Kenneth M. Borden battled sickle cell anemia during his 21 years of life, but it was a bullet from a New Orleans police officer that killed him. On Sept. 15, 1970, Borden and two friends were walking to a grocery store on the day of a historic standoff between the New Orleans Police Department and the Black Panther Party in the Desire housing projects. Borden’s friends were able to flee the scene, but Borden didn’t survive.
For 53 years, Borden was often portrayed as a footnote in the narrative of the standoff. In early news reports, he was described as a member of the Black Panther Party killed by a police officer for attempting to firebomb a Broussard’s grocery store, as police claimed — though none of this was true. On Thursday (Sept. 21), Borden’s family and researchers at Southern University Law Center sought to center Borden and share the truth of this often-buried story with the New Orleans City Council.
Borden’s death wounded the lives of his family, and inaccuracies in the historical record exacerbated this trauma.
“For you guys, it may have been a day, a snapshot, a moment in time,” said Ebony Borden, who grew up without a chance to meet her uncle, Kenneth. “But for us it’s been life.”
“We have been marked by intergenerational trauma,” she said. “Our family has been completely broken.”
An investigation into the case by the Louis A. Berry Institute for Civil Rights and Justice at Southern University Law Center shows the police narrative was not true. The investigation into the Borden case came out of the institute’s mission of researching unjust killings during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras. The institute also aims to advance restorative justice, an approach that centers rehabilitation and healing rather than carceral punishments.
“When we approached the Borden family, we asked them, ‘What does justice look like?’” said Ada Goodly Lampkin, the institute’s director. “It looked like the truth.”
Borden’s death came amid a standoff between the Black Panther Party, which had headquarters in Desire, and the NOPD. Two police agents — Israel Field and Melvin Howard — had infiltrated the organization through the FBI counterintelligence program COINTELPRO, a government program that used illegal tactics to undermine the Panthers and civil rights organizations in the late 1950s and 60s.
Local Party members knew about the undercover agents, but tension rose after the other residents of the community learned about Field’s and Howard’s actions. Some residents reacted to the news with outrage, attacking the officers — police mobilized in response, attempting to enter and search the Black Panther Party headquarters in Desire.
More than 100 law enforcement officers fired rounds of ammunition and tear gas against people inside the Panthers’ headquarters. Seven people were shot at Panther headquarters.
That night, Borden, who was not a Black Panther, was shot walking towards Broussard’s. His was the only death that day.
One news article at the time referred to Borden as “a black militant” who was killed during the standoff after the Black Panther Party “tried to punish an unsympathetic Negro by firebombing his grocery store,” according to a presentation from researchers at the Louis A. Berry Institute.
On Thursday, Green Stevens, a founding member of the Louisiana Black Panther Party, told the City Council that Borden was never affiliated with the organization. And while the family sought to correct the historical record, Goodly Lampkin and Ruth Borden both stressed that his death was unjust regardless of his party affiliation.
“It matters not whether he was a Black Panther,” Borden said. “Even if he was a Panther, how they treated him was full of inhumane treatment, Panther or not.”
Soon after learning of Kenneth’s death, his younger brother Reginald Borden remembered rushing to Charity Hospital with another brother. At the hospital, Reginald Borden recalled, he overheard one officer say, “What do those two n—–s want?” and another police officer replying, “They came to see about the n—– we shot.”
“Of course, I couldn’t do nothing,” Reginald Borden said Thursday, reflecting on that moment.
Ruth Borden also shared a harrowing memory following her brother’s death. At one point a man who claimed to have shot Kenneth got a job where Ruth Borden worked. “He bragged about how he killed my brother,” Ruth Borden told the city council, with tears in her eyes.
No criminal charges came after Borden’s death. His parents filed a $1.5 million damage suit against then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, the police superintendent and two officers allegedly involved in the shooting. Herbert William Christenberry, the federal district judge on the case, dismissed the suit in 1974.
City Council members expressed their condolences and condemned the injustice of the case.
“It bothers me that the newspapers of that time have never printed a correction,” said Council President JP Morrell, who connected the wrongdoing of the Borden case to recent patterns of historical erasure and disinformation.
The presenters and councilmembers alike also observed how central figures in the Borden case have left a lasting legacy on the city. Clarence Giarrusso, the police chief at the time of Borden’s death, is the grandfather of Morrell’s wife and a relative of Councilmember Joe Giarrusso: “I still bear the same last name,” Giarrusso said.
During the presentation before the City Council meeting, legal researchers from the Berry Institute noted that Melvin Howard, one of the two undercover agents who infiltrated the Black Panther Party, currently serves as the chief of the Civil Division for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
What would justice look like for Ebony Borden, Kenneth Borden’s niece? For her, the $1.5 million settlement the Bordens never obtained is no longer enough — in a just world, she would like to see interest on that dollar amount, she said, plus an investment into sharing Kenneth’s true story to the world.
“Legacies and lives have been lost,” Ebony Borden said. “Can you imagine what my family could have been if we had each other? Can you imagine what my children could have been if we had each other?”
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