Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hidden History: Before Christopher Dorner There Was Mark Essex, the New Orleans Sniper

If we keep our eyes and ears open we can learn something new every day. I was reading an essay by Mike Davis (the great historian who has written such essential books as City of Quartz; Planet of Slums; and Ecology of Fear) about Christopher Dorner's relationship to the American cultural scene.

There, Davis hit on some of the same points we have developed here on WARN. Consequently, I was pleased to be in such good company:

Mike Davis then separated the amateurs from the pros with his exploration of how Christopher Dorner's war against the LAPD was/is evocative of an earlier moment of black male vigilantism. To point. In 1972 New Orleans, a former member of the U.S. Navy, who like Dorner, was African-American and experienced racism while in the service, also decided to fight back against the system.

In his crusade Mark Essex killed innocent black folks, white folks, police, and any others who got in his way:
A young Black navy veteran with almost no formal weapons training, Essex boldly attacked the headquarters of the New Orleans Police Department on New Year’s Eve, 1972. After killing a black police cadet and wounding a white lieutenant, Essex escaped to a nearby warehouse where he ambushed a K-9 unit and killed another cop. For a week he eluded a vast manhunt before suddenly reappearing in the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street from City Hall. Going floor to floor, always warning the housekeepers to flee, he shot down hotel managers and white guests, setting rooms afire as he climbed toward the roof. 
The New Orleans police rushed the hotel, but Essex with uncanny accuracy shot cops off fire ladders, mowed them down in stairwells and killed them as they stepped out of elevators or got out of their cars in the streets below. By nightfall on 7 January 1973, Essex – now bunkered on the roof of Howard Johnson – had militarily defeated the entire New Orleans Police Department. He had shot ten police officers (five dead, including a deputy chief) and eleven white civilians (four dead) while withstanding thousands of rounds of police fire without a wound. Ultimately a marine helicopter was brought in and after taking numerous hits from Essex in three runs at the hotel, a police sharpshooter killed the one-man black liberation army. When the coroner received what remained of Essex he counted 200 bullet wounds.

As a ghetto nerd, I would like to believe that I have a good grasp of hidden history. Perhaps, because I was not born in New Orleans, I had never heard of Mark Essex. And just as I learned from some brothers here in Chicago about Jeff Fort, there are apparently many "street legends," local heroes, anti-heroes, and folk figures that most people--if they are not privy to them by region or social network--will never learn about.

[Do teach us all something. Are there any local legends who defied power and fought "The Man" that folks in your neck of the woods know about, but who have been denied a national platform?]

As we discussed here, I am fascinated by the hostility to the suggestion that Chris Dorner is a folk hero for some segments of the mass public.

In meditating on your comments here, and those of folks over at Alternet, I am reminded that there is a deep belief held by many in the public--especially those identified with the "in-group" and who count themselves among the "mainstream"--that our experiences in the public sphere, and society, more generally, are uniform and the same.

The idea that there are multiple publics, that Power impacts people in diverse ways, and how American experience is not one thing, but rather something diverse (and at times divergent), is often in conflict with other conceptions of it. The public is not a natural or organic concept. It is constructed and not unitary. These attributes are unsettling to no small number of people.

Moreover, "normal" is one of the ugliest words in the English language. Nevertheless, many people are desperate to be it. In that obsession and desire they forget that there are many experiences of normalcy and day-to-day lived reality. Ultimately, how one views Christopher Dorner is filtered through that cognitive map.

To understand the simultaneous appeal and hostility to Christopher Dorner begins with that most basic of understandings.


Buddy H. said...

Gil Scott-Heron mentions Essex in "The Siege Of New Orleans (Inner City Blues)"

chauncey devega said...

Learned something again. Will have to check out that song.

SabrinaBee said...

I don't know of any in my area. But then, it may simply be another case of "hidden" history. Of course, this couldn't be widely spread least other get ideas, or hints on how to stage their own little war. The insidiousness of social engineering.

James Wolf said...

I'm surprised no one brought up Omar Thorton, the brotha that shot and killed his employees in a Connecticut factory before committing suicide. When I heard about Dorner, I immediately thought about Thorton as well.

chauncey devega said...

Great catch! At the beer distributor in CT.

Tone said...

Sagon Penn from San Diego. Now deceased. Pulled over, harassed and attacked by SDPD in the eighties. Disarmed two cops killing one in the process. Drove off in the cop car. Acquitted.

7thangel said...

i read about Essex when i was younger. i think it was in the book Hunting Humans. i read the account twice, utterly fascinated by it

Fred Ceely said...

That's two for the Honor Roll, Mr. Penn, and Tone for sharing. Thanks for that, Tone. But who was Mr. Penn's lawyer? He deserves at least an honorable mention. My guess was Tony Serra but his name didn't come up in a search.

Tone said...

Milton Silverman