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08 February, 2015

Guns at the Capitol

Some guy from Alabama running his mouth on the Washington State Capitol steps.

This past Saturday, our local paper reports, about 50 people showed up to protest what they see as infringement on their right to carry arms. A couple of legislators showed up to support them, and nobody was arrested. Washington state, characterized in the media as a liberal haven of pot-smokers and same-sex-marriers, turns out to also be one of the few states that does not outlaw carrying guns into its capitol building.

Still, the good voters of this state did vote last November to require background checks on all gun sales. You can still buy guns, a bunch of 'em, all kinds,...the voting public here is pretty tolerant of gun owners, but We the People decided it's reasonable to try and limit gun ownership by violent criminals and the mentally ill.

And it really pisses off a few people. Maybe the dude in the colonial outfit worries he'll be deemed as crazy as he looks. Maybe the guys covered head to foot in "tactical" paramilitary costumes genuinely believe that a background check is tantamount to tyranny.

But of course, it wasn't the legislators that passed the background check referendum. It was the neighbors of the protestors. Initiative 594 was not the work of some liberal cabal, but the result of a popular vote. Think about it for even a second, and you have to realize that many of the people who voted for the measure actually own guns themselves. No, this was not a top-down clampdown.

Some guys from Seattle standing in ordered dignity.

Not that there's not some precedent for the legislature curtailing the right to bear arms. In 1969, another protest occurred in Olympia, also making its way to the Capitol steps. That time, though, it was the Black Panthers. And that time, they were protesting a bill in the Legislature that aimed to outlaw the public display of firearms, echoing the California Legislature's act, one that was squarely aimed at the Black Panther Party. The Seattle Black Panthers stood silently on the capitol steps, rifles and shotguns aimed at the sky. When the State Patrol asked that they unload and put down their weapons, the Panthers did so, and after about an hour, they left. [Here's the firsthand account, so you don't have to take my word for it.]

To reiterate, faced with legislative action directly aimed at a political party to whom 2nd Amendment rights were a core principle, that party protested peacefully. They did not attempt to enter the Capitol building (as recent gun rights protestors have), and even allowed their weapons to be unloaded by State Troopers (as contemporary gun rights protestors swear they would never allow).

In 1969 (as in 2015, sadly) young black men were shot by policemen for minor alleged offenses. The Black Panther Party included people who had directly experienced repression by The State. Not minorly incovenienced by a referendum-passed background check, but subjected to full-on harrassment and injury at the hands of law enforcement. Break-ins, frame-ups and shootings perpetrated by local, state and federal governments, not to mention the lack of enforcement when amateurs stepped in with murders and lynchings. Thus the Panthers' belief that they needed to police the police and to arm themselves for self-protection. Thus the February 1969 protest here in Olympia.

The crowd this past Saturday did not include any black people that I could see in the available photos. They were prevented from entering the actual legislative chambers with their arsenals of handguns and assault weapons, but no legislation was passed that targeted them, or even gun owners in general. Yet their statements and signs show that these modern protesters feel that they have been grievously wronged, and are being oppressed.

If the Black Panthers had showed up with military assault weapons, would they have been treated as civilly? The 1969 photos show a bunch of guys in berets and jackets holding rifles and shotguns, hands visible and not on triggers, not handgun in sight, no paramilitary "tactical" gear at all. Had the Seattle protesters insisted that the State Patrol could unload Panther rifles once they had--in the words of Heston and any number of white NRA advocates--"pried it from my cold dead fingers," the Panthers may well have been obliged. I mean this not as a statement about the Washington State Patrol, who in fact seem to have been equally adept at diffusing tense situations then and now, but about the relative value of black and white lives then and now.

The local paper also reports that protesters this past Saturday expected to be arrested (read, "martyred") and were selling hats to cover bail that said "Fight Tyranny--Shoot Back." I'm not sure they had Michael Brown or Eric Garner in mind, but what if black men did just that? We don't have to speculate about the answer, because history provides it: those black men would be jailed, beaten, shot. In my own lifetime, I remember rowhouses in Philadephia being fire-bombed--with men, women, and children inside--because they were black nationalists. Now that's oppression. That's being Tread Upon by the iron heel of The State.

But background checks? Get real, your rights are in no danger.

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