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.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Troy Davis and 'The Tidal Wave of Justice'

A New Orleans Vigil, the Execution in Georgia

At 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 21, New Orleanians had gathered in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court building, in the French Quarter, for a vigil sponsored by the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP), an organization co-founded by death penalty abolitionist Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. Short of a reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Anthony Davis was the next "dead man walking" to an execution chamber in the United States. Rev.
 William Barnwell led us in prayer. 
Rev. William Barnwell leads New 
Orleanians in a prayer during the Troy 
Davis vigil on September 21.

Well after the execution was scheduled to have taken place, someone discovered on her phone's news feed that Democracy Now! was reporting the Supreme Court had stayed the execution. Rev. Barnwell led the elated, tearful group in singing "Amazing Grace." But the jubilation was short-lived. Democracy Now! had repeated the interpretation of an AP report that the Supreme Court was delaying its decision, not staying the execution, which could move forward at any time in the coming hours. While many interpreted this as a hopeful sign, others were cynical.

"They used to do this in California," commented one of the attendees. They would announce a delay, then wait until after the crowds dispersed and go ahead with the execution." Did it really take more than four hours for the Supreme Court justices to unanimously decide that Troy Davis had to die, despite the overwhelming doubts?

Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, and declared dead at 11:08 p.m. on September 21, the Autumn Equinox. Justice Clarence Thomas received the appeal; the decision had bee
n unanimous. Ironically, the justice who had during his Senate confirmation hearings accused his detractors of carrying out "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks," was responsible for what was called "a legal lynching" of another African American, who was more likely to have been innocent of the charges against him than those lodged against Clarence Thomas. There is no more high-tech lynching in the world than US state-ordered executions.

The day prior to his execution, Troy Davis delivered a message to his supporters through a team member of Amnesty International U.S.A.'s Abolish the Death Penalty Campaign: 

The struggle for justice doesn't end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I'm in good spirits and I'm prayerful and at peace."

In his final words from the gurney to which he had been strapped, he spoke to relatives of the Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, whom Davis was convicted of murdering, and reiterated his innocence; he asked his supporters to continue to pursue the truth; he forgave his executioners and asked God to bless them. Shortly after the execution, Laura Moye, director of Amnesty International USA's DPAC, issued a letter in which she said:

"The state of Georgia has proven what we already know. Governments cannot be trusted with the awful power over life and death. Today, Georgia didn't just kill Troy Davis, they killed the faith and confidence that many Georgians, Americans and Troy Davis supporters worldwide used to have in our criminal justice system."

Amnesty International's 'Special Call'

On September 23, Moye hosted a "special call," a teleconference of 600 participants to hear Amnesty International USA staff "discuss Troy Davis' life, what your work means for the death penalty abolition movement as a whole, and what further steps will be taken." In his opening comments, AI-USA executive director Larry Cox spoke of the millions of people who had gotten involved in the effort to save Troy Davis's life, many from unexpected quarters, such as reality TV's Kim Kardashian, who was tweeting to her millions of followers how horrific this impending execution was.

"And it brought to my mind a line from the poet Seamus Heaney, whom you might have heard of
he's worked with Amnesty International for years—that says: 'But then, once in a lifetime / the longed for tidal wave / of justice can rise up, / and hope and history rhyme.' All of you are part of that tidal wave of justice—by joining vigils, writing letters to the editor, talking to friends.... All this has communicated a feeling of determination.... "

The lines are from the stanzas recited by the chorus at the end of a long poem entitled, startlingly enough, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes. The poet presented a reading of this excerpt in Dublin several months ago:

The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is, of course, a brilliant poet, and it's a brilliant allusion by Larry Cox in relation to the death penalty abolition movement, which Troy Davis and his supporters have created a tidal surge now washing over the broken criminal justice system in this country, demanding an end to the barbaric practice that puts the United States in the top five executioners in the world, in the select company of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. According to Amnesty International, in 2008 93% of all executions occurred in these top five execution countries. (See Amnesty International's Worldwide Death Penalty Abolition Timeline.) In a September 27 blog post on Amnesty International's website, Brian Evans wrote:

"The same night that Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer were put to death in the USA, a 17-year-old was hanged in Iran. Two days earlier, a Sudanese man  in Saudi Arabia was publicly beheaded for the crime of “sorcery.” The day after Troy Davis’ execution, Alabama lethally injected Derrick Mason, its 5th execution of the year." 
A week after the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, Florida executed Manuel Valle, who had also convicted of murdering a police officer and, according to Amnesty International, "received no meaningful clemency process."

Former Law Enforcement Officers Were Given the Power to Deny Troy Davis Clemency and Media Access

While many executions have been conducted in the U.S. with little comment from proponents of capital punishment, the doubt surrounding Troy Davis's case caused many to speak out against his execution, and even to cause them to doubt the justice of the death penalty altogether. The prosecution of Troy Davis was based solely on accounts by eight eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted, and one of the other two admitted to having committed the crime. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Georgia's clemency power rests in its State Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor. After the white members of the Board denied clemency for Troy Davis on September 20, all that stood between him and execution was Butt County Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, each of which denied a stay the following day.
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles,
which denied clemency for Troy Anthony
Davis: Albert Murray (
Vice Chairman),
Robert E. Keller, L. Gale Buckner,
James E. Donald (Chairman), and
Terry Barnard.

During an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! NAACP president Ben Jealous said the prison warden, Carl Humphrey, had "stonewalled the media from speaking to Troy Davis," and he had prevented CNN from speaking with an incarcerated witness. Jealous said that, while speaking to him, he said, "You know, there's another side to all this," and went on to tell him that he had been in law enforcement when Mark MacPhail was murdered. Jealous said he became aware while speaking with Humphrey that "there was this chilling notion that 'we're gonna get it this time, we're gonna do it this time." (See Democray Now! 6-hour live broadcast from Troy Davis Execution: Did Georgia execute an innocent man?, 297:48). This was the fourth time Troy Davis had received an execution date. According to Jealous, Warden Humphrey intended it to be his last, and for him not to leave his Death Row alive.

A Troy Davis Memorial Service in New Orleans

The funeral for Troy Davis was held in Savannah on Saturday, October 1, which was declared by Amnesty International as the Day of Remembrance for Troy Davis. The Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty held an interfaith memorial service in New Orleans at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. As Rosanne Adderly, Tulane Professor of African American history and LCADP member, explained during the planning of the event, the church has the only stained glass window of Martin Luther King, and its Gaudet Hall, Dr. Adderly explained, is named after Mother Frances Joseph Gaudet, an Episcopalian saint  who devoted her life in the early twentieth century to providing education and social services to African American youth of New Orleans, a calling she was compelled to follow after seeing young people "treated as discarded lives in the New Orleans city jail."  

The program began with Peter Nu's playing on the grand piano Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." If you're not familiar with this beautiful tune, here's Nina Simone singing it:

Rosanne Adderly gave opening remarks before introducing each speaker, first of which was Rev. Kevin Johnson of St. Luke's, who explained how shortly after Rosanne had told him that he had been called to allow St. Luke's to host the Troy Davis memorial program, he turned on his music player, which unexpectedly and fortuitously began theme (by Elmer Bernstein) from the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Rev. Johnson compared Troy Davis to Jesus, pointing out parallels that had been evoked for many, although few had dared to give voice to them publicly. Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole, Butts County Superior Court justices, and the US Supreme Court justices had each in turn condemned Troy Davis, who was, beyond the shadow of a doubt for many and almost to most people, innocent; each had, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of the case. But even at the end, Troy Davis, like Jesus in his final hours, comforted his supporters who had become followers of him and his family to end the death penalty. Like Jesus, Troy Davis comforted his supporters and followers, and, if he didn't say the exact words in his forgiveness of his executioners and asking for God's blessings for them, he was in essence saying, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
Minister Willie Mohammed of Nation of Islam New Orleans told the Parable of the Starfish, in which a wise man comes upon a youth on the beach who was throwing starfish, which had been stranded on the sand by the withdrawn tide, back into the surf. "There are thousands of starfish, and only one of you," the wise man told the boy. "What difference can you make?" Undeterred, the youth tossed another starfish into the sea, and said, "I saved that one." The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, Minister Mohammed told us, doesn't understand that life is sacred, and that as awful as it was for one life to be takenthat of Mark MacPhailtaking another life is not justice.

LCADP member Calvin Duncan, who had been wrongfully incarcerated in Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary, for over 20 years, explained how difficult it is to fight wrongful conviction, because "the laws are so tight," and the "gatekeepers" maintain a conviction, even if perjured testimonies had been given and the defense was too inadequate to expose it in cross examination. He told the story of how he had been mistakenly identified as the perpetrator of a murder in New Orleans, had an inadequate defense, and spent years in prison because he refused to confess to a crime he had not committed. The laws are so tight, he said, that, unless there is a constitutional issue, evidence of innocence is not enough to have a conviction overturned. The hurdles are so high to prove innocence that it takes a superhuman to make the final hurdle. It was because he came to terms with this realization, and a DA and judges acknowledged his innocence and assisted him, that he made his way out of prison. As a paralegal he had worked with prisoners on Death Row at Angola. "If our legislators would take a tour of Death Row and see who's there," he said, "I feel sure they would be opposed to the death penalty." 
The poet Delia Tomino Nakayama read the chorus at the end of The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, by Seamus Heaney to which Larry Cox had alluded a week earlier, as Peter Nu, accompanied her with improvisations on the piano:  

Poet Delia Tomino Nakayama
Human beings suffer. 
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge,
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing,
The utter self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Prayers, Meditations, and Action

Earlier on October 1 in Savannah, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! had interviewed Dick Gregory, who had eulogized Troy Davis at his funeral, at which time he announced that he would begin that night a liquid fast that would last through next September 21. He doesn't expect others to fast with him, he said, but he asked for people to pray or meditate with him every day at noon (their time) for the end of the death penalty in the United States. 

Many years ago my favorite Roman Catholic priestan Irish one, in facttold me that the purpose of prayer was to make us aware of what we could do to remedy the subject of our prayer. We might ask ourselves, as we pray and meditate on ending the death penalty in the United States, how we might join and sustain "the longed-for tidal wave of justice," so that it will soon rise up, so that, finally, hope and history rhyme.

Thirty-four US states have the death penalty, and it must be abolished in each state, or at least, according to Ben Jealous, in ten more states to show the Supreme Court that the death penalty is not only cruel, but unusual, punishment.

Those who reside in an abolition state can join a state affiliate of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP). You can look up your state's affiliate here. Louisianians can join the efforts of the Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP). October has been designated by Amnesty International as Death Penalty Awareness Month, and by the Roman Catholic Church as Respect Life Month. LCADP has posted the following events thus far scheduled for this month. Check back at the website for updates, and join LCADP to receive event updates and action alerts.

  • Pax Christi Peace Liturgy — Oct 7, 2011, 6:30 pm
    First Unitarian Universalist Church, 5212 S. Claiborne Ave, New Orleans
    Featuring Sister Helen Prejean.
  • Voices from Death Row — Oct 9, 2011, 5:00 pm
    RAE House, 1212 St Bernard Ave
    Presented by Resurrection After Exoneration.
  • World Day Against the Death Penalty — Oct 10, 2011, 10:00 am
  • Voices from Death Row — Oct 10, 2011, 6:00 pm
    Loyola University, Broadway Activities Center in room 202
    Hosted by the Loyola Public Interest Law Student Group.
  • Screening of Zero Percent — Oct 15, 2011, 1:30 pm
    New Orleans Film Festival, Second Line Stages

Coverage by Democracy Now! of Troy Davis's case, the vigil at the prison on September 21, and the funeral in Savannah on October 1 can be found here. To learn more about the case, see "Where is the justice for me? The Case of Troy Davis, Facing Execution in Georgia."
Delia Labarre
October 5, 2011

New Orleans