By Ned Parker
(Reuters) - The New Black Panther Party, a "black power" movement, will carry firearms for self-defense during rallies in Cleveland ahead of next week's Republican convention, if allowed under Ohio law, the group's chairman said.
The plan by the group this weekend comes as police in Cleveland brace for an influx of groups that plan demonstrations before and during the presidential nominating convention.
During the attack last week in Dallas that killed five police officers, law enforcement officials said demonstrators carrying rifles led them to initially believe they were under attack by multiple shooters.
Several other groups, including some supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, have said they will carry weapons in Cleveland.
"If it is an open state to carry, we will exercise our second amendment rights because there are other groups threatening to be there that are threatening to do harm to us," Hashim Nzinga, chairman of the New Black Panther Party, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"If that state allows us to bear arms, the Panthers and the others who can legally bear arms will bear arms."
Nzinga said he condemned the Dallas shootings.
Officials in Ohio have said it will be legal for protesters to carry weapons at demonstrations outside the convention under that state’s "open carry" law, which allows civilians to carry guns in public.
"Black power" groups promote defense against racial oppression, with some advocating for the establishment of armed self-defense groups, black social institutions and a self-sufficient economy.
The New Black Panther Party has long called for a separate black nation. But Nzinga said the movement was now focused on protecting black Americans' rights.
Academics say the New Black Panther Party remains marginal and largely representative of an older generation, in their 30s and 40s, rather than younger activists drawn to groups such as the anti-racism Black Lives Matter movement.
The New Black Panther Party was founded in 1989 and adopted a more radical approach than the 1960s Black Panther Party. Members of the original group have denounced the New Black Panther Party as racist, but Nzinga says his movement includes original Black Panthers.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate group watchdog, describes the New Black Panther Party as “a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law enforcement officers."
The center tracks years of public statements by the New Black Panther Party and other groups. Nzinga denied the group was racist but said it was a fact that Jews control Hollywood and the U.S. media.
The center said the group is not known to have carried out any violent attacks. The black shooter in the Dallas killings "liked" the New Black Panthers and other black nationalist groups on Facebook but was not a member.
"THERE TO PROTECT"
Nzinga said he expected “a couple hundred” members of the New Black Panther Party to participate in and protect a black unity rally -- the "National Convention of the Oppressed" -- that is scheduled to begin in Cleveland on Thursday evening and end on Monday morning. Nzinga said he and the Panthers plan to leave Cleveland on Sunday, the day before the convention officially opens.
“We are there to protect ... We are not trying to do anything else,” he said. "We are going to carry out some of these great legal rights we have -- to assemble, to protest and (to exercise) freedom of speech.”
Nzinga says his group has grown amid racial tensions in the wake of a series of high-profile police killings of black men in the past two years. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of black militant chapters around the country grew from 113 in 2014 to 180 in 2015.
The center says there are 892 hate groups total nationwide. It says white hate groups, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, have a much longer track record of carrying out violent attacks than black nationalist groups.
Nzinga said his group has 36 chapters nationwide but declined to reveal membership numbers.
“I have people literally calling me saying this is the first time in my life I protested and I loved it.” Nzinga told Reuters. "They want to be a part of something. They tried to be a part of the system and the system let them down so they want to be part of a rebellion.”
(Reporting By Ned Parker; additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Stuart Grudgings.; Editing by David Rohde and Stuart Grudgings)