On Thursday, November 19, 1970 after negotiations, mediations, arrests, threats, propositions, undercover operations, and a shootout had failed to uproot the Black Panthers from their Desire Project apartment home, 250 police boarded buses for Desire armed with riot guns and wearing bulletproof vests. They marched into the project at 11:30 a.m. behind an armored vehicle, dubbed the "war wagon," that had been acquired after a September shootout on Piety Street. 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 a chorus in reply from Desire residents.
Four hours later, New Orleans Police Superintendent Clarence Giarusso called off the armed confrontations to prevent what he saw as an impending "blood bath," the New York Times reported. "Neither side fired a shot."
The report in the Times continues, "The move, believed to be unprecedented in police-Panther relations, forestalled what could have been a serious clash between hundreds of tense policemen and an angry portion of the black community here."
"Three to four hundred emotionally charged young Negroes had stationed themselves between the police and the Panther group, which was garrisoned in an empty apartment building. It was concern for the young crowd, not for the Panthers, that caused him to withdraw his officers, Superintendent Clarence Giarrusso said afterward."
Forty years later, we look back in wonder — and gratitude. Moon Landrieu, then the brand-new mayor in 1970, used wisdom and restraint, as did the police chief, the clergy negotiators, and the Desire residents. And then there was that prodigious outpouring from the Lady we've all come to rely on so heavily in this oft-threatened urban outpost: Luck.
Thirty-three years out, after I had published much of this story in the Louisiana Weekly, we did, in fact, look back. A forum including many of the key players was held at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in 2003. The Weekly's front page article called it a "Desire to Heal" and pictured former Panther Malik Rahim shaking hands with Moon Landrieu while clergy mediator William Barnwell and our moderator Ted Quant (who had been one of the "emotionally charged Negroes stationed between the police and the Panthers") looked on.
The Times-Picayune on September 18, 2003 ran a front page story with a photo of the police facing off with the Desire community in 1970 and a current picture of Malik Rahim and Bob Tucker hugging.(Tucker was executive assistant to Moon Landrieu in 1970 and lead negotiator for the Mayor's office.) The banner headline reads "A Day to Remember." Indeed, both the confrontation and the reconciliation were days to remember. Panther Althea Francois was there for both events — in 1970 operating the Panther survival programs, like free breakfast for children — in 2003 reading a statement from Herman Wallace, a Panther political prisoner, one of the Angola 3, who still today languishes in solitary confinement in Angola State Penitentiary. Althea has since passed away.
Henry Faggen, the wiry, charming Desire resident dubbed the "Mayor of Desire," was there both days, in 1970 running a drug rehab program and providing the communication link between the Panthers and city government. In 2003 he was a panel member at the forum, finally able to explain to his huge cadre of progeny and the over-flow audience at Ashe his heroic part in the Panther drama. Faggen has since passed on. Cecil Carter and Don Hubbard, key players in New Orleans civil rights history, were in Desire for the standoff and also panelists at Ashe.
Malik was locked up in Orleans Parish Prison on November 19, 1970 as a result of the Piety Street shootout. The lawyers who eventually got Malik and 11 others acquitted, Bob Glass and Ernest Jones, were on the panel at Ashe. Malik's mom, Ms. Lubertha Johnson, a true mother of the revolution, who never wavered as she saw two of her sons put their lives on the line for the self-determination of Black people, got up out of what many had thought was her death bed, bought a new dress, and attended the Ashe forum. Ms. Lubertha has since passed on.
Moon Landrieu said at the forum, "I had a grudging respect for them, though I thought and still think that the path they took was incorrect." But he had some second thoughts about his own path as well: "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." Thank goodness Moon is still with us. What lessons must his son Mitch as a child have gleaned in 1970, and how will he, as New Orleans' mayor today, apply them?
After the forum a group met weekly at Ashe to continue to bring this seminal New Orleans story with its lessons for peace into the greater public awareness. We called ourselves the Anti-Violence Coordinating Committee. The core members included former Panther Malik Rahim, Bob Tucker, Robert King (the only free member of the Angola 3), filmmaker Royce Osborn, Ted Quant (director of Loyola University's Twomey Center for Peace through Justice), and myself. We conducted workshops, presentations, and brain-storming sessions until we were dispersed by Katrina.
Since the storm, we continue to support each other in our various efforts to contribute to the resurrection of our city and to the worldwide struggle for justice. Malik, days after Katrina struck, founded Common Ground Collective involving thousands of volunteers in reconstruction efforts in housing, health care, the environment, and social justice. Royce Osborn filmed the cultural resurgence of the city. He, Ted Quant, and I assisted in the rescue of the historic St. Augustine Catholic Church in Treme, which the Archdiocese, at one point, seemed determined to close. Robert King's book, From the Bottom of the Heap, was published in 2009. He's been traveling and speaking on world-wide tours in an effort to free his comrades Panthers Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace and political prisoners everywhere. My book, "Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans" was published also in 2009. I created an audio book with study questions to make it easy for high school and college teachers to use it as an inspiring curriculum.
Forty years later, the Black Panther story continues. The Party's legacy still lives.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, writer, psychotherapist, and community organizer in New Orleans. Her book "Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans" was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2009. You can reach her at email@example.com or 504-865-1619.
Photos courtesy of Orissa Arend.
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