Consumed in Flames: A Genealogy of African-American Avengers

Darryl Barthe

This is a modified version of a presentation made to the British Association of American Studies on Saturday, 15 November 2014

A 2013 report published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement called “Every 28 Hours” details 313 individual instances of black men and women killed in 2012 by police, private security guards or lone vigilantes, who typically avoid state sanction for such violence. [1] Such a culture of violence has a long, storied tradition in the United States, particularly with regards to the history of metropolitan police forces. It is my aim to briefly examine three separate incidents, two in New Orleans and one in Los Angeles, separated by a period of more than 100 years, to identify common elements of this narrative of state-sanctioned violence against black people and also common elements of radical black resistance to the same.

While much of the contemporary narrative of police violence against communities of color is couched in terms of an emerging, militarized, police state, historian Howard Rabinowitz observed that after the Civil War, and Emancipation, many cities fortified their municipal police departments with the explicit purpose of serving “as the first line of defense against the blacks.” Rabinowitz offers New Orleans’ Metropolitan Police Force as evidence. While there were many black officers on the Metropolitan Police Force after the Civil War, Rabinowitz notes that after “the overthrow of the Radicals in 1877,” whites rejected the hiring of black policemen as a matter of principle.[2] So it was that black people in Jim Crow New Orleans were forced to endure policing by whites who were not obligated to protect, much less serve, them. This is no more apparent than in the case of a black sex worker named Carrie in New Orleans’ famous Red Light District during the 1910s who found herself dragged out of her home by a “jolly” group of American whites who were cruising Storyville looking for fun in the form of rape and torture. As she recalled in an interview conducted by the famous American folklorist, Al Rose:

One time on d’Fo’th of July, a bunch of white pricks grab me outten ma crib and c’ay me t’d’ cohnuh. Dey taken off all ma clo’es and dey tie ma han’s an’ feet t’d’ light pole. Den one of ’em stick a big salute [firecracker] up my cunt an’ anothan one up ma ass an’ he light both a dem…A fuckin’ police, he standin’ right deah an’ he laughin’…D’em t’ings din’ go off… Dey wuzn’ loaded. It was ju’ one a dem jokes, you know… Den dey all sings dat song. Fo’ She a Jolly Good Fella’…[3]

The prostitute Carrie is a far cry from the usual, often romanticized, depiction of New Orleans’ Storyville-era sex workers. Carrie is a completely powerless victim of American white (male) supremacy who is assaulted, debased and raped; and all in front of a police officer who responded to the scene with laughter. It is a small wonder that cop-killer Robert Charles would eventually become an African-American folk hero, given such a culture of policing in New Orleans.
A Man Named Robert Charles

At or around 11PM on July 23, 1900, three white police officers approached two African-American men sitting on a stoop in the 2800th block of Dryads Street, in the American Quarter of Uptown, New Orleans. One of the officers, August T. Mora, became aggressive when one of the men, a man named Robert Charles, stood up from the porch when questioned. Mora proceeded to beat Charles with his billet club but Charles refused to submit. Mora drew his pistol and fired off three rounds, one of which struck Charles in the leg. Charles still refused to submit. Armed himself, Charles returned fire, striking Mora in the thigh and the hand, sparking the bloodiest race riot the city had seen since the end of Reconstruction. [4]

Robert Charles had moved to New Orleans from Mississippi where he was born to sharecroppers Jasper and Mariah Charles, who were still slaves when Robert was conceived. In New Orleans, Robert Charles’ consciousness had become politicized and, as a black nationalist, he had already begun preparations to expatriate to Liberia. However, Charles never made it to Africa. Rather, he became the catalyst for a tempest of racial violence that consumed New Orleans for the better part of a week.

When all was said and done, Robert Charles had killed four policemen, seven civilians, and had wounded more than a score besides (all white). A mob of white thugs numbering over one thousand had gathered to apprehend him and, in the end, smoked him out of his refuge at 1208 South Saratoga Street by setting fire to the building with a burning mattress soaked in kerosene. As Charles attempted to escape the blaze, the crowd unloaded hundreds of bullets into his body, shredding the corpse to pieces.[5] Whites in New Orleans celebrated Charles’ demise. This was in stark contrast to the attitudes of many working-class blacks in the city who “were reportedly regretful only that he had not taken more policemen with him when he died.”[6]
Mark Essex

Historian Joel Williamson convincingly argued that the Robert Charles riot “established the pattern for Negro-white relations for the next half century.”[7] Unfortunately, it seems that the pattern held fast for some time after 1950. In September of 1970, a group of African-American community activists in New Orleans’ Desire Housing Projects organized under the banner of the National Committee to Combat Fascism, were attacked by police. The group hosted the New Orleans branch of The Black Panther Party from their headquarters in the Desire and the NOPD, after concluding that such organizations were dangerous to public order, conducted a number of raids on the Panthers’ headquarters in an attempt to disrupt their activities. The raids failed and the Panthers answered the “military-style invasions” with small arms fire resulting in a number of gunfights between the Black Panthers and the NOPD. Eventually, the NOPD advanced on Panther positions with armored assault vehicles bringing an end to the showdown on November 19, 1970.[8] A little over two years after the drama in the Desire, a young African-American man named Marc Essex would claim his own vengeance for the police’s actions against the Panthers and his one-man war would result the bloodiest day in the history of the NOPD.

Marc Essex was born in Kansas on August 12, 1949. People who knew him described him as a “quiet, bright” young man, who “got along well in school, went to church on Sunday.” He graduated from high school in 1967 and joined the US Navy in 1969. As a result of racism that he experienced while in the Navy, specifically racism that he experienced from police officers in San Diego where he was stationed, Essex became politically radicalized as a black nationalist. He would later go on to join the Black Panther Party.[9] In October of 1970, Mark Essex went AWOL (that is, absent from duty without official leave) because, in his own words, he had “begun to hate all white people.” He returned home from the Navy after being found unfit for duty after only a year of service. His sister, Penny Essex Fox, recalled that when her brother returned home from the Navy, he was adamant that he “didn’t want to see kids grow up to be oppressed by the white man…he wanted to change (society) himself…not wait another 500 years.”[10] Mark Essex chose his moment on New Years’ Eve, 1972, in New Orleans, where he had rented an apartment on Dryads Street, roughly four blocks away from the stoop Robert Charles was originally accosted on.

Mark Essex ambushed police cadet Alfred Harrell and NOPD Lt. Horace Perez at 11PM, December 31, 1972: Harrell was shot in the heart and killed instantly; Perez was shot in the ankle. After, Essex retreated to an office warehouse less than a mile away. Officer Edwin Hosli responded to an alarm signaling a break-in at the warehouse near New Orleans’ Gert Town neighborhood, and when he stepped out of his patrol car, Essex blasted him in the back with a .44 Magnum Carbine rifle from a distance of about 37 feet (11 meters) before fleeing the scene.

The police response to Mark Essex’s shooting spree was predictably draconian. NOPD officers had swarmed the African-American neighborhood of Gert Town. The office of the Superintendent of Police was, in fact, forced to call off the search for Essex after being flooded with complaints of police kicking in people’s doors and searching people’s property, including their homes, without warrants.[11] Under numerous threats of litigation, officials were forced to wait for Essex to resurface, which he did a week later.

Grocery store owner Joe Perniciaro had reported to police that he’d seen Mark Essex on January 2. On January 7, 1973, after realizing that the grocer had informed on him, Essex returned to Perniciaro’s store and shot him dead before proceeding to the Downtown Howard Johnson’s in New Orleans where he prepared to make his last stand. Essex, armed to the teeth, startled a group of African American hotel workers upon entering the building. He reassured them that he was only there to kill white people and proceeded to murder two vacationing honeymooners, the hotel’s general manager and assistant manager, all white.

When the police arrived, they were set upon immediately. Mark Essex shot seven police officers before he was through, three of them fatally, including Deputy Police Chief Louis Sirgo. The NOPD eventually deployed an attack helicopter which rained automatic weapons’ fire on Essex’s position, forcing him out into the open. Once he was in their line of sight, police snipers in adjacent buildings opened fire on Essex, expending thousands of rounds of ammunition and striking him at least 200 times.[12]
Christopher Dorner

On February 12, 2013 San Bernardino County Sherriff Deputies set fire to a small cabin near Big Bear Lake, California, killing an African-American man named Christopher Dorner in circumstances reminiscent of the extra-judicial killing of Robert Charles. Dorner, a veteran of the US Navy (like Mark Essex), and a former LAPD officer, took his own life with a single gunshot to the head rather than die by immolation. Though the San Bernardino Sherriff’s office denied that the fire that consumed Dorner was set intentionally, Sherriff radio dispatches were captured, recorded and uploaded to the internet that offer direct evidence to the contrary. [13]

On February 4, one day after he killed the daughter of one of his former coworkers, along with her fiancé, Dorner posted a manifesto to his Facebook page, promising more killings to follow due to his grievance with the LAPD. His grievance stemmed from his dismissal from the force following his filing of charges against a fellow officer who, Dorner alleged, had abused a schizophrenic suspect in custody. Christopher Dorner had spoken out against a fellow officer and, he believed, was dismissed from serving on the LAPD for it. In his manifesto, Dorner anticipated being “vilified” by the press but promised to “bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty,” regardless. Though characterized by the press as rambling and delusional, Dorner was very specific about the causes for his supernova-like explosion of rage: he decried the lack of integrity in the LAPD and the widespread conspiracy of silence that “perpetuated the cycle of racism in the department” and that was enabled by those who “‘go along to get along'” and who Dorner denounced as “the enablers of those who are guilty of misconduct.” On February 7, two officers were following a pickup truck matching the description of Dorner’s in Corona, California when an assailant leapt from the drivers’ seat and shot one of the officers in the head with a rifle, grazing him. Less than an hour later, two officers in nearby Riverside, California were ambushed by Dorner. One of them, officer Michael Crain, was killed. [14]

Police response to this was predictable and in the aftermath, 8 officers were found guilty of use-of-force violations surrounding two incidents. The first incident involved officers opening fire on a van (that looked nothing like Dorner’s vehicle) wounding two women, Margie Carranza and Emma Hernandez, who looked nothing like Dorner. The second incident involved police opening fire on David Perdue, a white man who bore no resemblance to Dorner, and who was driving a vehicle bearing no resemblance to Dorner’s. Dorner’s manifesto decried police misconduct, and it was almost as if the LAPD meant to demonstrate the nature of that misconduct for the world to see, so that there could be no misunderstanding. Legal settlements in these cases cost the LAPD more than $4 million.[15]
Conclusion

Seventy years passed between Robert Charles and Mark Essex. Just a little more than half that time transpired between Mark Essex and Christopher Dorner. In these three stories, we definitely see signs of progress: an African-American police officer was impossible to conceive of in Robert Charles’ time, for example. Yet, the culture of police repression of people of color endures; indeed, even the form of the repression endures. When pressed for answers to the accusation that Dorner was deliberately burned alive, Sheriff’s Capt. Gregg Herbert stated simply, that the choice to deploy incendiaries “was our only option.” It is unclear if that opinion reflects tactical considerations or ideological ones, however. Had Dorner attempted to flee the burning cabin, it is almost certain that he would have died as Robert Charles and Mark Essex did, mowed down by white men in a hail of gunfire. In 113 years, very little – tragically little – had changed.[16]

Notes

[1] Arlene Eisen, “Every 28 Hours: Operation Ghetto Storm, 2012 Annual Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 313 Black People by police, Security Guards and Vigilantes”Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, http://mxgm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Operation-Ghetto-Storm.pdf (accessed October 28, 2014).

[2] See A. James Fisher SWAT Madness and the Militarization of the American Police: A National Dilemma (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010); and also Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (New York: Public Affairs, 2013); and also Cheryl K. ChumleyPolice State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare is Becoming Our Reality (New York: Midpoint Trade, 2014); and also Howard N. Rabinowitz, “The Conflict Between Blacks and the Police in the Urban South,1865-1900” Race, Ethnicity and Urbanization: Selected Essays, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994), 167-180.

[3] Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, (Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press 1979), 159-160.

[4] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death, the Story of His Life, Burning Human Beings Alive and Other lynching Statistics , (originally published in 1900, accessed as ebook through the Gutenberg Project, released February 8, 2005), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14976/14976.txt or http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14976/14976-h/14976-h.htm (accessed September 5, 2012). See also William Ivy Hair, Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1976); and also Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York, Oxford University Press, 1984), 201-209.

[5] Ibid.; See also Hair, Carnival of Fury, 2-15, 166-178.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Williamson, The Crucible of Race, 201.

[8] Peniel E. Joseph, Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 193; see also Orissa Arend, Showdown in Desire, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009), Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Oakland: University of California Press, 2013).

[9] William Earl Berry, “The Navy Did This To Him” Jet, February 1, 1973, 28-30.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] “1973: Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson’s sniper,” New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, December 16, 2011; Chuck Hustmyre, “Mark Essex,” TruTV, 2012 and also Chuck Hustmyre, “Mark Essex, the Howard Johnson Sniper,” Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods, CrimeLibrary.com, http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/mass/mark_essex/6.html (accessed 11/11/15).

[12] See NOPD Report Relating to the Homicide Investigation Conducted into the Criminal Activities of Mark J. Essex, Jr., Age 23, Formerly Residing 2619 1/2 Dryads St. , City Archives, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

[13] “San Bernardino County Sheriff Standoff with C. Dorner (February 12, 2013)”, audio and transcript, Internet Archive.org., https://archive.org/details/DornerStandoff2 (accessed November 11, 2014).

[14] “Who they were: Victims in the Dorner case,” Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2013; Christopher Jordan Dorner, “Original Manifesto,” Scribd.com, http://www.scribd.com/doc/124551564/Original-Manifesto (accessed November 11, 2014).

[15] Jason Kandel, “No Charges Against Officers Who Mistook Surfer for Rogue Cop Dorner in Manhunt,” NBC 4 Southern California, January 15, 2014, http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/No-Charges-Against-Officers-Who-Mistook-Surfer-for-Rogue-Cop-Dorner-in-Manhunt-240214551.html (accessed November 11, 2014); James Queally, “Torrance surfer shot at during Dorner manhunt to receive $1.8 million,” Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2014.

[16] Phil Willon, Nicole Santa Cruz and Louis Sahagun, “San Bernardino County sheriff details final shootout with Dorner, ” Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2013.

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