Saturday, October 8, 2011

The 99% Occupy Nola

On Sunday, October 2, the first General Assembly of Occupy New Orleans was held in Washington Square (between Frenchmen St. and Esplanade Ave.), piggy-backing on an anarchist picnic, which had been announced weeks earlier. It was decided that Duncan Plaza, in front of Town Hall and near the main public library, would be occupied, beginning on October 6, after a march from the criminal court house on Tulane at Broad to Lafayette Square. New Orleans was added to maps of U.S. cities being occupied by the "99%," in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the October 2011 occupation of Washington, D.C., beginning October 6. 

Hundreds of people began converging at noon on Thursday, October 6, at the criminal courthouse on Tulane Avenue at Broad Street. Local media were there filming, and so was a NYPD policewoman. "Are you videoing to identify us?" I asked. "No," she responded. "This is for training purposes, so we can see how we can do better."  The police state is all about training. Only a few people wore masks. I covered my nose and mouth briefly with my red Zapatista bandanna I wore around my neck.

I walked up the steps of the courthouse to take some photographs from the steps, where several policemen were viewing the scene below and taking shots of the crowd with their cell phones. "I sure hope y'all are gonna be nicer to us than the NYPD has been to Occupy Wall Street protesters." They laughed and said, "We're always nice," which is pretty funny, considering the sentences were being handed down in that very courthouse to police officers who had shot dead and maimed unarmed New Orleans citizens who were fleeing the flooded New Orleans East after the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina. I told them it would be a shame if New Orleans police abused the occupiers, because that would hurt the city's reputation. I told them I canceled a leisure trip in protest of the police brutality there, and I expect people would do the same if they saw photographs of peaceful protesters being abused. That would hurt tourism. They agreed that they're part of the 99% as well. 

Loyola University student Emily Posner geared up the crowd with call-and-response chants before the "parade," as the Times Picayune called it, began. It was a permitted march. Any movement of people on a city street that interferes with vehicle traffic requires a permit. A permit is also required, a sergeant at the Department's events office recently told me, in the blocked sections of the French Quarter--at Jackson Square and on Royal and Bourbon Streets--if a band or music is moving people on a street, which makes it a "parade." There were a few brass instruments being played at the rear of the marchers, and bongo players at the front, which at times gave the feel of a second-line parade, depending on how close you were to the rhythm and horn sections, but most people responded to the chants shouted through the bullhorn, which was passed along. "This is what democracy looks like!" and "We are/you are the 99%" were the more frequent chants. 

The route from Broad passed along the blighted Tulane Avenue, past the historic Dixie Brewing Company, building, still shuttered since the Corps of Engineers' levees flooded the city during and after Hurricane Katrina, and past St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, near the intersection of Claiborne, the only surviving historic structure within several squares leveled for the footprint of the controversial medical complex, which includes a replacement of Charity Hospital, also still shuttered since the Great Flood of 2005. 

As we passed the medical district, medical students and medics cheered us on and snapped photographs. We turned onto Loyola at the public library, where a number of people, including several who were apparently homeless, looked on in puzzlement. The woman accompanying another woman in a gas mask told me she thinks the New Orleans police will behave themselves much better than those in New York, because they're much better at managing crowds, because of Carnival. The police were certainly witnesses to the broad support marchers received from passersby, most of whom honked their horns. The Arab taxi drivers looked the proudest, knowing this part of the American Autumn sweeping through New Orleans is inspired by the Arab Spring.

What might otherwise have seemed a long urban hike seemed short with all the company in the mild fall weather. Before we knew it we were passing frowning men in suits capturing images on cell phones, turning at One Shell Square (named after Shell Oil, of course), onto St. Charles, and then pouring into Lafayette Square, across from Gallier Hall, the former Town Hall. Lafayette Square was the site of numerous political rallies during the nineteenth through the med-twentieth century. On October 6, fiery speeches were once again delivered to a crowd in Lafayette Square, this time about Wall Street and the corportists in Congress, the 1% and their representatives, whose ruinous practices and policies have destroyed the global economy, and who will, if their greed is left unchecked, will make slaves of the 99%. For well over an hour, people took turns with the bull horn to deliver their personal viewpoints and the way forward. Among them was Sharon Jasper, who has been a lightening rod for criticism, particularly in recent years since Katrina, due to her activism to save public housing complexes of New Orleans and her work on the "Right of Return" of New Orleanians to their homes in public or Section 8 housing. 

To the chagrin of a number of people in the crowd, one woman used her turn at the bullhorn to promote Ron Paul as the savior of the country. One man near me bemoaned her words as serving to discredit the entire rally by endorsing a political candidate. Most people, however, used their time at the bullhorn to stress what everyone has in common in protesting the government and the current corrupt, predatory capitalistic system, under which everyone in the 99% is suffering in some way or another. Representing their personal issues were students--one young woman held alternating signs that said "Unemployed, drowning in college debt" and another, "Student debt = slavery"--and medics--one held a sign that said, "Bail out hospitals, break up banks"--and several people whose grievances were more local, such as "Abolish O.P.P." (Orleans Parish Prison) and "Fire (NOPD Superintendant) Ronald Serpas." A few of the protesters have had recent encounters with Orleans Parish Prison, one of whom was recently arrested during a civil disobedience against BP, who, along with its protectors in Congress and the Obama administration, has committed ecocide in the Gulf of Mexico, and continues to cause many human illnesses in the Gulf region from the oil, which BP has not cleaned up, and the chemical dispersants it has used to sink the oil. The charges were dismissed by a sympathetic judge. As one of the march and occupation organizers, he believes the fewer police present the better, and he added quietly, after someone thanked and praised "the boys and ladies in blue," that "Now, go away!"
I spoke to a couple of "plainclothes" police officers, dressed in khaki slacks and black shirts who seemed to be enjoying themselves. I asked who they were and if they were perhaps Homeland Security or worked for a private security firm, like Blackwater, aka Xe. They showed me their IDs when I expressed skepticism. Why it's necessary for them not to wear a badge if they're not operating undercover, I don't know. Homeland Security agents and Blackwater mercs dressed in the same attire in the days after Katrina. It's little wonder that some people who saw NOPD officers dressed in khaki and black during a recent BP protest thought they were Homeland Security agents. The two officers were friendly, and said that if they had anything to do with it there wouldn't be any arrests. They knew that the occupation would move to Duncan Plaza. "Oh, yeah, we're informed," one of them told me. When I told them there were signs demanding that Ronal Serpas be fired, they laughed and said, "That doesn't bother us!" They, too, agreed that what's going on in this country affects everyone, including them, and that they're supportive of the protest. One of them said, "Don't get me started with my conspiracy theories," to which I told him that's the pejorative that others used to discredit people who do research and realize official stories are big fat lies. "Like 9-11," I said. He didn't respond, but it appeared that it was something he didn't talk about while on the job.

As I left Lafayette Square, I passed another man, short and stocky with short-cropped hair, who was also dressed in khaki slacks and a black shirt, but the latter had a big round patch that said, "Gulf Coast Fugitive Task Force." 

"Gulf Coast Fugitive Task Force?" I said, reading the emblem. Does that mean you're a fugitive, or you're chasing fugitives?" 

"Sometimes I'm a fugitive," he chuckled. But generally we chase fugitives.

"But why in the world are you here?" I asked.

"Well, there are so many federal buildings in this area, we need to keep an eye on things." Lafayette Square is adjacent to federal courthouses, as well as Senator Mary Landrieu's office.

"Oh, God," I said, rolling my eyes. "Here we are, the security state."

"Well, worse things could happen."

The Gulf Coast Fugitive Task Force is part of the Department of Justice. The U.S. Marshalls website describes it as follows: 

"The Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force (GCRFTF) became fully operational in July 2006 and operates out of USMS offices throughout Alabama and Mississippi, with its headquarters office located in Birmingham, Alabama.  The GCRFTF partners with numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies throughout Alabama and Mississippi continues to recruit other agencies to participate in the task force."

The Eastern District of Louisiana of U.S. Marshalls is a participating agency. 

"I don't think so. That's what we're protesting. Government and corporations have merged, and this is fascism, along with a security apparatus." I walked away and chatted with an SUV full of bored police officers. Whoever made the decision to have so much security detail must have been counting on there being some trouble. "We're all working class," I assured them. "We're all in this together. Before you know it, austerity measures are going to dictate reduction of police salaries, the theft of pensions." They look worried. The driver commented about the slanted news stories about Occupation Wall Street. I told him he should watch Al Jazeera English.

It's a good start for Occupy Nola. The organizers have already had several General Assemblies. Those in the region who would like to join Occupation Nola can head to Duncan Plaza, between Loyola and Poydras, just down the street from the Greyhound/Amtrak station. The General Assemblies are what democracy looks like, and Duncan Plaza is now the place of town hall meetings. New Orleans Town Hall fronts on Perdido Street, which runs along one side of Duncan Plaza. Perdido, of course, means lost in Spanish. General Assembly is another term for found voices, even as the human microphone system is being used. Keep up with Occupy New Orleans at its Facebook page here.

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