On March 1st, around 5:30am, Justin Sipp and his brother Earl Sipp were stopped by police in Mid-City while Justin was on his way to work at Burger King. Those familiar with consistent police harassment have a name for this sort of thing: “driving while black.” The lone, white police officer on the scene quickly called for backup on the pretense that these men were “acting suspicious”—a congruent phenomenon which local organizer Pam Nath refers to as “interpreting while white.” At around 5:45 Justin sent a text to his girlfriend telling her that she should contact his boss to let him know they were being detained. The details become hazy, but at some point in the following seven minutes, shots were exchanged, leaving Earl and three officers wounded and Justin dead. Earl allegedly had a suspended license and, according to testimony, was in handcuffs when the gunfire broke out. It’s unclear who fired first, but one fact is evident: the “officer involved” shooting was provoked by the detainment of these two men by the NOPD.
Only one week later, officers executed a dubious drug search warrant on Prentiss Street in Gentilly. When Wendell Allen, wearing pajama pants and no shirt, came out of his room to see what the commotion was (there were younger siblings downstairs), an officer coming up the stairs fired upon him, killing him instantly. He was unarmed. Like Justin, he was only 20 years old. After covering the funeral, the anchor for WDSU thought that they “should say” that weed, though failing to substantiate the amount, was found in the home—as if this fact warranted either a police raid or a death sentence.
While watching the mainstream media coverage on Justin’s death, my jaw dropped when I recognized the photograph of one of the cops called in for backup—a cop who had been in intensive care for gunshot wounds—as a former family friend. Not only had I known his daughter through elementary school but I had even been over to his house on several occasions! And this man—I learned through reports—had been complicit not only in the slaying of Justin but in the bloodbath and coverup of the Danziger Bridge shootings after Katrina as well. I was disgusted.
When you grow up in Chalmette, racism is absorbed at an early age— as unquestioned as the existence of god, as ubiquitous as those tacky campaign posters for parish sheriffs. It permeates cultural perception like air fouled by Murphy Oil: black peoples’ ungratefulness for all that is “given to them,” their lack of intelligence, drug addiction, criminal behavior… Bigotry, I imagine, that is only reinforced and exacerbated during one’s cop training in a city where—due to structural circumstances like poverty, lack of education and a vicious “criminal justice” system—high crime exists in black communities. I could hear this cop’s rationalizations, in a drawl so familiar, as if he sat there before me: the need to prevent chaos from erupting by any means necessary, putting oneself in harm’s way to keep the streets “safe” from those violent you-knowwhat’s. And of course there are benefits for this kind of selective worldview, for being a foot-soldier for a monolithic order, and in my (former) friend’s dad’s case it wasn’t all that grand: a modest one-story house in a bluecollar neighborhood, brute authority over some others, initiation into what is essentially a fraternal organization on par with the mob. But there are consequences for such service as well: namely, the bullet from the barrel of one of those despised “criminal’s” guns tearing through skin and viscera. The desperate recourse of one man—on probation and probably seeing prison as inevitable—attempting to claw his way out of a grave society had dug for him, only to clash with that of another whose life is devoted to upholding by force the status quo. When the smoke cleared, my childhood friend’s father was rushed to the ICU and, according to reports, is recovering; Justin Sipp didn’t make out nearly so lucky.
A number of friends and I attended Justin’s funeral. Dressed in formal black attire, I stood on the sidewalk as friends and family members made their way into the mortuary to say their last goodbyes. Some of my comrades ventured in for the service as well, but I personally didn’t feel right about it. I had watched one of the victim’s family members wailing in grief at the press conference outside the courthouse the morning before, and I didn’t want to feel like a voyeur. So I stayed outside with the activists holding placards. I regret this decision. At some point we lined up in two rows outside the front doors to await the end of the ceremony. One of the activists started leading chants like “Justice for Justin!” And though I appreciated the sentiment, I was a little confused. I mean, we were at his funeral, not police headquarters. I hate ever feeling too “cool” to do something, but at this point in my life I have to say I reserve chanting exclusively for empowered moments in the street or those I’m angry with. After about three minutes of this very tried ritual some of the family members came out to ask us to please have some respect. “We love you, we’re glad that you’re out here,” they told us, “but please…” I felt pretty deflated; here I was trying to honor this person who’d stood up to the cops and was subsequently murdered, and I ended up—by association, at least—upsetting some of the family members further. And it just felt like one embarrassment after another. As the pallbearers led Justin’s body to the hearse and family people began exiting, as we awkwardly scrambled to not be an encumbrance, the activists decided to seize this opportunity— this grand moment— to give grieving family members flyers calling for such reformist demands as the firing of police chief Ronal Serpas! This was just such poor form, in my opinion. I was under the impression we had come out in a gesture of support and solidarity with the Sipp family, not to proselytize and win them over to “our” side! And then the planned second line that was apparently to take place on Oretha Castle Haley was called off when it was realized that the family hadn’t planned to do one.
I feel like anarchists really should have taken autonomous action. We failed to strike while the iron was hot, when the media was actually focusing on the fact that NOPD had murdered two 20-year-old black men in one week. The city should have been shut down and the public— if not totally sympathetic— would have at least understood the basis for such disruption. The threat of retaliation for police murder and brutality is what provides the leverage for activists to actually have their demands listened to by those in power. After all, it took the threat of mass rioting in Oakland following the verdict of Oscar Grant’s murderer for the cop to be indicted. It’s delusional to believe any “justice” can ever be served by merely displaying moral fortitude to those who oppress and kill us: Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful approach would have lacked much weight without the more confrontational tactics of militants like Malcolm X.
New Orleans, entrenched in the centuries-old bitter legacy of slavery and religious conservatism, has rarely been able to harness its indignation into a collective, volatile social rupture—only individual, hopeless acts of rebellion. We had Mark Essex, a man who assassinated a total of nine NOPD officers before being gunned down on the roof of what is now the Hyatt hotel, but we fell short of anything on the scale of LA’s Watts Riots. The standoff between riot police and hundreds of angry residents in the Desire Projects one summer day in 1970 came close, though.
Having one killer cop indicted, or a police chief replaced, is not what I’m pining for. But I do want to make the NOPD think twice before gunning down anyone else. Violence is inevitable as long as police and the institutions they protect exist—and it will, as always, affect those more marginalized in society. A week ago there were shootings throughout my neighborhood. This was black kids, presumably, shooting at other black kids. Is it too much to guess that it is socio-economic conditions—the struggle to survive within a competitive and inhuman system—that turns people against one another like this? And those who would call upon the cops and the prisons for protection are essentially calling on the forces perpetuating this cycle of violence. Feeling incredibly impotent about how to respond in any constructive way, a friend and I walked around the neighborhood stapling up and handing out literature on anarchist responses to black-on-black crime. But of course, this is not enough.
Similar to the tactics employed in the wake of Oscar Grant’s murder, posters calling for justice for those slain by NOPD and featuring their photographs have been plastered all over the city. I hope that the momentum does not simply peter out, that the outrage does not fester within us with no avenues of tangible expression. The deaths of Wendell Allen and Justin Sipp, and the circumstances that lead up to those deaths, were a tragedy—and we are going to have to fight if we don’t want them repeated. If full-scale “revolution” is beyond our reach, then I’m praying at least for a hearty dose of unbridled revolt…