A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper
by Dylan rail
Saturday, Aug. 07, 2010 at 10:09 PM
The story of Mark Essex should be as familiar as Robin Hood to the people of New Orleans, and in some wards at least, his story has reached a similarly legendary, hero-of-the-poor status since his 1973 death at the hands of the New Orleans Police. As anarchist professor John Clark recently relayed to me, "The 1960s actually happened in the 1970s in New Orleans," and this book illustrates his point exactly.
The story of Mark Essex should be as familiar as Robin Hood to the people of New Orleans, and in some wards at least, his story has reached a similarly legendary, hero-of-the-poor status since his 1973 death at the hands of the New Orleans Police. As anarchist professor John Clark recently relayed to me, "The 1960s actually happened in the 1970s in New Orleans," and this book illustrates his point exactly. As one of the millions of young soldiers returning home from the Vietnam war to find a country that cared little for what they'd endured, and to politicians who cared even less, Mark Essex gradually came to understand the police on the streets of the ghettos of America as doing essentially the same job the drafted Americans in Southeast Asia were doing: attempting to maintain "order," "security," and "peace" (only for the rich, of course) through brutal force, instead of through economic equality and racial justice in the ghettos and rice farming villages they were respectively patrolling.
As a young black man, Mark couldn't stand to see the racism, mistreatment, and brutality that always characterizes policing in poor areas, and grew more and more angry over time, his heart scarred by the injustice around him. Eventually, this growing anger erupted, and on a night that would change his life forever, he aimed his rifle across the railroad tracks that lead to Union Station at two guards in front of the infamous Orleans Parish Prison, and pulled the trigger. It was New Years Eve 1973.
Anyone that has been arrested as many times as I have knows that Sherriffs come from the same neighborhood, and personally know, many of the arrestees awaiting trial in OPP. They make little more than minimum wage, and it's a safe bet that if they weren't working for OPP, they'd be flipping burgers at McDonalds. They are not exactly the policymakers who decided to fill poor neighborhoods with cops instead of fighting poverty to end crime. So when Mark Essex decided to go to war with the police state, it was an emotional explosion of visceral rage at the targets closest at hand, not a directed and calculated attack on the wielders of true power, the super-rich and the politicians whose campaigns are funded by them.
Over the next tense week, the NOPD hunted relentlessly for the sniper who'd taken out two of their own. Reports streamed in of unknown persons sniping at cop cars, of shadows stalking past second floor windows of abandoned ghetto rental units. The police were for once the ones who felt terror as they crossed paths with African-Americans on darkened streets at night instead of the other way around.
By the time Mark Essex had gotten fed up enough to start shooting cops, the popular New Orleans Black Panthers had already been crushed by shootings, fraudulent arrests of all their members, and constant street-level brutality towards their supporters by the police force. His rage had no outlet, his sadness no relief, his indignation no recognition by the powerful, or by any organized social movement that he could join to demand the mistreatment end. He must have felt so alone, so terrified by the prospect of living in a world he had little say in, that consciously or not, he followed in the path of the Black Panthers and Weathermen of the 1960s and took up armed struggle against the powerful and those who protect them.
One week later, Mark Essex was dead on the roof of the Holiday Inn. The one with the giant clarinet mural on Loyola Ave. in the CBD. He'd been killed in a hail of bullets by cops hovering overhead in a borrowed helicopter. He had led them on a chase to his pre-planned battle ground, the hotel, when they tried to arrest him. He set rooms on fire, created smoke screens, shot some tourists in the hallways, and bunkered down on the roof to kill as many cops on the ground as possible before they killed him. He had had enough, but by turning his violence outward at the police instead of on himself, he became a legend instead of just another veteran who committed suicide. The bumbling police had also managed to shoot each other a few times during the battle. One day, I was tabling for the Iron Rail at a rap block party deep in the 8th ward, and it turned out Wild Wayne of Q93 fame was the MC of the event. The table was busy all day, especially with people buying Neighborhood Story Project books, to finally be able to read about their experiences as black New Orleanians with lots of culture, but little money. It's a story that is seldom heard from the first person perspective. All of a sudden, Wild Wayne comes up to the table, buys a Black Panther book, and begins to tell me of his admiration for A Terrible Thunder, and how he had always heard a legend of Mark, but until he read the book, wasn't sure it was true. He said some black filmmakers were interested in trying to make it into a movie, and I hope they do.
I can give you the outline of this fascinating and complicated story, but I can't tell it half as good at Peter Hernon does. Apart from the story itself, the writing just sucks you in, and it's a book you won't be able to put down until you finish it. I couldn't. This book is an insightfully woven, incredible story, and a piece of New Orleans history that everyone should know about. You'll never look at the giant clarinet in the same way again. Maybe one day, thanks to the author of this book, Mark Essex's memory as a legend of resistance to police occupation will be memorialized with a people's history plaque and mural to this tender-hearted young man who couldn't bear to see this system of double standards based on race and class continue for one more day unchallenged.
This is one of the best books I've ever read, and if you read it, you'll have something to talk about if you happen to meet Wild Wayne!
It is available locally at the Iron Rail, or direct from the local publisher, Garret County Press.
GC Press: http://www.gcpress.com/
Iron Rail books: http://www.ironrail.org
Print version: http://antigravitymagazine.com/?p=1402
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