Children pose in front of the Bruce Brice mural by the Desire housing development, 1970. Photo by Michael P. Smith, provided to Orissa Arend by the Historic New Orleans Collection.

If policing as we know it must die — as has been forcefully demanded by protesters worldwide — then what will replace it? Tim Wise, in his thought-provoking article for Black Source Media, printed in Think504, entitled “The Fate of America Depends on Ending its Culture of Policing,” makes the case that reform is insufficient. Instead we must democratize public safety.

That was tried once here. And it succeeded on a small scale against great odds, until policing as we know it snuffed it out.

The year was 1970. The Black Panthers had moved into the Desire Housing Project. Desire was poor, Black, crime-ridden, and infested with rats. Gangs from various housing projects terrorized each other. But Desire’s residents were brave and determined.

Here came the Panthers — kids, really, teenagers with revolutionary ideas — feeding children nutritious meals at no costs to their families, chasing off drug dealers, providing education about American and world history from a Black point of view, setting up health clinics and pest control, and doing their own community policing.

Yes, these were revolutionary ideas at the time. Many of the Panthers’ ideas have become mainstream and government-sponsored or put into college curriculum (ethnic studies) or even championed by the National Rifle Association as “open carry.” (Point Seven of the group’s platform states the Panthers “believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”) Who remembers that these were Black Panther ideas and programs implemented successfully in the Desire neighborhood, with minimal expenditure and despite all manner of state-sanctioned suppression?

Artist Bruce Brice works on a mural at the Desire Project, 1970. The author reports that parts of the mural still exist underneath weeds and debris. Photo provided to Orissa Arend by the Historic New Orleans Collection.

The Panthers took on the police directly, calling them out as a militarized occupying force. They didn’t mince words: “Off the pigs,” “All power to all people.” Many back then didn’t believe it could be that bad, even when they saw the police go into Desire with an armored vehicle and helicopters and an army of police in riot gear to serve a trespass warrant.

To their credit, the police didn’t use tear gas or rubber bullets on the crowd in Desire. And their chief, Clarence Giarrusso, was right there with them. He took off his gun. That was in stark contrast to the shootout on Piety Street the month before when the cops used real bullets. Many thought the Panthers were paranoid about the police, maybe suicidal. They weren’t.

Back then we didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have the Internet. But we did have six interested print media sources: the Times-Picayune, the States-Item, the New York Times, the NOLA Express, Time Magazine, and the Black Panther newspaper.

Look at us now, 50 years later, experiencing a worldwide consciousness awakening to the realization that the Panthers were right! Standard policing — policing as we know it, as it affects Black citizens — is violent, militant, often lawless, and frequently repressive.

The Panthers had their own way of policing. They democratized public safety. They went door to door to ask if they were welcome, getting to know people, asking what they needed. They worked with white allies in city government, in churches, and at universities. They accompanied seniors to get their Social Security checks. They guarded peoples’ houses when they were away. They didn’t shut down the drug dealers, but they kept them away from children. They mediated conflicts between gangs. They provided education. They put their lives on the line.

I learned all this from talking to people who were there in the middle of it in 1970 — the Panthers, the police, city officials, clergy, and Desire residents. Each corroborated the other’s story or filled in a missing piece (See “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans“, published in 2009).

Tim Wise in his article proposes an idea that he says is not original to him, but which heretofore has never been seriously considered: Give police recruits, regardless of their race, a four-month period during which they get paid, but they don’t carry a gun or make arrests.

Their sole job would be to get to know the people in the neighborhood they will patrol, hang out in gathering places, listen to what makes people feel safe, find out what they want and need from law enforcement. As Wise puts it, “Having had time to assess the humility, the character, and the commitment of each one who seeks to become a cop, the people would decide.” This would likely result in a process of self-selection. The bullies wouldn’t be interested and the community organizers, whose first job is to listen and learn, would probably get a thumbs up.

Why don’t we know this crucial New Orleans Black Panther history? Bob Tucker, who was Mayor Moon Landrieu’s young Black assistant in 1970, thinks a page was torn from our history book. Robert King of the Angola Three, a Panther political prisoner now free but locked up for decades in solitary confinement, speaks of the abortion of the revolutionary baby, never allowed to gestate.

But maybe it’s not too late. Maybe we can learn a lesson from our forgotten history. Tucker thinks we can re-insert that torn-out page. It’s about time.

Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans”.

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