In the fall of 2014, I traveled to Dallas to report on a new armed militant group that called itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. It had formed as a coalition of smaller, local black power organizations like Guerilla Mainframe, the New Black Panther Party, and the Black Riders, with the intent of getting black people armed and exposing the racial double standard in Second Amendment expression. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown had all recently been killed by the police, and members of a huge, mostly white grassroots movement called Open Carry Texas were hoisting long guns at Walmarts and Chipotles across the state; Gun Club members wanted to appropriate the rather depoliticized Open Carry Texas strategy to the more militant ends of taking a stand against police brutality by conducting armed patrols.
As should be obvious from history—and as the horrendous video of Philando Castile's death clearly illustrates—it is a fundamentally different thing to carry a firearm while black than while white. What I saw in Dallas was a paramilitary organization complete with berets, self-defense drills, and "Off the pigs!"–style chants. Still, the group seemed to be mostly political theater, a symbolic reawakening of black power and armed self-defense. Many people I interviewed in Dallas talked about the city being in a "time warp." Even the members of Huey P.'s ways of speaking, with phrasing like, "Our position, as the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, in these United States of America," seemed ripped directly from the original Black Panthers' aesthetic playbook, another simulacrum in an era of 60s and 70s throwbacks and remakes.
But paradoxically, at the same time as it was retro, the gun club seemed to me to be ahead of the curve of history, as much at the strategic vanguard of the national Black Lives Matter movement as Lowndes County, Alabama, or Monroe, North Carolina, were to earlier eras of black activism. After walking with the heavily armed gun club through downtown Dallas in a protest against police murder, I wrote, "It's clear how tenuous and potentially explosive the whole situation is."
Micah Johnson, the gunman who killed five police officers in Dallas last Thursday, was not a member of Huey P., but he emerged from the polarized and highly combustible environment in Dallas. "Micah was very sympathetic, obviously, to this overall movement," Yafeuh Balogun, one of the founders of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club told me when I called him up. Balogun hedged as I asked him about Johnson's connection to the movement. He said he had met him around at events, but did not know him personally.
Darren X, another of Huey P.'s leaders, said he knew Johnson's face, but had not spoken with him. Both men emphasized that he had never trained with them, had acted alone, and was not a part of their organization. Still, both said they understood why he did what he did.
"He obviously was a very politically charged individual, sick and tired of seeing protests and demonstrations and nothing to come of it, sick and tired of seeing his people shot down like dogs in these United States of America and specifically in Dallas," Balogun said.
"We're not slandering Micah, we're not running from him," Darren X said. "There are some black people around the country who celebrate him and his action… for giving up his life so that black people can be viewed by the police department as being human. When it comes to the police department, they don't view us as human beings, man."
One of the people celebrating Micah Johnson was Gavin Long, the now infamous police shooter who was apparently in Dallas around the time of Johnson's attack. On Sunday, Long—also a former serviceman—shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge. In a video recorded before the attack, Long emphasized that he was an "alpha male" and not a part of any movement.
After Long's shooting and death in Baton Rouge, Balogun told me, "Years and years of injustice, that's the response you get… I think if we made the necessary reforms in the Department of Justice and local police departments, and improved the grand jury process across the country, this could be avoided for future generations, and you wouldn't see these kinds of situations."
Darren X told me that some Huey P. Newton members had been present at the Black Lives Matter protest "in a supportive role," and that they had not been open-carrying their AR-15s and rifles out of respect for the accessible and nonviolent tenor of the march. "Of course we carry concealed with us anywhere we go," he added. He said that he saw other black and brown citizens open carrying at the rally, but that they weren't part of the organization.
"Huey P. Newton is working to get black people to legally carry arms," Balogun said. "More and more people have begun to do this. The Hughes brothers, who were initially indicated as being possible suspects, are no different. We realize we created the atmosphere where [Mark Hughes, who was carrying a rifle] felt comfortable to do this." Darren X said he didn't know the other people carrying long guns at the protests, and that they were just "regular citizens."
Before Johnson started shooting, the Dallas protest was nowhere near as charged as some Black Lives Matter actions around the country have been. In Baton Rouge, the cops dressed in full riot gear; in Dallas, the police were generally in regular uniforms, and some were even photographed supporting protesters.
One of the bleak ironies of what happened in Dallas is that, while the city's police department has a dismal reputation among much of the population, Dallas's police chief, David Brown, is one of the most reform-minded in the country. Brown has overseen a recent drop in excessive force complaints and shootings by the police—and his own son was killed in a shootout with the police in 2010.
Darren X claims that he and other members of the gun club had left the early in the evening, feeling that the march was "too watered-down… they were singing church spirituals and 'We Shall Overcome'… We understand that not everyone is a militant, but it was just not something we were interested in."
While they were driving home, they passed police cars racing downtown, and assumed that BLM protesters had blocked an intersection. "We had no idea police officers were being assassinated."
Everyone, particularly armed black gun clubs in Texas, should be worried about what will happen next—it's possible that there will be more attacks on police across the country, and potentially a dragnet or fearful, retributive clampdown against armed black radicals.
Darren X told me the group would continue to organize and advocate for black Second Amendment rights, but added, "We are aware of the possibilities of what could happen… there are thousands of white militias here in America with .50-caliber machine guns and automatic weapons. While there is a lot of attention being directed at the few black gun clubs, we're outnumbered 1,000 to one."
When I asked Balogun if he was worried about what might happen next or if Huey P. might get the brunt of blowback in the aftermath, he said he was not and would continue to organize to get justice for the victims of people shot by the Dallas police. He emphasized that he would be defiant if authorities tried to peg what happened on him or members of Huey P.
"I will not cooperate with any investigation process. I will not speak to any police, FBI… I'm not cooperating with any police agency in the United States of America."