From The Big Easy, Part Two: Jump Boy, Jump:
The cab swung through a hazardous U-turn directly beneath the traffic light and bounced up onto the curb, making way for the shrieking paddy wagon that crossed the intersection against the red and sped on toward the concrete edifices of the Desire Street project. Black men ran along the pavements — spectators hurrying to a fire — exhorted by the clarion of the ladder truck; there was no sign of smoke on the low serrated horizon.
“Git out or go with me,” the cabbie told Comiski. “I ain’t hanging round this afternoon.”
Comiski got out. The air was full of the antiphony of half a dozen sirens and a faint acrid smell; the packed dirt basketball courts across Desire were deserted, and Negro boys in gym shorts and torn-off Levi’s trotted across the field, calling out to one another. He followed the high metal fence, searched the tops of the identical structures for some sign of fire. Black people leaned out of windows, watching the action below; the crowd in the street parted to let the ladder truck through, and firemen in hard hats and short canvas jackets jumped clear, began unpacking lengths of metal tubing.
The grassless expanse in the center of the project was deserted, cordoned off by a score of policemen wearing motorcycle helmets and armed with sawed-off Winchester pump shotguns. A single tear gas canister lay smoldering at the edge of the walkway; three men gripping the ugly blunt launchers stood scanning the windows of the nearest building, searching for a target. Tenants poured out of the complex, filed into the street, talking and gesturing; above the din and the constant wail of sirens, Comiski heard the thick bellicose voice of Tea, amplified by the bullhorn.
“Black men, get guns. Kill the white fools.”
His words echoed weirdly among the buildings, and cops and spectators alike craned their necks, trying to spot the offender. Someone gave a mock cheer; people were laughing.
Cautiously Comiski pushed through the crowd. An abandoned squad car sat at an odd angle to the street, two wheels resting on the sidewalk: the windshield was smashed, scorched by flames, and sprayed with a white gelatinous foam. The front seat was strewn with broken glass and the empty casings of .38-caliber bullets.
He skirted the car, attempted to cross the sidewalk to the mall; a policeman challenged him, and Comiski took out his press card.
“Git back,” the cop said, pressing the stock of his scatter gun against Comiski’s chest.
“But I’m with the news media.”
“I said git back!”
The cop shoved him roughly down the escarpment; Comiski bowed, edged back into the crowd. Overreaction, that was the word. He noticed that the man was still watching him.
Patrol wagons arrived simultaneously at each end of the block, disgorged bands of men wearing khaki uniforms and shiny baby-blue helmets and armed with long truncheons used by the mounted police. Comiski didn’t recognize the force, watched as they moved in ragged formation toward the corner apartment building and out of sight. A contingent of plainclothes detectives trotted past, and Comiski fell into step beside them, headed for the parking lot behind the project. A rookie with glossy slicked-back hair, an eager grin, and the stride of a high school athlete told him, “We re going to kill that sonofabitch.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Comiski said.
“This here’s my first riot.”
“Mine, too. Anybody hurt?”
“Not yet. You Vice or Special Squad?”
“Special Squad, that’s me.”
Comiski saluted, moved off between the buildings. Above him windows were slammed shut, shades and curtains drawn; bicycles and skates lay abandoned in the narrow dirt yards. An old man in his undershorts crept out of a service entrance and, seeing Comiski, dropped his plastic pail of garbage and scurried back inside, locking the door behind him. Tea’s omnipotent voice echoed throughout the project: “Black men get guns. Get your guns now! Kill all white foowoowools.”
A section of the mall burst into flames. It was too spectacular: for an instant Comiski managed to disbelieve it. Two cops dropped their weapons and fled; there was a clatter of shotgun fire, punctuated by the heavy thumping reports of the tear gas launchers. He saw a canister bounce off the wall beside a curtained window and fall back to earth, trailing what appeared to be dirty steam mixed with the oily smoke from the fire bomb. A feeble cry went up from the crowd.
Comiski stepped into a deserted doorway. A Negro in bright red overalls was running along the base of the adjacent building, clawing at the air in front of him, lifting his knees in a fast hurtler’s pace: it was one of Tea’s revolutionaries — the tall lanky man who had cursed him. Comiski watched him duck into a passageway and tear off the overalls, revealing his flowered shirt beneath. A wedge of policemen sprinted around the corner from which he had come, bristling with revolvers and batons; the black man stepped out and walked toward them, flattened himself against the building and pointed to the passageway. The cops ran past and entered the passageway, emerged carrying the red overalls; they looked up and down the yard for the vanished Negro. Then they started across in Comiski’s direction. He stepped back, waited for them to pass. His head ached and his mouth was dry; Tea’s voice admonished him: “Kill the Man. Kill him nowowow . . .”
Comiski went for the first sound he heard. There were no faces in the windows now; occasionally black people ran from the doorways along the edge of the mall toward the street and the apparent safety of the crowd. A reinforced corps of policemen with scatter guns advanced in a line and surrounded the main building, held back out of range of the fire bombs. Comiski wondered if Tea had a gun, watched two cops with high-powered rifles crouch and scan the windows through their telescopic sights. The smell of tear gas was nauseating; the sirens never ceased.
A wedge of policemen advanced on the building at a mincing trot. The concrete steps were engulfed in flames, and they fell back in disorder, covering their faces with their arms; the men with the rifles fired indiscriminately, the slugs ricocheting off the building’s facade and whining overhead. A tear gas canister smashed a window on the third floor; a woman screamed. Comiski looked behind him, saw a solid wall of blue shirts as policemen herded people into the street and up against the cyclone fence on the other side.
Tea’s plea was edged with hysteria: “Kill them! Kill the whites! Help me kill thememem . . .”
Comiski scanned the checkerboard of windows: Tea could have been anywhere. He saw one of the sharpshooters put three bullets through a flapping yellow curtain, decided to keep moving. He kept behind the cordon of police, circled the building, and walked into a clutch of men in khaki and baby-blue helmets concealed behind the shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot. They were searching three Negro youths who had their hands against the brick wall; one of the cops was methodically puncturing the tires of an old Cadillac with an ice pick. Another came up to Comiski, twisting the baton in his fists as if it were a huge pepper grinder.
Comiski said jovially, “So these are the ones,” and gestured toward the blacks.
“Which ones is that?”
“They’re all troublemakers.”
He didn’t dispute. Handcuffs were attached to the Negroes’ ankles; the cops took the chains in hand and jerked them backward, dumping the men in the gravel. Comiski recognized none of the cops. Their uniforms resembled those of the auxiliary police, were identified only by a gold-plated brooch engraved with a rising sun, without names or numerals; they carried only handcuffs and batons, and their mood of aimless belligerency suggested raw recruits.
The man with the ice pick punctured the last tire, sat down on the car fender, and began to roll a cigarette.
Comiski recognized the symptom, placed the faces: they were white trusties from Parish Prison — inmates.
One of them asked Comiski, “What you want, anyway?”
“I’m just reconnoitering.”
“You ain’t with the Commonist press?”
“Certainly not. I’m Special Squad.”
“That’s funny — so are we.”
They conferred, and Comiski started back in the direction from which he came; one of the men ordered him to stop, but he kept walking.
The siege had moved to the adjacent building. Through the haze of tear gas he could see two policemen with dogs on leashes moving precariously along the ledge of the roof; they met and eased back out of sight. Tea’s shrill voice harangued the crowd: “Kill them! Help me! Help me nowowow . . .”
A group of policemen broke from the ranks and stormed the main entrance; they pushed and shoved, fell frantically through the doorway, just as a missile came arching out of a window on the top floor. Comiski recognized the wooden crate trailing excelsior, sunlight glinting off particles of glass, shielded his face against the explosion. He was buffeted by a hot wind; a column of orange flame shot up half the height of the building, with feelers of fire streaking along the ground and scattering the police. A great sigh went up from the crowd. The sharpshooters blazed away, followed by the heavy thumpthumpthump of the tear gas launchers; smoke poured from half a dozen windows.
The men with scatter guns skirted the fire and flooded the entrance, pushed through. Comiski watched the window from which the crate had been thrown, waited for Tea’s next message, but it never came. He wanted to act, to stop the slaughter: for an instant he envisioned himself the divine mediator, descending on a brocade dais between the belligerents, dispensing goodwill with justice. Deus ex machina.
A police lieutenant brushed past Comiski, waving his arms and shouting at the sharpshooters. Somewhere inside the building a semi-automatic weapon fired steadily until it was empty; during the silence that followed he heard a car horn blowing far down Desire. The room on the top floor filled with light. There was a muffled explosion, and the window frame leapt outward, disintegrated in midair; hundreds of shotgun pellets rained against the panes of glass in the building opposite.