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“Occupy” Goes South for the Winter

As encampment closings and cold weather drive occupiers south, cities like New Orleans, Austin, and Nashville are taking the protest baton. Will crackdowns follow?
 
 
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As northern cities have parlayed the cold weather onset with police crackdowns to vanquish “Occupy” encampments, and the west coast has seen authorities violently wreak havoc on the movement, Occupy protesters are looking for alternatives. It may seem a paradox that the left-leaning movement would find refuge in the traditionally conservative south, but the economic malaise that informs its birth has been particularly harsh on this already ravaged region of the country. Meanwhile, temperatures should be far more reasonable for maintaining camp through the winter months, despite a recent spate of snow and chilly temps post-Thanksgiving. So far, some southern authorities have been wary about repeating the violent crackdowns of other cities, while others have lost legal battles in attempts to evict encampments. In a surprising twist to some, the Occupy movement may be going south for the winter.

But recent activity suggests that New Orleans could be the flashpoint for the next wave of police repression. The oft-scandalous New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has navigated the issue very carefully thus far; keen on evading more of the adversity that came with the recent prosecution of five officers in the post-Katrina Danziger Bridge shootings of unarmed civilians that resulted in two deaths. Meanwhile, mayor Mitch Landrieu has mirrored the behavior of his counterparts in cities throughout the country: pretending to support the First Amendment rights of protestors, whilst presaging a coming crackdown with a statement Friday afternoon in which he said: “"I am asking them to leave right now. Any time after this may see enforcement. At some point in time, if they refuse to leave, I will initiate some action." (This statement was issued just two days after an email from Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni assured me that there was "no deadline." When asked what caused such a sudden and drastic change in posture, Berni refused to comment).

However, the camp is surely not leaving on its own. Few places know the role of the 1 percent in promulgating the plight of the 99 better than New Orleans. It was here that a stricken people was left for dead by incompetent federal authorities and then turned over to corporate vultures intent on depleting the already meek public sector. After Katrina, four of the most prominent public housing facilities were closed and replaced by mixed income housing developments. Meanwhile, the city’s cherished public hospital, Charity, was never re-opened. This is despite the fact that there are no “fundamental flaws that would impede the rehabilitation of Charity Hospital into a state-of-the-art modern facility,” according to Dr. George C. Skarmeas of RMJM Hiller, a respected architectural firm that carried out an assessment of the property. Rather than re-open Charity, the city is going to lean on an expansion of the Louisiana State University (LSU) medical center on adjacent ground, thus razing dozens of historic buildings in the Mid-City neighborhood.

One activist with “Save Charity Hospital” has also been integrally involved with Occupy NOLA. Derrick Morrison participates as part of the “Direct Action” working group, and helped organize a press conference on Nov. 30th to draw attention to crackdowns on Occupy encampments throughout the country, while also imploring the city to not do the same in New Orleans. When asked if he feared that the Mayor might have plans to move, he told me that he doubted it, given the controversial history of the NOPD and the “liberal image” the Mayor would like to uphold. “I don’t think Landrieu is going to pounce," he said. "And if he decided to close the camp, he will at least issue a week’s warning.” He also used the occasion to respond to the Mayor’s recent issue of a 10-year plan to combat homelessness in the city. “If he wants to deal with homelessness, he should come out and talk to people here. We have a number of homeless people here and many others that are working with them everyday.” For him, Occupy NOLA represents a continued effort to address the social justice deficit that came with the storm. “This city has not recovered from Katrina. We still have 40-50,000 abandoned houses. You take a drive all the way up Elysian Fields and see for yourself: rows and rows of abandoned houses.”

Few places in the country know quite the suffering that New Orleans has endured, though aggressive austerity measures have served to ravage other communities without Mother Nature’s assistance. As state and municipal governments have turned to shrinking the public sector in the wake of falling revenues caused by the financial crisis and inadequate post-crash federal stimulus, public employees from postal workers to teachers have paid the ultimate price. One such person is Pam Nicholas, a member of Occupy Austin’s media team, and recently laid-off teacher. She informs me that all of the city’s first year teachers were let go as part of Austin’s attempt to deal with the budget shortfall. However, she understands that the real issue was not the deficit, but something entirely different: “Our politicians are being bought and paid for.”

As with Occupy NOLA, the encampment continues in Austin, though not without police repression. Over the Halloween weekend, the city distributed a list of requirements of the protesters, including a ban on their food table as well as sleeping in tents on the lawn adjacent to City Hall. According to Kenneth Hoot, an active member of Occupy Austin’s media team, organizers told the city that they would respond to their demands by that Monday. Instead, police moved in Saturday and arrested 38 people for violating these rules. Furthermore, the arrestees are barred from re-entering the protest site. When Occupy reps requested relief from this draconian measure, the city replied as such:

The City is drafting a procedure that would allow a person to request the City to conduct an administrative review of a Criminal Trespass Notice that was issued to the person. That procedure is expected to be released this week. For now, a person who was issued a Criminal Trespass Notice by the City is not allowed on the property. When the procedure is adopted, a person who has been issued a Criminal Trespass Notice may request a review. The review process could result in a rescission, modification, or no change to the Criminal Trespass Notice, based on factors that will be set out in the procedure.