At the age of 23, recently discharged from the U.S. Navy and enraged by recent murders of unarmed, black men at the hands of police officers, Mark Essex took matters into his own hands.
On January 7, 1973, shots rang out over downtown New Orleans. There were reports of officers down, and civilians injured. A sniper was apparently shooting from the roof of the 17-story Howard Johnson’s hotel, striking civilians then targeting police officers who arrived on scene. The week before, on New Year’s Eve, Essex had killed two white police officers. Since then, he'd been on the lam.
By the end of the 11-hour rampage, Essex was dead, riddled with more than 200 bullets. Five police officers were also dead, along with four civilians. All of the casualties were white, except for Essex's first kill that day — a black cadet. Dozens were injured.
With a few details swapped, that scene 43 years ago is shockingly similar to the one that unfolded in downtown Dallas just a month and a half ago, when 25-year-old Micah Johnson gunned down four Dallas police officers and one DART officer. He met a similar violent end, killed by a robot-delivered explosive.
“It’s eerily similar,” said Dr. Leonard Moore, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Black Rage: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina. His book includes a chapter about Essex.
Both Essex and Johnson had served in the military and used the skills they learned there to carry out the shootings. Both were also described as "lone wolves."
Essex was discharged from the U.S. Navy for “character and behavior disorders.” Though Johnson was honorably discharged, recent documents released by the U.S. Army show Johnson got sent home from service in Afghanistan in 2014 for anger issues and sexual harassment allegations.
Both men’s actions had come at a time when the country was deeply divided, each politicized by the racial tensions of the day. Micah Johnson had liked groups on Facebook including the New Black Panther Party, the African American Defense League and the Black Riders Liberation Party. Mark Essex had been involved with the Black Panthers for a few months in New York after he was discharged from the military, but had become interested in more fringe groups like the Republic of New Africa. He left a Pan-African flag next to the bodies of two of his white civilian victims.
They each expressed their desire to kill white police officers.
After Essex died on the roof of the downtown hotel in New Orleans, police found writings in his Central City home expressing anger over the death a few months earlier of two black students at Southern University in Baton Rouge and a desire to kill whites in retaliation. The two victims Essex wrote of, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown, had been part of a peaceful, unarmed demonstration by black students at the university’s administration building when state police and sheriff’s deputies entered the building with firearms and tear gas. When they left, the two students were dead.
Johnson had reportedly been outraged by the deaths at the hands of police officers of Louisiana man Alton Sterling and Minnesota man Philando Castile the two days before he opened fire in downtown Dallas during a peaceful protest against police brutality.
But the differences between the two tragedies are also great. Essex was responding to a long, local history of abuses by the New Orleans Police Department, whereas Johnson targeted a department that has an image of making strides against police infractions, Moore said.
“You had a local situation where the black folks in New Orleans had been mistreated by the police since the late 1800s,” Moore said. “I would argue that for much of the 20th century, NOLA was the worst police department in the country, so I think he was, in part, responding to that.”
Furthermore, NOPD’s corruption and level of violence toward blacks didn’t receive national attention until the 1990s. The killings of unarmed, black men in the past couple years have been highly publicized across the country.
Just 10 days after the Dallas shooting, former Marine Sergeant Gavin Long, 29, shot six officers in Baton Rouge, killing three of them. He, too, expressed a similar anger towards the police and, like the others, acted alone.
While we will never know the full extent of why Essex, Johnson and Long did what they did, the fact that they were all black, military men may be significant.
Blacks have fought in every war since the American Revolution. While many served proudly, the experience of black servicemen and women has been one fraught with tension. Like many soldiers, both Johnson and Long returned home changed, according to their families. Delphine Johnson, Johnson's mother, described him as going from an outgoing young man to a "hermit" upon his return from Afghanistan.
After five years of service, Long was honorably discharged and he, too, returned disillusioned. He became paranoid, believing the government was watching his every move. He posted a video online decrying the police brutality against blacks.
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"Many black veterans suffer the added trauma of their disillusioning experiences in the armed forces and the cognitive dissonance between the ideals and reality of the United States, especially in regards to race," writes Chad Williams, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, in an article for academic and research news outlet The Conversation. "African-American veterans have often questioned how they could fight for freedom and democracy abroad while still confronting racism at home."
In Williams' opinion, it is fair to ask how Essex's, Johnson's and Long's experiences in the military impacted their decision to carry out these horrific shootings. "Black veterans constitute an important part of the history of black radicalism in the United States," Williams writes. "While Long and Johnson appear to have had no formal affiliations and likely acted alone, examples abound of African-American veterans participating in and leading militant organizations committed to black freedom and racial justice."
If anything, the extreme actions taken by these three men due to obvious and great anger toward the police have shown the very different worlds whites and blacks inhabit, Moore said.
“The fact that our white brothers and sisters, why they’re not as outraged as we are, I think that shows that we live in parallel societies,” Moore said. “Police brutality is probably the one issue that unifies black Americans because it transcends class lines, it transcends everything. ... It's always been one of those issues that has galvanized the entire community. And people react in different ways.”