Friday, September 28, 2007

Mark Essex... Race Warrior and Mass Murderer.

As I continue to read about some of the most violent incidents directed by individuals upon their fellow society members, I am occasionally surprised to come upon an unfamiliar name. Such was the case when I read about Mark Essex in Elliott Leyton's landmark study of multiple murderers- Hunting Humans (2001 ed. of a 1986 copyright). This well-respected book established Leyton's reputation as one of the foremost academics studying serial and mass murderers in America. It makes sense that Leyton would choose Essex as a representative case, because the author takes the unique approach of considering larger social factors when studying the actions of what many have characterized as "monsters". Throughout Hunting Humans Leyton examines the "tasks" of these individuals that may influence them to act out a bloody and horrific script.

Leyton is actually proposing that these killers are acting out some hazily-conceived rebellion against particular segments of society that they view (subconsciously or not) to have wronged them. This perspective certainly generates controversy as psychiatrists, law enforcement personnel, FBI investigators, and other observers have identified a litany of causes and predispositions that seem to override generalized social concerns. In some instances it does seem that Leyton is stretching the details of history to accommodate his theory. But at the same time I think it's fair to consider the behavior of multiple murderers on several different levels. It makes sense that developmental problems, genetics, a history of abuse, head injuries, mental illness, and (yes) sociological factors can all influence even the most extreme of human behaviors.

While it may not seem appropriate to look for social causes when we look at John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, it seems hard to avoid the issue in the case of Mark Essex. Born to a loving and stable family in Emporia, Kansas, this young African-American grew up believing in a fair and essentially just society for all. According to all accounts he was a gentle and happy boy who got along well with almost everyone. Although he wanted to be a minister someday, he displayed a special aptitude for technical skills and decided to enlist in the US Navy. This is when his life began to spiral downwards. He was posted in San Diego after basic training, and was working as an assistant in a dentist's office. At first his superiors found him to be positive, soft-spoken, and eager to continue his history of engaging with all types of people. But gradually Essex became aware of a United States he never knew existed. He was increasingly subjected to racism from white sailors at the base.

As time went on Essex became frustrated with the inequalities he was now experiencing. He began to spend time only with blacks on the base and in the city, and became involved with outwardly militant political groups. After a clash between black and white sailors led to what Essex saw as a fundamentally unfair and inadequate formal resolution, he decided to go AWOL. This action would lead to a demotion and (eventually) an administrative discharge "for reason of unsuitability due to a character behavior disorder". Essex was by no means alone in his perception that the US Navy was a discriminatory body. There was widespread disillusionment among African-Americans in the military, and even sabotage on occasion. The resentful ex-sailor had been irrevocably altered- Essex went to New York City and then New Orleans, and ended up in the company of Black Panthers and other extremists.

While in Louisiana Essex continued to subscribe to an increasingly defiant revolutionary worldview. During a last attempt to assimilate into society as a vending machine repairman, Essex was distressed to learn of the local on-campus killings of two black student demonstrators. He responded by arming himself and becoming a recluse. Simmering in a small apartment alone, he "decorated" the walls with pro-Black and anti-white rhetoric and hateful slogans. When he finally emerged he initiated a stunning campaign of bloody violence. On New Years Eve (1974), he shot three police officers and cadets, killing two. Somehow he evaded capture. A week later he began a murderous rampage that ended with him being surrounded by 200 cops, on top of the roof of a Howard Johnson's Hotel. When he was about to run out of ammo, he left his hiding place and was riddled with bullets and killed. In the end Essex had managed to take the lives of nine people and wound ten others.

During the tense standoff at the hotel, a crowd of African-Americans sympathetic to Essex had loudly threatened to join the man in his rebellion. Each time he shot at the police, they chanted "Kill the Pigs!" in encouragement. Although the actions of this self-perceived Black Messiah did not touch off a full-scale revolution, it was clear that many of the disenfranchised blacks in society shared his sentiments. A twelve-year old boy that would later become John Allen Muhammed was a resident of the Baton Rouge area at the time- he would become famous as 1/2 of the infamous Washington DC Snipers.

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