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George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

A seminal event remembered

May 03, 2007|George Skelton

Sacramento — Half a dozen black men wearing leather jackets and carrying loaded guns burst through the massive doors of the California Assembly chamber. Twenty brothers in arms waited outside in the hall.

The Assembly was in session, approaching lunchtime. Some lawmakers dived under their desks. Others darted for a side door. Most simply froze and stared in disbelief.

That was 40 years ago Wednesday.

The terrifying incident put the invaders -- the fledging Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self Defense -- on the international map. Black Panthers became a household name.

For the Capitol, it was a seminal event. It ended an era of innocence, a time when politicians regarded the domed, granite monolith as a sanctuary from the dangers of everyday violence. It ushered in the gradual tightening of security, culminating in the fortress-like building it is today, guarded by magnetometers, security cameras and vehicle-stopping steel posts ringing the park.

The Capitol never again would be quite so cozy.

While startling, the episode did reflect the boiling turmoil of the '60s, the political perfect storm of civil rights activism and Vietnam War protests that often erupted in violence.

But the Panthers cooked up this event as a publicity stunt.

Ostensibly, they were at the Capitol to protest -- get this! -- a Republican-sponsored gun control bill. The Assembly GOP caucus chairman, Don Mulford of Piedmont, was pushing legislation to ban the carrying of loaded firearms within any city.

"We have a constitutional right to bear arms," the Panthers shouted as they roamed the Capitol. Panther co-founder Bobby Seale read a statement to reporters claiming that the bill was "aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless."

"Today, the Republicans would be defending the Panthers' right to have guns," says Democrat Willie Brown, who 40 years ago was an assemblyman and later became Assembly speaker and then San Francisco's mayor.

"I was shocked -- totally shocked," Brown recalls of the invasion. "Anyone walking in with weapons, you kidding me!"

May 2, 1967, was a nice sunny day in Sacramento. Gov. Ronald Reagan was about to join an eighth-grade social studies class on the Capitol's west lawn for a fried chicken lunch. Suddenly a group of guys with guns -- rifles, shotguns, side arms -- came marching through.

From the Associated Press bureau on the Capitol's second floor, chief correspondent Bill Stall was glancing out the window. The future Times staffer remembers the bizarre scene: "They looked like an infantry company coming through the trees."

The Panthers climbed a stairwell to the second-floor Assembly chamber, knocking over a sergeant-at-arms at a swinging gate. Then they barreled through the big oak door.

Back then, reporters were allowed to have small desks alongside the Assembly floor, and I was at mine, near the front of the chamber. I still can hear the panic in the shouting of the presiding officer, Assemblyman Carlos Bee (D-Hayward): "Sergeant, remove those people immediately."

Nobody was going near those people.

"The membership became very frightened and started scrambling, going for cover," remembers Brown, who was standing near the back. "I couldn't figure out why. Then I turned around and saw these fellows in their Panther uniforms and berets. I immediately said, 'What are you guys doing here? You're going to get in a lot of trouble. You can't be bringing guns into the chamber.' "

It's remembered a little differently by Tony Beard Jr., who's now the Senate's chief sergeant-at-arms, and then was also standing at the rear of the chamber. His dad, Tony Beard Sr., was the Assembly's chief sergeant.

Brown, one of five black Assembly members, produced "the funniest moment I remember," Beard says. "He was standing to the Panthers' right, looking at some papers. He looked over at them, they look over at him. He kind of shrugged and said, 'I'm with you guys.' Then looked back at his papers.

"That's when I learned how smart Willie was."

Brown disputes it. "First of all, I wasn't a Panther," he says. "I did represent some Panthers on a robbery charge once." Attorney Brown got them off.

Another future legislative leader in the chamber that day was Assemblyman David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who later would head the Senate.

"I was a freshman. It was a great initiation," he says. "Frankly, I wasn't scared because I was too naive to realize what was happening."

I'll admit to being a tad scared. I walked toward the commotion, always keeping a desk or a rail or a column between me and the bad guys, as I perceived them. I'd grown up with guns and was, at that time, an avid hunter. One slip of the finger. Maybe some misguided sergeant would try to be hero and start a firefight.

Fortunately, there was one real hero: Tony Beard Sr., a former USC football star and Hollywood stuntman (for Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," for example). His dad had headed the state police.

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