The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

“Death to the pigs!” “Death to the pigs!” “Death to the pigs!”

It’s fall 1970, and the folks who live in New Orleans’ Desire Housing Project are verbally unloading on police officers who have shown up 250 strong in an effort to forcibly evict the local chapter of the Black Panther Party.

Little kids are chanting, middle-aged folks are hollering, and old folks are shouting as well. The crowd is determined to drive the police out of their neighborhood, and in a result that seems shocking a half-century later; they did just that. The cops withdrew.

In May of 1970, Steve Green set up the Louisiana State Chapter of the Black Panther Party in New Orleans. After getting the Panthers off the ground near the St Thomas Projects in the Irish Channel neighborhood, Green’s party suffered an immediate eviction and had to migrate downriver to the 9th Ward. They landed across from the Desire Housing Project, a complex of 1,860 apartments that housed some 10,000 residents on a 97 acre tract of land.

When word got back to the police department that the Panthers were setting up a headquarters in Desire their reaction was swift. An eviction order was delivered to Steve Green’s organization, and as the proceedings advanced, NOPD came up with the clever idea to plant two undercover officers in the projects to do some old-fashioned detective work.

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

Two officers with luxe afros were selected to go deep cover. They assumed the nom de guerres of ‘Bush,’ and ‘Legs,’ and set about their task of ingratiating themselves to legitimate residents. The men managed to play their roles successfully for two months before their ruse was discovered.

On Monday, September 14th, 1970, residents of Desire, and members of the Black Panthers revealed that they had found out there was a pair of Judas’ in their midst

Melvin ‘Bush’ Howard, and Israel ‘Legs’ Fields appear in court, shorn of their luxe afros

The Panthers had plenty experience dealing with traitors, and following a kangaroo court trial with a 100 clamoring ‘judges,’ the two undercover cops were set upon by the baying mob and savagely beaten. Melvin ‘Bush’ Howard, and Israel ‘Legs’ Fields narrowly escaped with their lives.

Mr. Howard was particularly motivated. It was said that he cleared a 7′ fence with a giant, bounding leap as the mob closed in on him. The next day the Panthers circulated a flyer describing their judiciary proceedings, and allowed as how “the people dealt with (the officers) accordingly.” For his part Mr Fields took shelter inside Forman’s, a handy grocery store.

It was claimed that that store’s owners, Spencer Forman and Clarence Broussard shot nine people in an effort to contain a mob marching on their business.

The following day, September 15th, the police responded as they are wont to do by violently attacking the housing projects with little discretion as to whether they were injuring Panthers or mere residents who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

New Orleans gendarmes were joined in their efforts by Louisiana State Police.

Police Lay Siege to the Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans (AP photo)

They rained hellfire down on the Panthers’ headquarters. A dozen people were injured, and 21 year old Kenneth Borden was killed. Police asserted he was in a group advancing on Forman’s Grocery with molotov cocktails.

“There was no warning, no comment, no nothing from the police before the kids were shot” said Miss Ruby Richards, a Desire resident.

Black Panther Malik Rahim reported:

“Well, there was basically 11 of us in the party office at the time, and almost a hundred police with everything from a 60-caliber machine gun and armored cars down to their revolvers. We had about nine shotguns and a couple of handguns, .357 revolvers. But everything we had was legally purchased, and it was registered to our office. Our position was that African Americans should no longer be lynched or beaten or attacked and have their rights taken away without any form of resistance. We believed that you had a right to defend yourself, you had a right to defend your community, you had a right to defend your family and you had the right to defend your honor as a human being”

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

He would add: “That morning, I woke up and I was in the Desire housing projects. That night when I went to sleep, I was on death row.”

12 Black Panthers would be arrested, and charged with attempted murder with bail set at 100k apiece.

The remaining Panthers took refuge deep within the heart of Desire, and set about doing the community service they had become known for. Another eviction notice was quickly drawn up, and on November 19th, 1970, New Orleans Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso and 250 of his men descended on the new Panther headquarters.

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans (photo: New Orleans Public Library)

This is the moment they were met with the ‘Die Pigs Die’ chant. Thankfully the police realized they were outmatched, and withdrew to revise their strategy. After their departure it was said that the people ‘sang and danced in the streets.’

The Black Panthers had landed on fertile ground for their radical ideas of self-improvement and empowerment. Desire was mired in abject poverty with deserted properties, heavily weeded – untended lots, and trash heaps seemingly everywhere. The streets were poorly-lighted, and the drug dealers afoot were doing brisk trade.

Hookers held court on a busy track where wolf-whistling Johns would drive up to secure their services. Sex acts were consummated openly in whatever automobile was being driven by the tricks.

By most accounts, the Desire Housing Projects was the wild, wild west.

Since the municipal government was unwilling to care for the people, the people embraced a group that genuinely did care for them. That happened to be the Black Panthers.

Malik Rahim: “We have told the drug dealers, pimps, and others they can’t do business here. We are making sure our elderly are respected and our children are safe.”

In spite of all these good works, the establishment in New Orleans was determined to oust the Black Panthers from their Desire stronghold.

In November 1970, Hollywood activist Jane Fonda received a call requesting help from the New Orleans branch of the Black Panther Party. She immediately flew into town to organize a rally in support of the group. Police Chief Clarence Giarrusso attached one of his best bloodhounds, officer Larry Williams, to the actress as an added Panther-surveillance scheme.

It paid big dividends on November 25th when Williams spotted Fonda walking into a New Orleans Hertz Car agency where she rented four large automobiles. The convoy took off for Panther headquarters in Desire where 25 members of the group piled into the vehicles, and started out of town to attend the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Washington, D.C.

They never made it.

Black Panthers in the Jane Fonda convoy arrested in New Orleans (Photo: AP Wire)

On their way out of New Orleans they ran into an NOPD roadblock where all the occupants were arrested, and summarily jailed. One of the arresting officers later admitted that he had no idea why the group was arrested. It was simply a show of power by the authorities.

The next day blood would be spilled as authorities continued their efforts to decimate the Panthers organization. That morning, November 26th, a vice squad officer wearing a priest’s raiment approached the entrance of the Panther’s apartment. He explained that he had money he’d like to donate to the group’s free breakfast program.

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

When the Panthers allowed him inside he drew a weapon, and a squad of officers surged in behind him. They were all disguised as priests, postal workers, and Public Service repairmen. A firefight broke out, and Panther member Betty Powell was shot in the chest. Six Panthers were arrested and charged with attempted murder.

The following month both of the Desire buildings the Black Panthers had ensconced themselves in mysteriously burned to the ground. The arsonists were never found.

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

In July of 1971, the 12 Panthers who had been arrested during the wild melee that followed the two undercover cops being beaten – finally went to trial. 640 prospective jurors had been dismissed in the ramp up to the proceedings.

Judge Israel Augustine would preside, and early in the proceedings when the courtroom reached capacity dozens of young Black people were left at loose ends. They began chanting for Augustine to quit the courtroom, and come outside. Not only did he come to the hallway, he clambered atop a table and gave the youngsters the Black power salute as well as a stirring speech

“Listen to me well,” he said. “The purpose of my being here is to ensure that everybody who appears before me gets a fair and impartial trial. And every defendant to appear before me, so help me Jesus Christ, will get a fair and impartial trial.”

William Kunstler at the Black Panthers trial in New Orleans

When defense attorney Bill Kunstler groused that Augustine was “very much a part of the white system,” the judge fired back “I’m a hell of a lot blacker than he will ever be.”

Lolis Elie, council for defense, complained that “He (Augustine) did everything he could to get the Panthers convicted.”

Finally, after a week-long trial, and 30 minutes of jury deliberations all 12 Black Panthers were found innocent. A gasp went up in the courtroom as the verdict was rendered. The Panthers had all been held in Orleans Parish Prison during the run up to the trial, and that is where they were returned. Federal prosecutors had placed a ‘hold’ on them, and as such they were not to be set free.

As the jurors exited the courtroom the throngs gathered outside began hollering ‘Power To The People!’. The jurors met their cries with clenched fist salutes.

The Black Panthers Desire Stronghold in New Orleans

Two months later on October 8th, five of the Panthers agreed to plead guilty to amended charges of aggravated assault. Judge Malcolm O’Hara sentenced them to six months in jail, and gave them credit for the year behind bars they’d each suffered. By the end of the month the remaining jailed Panthers were ordered free on recognizance bonds by Judge Frederic J.R Heebe.

The tribulations of the New Orleans Black Panthers continued in January of 1972 with the conviction of Panther member John England Morris Jr. Heebe found Morris guilty of possessing an unregistered automatic rifle used in the confrontation with police officers disguised as priests in November of 1970.

Resolution was finally met at the end of May when Judge Frederic J.R Heebe acquitted the remaining five Black militants saying there was not enough evidence to link them with the firearms seized in the 1970 Thanksgiving Day police raids.

Tom Dent speaks on the Desire Housing Project in New Orleans

Tom Dent, a 9th Ward New Orleans native, and leader of the Free Southern Theatre, another group that had attempted to help the residents of the Desire in 1966 called the housing project something that “could have been dreamed up by a city planner at Auschwitz.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune would refer to it as “disaster from its inception…”

Until the Black Panthers showed up the City of New Orleans was happy to let the residents of Desire wallow in the squalor of the project the city had created. But the unceremonious ouster of the Panthers by the legal system would prove to be little more than macho municipal posturing.

Other than the occasional superficial renovation Desire remained much the same in the wake of the Black Panthers departure. The residents remained isolated, the buildings neglected, and crime unabated. The Panthers spent the seventies on the lam from authorities; their radical ideas of Black self-improvement never allowed to take hold as fear of Black political power had to be met with the fiercest reaction the brahmins could muster.

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Survival Pending Revolution: the History of the Black Panther Party by Paul Alkebulan
Great Speckled Bird, Volume 3, issue 48, November 30, 1970
Defending Desire: Resident Activists in New Orleans Desire Housing Project, 1956-1980 Housing Project, 1956-1980 by Takashi Michael Matsumaru
Showdown in Desire: the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans by Orissa Arend
New Orleans Office of Policy Planning. Desire Neighborhood Profile
Black vs. Blue by Orissa Arend
La. Black Panther Party leader, activist honored by CC Campbell-Rock
Man in the News By Roy Reed (NYT)
Police Jail Black Militants in Raids in New Orleans and Roanoke (NYT)
From the Desire to Mark Essex: The Catalysts of Militarization for the New Orleans Police Department the New Orleans Police Department by Derrick W.A. Martin

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