On February 28, 1969, eight Black Panthers from the party's Seattle chapter arrive in Olympia and stand on the steps of the state capitol building holding rifles and shotguns to protest a bill passed by the legislature the day before that would make it a misdemeanor to exhibit firearms or other weapons in a manner manifesting intent to intimate others. A Washington State Patrol officer asks the Panthers to unload their weapons and they do. After Seattle chapter captain Aaron Dixon (b. 1949) reads a statement to the legislature, the Panthers leave the capitol grounds and return to Seattle. The dramatic protest notwithstanding, Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) signs the gun-control measure into law that same day.
Black Panther Party Seattle Chapter
The Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party had been established the previous April by a group of young activists including Aaron Dixon and his brother Elmer James Dixon III (b. 1950). The Dixons grew up in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle's Central Area and like many young people of the time were inspired by the civil rights movement, which was alive and well in Seattle. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) visited Seattle in 1961, invited by Reverend Samuel McKinney (1926-2018) and young Aaron Dixon sat on a bandstand to listen to King speak at Garfield High School. In 1966, Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) and Bobby Seale (b. 1936) established the Black Panther Party, which would soon emerge as the leading advocate of "Black Power," in Oakland, California. When Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who would soon leave that group to join the Panthers, spoke in Seattle at Garfield High in 1967, Aaron and Elmer Dixon attended the speech. That same year Aaron graduated from Garfield and began attending the University of Washington in September, where he joined the Black Student Union.
In April 1968, while attending the funeral of Panther member Robert "Lil Bobby" James Hutton (1950-1968) in California, Aaron and Elmer Dixon and several other organizers from Seattle met party co-founder Bobby Seale and expressed interest in starting a Seattle chapter. A week later, Seale arrived in Seattle and Aaron Dixon was appointed captain of the new Seattle Chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first formed outside California. What happened in Oakland had come to Seattle.
After an incident at Rainier Beach High School in 1968 in which armed Panthers displayed rifles and shotguns on the school grounds in defense of black students who had been attacked and threatened by white students, Seattle mayor James "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) issued a statement warning the Panthers that city officials would not tolerate people taking the law into their own hands. Braman asked the city council to strengthen the existing gun-control ordinance to protect people from intimidation by dangerous weapons. On September 25, 1968, at Braman's request, the council passed an emergency measure prohibiting the display of a "dangerous weapon" to intimidate others (Willix).
At the next state legislative session, in February 1969, legislators in Olympia sought to pass a similar gun law that would make it a gross misdemeanor to exhibit firearms or other weapons in a manner manifesting intent to intimidate others, as proposed by Braman. According to Elmer Dixon in a 2018 interview, there were several triggers that led the Panthers to make the decision to protest the proposed gun law. The Rainier Beach High School incident was the most recognized at the time. The Panthers got wind of efforts to pass gun-control law, and Aaron Dixon pulled together a team to plan a demonstration of defiance in front of the state capitol building and a speech to the legislature.
In parallel, the legislature heard rumors that the Panthers intended to drive to the capitol to protest the gun legislation. Highway Patrol Chief Will Bachofner (1916-2008) reported to Lieutenant Governor John Cherberg (1910-1992) -- Governor Dan Evans was out of town attending the National Governors' Conference in Washington, D.C. -- this rumor of armed Panthers heading for the capitol building, and talk of an "invasion" by the Panthers spread quickly. On Wednesday February 26, 1969, legislative leaders and Cherberg met to discuss security plans in response and also, according to subsequent news reports, "decided to ram through a bill the following day" enacting the ban on displaying weapons in an intimidating manner ("Tiff Over ..."). On Thursday, February 27, a contingent of 45 or so state troopers, dressed in helmets and combat boots and carrying nightsticks, patrolled every entrance and exit of the capitol building including the basement garage. A machine gun was mounted on top of the building.
Michael Dixon (b. 1951), Aaron and Elmer's younger brother, was working in the capitol as a page for Representative David Gorton Sprague (1920-1997) of Seattle, a longtime insurance broker, liberal Democrat, and father of the Dixons' childhood friends Mark Sprague (b. 1947) and Paul Sprague (1953-1975). Michael warned Aaron not to demonstrate at the capitol because state troopers were patrolling the area, waiting for the Panthers, with many thinking there could be an all-out assault and war. Aaron and Elmer Dixon were reported to have visited the capitol that Thursday, but were unarmed. A separate group of black activists from Seattle, who were not members of the Black Panther Party -- David Mills, president of the Black United Front; Keve Bray (1925-1972), actor, college lecturer, and political activist; Ron Carson, a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member -- were also at the heavily guarded capitol that afternoon, seeking a meeting with Senate Ways and Means Committee chair Martin J. Durkan (1923-2005).
On that Thursday, February 27, the House and Senate both passed the gun legislation, House Bill No. 123, with lightning speed, due at least in part to the Black Panthers rumor, and the legislation was soon awaiting Cherberg's signature. Passing legislation often takes days to complete, but finalizing this bill took minutes, demonstrating how quickly legislators could pass laws when they wanted to.
However Cherberg, who could have done so in the governor's absence, did not sign the gun bill into law because Governor Evans returned that night from the governors' conference. Evans would soon sign the bill, but first he dismissed the police patrol around the capitol. The Seattle Panthers waited until the dust settled, then sent someone to scout Olympia who reported it appeared safe to mount a demonstration there.
The Gun-Law Protest
Two groups from Seattle's Central Area came independently to the capitol early on Friday morning, February 28, 1969. The first group, which consisted of David Mills, Keve Bray, Ron Carson, and Henry (Hank) Roney (1926-1996), arrived just ahead of their scheduled 9:30 a.m. appearance before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to which they had been invited when they met with Senator Durkan the day before. The four activists discussed a list of Central Area problems with the committee.
The second group, made up of Black Panthers from the Seattle chapter, arrived minutes after the first group of activists began presenting their list of problems. The Panthers' protest mirrored one that had occurred in California's capital Sacramento in 1967 against a similar gun law known as the Mulford Act. In the Olympia action, four cars drove up to the front of the capitol building. Panthers Anthony Ware (b. 1951), Clark Williamson (1953-2006), Wayne Jenkins, Steve Phillips, Larry Tecino, and Aaron and Elmer Dixon got out of the cars with rifles and shotguns, dressed in their standard uniform: black leather jacket, black pants, dark shirt, black beret, black shoes, afro, and dark sunglasses. Elmer Dixon directed the group in taking up a position on the steps of the capitol building, spread out in line facing the Temple of Justice building (home to the state supreme court), with their weapons pointed upright.
Washington State Patrol Captain Robert J. Ranney (1915-2003) -- the only uniformed law-enforcement officer in the area, in contrast to the large number of troopers the day before -- told the Panthers they could not carry loaded weapons on the capitol grounds. As Elmer Dixon recalled the interaction in 2018, he replied that "Loaded means nothing in the chamber," and showed his rifle to the officer, saying, "We do not have any rounds in the chamber. The ammunition is in our clips, nothing inside the chamber" (Elmer Dixon interview). The Panthers removed the ammunition from their clips with no arrests or violation of the law. (Some news accounts at the time stated that the Panthers unloaded their weapons at the officer's request.)
While the Panthers stood on the stairs showing support for the right to bear arms, Aaron Dixon entered the building with an armed party member and delivered a short statement to the legislature. The Panthers held the doors shut forcing legislators to listen to the five-minute speech. The entire protest from beginning to end lasted an estimated 30 minutes. Aaron came out of the building and told the waiting Panthers it was time to leave and head back to Seattle. They walked down the stairs, got into their cars, and left the capitol grounds.
Despite the protest, Governor Evans approved and signed the gun-control legislation that same day, February 28, 1969. With the new law on the books, before 1969 was out the Panthers' phase of carrying weapons openly would come to an end.
In a 2018 interview, Elmer Dixon said of the Panthers: "They had no fear. We did not fear death and we did not fear consequences because we had our principles. We were revolutionary and ready to die for the people. That was the mindset of the revolutionary and mindset of a Panther. If you had fear, you had no business being in the Black Panther Party" (Elmer Dixon interview).