Mark Essex: The fires we ignore

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, ‘No more water, the fire next time!’

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

It was close to midnight on New Year’s Eve 1972, and a body and bullet shells lay in front of NOPD headquarters. Underneath the staccato burst of New Year’s fireworks were gunshots. Bullets flew from a .44 Magnum rifle, tearing holes into the brick walls and cars as a few cops ran for cover—one was hit in the ankle, another in the chest. The shooter was Mark Essex. He was crouched across the street on the Perdido side of the building behind weeds and concrete pipes and dilapidated homes. He got off seven shots before the eighth jammed, then he gathered his cache of weapons and melted into the night before more officers could respond to the shooting. The man he shot in the ankle, Horace Perez, lived. However, the man shot in the chest, Alfred Harrell—19 and a graduate of St. Aug—died at Charity Hospital at 11:09 p.m.

Mark “Jimmy” Essex ran a half-mile to seek cover. The first warehouse he tried to break into was locked. He shot the metal door and the bullet clanged against it and ricocheted into his hand, leaving it bloodied and wounded as he scurried across the street to another building, setting off the burglar alarm in the process. Officers Edwin Hosli and Harold Blappert responded to the alarm. As they approached, Essex shot Hosli in the back.

The NOPD stormed Black neighborhoods and harassed people on the streets and raided nightclubs to look for him. They spread out, kicking down doors and descending upon low income Black neighborhoods with the fury of vengeful gods. The cops got nothing. Some kids called in bogus anonymous tips that sent the police on a wild goose chase. Chief Clarence Giarrusso eventually called off the search in the nearby Gert Town neighborhood in order to ease tensions from the officers’ aggressive tactics. Essex disappeared for a while. Then, a week later on January 7, he went to the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, a brick monolith only rivaled by the hulking yet unfinished Superdome. From the hotel, over the next 10 hours, he would aim to start a revolution not seen in New Orleans in decades.

Essex ran up the stairwell of the Howard Johnson’s and entered the hallway. As he tried to make his way down, he startled three Black female housekeepers. To calm them he let them know he was only there to harm white people.

Robert Steagall stepped out into the hallway after hearing a commotion. Steagall was a 28-year-old doctor from Virginia who was on honeymoon with his wife, Betty. He charged at Essex, they got into a struggle, and Essex knocked Steagall to the ground, then shot him through the arm and torso. Betty ran out into the hall and cradled her husband’s head. Essex shot her through the base of her skull. The police later found the couple laying within one another’s embrace under rubble. He entered their room and lit the drapes on fire with lighter fluid and a lit phone book, then ran to the 11th floor, did the same thing, then shot and killed two of the hotel’s managers, Walter Collins and Frank Schneider.

The streets in front of the hotel swelled with hundreds of officers from the NOPD, Jefferson and Orleans parish deputies, and the FBI. Officers were stationed at surrounding buildings with rifles, and some hurled racial epithets towards the building as Essex moved unseen like a specter from room to room, hidden behind drapes with his rifle. Officers pelted the side of the building with thousands of rounds of ammunition. When a break in the shooting happened, Essex poked his head out and shot an emergency responder who was standing on the neutral ground. When a cop came to the emergency worker’s aid, he was shot in the head.

The day went on until bullets were everywhere, blood was spread, and tears were cried. Nighttime came and brought with it fog and mist that surrounded the scene. Several more were killed, and amidst the horror and anger, the spite and slurs, one could hear Mark Essex scream “Power to the people.” New Orleans watched. America watched—some in horror, others feeling something different altogether. As the thick smoke from the hotel’s windows billowed out, and the flames flickered its embers high into the foggy night sky, if you listened close enough, you would hear the cheers of Black folk in the city.

The vast majority of the Black community decried what Essex had done, but, as said by local activist Larry Jones in the aftermath, Essex was not a “crazy nigger” or “extremist” like white citizens thought he was. To think that way would be to miss the root of what caused his rampage, and in turn miss the reason some people supported him.

Essex was born in Emporia, Kansas in 1949 to a family many in the community considered “respectable negroes.” Emporia was racially harmonious compared to the rest of the U.S. which allowed Essex to have normal formative years where he enjoyed hunting and fishing, and dating women of all races. He was happy and personable, and even hinted to his mother at one point that there was no difference between Black and white people.

Then he enlisted in the Navy. Whereas Black men in the Deep South knew how to navigate the white world, Essex would be considered by standards of the day a “cocky nigger.” He was treated brutally: He got jumped, called racial slurs, and had his autonomy stripped from him again and again by being tacitly forced to act subservient to white colleagues who called him “boy” and made him ask permission before doing simple tasks such as getting ice. He had no support from his superiors, so his relationship to Black sailors deepened. One day, he sucker-punched a superior who constantly harassed him. He went AWOL for a time, and upon returning, was separated from the Navy with a general discharge.

Essex was a changed man after the Navy, suffering from panic attacks and anxiety. He couldn’t unsee the rampant racism around him. As stated by his sister Penny, he could no longer look away from the TV whenever he saw the struggles of Black folks. He drifted for a time, then found his way to New Orleans to be with an old Navy buddy. He tried to link up with the New Orleans branch of the Black Panther Party, but as described by two prominent members, he was “beyond crazy.” He fell into the background for a time and educated himself on the Black struggle, until he knew how to best help his people.

White New Orleans was ignorant to the struggles of Black citizens before the cries of Black Power and the rifle shots of Essex. In the 1920s, Mayor Martin Behrman stated, “The negroes are better treated and enjoy more peace in New Orleans than in any other city.” This was two decades after one of the most violent lynchings in the city’s history. In 1968, Governor John McKeithen stated “racial harmony” existed in Louisiana. Emmitt Douglas, NAACP state president, responded by saying struggling Blacks “standing on street corners and sitting on the steps of the slum dwellings know their governor is lying… [McKeithen] is playing Russian roulette with riots.”

McKeithen’s claim was ludicrous in contrast to a report that came out that year. The Kerner Report was a best-selling book published by the Kerner Commission, a group created by President Lyndon Johnson to find out what caused the 159 race riots that occurred in nearly every major city in 1967. The report stated the issue clearly: economic oppression, poor social aid, white apathy and racism, and the media’s obsession with the white perspective. They warned, “our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The Desire Projects in New Orleans fit the report’s criteria in every regard. The housing project was built in 1956 on top of wet soil instead of concrete and was deemed uninhabitable. Half of the residents lived on less than $3,000 a year, and about three-fourths of the population was under 21. It was far removed from the heart of the city and was surrounded by train tracks, a blockade which strangled transportation to jobs and health services, isolating residents from the rest of the city and leaving police as the only government agency they came into contact with.

A typical scene between the locals and the police would be like what occurred on a late summer Saturday morning, when 25-year-old longshoreman Joseph Lee Reynolds was beaten until his ribs were broken and his eyes were black and blue while he was handcuffed. According to New Orleans After the Promises, the same cops harassed him for weeks after letting him know “this is our project,” much in a fashion to how Essex’s fellow sailors treated him.

One of the worst moments occurred in 1961 when Allen Bruce Foster, an 11-year-old boy, was killed by cops as he fled the scene of a burglary at Crescent Cigar and Tobacco Company on Lafayette Street. They shot at him five times. The cops said they told him to stop running; witnesses said otherwise. One witness claimed they hovered over the boy as he lay dying and asked him why he didn’t stop running. The cops were never charged. Despite incidents like this, peaceful protests remained the preferred form of resistance during the early 1960s in New Orleans, where a hostile city government was led by Interim Mayor Victor Schiro.

Schiro, in a bid to win the 1962 mayoral race, pandered to segregationists by using the NOPD as a battering ram against civil rights protests. In two separate incidents in December of 1961, the NOPD dismantled two protests and arrested a total of 304 people; on another day 292 college students were arrested on Canal Street for “parading without permit.” It wasn’t uncommon for activists to be beaten either. The mayor’s tactics worked. He won 94,050 votes  to rival Adrian Duplantier’s 73,433 votes. However, this strategy would hurt Schiro after Halloween 1963. Then, the city (as well as the country) would get a glimpse at how Black activists were treated.

A prominent activist named Reverend Avery Alexander, along with others, staged a sit-in in the basement cafeteria of City Hall. Five hours later, Rev. Alexander was dragged by his ankles across the linoleum floors, up two flights of stairs, with his head hitting against each step, then out the door and across concrete to an awaiting police car. There were photos of this incident published everywhere, from The Louisiana Weekly all the way to national outlets. Footage was even caught on tape.

Alexander’s treatment outraged Black middle class and white business leaders. If a “respectable negro” like him could be brutalized then it could happen to anyone, and for a time, the business climate suffered. The social tug-of-war continued for years to come. Then, in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated, and American cities ignited into flames. Two days after that the NOPD murdered a 15-year-old burglary suspect, Robert Lee Boyd, after he allegedly tried to attack an officer with a shovel.

Over 40 fire bombs exploded around the city over several nights, with corner stores, liquor stores, and parked cars as the targets. Most of the unrest was centered in the Desire Projects, so cops descended upon the area to control the crowd. As recounted in Black Rage in New Orleans, Desire residents circled the only two Black officers in the group and yelled “Nigger-uncle tom cops” in their faces as the white cops either did nothing, or used the butts of their rifles to hit protestors. Shockingly, things did not get as bad as they could have. The city did not ignite in the way other cities did after King’s death. But things would never be the same, either. One bystander stated the violence was caused by “eyes being opened… it came out of this hell we’ve been living in.” A world away was Mark Essex, and his eyes were certainly opening.

Police Sharpshooter Viewing the Top of the Howard Johnson’s Hotel in Downtown New Orleans. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of John H. Lawrence, acc. no. 2018.0557.11

Years prior to Essex’s arrival, the city was struggling to overcome the social effects of the King riots and Boyd murder. Schiro tried to placate Black citizens by appointing the city’s first Black mayoral aide, Philip Batiste; but according to New Orleans After the Promises, even Batiste knew he was nothing more than a “showpiece.” Schiro’s attempts fell flat, but it wouldn’t matter. A young bespectacled anti-racist by the name of Maurice “Moon” Landrieu dominated the 1969-1970 mayoral election after being backed by a biracial coalition, and won the race with over 90% of the Black vote, and under half of the white vote. His appeal in the Desire Projects was nearly unanimous. In one year Landrieu appointed eight times the amount of Black people to government than Schiro did throughout his entire tenure. By the end of his term, City government went from 20% Black to over 40%. Not everyone was happy with the progress, though. According to New Orleans After the Promises, he was often called “Moon the Coon” and “nigger-lover,” to which he responded “You right, I am.”

There were limits to Moon’s liberalism, though. He ignored recommendations from the community on how to stymie brutality; and when asked to appoint a Black man to one of the top three law enforcement positions, he rehired the original chief, Joseph Giarrusso, who would later be ousted due to public pressure, and replaced by his older brother Clarence. Another source of Moon’s criticism was his unwillingness to make police brutality investigations public. The New Orleans Black Panther Party was founded in the summer of 1970 as if in direct response.

Counter to what authorities claimed, the Black Panther Party was warmly received by the community. They provided protection on the streets, political education classes, free breakfasts, self-defense training, and programs to uplift children. They protected the people against police and criminals within the community alike, sometimes treating the latter with more force. But not everyone was a fan. As detailed in New Orleans After the Promises, the NOPD wrote in a secret memorandum that the Panthers were the “greatest concern” and the “most dangerous” of local social justice groups. Mayor Landrieu labeled them as “revolutionaries” and not “activists.” Joe Giarrusso stated that the Panthers weren’t necessary because the NOPD “enjoyed a fine relationship with the community leaders in that area.” Landrieu eventually took a page from Schiro’s playbook and tried to fill more local positions with Black folks; however, he failed to realize what the projects needed was a direct line to his office, and not anymore “showpieces” who came from middle-class backgrounds. He realized this didn’t stop the Panthers’ anti-police and radical language, so he had the NOPD infiltrate the Party with two Black spies: Melvin Howard, 20, and Israel Fields, 21.

The NOPD learned from their intelligence that the Panthers were stockpiling weapons and fortifying their Desire base with sandbags. Unknown to the authorities at the time, though, was the fact that the Panthers had learned that the men were spies after some kids recognized them from “Tulane and Broad.” On September 14 the Party held what was supposed to be a political education meeting, but was really a trial. The two spies entered the packed room filled with the project’s residents and stood in the middle of the floor. Members of the party asked the people if they thought the two men were “pigs,” and every time the two men tried to speak they were cracked over the head and forced to shut up. The Black Panthers reached their verdict, and decided to let the citizens have them. Fields and Howard were kicked and beaten by around 50 residents after being forced into a corner of the room. They were eventually able to get away and run out the door, but outside things got worse. As the situation grew tense, shots were fired and projectiles were thrown; the officers’ car was set on fire then dumped in a canal; and a white bystander had his jaw broken. In the chaos, Officer Howard hopped a fence behind the headquarters and Fields ran into a grocery store belonging to a grocer accused of price gouging during Hurricane Betsy, and who threatened to shoot anyone who tried to take food. The store owner also owned the headquarters and tried several times to get the Black Panthers evicted. The store owner opened fire when the residents tried to get Fields to come out, and from there the night plunged into chaos.

The next morning at about 8:30 the NOPD raided the projects with helicopters and multiple armored cars, and a tank nicknamed “Bertha.” They wore gear that would make special forces salivate, and had an army of over 100 police for the few members within the headquarters. Cops fired into the headquarters for close to 30 minutes straight without stopping while the Panthers fired back with handguns and shotguns. After a while the Panthers surrendered, and the members walked out alive due to sandbags that fortified the building. The Panthers continued to organize and hold their meetings in the same building afterwards as if nothing happened.

The second standoff with the cops came months later on November 19, 1970. The NOPD showed up with additional law enforcement officers this time, armed with assault rifles and tanks again. The cops spoke from a loudspeaker and warned the Panthers that they needed to come out. However, as cops considered advancing, they were met with the jeers of hundreds of residents and not allowed to move an inch closer to the headquarters. The standoff lasted hours and, fearing a bloodbath, the Black Panthers and NOPD had mediators negotiate terms. It was settled that the Panthers would be allowed to file in court that they should be allowed to stay in the building and not be forcefully evicted. Clarence Giarrusso had his officers pull out. This was an unpopular decision amongst the officers and white citizens, but Black leaders lauded the chief for his restraint. The crowd cheered as the officers in tanks and cars and on horseback pulled away, and there were rumors that the Panthers were carried on the citizens’ shoulders as they held their fists in the air and screamed, “Power to the people.” There was elation and momentum in the neighborhood. However, the Panthers wouldn’t survive in New Orleans much longer.

One day a police officer dressed as a priest knocked at the door of the headquarters claiming to be there with donations for the free food program. The door opened and the cops busted in and overpowered the people inside. Shots were exchanged and eventually, the Panthers were dragged out in handcuffs. There was backlash from Black people, who believed the cops opened fire without cause and misused a religious symbol to their own ends.

The Panthers’ Desire Headquarters was burned to the ground in the aftermath. It may have been a message to the local authorities that if the Black Panthers couldn’t have the building, no one else could. It was also a message that the people were in fact behind the Panthers all the way. In the end, the Landrieu administration patted themselves on the back for rooting out radicals. All they did was make room for much worse. In the wake of the standoffs, Giarrusso created the Felony Action Squad, a crew of plainclothes officers with shoot-to-kill orders in order to “protect” the Black citizens of New Orleans from criminals. Essex would later write in his manifesto that along with the murders of two Southern University students at the hands of cops, the existence of the FAS was the reasoning for his rampage.

In 1971 a trial was held for the 14 Panthers that were arrested during the first standoff. They were facing years for the shootout. However, miraculously, they were acquitted since it couldn’t be proven that they fired at the cops first. The mostly Black courtroom exploded with cheers.

“To the People of Desire” flier (page 1 of 3). The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 2015.0171.21

Officers fired 10,000 rounds into the Howard Johnson’s while other police evacuated the building. Essex had set over a dozen fires on several floors with the majority on the 18th floor and was shooting at firefighters as they tried to put them out. Down on the street, the arrival of bystanders made the situation more hectic. The groups ranged from reporters with cameras to spectators just there to watch. Even groups of armed white folks arrived after hearing false rumors that gangs of Black people were attacking cops. The police eventually took control of the building. However, Essex was a ghost. He moved from room to room and hid within the smoke-filled hallways as officers roamed around. Louis Sirgo, the second highest ranking officer in the NOPD, led men up the stairwells, and when the group entered the 16th floor, Essex slipped out of one of the rooms and shot Sirgo in the back, killing him.

Once on the rooftop, Essex—in the fashion of a self-styled revolutionary willing to die a martyr—left the brick cubicle protecting him from the helicopter that targeted him from above. He fired at the officers until they lit him up with over 200 bullets that tore through his flesh while he gyrated from the impact. Due to suspicions that another sniper was still active, his body laid on the roof for more than 17 hours as blood poured through his wounds into crimson pools around his body. The officers down below celebrated.

If the firebombs of ‘68 and the Black Panther shootout of 1970 were warnings, then Mark Essex was the reckoning. The city needed immediate reforms to stave off racial division of cataclysmic proportions: more money put into social aid and a mending of bonds between Black folks and the NOPD via transparency; better infrastructure in the projects and economic development; the people of the projects needed a wider voice in the government, not just the middle and political class of Black folks; and more Black decision makers in the NOPD.

That didn’t happen. Politicians like Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland stoked racial anxieties when he implied that there was “ample evidence” to a “nationwide conspiracy” to kill cops. The NOPD formed a SWAT team and the force had become more militarized than ever. The FBI and local officials went on to surveil local Black activists groups, and a lot of Black leaders felt as though white citizens wanted the Black community to apologize for a man who wasn’t even from the city. Chief Clarence Giarrusso feared Essex may be “symbolic” to some people after years of “deprivation and degradation.”

Louis Sirgo gave a speech well before the Howard Johnson’s shootings, where he said “the greatest sin of American society—the status of the American Negro… If there were no ‘Desires,’ there would be no Panthers.” He ended by saying leaders shouldn’t bury their heads in the sand like ostriches, since what’s left exposed “makes a very good target for a sniper.” He was set to replace Clarence Giarrusso after his retirement. Instead he died when Essex’s bullet shattered his spine. His vision for the future never came to fruition.

It would be nice to think if it did, we’d have a society that didn’t create Mark Essexes that would later kill Louis Sirgos; where cops entered the projects and strolled through like it was Mayberry, with the tip of a hat and wave at the little Black kids who got to have real childhoods. In that world all of the mutual suffering that happens due to the distrust between Black communities and white leadership would’ve ended. That didn’t happen. There have been more Essexes, in the form of Christopher Dorner (Los Angeles), Micah Xavier Johnson (Dallas), and Gavin Eugene Long (Baton Rouge), all Black vets who went on the attack against officers, the latter two in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. Racial inequities are still rampant, and our cities are still burning. How long can a society ignore a people’s pleas for help before those pleas become the demands of a revolution? And how long before that revolution creates radicals, and those radicals become extremists? How long can someone be backed into a corner before they learn that the only way out is to go over you?

This article was based on the following material:

Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina (by Leonard N. Moore)

To Poison a Nation: The Murder of Robert Charles and the Rise of Jim Crow Policing in America (by Andrew Baker)

New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society (by Kent B. Germany)

“From the Desire to Mark Essex: The Catalysts of Militarization for the New Orleans Police Department” (U.N.O. dissertation by Derrick W.A. Martin)

The Story Behind the Standoff (WWL-TV documentary)

Military Murder Podcast, episode 28: NOLA SERIAL SNIPER: Mark Essex

For more info on Mark Essex and the Black Panther standoff:

A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper (by Peter Hernon)

Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans (by Orissa Arend)

illustration by Luke Howard