Fair Grinds Dialogue: Dialing Back to Desire and the Panthers

Orissa Arend, Keith Medley, and Bob Tucker at Fair Grinds

 New Orleans  My old friend and fellow labor activist, now retired from the postal workers union, Stanley Taylor, late in the 4th ,Fair Grinds Dialogue, reminded the assembled, rapt crowd, that “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.  Some nodded approvingly, but for most his comment was simply more sound in the Fair Grinds Organizing Roundtable Room without any special significance.  In truth for most people around the room, around the city, around the country and the world, history simply does not exist at least in any real sense of finding the facts, exploring the past, and coming to grip with lessons along the way.

Stanley Taylor

All of which has begun to make these experimental “dialogues” at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans more and more interesting and, frankly, more and more valuable.  The topic this session had drawn a healthy crowd of 30 packed tightly in the room not only because of a better organizing and outreach job from the coffee bar, but also because the subject  was compelling to a mixture of both the committed, who tended to be older veterans of the time, and the curious, who were younger, fresh faced and intrigued by the incongruity of the New Orleans they were trying to understand today and the New Orleans of leather, guns, and Black Panthers serving breakfast in the Desire Street project.

I had asked Orissa Arend, author of the book, Showdown in Desire, which covered in detail the gunfight between the police and the Panthers in the fall of 1970 at the project, to come and present to the dialogue.  She wisely recruited Bob Tucker, one of the people who she said was a “hero” in her book, and another old comrade of mine when he was consigliore to Mayor Marc Morial, to tell the story from the vantage of his own participation, which he did so engagingly and passionately.  She also recruited local filmmaker Royce Osborn and historian Keith Medley, who had written his own book about the famous Supreme Court “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson case that originated in my Bywater neighborhood only a couple of blocks from where we used to live.  Add another more than 25 folks, and we had an amazing evening as you can tell from the website and the taping that we have now posted up on YouTube.

Watching and listening from the doorway was interesting.  The 70’s veterans wanted to make sure the 20-somethings understood what a “pig” was and what the phrase “off the pig” might mean.  Others who barely missed the period with the benefit of a generation gone by had trouble understanding why the Panthers seemed so dangerous and threatening when they were serving up breakfast in housing projects.  To say it was a different time is simply talking to oneself.  The time meant everything to some and to others was as foreign as a tale from India or the South Seas.

Orissa told a dramatic story, as she read from opposite accounts of being the target of the long gun battle and the miracle that no one was killed.  The fact that these young late teens and early 20’s Panthers upon surrendering to their sworn enemies in the police, who only hours before had guns blazing, found themselves talking about the prospects for the fledgling Saints, let you know you were hearing something that was totally true and typically weird in the way that only authentic experience can be.

Somehow as miraculously as the Panthers escaping with their lives was the feeling, seemingly unanimous among the crowd, that a bridge had somehow been built in the dialogue that had value for whatever reason.  The Panthers may have been an example, as I argued, of the organizing where the “tactic devoured the strategy,” as their guns evaporated their butter, but for those that were there it was simply magic in a bottle with value in its own right.  Worth continuing to see if this was luck, or we just might be getting something right.

Orissa Arend reading from her book Showdown in Desire

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