” Most of the attendees are dressed in black fatigues and dreadlocks, sporting the iconic Black Panther buttons. Stu, the lone white man, is wearing an oxford shirt and starched khakis.
Imagine seeing a local Tea Party group dressing itself in “fatigues,” carrying long guns flopping around on people’s backs or cradled prominently across their chests, and marching to a government building to deliver a copy of a report on a civic issue. Imagine leaders of the Tea Party proclaiming that the police fear to see them with weapons.
But the Tea Party doesn’t do that. Another thing the Tea Party doesn’t do is cross-pollinate between disruptive radical movements.
Radical network ties
Like the protests in Ferguson, the “organizers” in Dallas have been linked with Islamists. (See here, here, here, here, and here for more on the Ferguson links.) Of particular note, the attorney who represents the group Dallas Communities Organizing for Change – the group whose report was delivered to the U.S. Attorney’s office by the armed Black Panthers – is Mr. Shayan Elahi, who organized the Occupy Orlando protests in October of 2011, which had a strong element of radical Palestinian activism as well as the usual socialist Occupy themes.
(Elahi also represented the parents of Rifqa Bary, the Ohio teen who became a Christian and in 2009 fled to Florida from her Muslim parents. Concerns for the girl’s safety turned in part on the connection of her parents’ mosque, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center, with extremist agitation and terrorism.)
The concern is well founded that groups with these connections are not arming themselves for purposes most of us can approve of.
As with many other aspects of life today, this one forces us to confront the fact that liberty is suitable only for what John Adams called a “religious and moral people.” It’s possible for people’s purposes for bearing arms to be bad ones – and it’s possible for people of mature judgment and goodwill to largely agree on where the differences lie.
But that doesn’t mean that we must curtail liberties for all because a few have vague (or, in some cases, specific) visions for abusing the opportunities presented by liberty.
It means instead that we have to stop pretending that no moral judgments can be formed by society about people’s character and purposes, based on clues that are, in fact, reliable patterns. We have to stop pretending that we pay no price for encouraging or subsidizing dysfunctional behavior, such as welfarism, fatherlessness, drug culture – or victim politics and organized race-baiting. We have to stop pretending that the “lifestyle choices” and intellectual processes that yield these outcomes are morally neutral. We have to stop pretending that doing stupid, destructive things with liberty is the moral equal of doing hopeful, responsible, constructive things with it.
There is a big character difference between the man who wants to protect his home and family with firearms and the man who wants to shock people of different races and intimidate the police with firearms. There’s a big social and moral difference. A person cannot engage in the latter pursuit and be of good moral character, or have a positive social impact.
Government isn’t the right arbiter for this extremely important distinction, however – and that itself is a telling point. Government can’t make all our important choices for us. The project of liberty actually requires that it make very few of them. Liberty demands instead that we insist on character and moral absolutes within ourselves, before government starts to operate.
We’ve reached the end of the logic of government mechanisms, as tools for managing the spirit and purpose of human society. They’re not getting the job done. They were never going to.
Liberty isn’t suited to every style of life or moral approach, and government can’t adjust that for us. Only certain beliefs and attitudes are compatible with liberty and limited government, just as only certain ones produce contentment, fulfillment, and social peace. Any man or woman of any race can cultivate those beliefs and attitudes, and do it nobly and admirably. But not through a resentment-politics group like the Black Panthers – any more than it can be done through the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party, or radical Islamism.