Former Orleans Parish School Board member Elliot “Doc” Willard steps briskly out of the Martin Luther King Day parade near City Hall.
He joins two other men who are looking up at a hotel on Loyola Avenue.
Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 7, 1973, the high-rise was a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, the climactic scene of a sniper’s rampage that left 10 people dead – including five New Orleans police officers and the gunman. Ten other people were wounded. Tens of millions of dollars in property were destroyed.
Armed with a .44 caliber, semiautomatic rifle, self-styled black militant Mark J. Essex kept hundreds of police at bay for 10 hours. He set diversionary fires on the upper floors of the hotel and shot responding firefighters and cops.
People below scrambled for cover at City Hall, the old Louisiana Supreme Court building and the surrounding plazas.
Downtown New Orleans was paralyzed. A stunned city watched the drama unfold on live television. Afterwards, racial tensions remained elevated for months.
Willard expresses surprise that police didn’t observe the 35th anniversary of “one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the New Orleans Police Department,” according to the department’s online history. “Somebody should have brought that up,” Willard says.
A police spokesperson blamed “major damage” from Hurricane Katrina. The NOPD hasn’t observed the anniversary since January 2005.
“Time goes by and people forget,” says lawyer Harry Tervalon, a former NOPD officer who was posted at Charity Hospital when a sniper’s bullet whizzed by his head. “A lot of the guys on the force now were not even born then.”
David Kent, a crime victims’ rights advocate who retired as a NOPD deputy chief in 1982, says: “Family survivors of officers killed in the line of duty should at least warrant a ceremony in the public domain.”
Janet Johnson, a clinical psychiatrist at Tulane University Medical Center says that the “long-ago tragedy” of Howard Johnson’s for the NOPD has been “eclipsed” by the “ongoing tragedy” of Katrina. “The police department has been very hard hit and they are still having a very tough time,” says Johnson, whose clients don’t include cops. Many officers lost their homes; family and loved ones have moved away.
Two years after a hurricane, it’s easier to observe celebrations than a 1973 massacre.
In 2008, Jan. 7th belonged exclusively to the locally hosted BCS college football championship – sandwiched between dates for Mayor Ray Nagin’s Carnival kickoff party and the 193rd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.
Doc Willard is right. New Orleans must remember Howard Johnson’s.
First, the dead – and the surviving wounded – must not be forgotten, especially those who served the city.
Second, New Orleans is a city where the past is often prologue. For example, NOPD brass didn’t invoke the memory of Howard Johnson’s when informing the City Council of recent acquisitions, including two armored personnel carriers for SWAT team deployments and 100 assault rifles.
Not surprisingly, the NOPD drew criticism from activists representing Central City, a high-crime neighborhood, where complaints of over-policing and under-protection are not uncommon. “I’m afraid of you – especially with [assault rifles],” said Ursula Price of Safe Streets/Strong Communities.
Cops and activists of the Howard Johnson’s era can help ease tensions. Times and attitudes have changed since then.
For example, Larry Jones, a fiery activist in the St. Bernard housing project at the time, today expresses sorrow for the police families who lost their loved ones at Howard Johnson’s. Years after the tragedy Jones said, “I had a brother killed in a packed nightclub, shot in the back five times. Nobody wanted to come forward. That is the kind of stuff we have to work toward as a society.”
Conversely, some NOPD veterans of the shoot-out currently share activists’ concern over the post-9/11 “militarization” of American policing and the proliferation of high-powered weapons in the hands of drug gangs.
Missed anniversaries at the NOPD occur when the department is distressed, distracted or both. But Howard Johnson’s was a disaster for the entire city – not just police. It’s up to New Orleans’ elders to remind future generations of the continuing lessons of all our city’s tragedies – not just Katrina.
Doc Willard did his part.
A former principal at St. Augustine High, Willard proudly recalls that Alfred Harrell Jr. – one of the five NOPD officers killed at Howard Johnson’s – graduated from the Catholic school for black males. Harrell was a good student, gregarious, with “lots of personality,” Willard says.
Harrell graduated in 1971. He enrolled as a student at Loyola University while working as a police cadet.
On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Mark J. Essex staged a one-man ambush at Central Lock-Up, vividly retold in Peter Hernon’s book, A Terrible Thunder (Doubleday, 1978).
Harrell, 19, was the first to die. A husband, father of a newborn son, and a nephew of famed chef Austin Leslie, the cadet stepped into the sally-port area of the jail. He was shot in the chest.
Lt. Kenny Dupaquier knelt over Harrell and picked up his left hand to check for a pulse. The dying cadet’s wedding ring fell off into a pool of his own blood. In a small, but heroic gesture of compassion, Dupaquier “gently picked up the ring and slid it back on Harrell’s finger,” according to A Terrible Thunder.
“I just reacted,” Dupaquier recalled later. Today, he remembers Harrell for his enthusiastic approach to the college education he never lived to finish.
Harrell’s wife, Angele, later committed suicide. Their 9-month-old son, Alfred Harrell III, was adopted by the slain cadet’s twin brother. “Little Alfred” grew up to become a minister.
Looking up at the hotel, Willard also remembers Deputy Police Superintendent Louis Sirgo, who was killed leading an assault on the Howard Johnson’s sniper.
A white, 17-year veteran of the NOPD, Sirgo led the department’s battles with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. But he insisted the most effective way to eliminate political extremism was to end the social conditions that nourished social discontent, such as housing and educational inequities. He also saw a “vindictive system” of crime and punishment at work. And he deplored public indifference to poverty, which he believed fueled urban crime.
“As citizens of the United States, we are guilty of malfeasance in office,” Sirgo told a group of civic leaders. He warned that police forces could not keep a lid on urban social ills for long.
After his death, The Washington Post published Sirgo’s address in its entirety. He was survived by his wife, Joyce and two daughters.
Each year, Mrs. Sirgo presents the Louis Sirgo Memorial Award to the top-graduating recruit of the NOPD academy.
The five officers killed at Howard Johnson’s are etched in several police memorials: Sirgo, Harrell, patrolmen Paul Persigo and Philip Coleman, and K-9 Sgt. Edwin Hosli.
The hotel is now a Holiday Inn.
In the parking lot, a historic sign (dedicated in 1996) notes that the downtown neighborhood is “one of the birthplaces of jazz.”
But there is no plaque for those who bled for the city, nothing to inspire the youths marching in the Martin Luther King Day parade to aspire to public service – and no reason to remember Howard Johnson’s.