Black vs. Blue
45 years ago the Black Panthers and New Orleans Police had a tense standoff; amazingly, it ended non-violently
Illustration by Jason Raish
On Nov. 19, 1970, the city administration had had its fill of revolutionary Black Power rhetoric, acts of defiance and maybe even the services that the fledgling New Orleans Black Panther group were providing to the poorest of the poor in the 9th Ward Desire Housing Project. Just a month earlier there had been a 30-minute shootout between the Panthers and police at the nearby Piety Street headquarters. Twelve Panthers, including Malik Rahim, the local Panther in charge of security, were arrested after that shootout – and a year later acquitted. Mercifully, no one had been killed.
Early Thursday morning, Nov. 19, Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso declared at a press conference at his headquarters that police would make “a last-ditch effort” to remove the Panthers from their new headquarters. “We are going to do our damnedest to get them out without any violence,” Giarrusso told reporters. He said police intelligence had learned that between five and 15 Panthers were holding out in the project, possibly in more than one building. The police chief, Mayor Moon Landrieu and the mayor’s black assistant, Bob Tucker, discussed the Panthers’ possible use of hand grenades and how Panthers might occupy sniper positions in various apartments. In the course of the long Vietnam War, some Panthers had joined the armed forces or been drafted and had become skilled, if reluctant, warriors.
After the press briefing, approximately 250 white police officers boarded buses for Desire armed with riot guns and wearing bulletproof vests. They marched into the project at about 11:30 a.m. behind an armored vehicle, dubbed the “war wagon,” that had been acquired after the September shootout. Three helicopters circled a few hundred feet above while state police stood ready nearby. “For your own safety, please move out of the area,” a voice from a loudspeaker urged.
“More power to the people!” came the reply in unison.
The army of police was determined to serve the eviction notice. The city accused the Panthers of violating the state trespass law – with its maximum fine of $50.
At 11:45 a.m., hundreds of young blacks blocked police and the tank as it neared Building 178, the Panther stronghold. During the yelling and the mayhem, one enterprising young man made the best of the situation, selling ice cream from his truck parked some 50 yards from the community center, close to Building 178.
At 12:20 p.m., the armored police tank again rolled up to the Panther building. Police announced from the war wagon that the building’s occupants were in violation of the law and would be given eight minutes to clear the building. The tank withdrew, but confrontation seemed imminent.
Eight minutes came and went, but police didn’t advance on the building. Panther members remained inside. Yet another warning was issued at 1:45 – with the same results. The crowd of Panther protectors had moved out of the way, but within minutes of the last warning, they again filled the street in front of the Panther headquarters. Any earlier advantage held by the police seemed to evaporate.
At one point an angry sea of Panther supporters was less than 30 feet from the police. They were being restrained by Desire leaders, who locked their arms together to prevent the crowd from advancing. Meanwhile, other Desire leaders met with Chief Giarrusso. The chief warned community leaders that the situation “is damn near getting out of hand.”
Throughout the afternoon, Father Jerome LeDoux and Rev. William C. London, who had been called in to mediate, held private conversations with the police chief about every 15 or 20 minutes on the Alvar Street neutral ground. Meanwhile, police manned several project buildings adjacent to the Panther headquarters. They stood in second-story apartments aiming their shotguns out open windows.
Mid-afternoon, Rev. London emerged from the project to report to Landrieu, Giarrusso and the press that Desire residents had taken a vote and “unanimously” decided to back the Panther holdouts as long as police remained on the scene. “It is surprising to note the number of people who are supporting this movement,” said Rev. London.
Asked if he thought Panther members were giving any serious consideration to giving up without violence, the minister thought for a moment and replied, “My frank answer is no. … They would rather die for the cause.”
Responding to dire warnings coming from several sources, and to orders from Mayor Landrieu, Giarrusso called for his men to withdraw. The cops were tense and angry amid shouts of “Death to the Pigs!” They resented the insults and the hours of tension with no action. It didn’t sit well with them to leave without doing what they had come there to do. They walked past one building on which, “Power comes from the barrel of a gun” was crudely written in black paint. That may have been one sentiment upon which both they and the Panthers agreed.
How Did We Dodge the Bullet?
Around 1970 race riots erupted in other cities. There was widespread disillusionment with peaceful resistance after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two years earlier. So under the extreme tension of these circumstances, how did New Orleans avoid bloodshed?
I interviewed Moon Landrieu in 2003. He told me: “The Panthers apparently had won a good bit of support down there by giving out meals and breakfasts and becoming part of the community in the time that they were there. And they developed a good bit of sympathy, both from the standpoint of ‘charity’ work they were doing as well as this whole question of race, which was and still is today, a boiling question. Minority rights, the repression of blacks, police brutality, poverty – these played a huge part in it.”
Landrieu went on to say, “We were not precipitous about this. There was no chest-beating. There was no sense of posturizing. I knew this was a dangerous situation. I knew there was a real possibility of injury and death in each one of these instances. There was no political capital to be made. First of all, I had been elected with essentially 95 percent of the black vote. These were my constituents. And I’d lived through the civil rights era. And I didn’t have any racial fear. Not that I was brave. I didn’t have racial fear. That didn’t mean I didn’t fear the Panthers. The Panthers were a different make-up, a different group.”
The night after the standoff, Landrieu and Bob Tucker, a black businessman, and Charles Elloie, a new black assistant to the mayor who went on to become a judge, were drinking cognac at a bar in the French Quarter called In a Pig’s Eye. Tucker remembers Landrieu saying, “You know what? I admire the hell out of those kids.”
“What kids?” asked Tucker.
“The Panthers,” Landrieu told Tucker. “To find a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old who had a cause he was willing to die for. That’s something. For a young person to be so committed to something. I disagreed with what they were trying to do. But I admired that kind of commitment.”
Judge Elloie recalled in 2003 sitting in the bar that night after the standoff “just quiet, uncharacteristically quiet. … It was the first time I had reflected on what could have happened.”
Elloie had been part of a late-night meeting to decide how to enforce the law in Desire. But he saw more than lawbreakers. When he saw the Panthers and all those Desire residents, many of them children, surrounding and protecting Panther headquarters, Elloie saw himself. “I’m a product of the projects. I grew up in the Lafitte project. I spent 20 years in the projects. So I never had any fear of me. Everything in there was me.”
The fear didn’t come until that night while Elloie was sitting a little apart from the group in a corner of the Pig’s Eye. Before that, he couldn’t remember being truly afraid. “I’d been careful,” he told me, “but not fearful. But on that particular night, I reflected on what could have happened and I was scared. I sure ’nuf dodged the bullet. That’s the very first bullet I dodged. … You know someone could have banged on a garbage can cover or a garbage can could have turned over and boom, right out front. “Cause Don [Hubbard, who today owns the Hubbard Mansion bed and breakfast on St. Charles Avenue] and I were really right out front.”
I asked Judge Elloie what he thought saved the day. “Police restraint,” he said. “There were a lot of policemen, a lot of firepower and a big tank. … Two people I gained a lot of respect for on that particular day were Deputy Chief Louis Sirgo [Sirgo was killed three years later in the Mark Essex affair] and Clarence Giarrusso. … They were both reasonable people on that day, and fortunately, the Panthers in the development at that time – they were cool, too. … For some reason it all worked and peace prevailed. That night I just reflected.”
The city’s Human Relations Committee issued a statement at the time offering “special praise to the thousands of citizens of Desire who kept the peace in their own neighborhood. Their contribution to limiting injuries and loss of life to a level far below that of similar incidents elsewhere must be applauded gratefully by all.”
Double Dirty Tricks
On the fifth and sixth days after the standoff, the police pulled what many considered to be two dirty tricks. A lot of New Orleanians remember the first one, probably because it involved a celebrity. But amazingly, very few remember the second, the final arrest of the Panthers. Even the man who ordered it had forgotten.
On Nov. 24, five days after the showdown, Jane Fonda, whose career as an actress had taken an activist turn in response to the Vietnam War, arrived in New Orleans to support the Panthers. The next day, she rented four cars from Hertz to transport the Panthers and their supporters to the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Washington D.C. Before they got out of town, they were stopped by the NOPD and all were arrested.
Former intelligence officer Larry Preston Williams, who’s black, told me, “She comes in town and she rents the automobiles. There are people who get into the automobiles. They are leaving New Orleans and going to Washington D.C. We arrest them. They are leaving town. To this day, I have no idea why they’re arrested. I don’t even remember what we charged them with. But I do know when I arrested a group, my English teacher from Xavier got out of the car. He and I chatted. I could not imagine what law they had violated.”
The second part to the final arrest of the Panthers was even more bizarre. It was described by Johnny Jackson Jr. At the time he was executive director of the Desire Community Center. He was on the Model Cities Advisory Commission and had been active in establishing community support programs in drug rehabilitation, education health care and a talent showcase. On the night of the final arrest of the Panthers, Thanksgiving eve, Jackson was working late into the morning at the Community Center when he heard a noise and went to investigate. He thought the noise had come from a group of kids preparing for a Thanksgiving party in the back of the building. When he got to them, they told him they had just seen priests, police in disguise, leading Panthers from their headquarters, which was next door to the community center.
Jackson stepped out onto the porch to see if he could figure out what was going on. Someone called to him from the shadows. As he stepped around the corner, he was thrown up against the wall, and someone (who he soon realized was a cop) stuck a shotgun in his chest.
“Get us out of here safely,” he was told, “or you won’t be a shield, you’ll be a target.”
When he refused to cooperate, he was handcuffed and taken to the police cars with the Panthers. Residents began shouting. “Pigs in the community!” and “Power to the People!”
As Jackson put it, “I belong to all these organizations and have these titles, but when you get down to it with the police – I’m just another n----r.”
Jackson would go on to serve as a state legislator and New Orleans city councilman.
In 1970 Jackson told the NOLA Express: “The police department disguised themselves in many ways, from Public Service repairmen, mailmen to a priest. It was this policeman disguised as a priest offering a donation for the breakfast program with the other policemen hidden in the hallway with all sorts of guns that lured one of the occupants to open the door a little. At that point, they [the policemen] burst into the office and began shooting, wounding a young black woman.”
When I interviewed Clarence Giarrusso at his home in 2003, he was 82. On the day of the interview, he remembered nothing about the final arrest of the Panthers. Reasoning that objectivity in regard to one’s personal history accrues with forgetfulness, I described the events to him as matter-of-factly as I could, leaving out his role in it. When I got to the part about the cop disguising himself as a priest, Giarrusso seemed genuinely shocked. He said, “That is not something I believe in.”
Nevertheless, it was something that he ordered, and it finally accomplished what a shootout and an invasion of Desire could not. It eliminated the Panthers as an effective organizing force in the city.
How we dodged the bullet and avoided massive bloodshed through this succession of harrowing events can be attributed to enlightened leadership, restraint, community organizing, discipline and principles, the power of a cohesive Desire community and a portion of luck or the divine favor that we regularly count on to save us in New Orleans. But we didn’t leave it there.
The lessons to be gleaned seemed so complex, mysterious and profound that we convened a forum for healing and reconciliation 33 years after the showdown, Sept. 17, 2003.
Former Panthers Robert King and Malik Rahim led the planning for the forum. Former city officials – including Moon Landrieu – former Panthers, Desire residents, Panther lawyers, police officials and clergy who had tried to mediate all came together for a public forum where grievances were aired, unknown stories were told and forgiveness was freely offered from both the antagonists and protagonists.
As the forum approached, no one felt qualified to predict the results. A few days before the gathering Moon Landrieu asked me, “Are the Panthers still revolutionary, or have they mellowed?”
“Both,” I told him.
The night of the forum, Landrieu was on the hot seat, but one would never have known it from his gracious demeanor. “God bless them,” he said of the Panthers. “They drove me crazy at times. I had a grudging respect for them, though I thought, and still think, that the path they took was incorrect.”
After the forum, Landrieu told a reporter that, looking back, he believes the path the city chose also was incorrect. “I think we should not have gone into the project with such massive force. It seemed to be reasonable at the time, but in retrospect we could have found a better way to do that.”
Charles Jones, editor of The Black Panther Party Reconsidered, told me after the forum that he had never known an official in a Panther confrontation to make such an admission.
Panther scholar Curtis Austin, who also attended the forum, wrote, “This story is even more valuable because it shows that people, with all their various hang-ups and shortcomings, are essentially good and interested in the welfare of their fellow men. Despite the racism and violence that ran rampant through this Gulf Coast enclave, each side came to see that their lives were so intertwined that only by working together could they hope to make the dramatic changes that activists so vehemently demanded during the tumultuous 1960s and early ’70s.”
Malik Rahim embraced Bob Tucker and shook Moon Landrieu’s hand at the forum, even though they had been mortal enemies at the shootout on Piety Street. Two years after the forum Rahim had another chance to apply Panther principles when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Within days after the storm he co-founded Common Ground Relief Collective and started a health clinic. The Panther’s survival programs included medical clinics, free breakfast for children, food giveaways, free clothing, political education and prisoner support, all of which Common Ground was providing. Common Ground gutted 3,000 homes, businesses and churches in the 9h Ward. Many volunteers embraced the philosophy and grassroots organizing tradition of the Black Panther Party, which seemed well-suited to use in the political vacuum of post-Katrina New Orleans. But that would be a whole other story.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com