23 August 2010
A very interesting article in Anti-Gravity about a cop sniper in 1972
Essex Rising: Garrett County Press Re-releases the NOLA sniper tale "A Terrible Thunder"
As one of the millions of young soldiers returning home from 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 that the police on
the streets of America’s ghettos were doing essentially the same job as drafted Americans in Southeast Asia:
attempting to maintain “order,” “security” and “peace” through brutal force instead of through economic equality and
racial justice. As a young black man, Essex couldn’t stand to see the racism, mistreatment and brutality that 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 and the history of New Orleans forever, from across
the railroad tracks he leveled his rifle at two guards stationed at the Orleans Parish Prison and pulled the trigger. It was
New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1972.
Essex’s story is probably as familiar as Robin Hood to the people of New Orleans and in some wards at least his
story has achieved such a legendary hero-of-the-poor status since his death at the hands of the NOPD in early 1973.
As anarchist professor John Clark said recently, “The 1960s actually happened in the 1970s in New Orleans” and Peter
Hernon’s A Terrible Thunder: the Story of the New Orleans Sniper illustrates this point exactly. Originally published by
Doubleday in 1978, A Terrible Thunder is being re-issued by New Orleans’ own Garrett County Press.
By the time Essex had gotten fed up enough to starting sniping cops, the wildly popular New Orleans Black Panthers
had been crushed by shootings and fraudulent arrests of all their members, as well as street-level brutality towards their
supporters by the NOPD. His rage had no outlet, his sadness no relief. When 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 were funded by them. Over the week
following Essex’s initial shooting, 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 stealing past second floor windows of abandoned
ghetto rental units. The police were on edge and they were the ones who felt terror as they crossed paths with African-
Americans on darkened streets at night, instead of the other way around.
One week later, Essex was dead on the roof of the Downtown Howard Johnson (now the Holiday Inn, the building with
the giant clarinet mural), killed in a hail of bullets by cops hovering overhead in a helicopter. He had led the police on a
chase when they’d tried to arrest him on suspicion of the New Year’s Eve shootings, drawing them to his pre-planned
battleground, the hotel. He set rooms on fire, created smoke screens, shot 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 himself, he became a legend instead of just another veteran who committed suicide.
I can give you the outline of this fascinating and complicated story, but I can’t tell it half as well as Peter Hernon.
Besides the story itself, the writing pulls you in and it’s a book you won’t be able to put down until you finish it. I
couldn’t. A Terrible Thunder captures a riveting, incredible piece of New Orleans history that everyone should know
about. You’ll never look at that giant clarinet the same way again. —Dylan Rail