The “Blue Lives Matter” constituency, ever and always alert to actual or perceived insults to the police, was severely aggrieved by the halftime show at Super Bowl 50 – which included a tribute to the original Black Panther Militia. Although unsettling to the delicate sensibilities of “law and order” conservatives, that homage was timely, given that the Black Panther Militia was organized fifty years ago not far from the stadium that hosted this year’s event.
Leading a troupe of female dancers dressed in Panther-style attire, Beyoncé performed a version of her new track “Formation,” which has been described as a “Black Lives Matter” anthem. Following the performance one of the backup dancers held up a sign with the handwritten inscription, “Justice 4 Mario Woods” while she and her colleagues raised their fists aloft in a black power salute.
Woods, 26, was fatally shot by San Francisco Police last December 2nd following a reported stabbing. The official account claims that he “lunged” at an officer with a knife, but this is not validated by video recordings of the shooting. After being surrounded by ten or more officers in firing squad posture, Woods can be seen attempting to walk away – visibly limping after absorbing a beanbag round — as one officer with a drawn gun tries to block his path. A furious fusillade – at least 19 shots in the space of 3 seconds – then erupts.
Neither the video nor witnesses substantiated the claim that Woods was attacking the officer at the time he was shot, yet Chief Greg Suhr maintains that the shooting was justified. Woods was carrying a knife, and matched the description of the suspect in the stabbing. If the police had carried out their advertised function of arresting a suspect to stand trial, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Woods would have been convicted. The hasty resort to lethal force by the SFPD stands in stark contrast to the patient professionalism exhibited by police in the UK who confronted a deranged man armed with a machete. That 2011 episode ended with the suspect alive and in custody.
Police in the UK still see their job as apprehending suspects in order to protect the public. Police in the United States are taught that the use of lethal force is justified whenever they perceive a threat to “officer safety.” The chorus of condemnation directed at BBeyoncé’s halftime performance suggests that the “Blue Lives Matter” movement take a similar view of attacks on the emotional “safe space” of police officers.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a tireless promoter of the long-discredited “war on cops” myth, criticized both Beyoncé’s performance on both ideological and aesthetic grounds: “Let’s have, you know, decent wholesome entertainment, and not use it as a platform to attack the people who, you know, put their lives at risk to save us.” Numerous commentators insisted that the performer, who had received a police escort en route to Levi Stadium, was a hypocrite for “attacking” the same police who supposedly protected her (without mentioning that a low-risk, high-overtime assignment of that kind is highly coveted by police).
At a Super Bowl party in Washington, members of the National Sheriffs’ Association “turned their backs on Beyoncé” and turned off the TV when her halftime performance began, reports the Washington Examiner. Expressing a theme that was widely repeated throughout social media, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke denounced Beyoncé’s performance as racist and compared the Black Panther Militia to the Ku Klux Klan: “Would [it] be acceptable if a white band came out in hoods and white sheets in the same sort of fashion? We would be appalled and outraged.”
Actually, as attorney and legal historian Dave Kopel has documented, the Ku Klux Klan acted as a gun control organization — a kind of police auxiliary to help enforce laws intended to prevent former black slaves from keeping and bearing arms. Whatever else can be said about the original Black Panther Militia (which, with the help of the FBI, degenerated into violent factional struggles and violent street crime), its objectives were exactly the opposite of the Klan’s.
Many of the same right-wing critics who describe the Black Panther Militia as analogous to the KKK promote open carry of firearms and embrace the view that the true purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that the citizenry has the means to repel criminal violence by government officials – including the police. The founders of the Original Panther movement (as opposed to the tribute band-style imitators of more recent vintage) shared that understanding of the right to keep and bear arms. Weary of routine abuse by unaccountable police officers in Oakland, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Panthers for the purpose of “policing the police.” This led to the famous February 1967 street confrontation between the Panther organizers and Oakland PD officers following a traffic stop in Oakland.
Newton and Seale, as was their habit, were carrying guns in the car. When one officer demanded to see Newton’s firearms, the Panther leader replied, “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address” — which was precisely what state law dictated.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” exclaimed an offended cop.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” replied Newton, citing the Constitution and California state law in defense of his right to carry a firearm openly.
“What are you going to do with that gun?” one of the astonished policemen asked.
“What are you going to do with your gun?” Newton fired back.
As a crowd coalesced at the scene, one of the officers ordered them to disperse. Newton countermanded that order, pointing out that state law didn’t forbid citizens to observe an arrest or similar police encounter.
“If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun,” Newton explained to the officer in charge, “I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”
Owing to the fact that neither Newton nor his associates had committed a criminal act – and the presence of a large crowd of no-longer-intimidated witnesses – the police retreated.
The emergence of a black constitutional-carry group prompted an immediate reaction from the National Rifle Association and California’s Republican Governor, Ronald Reagan — and, contrary to what contemporary conservatives might assume, it wasn’t to defend the right to carry arms, but to limit it. With the NRA’s support, Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which banned open carrying of firearms in California. That law remains on the books today, joined with a host of similar enactments that are lamented by many of the same conservative commentators who revere Ronald Reagan and revile the Black Panthers — and dutifully enforced by the same police whose tender feelings they seek to protect against any public criticism.