Fifty years ago today:
On August 9, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for fighting in New Orleans. His arrest occurred during a time when Oswald was handing out pro-Castro leaflets on Canal Street. The man Oswald got into the altercation with was Carlos Bringuier, a strongly anti-Castro Cuban exile and head of the New Orleans chapter of the Directorio Revoionario Estudiantil -- the DRE -- an exile group with well-known ties to the CIA's JM/WAVE program. Unconfirmed reports state that Oswald goaded Bringuier into hitting him as a publicity stunt. Indeed, the entire incident is either a woefully misguided attempt to garner pro-Castro sympathies in a city with a large population of angry Cuban exiles or a carefully crafted psyop. Either way, it was the first major step down a path that would culminate in Dallas in late November.
Before looking at the arrest in the larger context of the Kennedy assassination, let us first take a look at some of the bizarre, conspiratorial breezes blowing through the French Quarter on that day:
- Per Bringuier's Warren Commission testimony, he and Oswald had met before. Allegedly, Oswald first sought out Bringuier on August 5, offering to train Cuban exiles for a proposed raid on Cuba. Oswald reportedly leveraged his status as a former Marine to entice Bringuier to consider the deal, and the next day provided him with a Marine training manual as a sign of good faith. This claim explains why Bringuier was incensed enough to punch Oswald in public and in full view of reporters: he thought Oswald was on his side and felt betrayed. Other evidence that Oswald wasn't a dyed in the red wool Communist includes the fact that he gave a strongly anti-Communist speech at Jesuit seminary in Mobile, AL on July 27.
- Oswald was distributing leaflets stamped as "FPCC" -- the Fair Play for Cuba Committe, of which Oswald was the only member. Much more important than the name was the address however: 544 Camp Street. 544 Camp housed the offices of the violently anti-Communist former FBI agent Guy Bannister and the Cuban Revolutionary Council, an exile paramilitary group reportedly founded by CIA man E. Howard Hunt. Oswald had no known connection to the building on Camp -- he didn't lease any space or work there -- but he is frequently spotted in the area. Reports that Oswald was working with or at least acquainted with Bannister are numerous, and it is likely that whatever game he was playing -- if it was a game -- was being handled out of the Camp St. office. It defies logic that Oswald, if sincerely a Castro supporter, would have used an address unconnected to himself that coincidentally was the nexus of anti-Castro activities in the city.
- Oswald made a curious request at the New Orleans police station: he requested to speak to an FBI agent. Only charged with "disturbing the peace" and free to go after paying his twenty-five dollar bond, Oswald choose not to leave but to remain at the station until an agent arrived. Things get stranger still from here. Agent John Quigley reportedly interviewed Oswald on August 10th for over an hour and made a seven page report which was later turned over to the CIA, who added it to their existing files on Oswald. After the interview, Oswald didn't go straight home but went to the offices of the local paper to request more coverage of his work with the FPCC.
Self Portrait in Red: Oswald as local celebrity
Oswald had not drawn very much attention to himself in New Orleans since his arrival in April, but all that would change after his arrest. As a staunch pro-Cuban Communist in the midst of the largest Cuban community outside of Miami, Oswald became infamous overnight and he did everything possible to capitalize on his new found notoriety. He passed out pro-Castro leaflets on August 14 and 16, with the later incident caught on film by local TV station WDSU. Their radio station (also WDSU) contacted Oswald on the morning of August 17 for an interview (8/17 broadcast) and later two debates (8/19 and 8/21 broadcasts). The August 21st debate would later be released as an album (shown above) after the Kennedy assassination. The album was released by the Information Council of the Americas (INCA), a stridently right-wing anti-Communist group with intelligence ties.
Oswald's publicity binge ended as quickly as it began, as he is not seen in New Orleans again until September 17th. Witness state that during this time Oswald, accompanied by Clay Shaw and David Ferrie, unsuccessfully attempted to become a registered voter in the small town of Clinton, LA. There is speculation that Oswald was at one of the many training camps for Cuban exiles in Louisiana at the time, although his library records show that he was still checking out books regularly in New Orleans.
On September 13, Dallas newspapers began reporting that President Kennedy will make a stop in the city during his November visit to Texas. It is still "unofficial" at this point. Oswald -- or someone identifying themselves as Oswald -- is very busy in the period between his 8/21 disappearance and his 9/17 return to New Orleans. It is important to note that many of the Oswald/Shaw/Ferrie connections that were key to Garrison's case occur during this timeframe, although this person identifies himself as "Leon." Additionally, someone signed into a guestbook in Wisconsin as "Lee Harvey Oswald" on 9/16 -- President Kennedy was scheduled to make a visit to Wisconsin the following week.
Oswald reappears in New Orleans on September 17 at the Mexican consulate applying for a tourist visa to visit Mexico. After a brief visit from his wife, Oswald departs for Mexico via bus on 9/24 and, upon arrival, Oswald applies for a Cuban visa and spends several days bouncing between the Soviet and Cuban embassies. Well, according to the Warren Commission, that is:
This heavy-set, balding man is "Lee Harvey Oswald," the man who reportedly caused a scene at several embassies in his attempt to get a Cuban visa. No need to go into detail here: only an idiot would think this is Lee Harvey Oswald. Someone more closely matching Oswald's description and using his name appeared in Austin and Dallas during the time the man shown above was in Mexico.
On October 2nd, Oswald officially returns to Dallas.
Oswald's determination to make himself known as a Communist during this period leads us to two possible conclusions. The first: Oswald was sincerely a Communist and his conviction about his beliefs lead him to become a vocal advocate for Cuba and the Soviet Union. There is a good deal of evidence that Oswald's Communism was simply an act, however, none more convincing that the fact that his Communist rhetoric disappeared when he arrived in Dallas and he become close to the strongly-anti-Communist White Russian community.
The second possible conclusion is that Oswald was involved with the intelligence community in some way, and was actively trying to make himself a known Communist for very specific, but to date unknown, purposes. Many theorists have a tendency to view all of Oswald's past in the light of the Kennedy assassination, but I don't believe that the two are necessarily connected. My personal belief was that Oswald was attempting to paint himself as a Communist in order to gain entry into Cuba where he would function as a spy for US intelligence. Whether or not this is entirely true, I'm not certain, but I do believe that at least that's what Oswald thought he was doing. Again, I return to Oswald's choice of the word "patsy" after his arrest. A patsy isn't necessarily an innocent man. It is entirely possible that Oswald was aware of a plot to kill Kennedy or, alternately, realized that the mission he believed he was working on was being used as a cover for that plot.
In the fifty years since the assassination there has been a tendency in conspiracy literature to turn Oswald into something of a martyr or an innocent scapegoat. His final days in New Orleans expose the lie in that belief, however. Oswald was clearly a man who was up to something during this time and it is also evident that it involved others. What that was we will never know. To quote Joe Pesci as David Ferrie in JFK:
"It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside of an enigma."