WILMINGTON — The Revolutionary Black Panther Party pledged legal action Sunday against local officials for their response to a planned armed march at a news conference interrupted when law enforcement officers arrived to remove their weapons.
The news conference was taking place on the steps of the New Hanover County Courthouse when members of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the Wilmington Police Department arrived. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Donald Warnick told party leader Dr. Alli Muhammad they were not allowed to have their weapons on courthouse property.
Tensions heightened when some party members noticed officers with the Wilmington Police Department, dressed in tactical gear, aiming weapons toward the group.
“Can you tell them to lower their weapons,” one of the party members asked Warnick. “They need to lower their weapons.”
Warnick responded, “We’re just being ready, sir.”
Warnick continued to ask members to put their weapons on the courthouse steps, as well as remove any facial coverings. At the direction of Muhammad, party members voluntarily put their weapons down.
Members of the party were in violation of a local county ordinance prohibiting the display of firearms and possession of concealed handguns on courthouse property, as well as a state law that prohibits wearing masks at meetings or demonstrations, according to a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office news release.
Sheriff’s deputies then picked up the weapons, two revolvers, five semi-automatic pistols and three shotguns, and began unloading them before taking them to be inventoried. All of the weapons were loaded and some had bullets in the chamber.
“We just want justice,” said Wilmington resident Sheila Haskins, who was observing the event. “This looks like terrorism to me. Why can’t we have a peaceful march?”
The news conference stemmed from a legal entanglement involving the cancellation of a tribunal event that was supposed to be held Saturday in the Creekwood community, as well as an armed march that was supposed to take place Sunday.
“Law enforcement officers went to the Creekwood community. … They went there and frightened these people,” Muhammad claimed. “Because of the intimidation of law enforcement they wouldn’t open their doors. … That is a form of terrorism.”
Muhammad contended that the group’s right to bear arms, peacefully assemble and equal protection of the law are “under siege.”
While planning legal action against the Wilmington Police Department, Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and District Attorney Ben David, Muhammad said he is planning to gather more people for an even larger armed march in the Wilmington area.
Despite having several of their guns taken Sunday, which Muhammad said the group will be able to retrieve Monday morning, the group carried on with planned events the rest of the day at the intersection of 12th and Dock streets. A significant police presence followed the group, as several WPD vehicles could be seen on streets at and around the intersection and a helicopter hovered above both the news conference and the intersection.
The event drew hundreds, and Black Panther members had rearmed themselves, saying they had a constitutional right to bear arms.
“You have the right to open carry in the state of North Carolina,” Muhammad said.
The event was wide-ranging, with Muhammad speaking about injustice against blacks, including slavery, police persecution, economic suppression and, locally, the shooting of Brandon Smith, who was unarmed when he was killed by police in Wilmington in 2013. Police said Smith was suspected of shooting a police detective days earlier and, on the night he died, raised a dark object, later identified as a cellphone, following a chase.
Smith’s relatives spoke during the event.
“I wish they could feel what I feel inside,” Paula Davis, Smith’s mother, said of law enforcement. “They’d never kill anyone again.”
Denise Barnes, who lives on Dock Street near the site of the event, said she welcomed the Panthers’ presence.
“I’m not really worried with them having the guns,” she said. “I’m fine with them having this protest.”
Wilmington resident Gwendolyn Allen said she appreciated the Panthers being in the area because it “starts to open dialogue.”
“It is a global movement toward equality for everybody,” she said.
Reporter Makenzie Holland can be reached at 910-343-2371 or Makenzie.Holland@StarNewsOnline.com and Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.
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