The Seattle Black Panther Party, founded in 1968, was an armed defense group that holds a controversial record in modern American history. The Seattle Black Panthers was the first BPP chapter formed outside California. The Black Panthers based its armed defense for the black community on an understanding of the U.S. Constitution that sometimes led to violent encounters with law enforcement. Nevertheless, the Seattle Panthers avoided the shootouts with police that were often associated with Panthers who also were known for providing lunches to school kids and other worthwhile community service.
On one occasion, several Black Panthers grabbed their guns and drove to Rainier Beach. The Panthers walked into Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School with their weapons and told the principal that he needed to start protecting Black students from being harassed or the Panthers would return. The police arrived but the Panthers left with no further problems.
In 1967, thirty Oakland Black Panthers, concerned that the California state legislature was about to outlaw the public display of guns, had appeared in full paramilitary regalia in front of the capital building- all fully armed! The fact that they were arrested for conspiracy to disturb the peace did not deter the Seattle Panthers.
After the incident at the Rainier Beach High, Seattle Mayor, J.D. Braman pushed to have a gun law passed that would put restrictions upon firearms in the city. In February, 1969, legislators in Olympia were also passing a new law that would make it a gross misdemeanor to exhibit firearms or other weapons in a manner manifesting intent to intimidate others. The Panthers stood on the capitol steps with rifles and shotguns to protest the pending gun legislation. Washington State Patrol officers just told the Panthers to put the guns away. The Panthers complied and no arrests resulted because no laws had been broken.
Some legislators and citizens reacted by proclaiming that the Panthers had demonstrated “open and active anarchy and rebellion.” Governor Evans promoted restraint during the incident and rebuked Lieutenant Governor Cherberg for calling in the state patrol during the Governor’s absence. The Bellevue High School even invited the Panthers to come to a Civics class where the Panthers were able to explain their philosophy of self-defense to the students.
The law enacted at that time by the Washington State Legislature- still in effect- prohibits display of a weapon in “a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.”
The legislature apparently included the language pertaining to display that “warrants alarm for the safety of other persons” in order to discourage further displays of armed force at the state capitol. Lawyers have challenged that language for being vague and arbitrary. In the 1994 case of STATE V. SPENCER, the Washington courts upheld a conviction under RCW 9.41.270 when a man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and a loaded magazine walked through a residential area just North of Federal Way with his head down avoiding eye contact.
Like the quotation that came out of one famous U.S. Supreme Court obscenity case- the justices knew obscenity when they saw it- the judges in Washington state seemed to know display warranting alarm when they saw it and held that Spencer had unlawfully displayed his weapon. But every time there is a new attempt to ban certain firearms, some gun advocates come openly armed to the Capitol Building in Olympia. The Washington State Patrol still acknowledges the citizens’ First Amendment and Second Amendment rights and refuses to harass armed citizens sitting and standing in the hearing rooms and corridors of our state legislature. Maybe we can thank the Black Panthers for paving the way!