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!" Military discipline is in full effect as the joggers respond to two former Army Rangers in desert-camo brimmed hats with cries of "Sir, yes, sir!" The Huey P. Newton Gun Club is holding its regular Saturday fitness-training and self-defense class. 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 fucking flag!" the cadets chant. "Now I use it for a rag!"
"A knife changes the whole game," one of the drill sergeants, who goes by the name Chief, explains, demonstrating how to perform a slash-and-stab maneuver on the torso of a wide-eyed girl in her 20s. A panhandler wanders up from the street. He is about to ask for spare change but then becomes interested. "What is this? Self-defense? That's cool." A pack of black bikers throw up their fists as they roar by.
Charles Goodson, the gun club's 31-year-old dreadlocked vegan co-founder, grew up less than a mile away. Both he and Darren X, the national field marshal of the New Black Panther Party, have been organizing around police-violence issues in Dallas for the past decade. Goodson says they worked together last year, during an armed rally in the small East Texas town of Hemphill, where they protested the police's failure to fully investigate the murder of a black man named Alfred Wright. "We accept all oppressed people of color with weapons," Darren X, who is 48, tells me in a deep, authoritative baritone. "The complete agenda involves going into our communities and educating our people on federal, state, and local gun laws. We want to stop fratricide, genocide—all the 'cides."
This past August, the gun club staged their first openly armed patrol through Dixon Circle, a predominately African American neighborhood in Dallas where police killed a young unarmed black man named James Harper in 2012. About two weeks before the rally, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, had killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and in July a white cop had choked Eric Garner, a Staten Island dad, to death over the alleged sale of untaxed cigarettes. 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!"
Since then, Goodson says, donations to the gun club have poured in from across the country and their membership has more than doubled. Support has come from unlikely sources such as Russell Wilson, a bureau chief in the Dallas district attorney's office. "They have an absolute right to do what they do," he told me. He believes they may be "restoring some people's confidence and saying, 'We're not going to keep getting pushed around here.'"
At the park, I ask 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."
Shootings of civilians by police officers reached a 20-year peak in 2013, even as the incidence of violent crime in America went down overall. According to FBI statistics, police in the United States killed 1,688 people between 2010 and 2013. The actual number of black and brown people shot by police is almost certainly much higher, but a lack of data means that no one knows for sure how many people have been killed. Very few of America's 12,000 police and sheriff's departments report officer-involved shootings. But based on the data that has been reported, according to a study by ProPublica, young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men.
"What we see in Ferguson is just the tip of the iceberg," National Bar Association president Pamela Meanes told a Dallas TV station in August, calling for Department of Justice investigations of the police departments of 25 cities, including Dallas. Federal authorities have recently come down hard on the Albuquerque and Cleveland police departments for unnecessarily Tasering people, striking suspects after they've been handcuffed, using excessive force against the mentally ill, and drawing their weapons and shooting suspects when not in danger.
David Brown, Dallas's African American police chief, has said he will overhaul the department's use-of-force policy, and he has been openly critical of the Ferguson police department in the wake of Michael Brown's death. (David Brown's own son, David Brown Jr., was killed by a police officer after shooting at a cop in 2010.) While Brown has attempted reforms during his tenure, the Dallas Police Department has a dismal record. The city's cops have shot at least 185 people since 2002. Seventy-four percent of those shot fatally have been black and Hispanic, according to a report, "A History of Violence," compiled through open-records requests made by the group Dallas Communities Organizing for Change. Dallas police shot 14 people in 2014 alone, among them Jason Harrison, a 38-year-old mentally ill man who was killed by officers after he allegedly threatened them with a screwdriver. Harrison's brother had to mop the blood off the front steps of their home after the fatal encounter. His family filed a wrongful-death suit against the city in October.
When David Brown and Craig Watkins, Dallas's outgoing district attorney, who is also black, held a series of town-hall meetings after Michael Brown's death, they were met with stories about racial profiling, shouts of "killing our innocent young men," and bereaved mothers attempting to get copies of police videos. If Dallas, with its diverse command staff and plans for a civil rights unit can't stop shooting black and brown men, it's no wonder that more radical solutions, like the Huey P. Newton Gun Club's call for an armed black citizenry, are gaining traction.
Dallas earned the nickname the "City of Hate" after John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dealey Plaza in 1963. But eleven months earlier, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who was terrorized by the city's convulsive mix of enraged whites, anti-communists, and John Birch Society members. His speech on segregation and the American dream at the Music Hall at Fair Park in January of that year was met with a bomb threat and large protests. According to The Accommodation: The Politics of Race in an American City, Jim Schutze's history of Dallas race relations, in the 50s and 60s the city's black leadership and clergy allied themselves with the white business elite to keep the civil rights movement at bay. "There was no movement in Dallas," said veteran Texas civil rights leader Reverend Peter Johnson. "Jackson was a movement town, Biloxi was a movement town, Selma, Birmingham, Louisiana. Texas was the only state with no civil rights movement." King was boycotted and rejected by black clergy leaders in Dallas because of a dispute within the Baptist church involving his father. "There were bad feelings between the ministers and MLK Sr.," Schutze told me when I met him at his home in Old East Dallas. "When MLK Jr. came with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he was received very badly."
Dallas race relations remained suspended in a kind of arrested development at least until the 1980s. "We called it the time warp," Schutze said. "Dallas was always about 20 years behind the rest of the country. You could tell it hadn't really happened—the awakening—black people and white people meeting eyeball to eyeball. I had come from Detroit, and here, in the late 70s and 80s, it was just bizarre, like a fifties black-and-white Colonel Sanders chicken ad."
In 1984, Dallas was the host city for the Reagan reelection convention—a risky move, given the city's history, but it was the "star of the Republican universe," according to Schutze, who covered the event. "The tone of it was, 'This is the city that never made the mistakes the rest of the country made,'" Schutze said. "They never took the boot off. God favors Dallas because Dallas has done things the right way. In particular it has done things the right way racially."
The Huey P. Newton Gun Club was formed around the same time as a response to a grassroots gun-advocacy group called Open Carry Texas. Texas is one of only six states in the country that still outlaws the open carrying of handguns, but it legally permits brandishing assault rifles and shotguns. Open Carry Texas garnered national attention last May after pictures from its "open-carry walks" went viral: Groups of schlubby white guys schlepping AK-47s into Chipotle, Target, and Starbucks provided a convenient opportunity for Northern liberals to mock Texan gun culture. Yet the movement attracted so much attention and support that it looks like Open Carry Texas will achieve its advocacy goal of getting state legislators to pass a new open-carry bill this year, adding handguns to the list of firearms citizens can legally tote.
Riding this wave of enthusiasm, Open Carry Texas announced in July that it would stage a walk through Houston's Fifth Ward, a predominately black neighborhood and the birthplace of the rap group the Geto Boys. "The black community has got its butt kicked for some time," David Amad, a white Open Carry Houston leader, told a local TV station. "We're going to go in there and help with that, put a stop to that." C. J. Grisham, the president of Open Carry Texas, then compared himself to Rosa Parks, telling another paper that the heavily armed group needed to walk through a black neighborhood because "somebody's got to stand up and sit in the front of the bus."
Fifth Ward community leaders and Houston's New Black Panther Party, led by the charismatic Quanell X, were not impressed by the group's offer of assistance. The New Black Panther Party has made news in the past couple of years for putting a bounty on the head of George Zimmerman and intimidating voters in Philadelphia, where they canvassed for Obama and one member allegedly brandished a nightstick and shouted, "You are about to be ruled by a black man, cracker!" (The Department of Justice dropped the case.) Recently, the group has been pilloried—mostly on Fox News—as outside agitators in Ferguson. Since Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown, escaped indictment, two New Black Panthers in Ferguson have been brought to court on gun charges, though right-wing news outlets claim the men were actually planning to blow up the Gateway Arch and murder the Ferguson police chief. The surviving leadership of the original Black Panther Party has also repudiated the movement for inflammatory and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Bobby Seale, a founder, speculated to me that this new incarnation of his group is a front organization funded by right-wing money, "maybe by the Koch Brothers." In Dallas, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club's members are the most thoughtful and professional revolutionaries around. They have a platform, an ideology, work as barbers and electricians, and are serious about their politics and the importance of being armed. "What you see in the media relates to them on a national level, but their organization is a lot different here on a local level," Goodson tells me. Darren X says that his Party is trying to move away from the inflammatory rhetoric of its leadership and "transition from black power to all power to all the people."
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."
In the end, the group indefinitely postponed its walk through Fifth Ward. "It was supposed to be Fifth Ward with Open Carry Texas, not Open Carry Texas in Fifth Ward," Open Carry spokesman Tov Henderson told me when I met him in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Lake Worth, an exurb of Dallas. Henderson, 35, looks like a rockabilly character from a David Lynch movie, and carried three concealed handguns and a Confederate-era black-powder revolver strapped to his leg. "We wanted to stand with African Americans and say, 'Hey, you guys have rights—stand up and take them. Firearms make us equal to those who aggress us."
But 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."
From America's colonial era until at least the late 1960s, fear of an armed black population was one of the driving forces behind gun-control legislation. In his 2010 opinion in the Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago—in which the court held that the Second Amendment applies to the states after an elderly black man challenged a Chicago handgun ban—Justice Clarence Thomas wrote about the aftermath of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. "The fear generated by these and other rebellions led Southern legislatures to take particularly vicious aim at the rights of free blacks and slaves to speak or to keep and bear arms for their defense." From 1842 to 1850, Texas explicitly prohibited blacks from possessing arms. After the Civil War, fearing a backlash by veterans or freed slaves, Texas and other Southern states passed a series of repressive laws known as the Black Codes, again limiting the right to bear arms for black citizens. It was the Black Panthers' armed march on the California legislature in 1967—led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale—that helped Ronald Reagan get the votes for a ban on the open carry of guns in that state. And the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed partially in response to the shootings and racial upheaval that engulfed America's cities in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
The seeds of what was to become the Black Panther Party lie in the 1940s, when black veterans returned to the South after fighting in World War II and found themselves dehumanized by segregation. Before and during the era when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and King pricked the moral conscience of white America, it was the gun that kept the white racists at bay, particularly in the South. The famous, "nonviolent" godmother of the Mississippi civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, said, "I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom, and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won't write his mama again." The original Black Panthers were particularly inspired by the example of Robert F. Williams, a renegade NAACP chapter president and the author of the book Negroes with Guns. After World War II, Williams returned to his hometown of Monroe, North Carolina, and took over its dormant NAACP chapter. Going against the moderate national leadership, the Monroe chapter practiced armed, militant self-defense. The Monroe NAACP first came to rely on weapons after the Ku Klux Klan tried to drag the corpse of a black man out of a funeral home. The man had received lethal injection in Raleigh for allegedly murdering his white landlord, but the Klan didn't think the execution was enough. A group of 40 black men, including Williams, kept watch over the body, clutching rifles. "That was one of the first incidents that really started us to understanding that we had to resist," wrote Williams, "and that resistance could be effective if we resisted in groups."
In Negroes with Guns, Williams recounts finding himself in the middle of a murderous white mob during the 1961 campaign to allow blacks to use the town's swimming pool for one day a week:
There was a very old man, an old white man out in the crowd, and he started screaming and crying like a baby, and he kept crying, and he said, "God damn, God damn, what is this God damn country coming to that the niggers have got guns, the niggers are armed and the police can't even arrest them!" He kept crying and somebody led him away through the crowd.
After repeatedly being attacked and terrorized by the KKK, police, and mobs of white citizens, Williams concluded, "The lawful authorities of Monroe and North Carolina acted to enforce order only after, and as a direct result of, our being armed."
Williams, of course, had to contend with the double bind of white supremacy: whether to supplicate to white morality or to openly resist. By getting armed, Williams put himself and his community in considerable danger, but had they not defended themselves, they could have been killed. Williams, like Assata Shakur, managed to escape the dead-or-in-jail fate of so many black revolutionaries. He fled to exile in Cuba and kept a copy of Thoreau's essay "A Plea For Captain John Brown" with him at all times. In it, the founding father of nonviolent civil disobedience vociferously defends the militant abolitionist who waged a failed armed insurrection against slavery. Thoreau wrote, "I think for once the Sharpe's rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them."
"We're trying to expose the contradiction," a delicate-looking man with a limp, going by the name of the Chairman, tells me as he pulls assault rifles out of the trunk of a car. We are in a South Dallas pawnshop parking lot on a bright October morning. 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.
As the armed march files out of the parking lot, a woman in a PT Cruiser pulls up to talk to Darren X. "I need to call you if something happens to me. Nobody helps me here in Dallas—the police don't help me. What's your number?" Darren X gives her his cell, and the group marches on.
"Who are we? Huey P!" the militia chants as they make their way down the wide, bleached sidewalks, followed at a distance by an unmarked police car. They are greeted in Dixon Circle like guerrilla heroes coming down from the mountains. Guys hanging out in front of bodegas and gambling spots shout "Black power, baby!" and throw up their fists. Drivers in Range Rovers lie on their horns and stop in the middle of the road to take pictures. Teenagers and kids peer out from behind apartment-complex gates in awe. A woman in her 40s named Dorothy runs out of a bodega with a cigarette dangling from her lips and joins them. When I ask her why she came, she says, "Because they're walking for black people and black power and real reasons."
Down the road, the gun club encounters a group of bedraggled guys standing in a patch of dirt, sipping from brown bags.
"Join us, brothers!" a field sergeant implores them. "Come on, we need people from the neighborhood."
"Aight!" one of the men shouts, drinking from his tall can but making no attempt to move. The gun club mills about, waiting.
"Y'all walk up to the church with us!" Dorothy shouts. "We need you to join us!"
"Aight!" the guy shouts back. But they don't come, and the patrol eventually marches on.
In a lot across the street from where James Harper was killed by police in 2012, the group finally succeeds in wooing a neighborhood resident over to its side. "This brother lives here. This is his neighborhood. Come over here and get a picture with us, brother," a field sergeant says. The guy, skinny and in his 40s, gets down on one knee and the armed marchers fall in around him, holding their AK-47s and looking hard. A couple of teenagers pull up in their cars and stare, devouring the guns hungrily with their eyes. "Respect," they say, before taking off.
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 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.
As I walk along with the gun club, the mood is so laid-back, the police response so placid, that it lulls me into a false sense of safety—but then the frame snaps back out, and it's clear how tenuous and potentially explosive the whole situation is. No one really knows what to do about the racial disparities in police violence. After all, even as America has yet another frank "national conversation" about race with op-eds and statistics and MSNBC spots, the tide of young black blood continues to flow. All the use-of-force re-training and psychological counseling and efforts against racial profiling don't seem to stanch it. Body cameras are a nice idea—but the infamous video of Eric Garner's death shows that even with firm evidence, a cop can kill a black man over practically nothing and escape indictment. "I can't breathe," Garner said 11 times before his death. Given these failures, and given the militarized police's ability to crush any kind of people's insurrection, arming oneself might be a futile act, but it's a partial—and very American—response to centuries of psychological humiliation.
At the Earle Cabell Federal Building, Goodson, Stu, and the Chairman leave their weapons at the door and go inside to deliver the "History of Violence" report. On the fourth floor, Goodson tells a receptionist behind plate glass that he has an appointment. She doesn't know what he's talking about and calls the office manager. Goodson looks uncomfortable and embarrassed—two middle-aged white guys in suits stand in the corner staring and laughing.
The courteous, middle-aged office manager comes out to meet him, seeming confused and annoyed. Goodson tells her, "Our position today is we wanted to let the Department of Justice know about this particular issue. This is a report that deals with excessive force as it relates to the Dallas Police Department."
She says she's unaware of any report or appointment and that they have nothing pending. "If you believe yourself to be a plaintiff in that kind of action, you can file with us. But any report you give us is just going to sit in a drawer in the back room. Us receiving a report isn't going to do anything but waste your paper."
Going back and forth, they eventually compromise, with Goodson taking a business card that says they've spoken and her taking the report, likely to go into a filing drawer where it will never be seen. "I wish you luck with your citizen's action," she says, officiously shaking Goodson's hand.
Back outside in the Dallas sun, Darren X sidles up and asks, "How did it go?" Goodson clears his throat and says the report has been successfully delivered.
Heading away from the Federal Building, the marchers pause to take pictures of themselves in front of a large public fountain. They seem a little deflated. A middle-aged man strolling by sees the group and turns around to shake their hands. He introduces himself as Andrew, an original Dallas Black Panther. "This is the first time I've seen armed people—I thought it was like a military group going into infantry or something," he says. "But then I heard them say Huey Newton, and that's what stopped me. I said, 'Whoa…' It lets me know something is changing in the times."