The Panthers, however, took it to an extreme, carrying their guns in public, displaying them for everyone—especially the police—to see. Newton had discovered, during classes at San Francisco Law School, that California law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible, and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way.
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.
By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.
The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the “baddest motherfucker in the world.” Newton’s message was clear: “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” After the February incident, 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.
Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city. When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.” Seale was incredulous. “The Capitol?” Newton explained: “Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.” Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers “loaded down to the gills,” to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control.
* * *
The Panthers’ methods provoked an immediate backlash. The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal. Mulford himself pledged to make his bill even tougher, and he added a provision barring anyone but law enforcement from bringing a loaded firearm into the state capitol.