Crackdown at Occupy New Orleans: Mayor Landrieu’s Peaceful Authoritarianism
A sign in Foley Square, November 17th 2011
Photo by Sarah Seltzer
Photo Credit: Sarah Seltzer
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In a press conference after the first crackdown of the Occupy NOLA encampment on December 6th, Mayor Mitch Landrieu congratulated himself on his efforts to avoid the violent confrontations seen in other cities. In a telling, if worrisome, illustration of how far the bar has been lowered, the mayor shared his confidence that he repressed protesters’ free speech rights in model fashion. He said: “I think this is an example to the rest of the country.” He also characterized the raid as “well-timed,” despite coming on the morning of a federal hearing to decide on a Temporary Restraining Order against the city. His disrespect for the pending court proceedings irritated the presiding judge, Jay Zainey, enough to rule in Occupy NOLA’s favor, thus prolonging the camp for one week. Nonetheless, the mayor ultimately got his way, as the movement lost its request for a preliminary injunction one week later, and moved out that night.
While no skulls were cracked or elderly women pepper-sprayed, there was no shortage of brazen behavior on the part of a mayor that has proven particularly smug in his treatment of Occupy. Meanwhile, the fact that he demanded congratulations for breaking camp “peacefully” demonstrates the increasingly authoritarian nature of the American political class.
The mayor did not use rubber bullets, instead opting to conceal his offensive in a cloud of connivance. Like other mayors throughout the country, he played the role of sympathetic “liberal” early on, as he visited the camp and pronounced his support for their first amendment rights. As recently as November 30th, mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni claimed that there were no plans to shut them down. In an email that day, he said: “We are closely monitoring the issue in Duncan Plaza and have been working with the group to keep the area safe while they exercise their first amendment rights. Public safety and public health are our priorities. There is no deadline at this time.”
However, the mayor pulled an about-face just forty-eight hours later, and invoked an immediate deadline. In a press conference at City Hall, Landrieu stated: “It is a violation of the law to be in Duncan Plaza from 10:30pm to 6:00am. It is unlawful for people to be in Duncan Plaza while they are storing equipment that includes tents, palettes, kitchen supplies or other items.” He also cited safety hazards related to open flames and the use of electrical equipment. While some of these concerns are reasonable, one must question the mayor’s authenticity given that he had the previous two months to relate them to protesters. He could have offered a compromise that allowed them to stay with restrictions on kitchen equipment and the use of electricity, instead of demanding a complete eviction.
This press conference was replete with deception. Firstly, he claimed that protesters “are aware they are in violation of the law.” This is despite the fact that he had yet to communicate such to the encampment. Meanwhile, the movement naturally questioned the legitimacy of any law restricting their right to remain on site. Secondly, he claimed that the encampment has encroached on the rights of others to peaceably assemble in the plaza: “There were a couple of other groups that had permits that had to be pulled because Occupy NOLA was using the space.” This statement is suspect, as permits for use of Duncan Plaza are generally not granted. Furthermore, the city has not responded to requests to provide proof of this claim. Thirdly, he said that giving protesters notice prior to closing camp is not required: that he was being especially conciliatory in so doing. This further demonstrates the mayor’s narrow grasp of the law, and his duty to make public space regulations clear prior to enforcement.
Landrieu’s warning touched off a tumultuous eleven-day scramble for the movement. In response to the press conference, Occupy NOLA assembled a legal team to take its cause to the courts. At a General Assembly (GA) the following Saturday, the group agreed to empower the lawyers to seek the aforementioned temporary restraining order (TRO) against the mayor, in order to stave off action until a decision could be reached on the longer-term process.
On Monday December 5th, the hearing for the TRO was booked for the following day. Meanwhile, the city agreed to wait for the results before breaking camp. At that night’s GA, legal rep Allison McCrary announced: “I have just spoken with (Police) Superintendant Serpas, and he told me they will not move tonight. You can sleep in peace.” However, the department would make no on-the-record statements. This naturally raised some suspicions, which would be confirmed when Landrieu’s army arrived in the early morning.
At 4:30am, 150 police officers roused protesters and informed them they had to leave. In the process, they destroyed thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including tents, cookware, and personal effects. In a statement afterward, Occupy NOLA attorney Davida Finger said the legal team witnessed this happening: “We watched all the belongings being thrown into trash trucks and (getting) ground up.”
The timing of the raid, hours before the TRO hearing, was viewed by protesters as particularly brash. Occupy NOLA’s lead attorney, the esteemed Loyola University professor Bill Quigley, told the court: “This has never happened in my thirty years of practice that one side argues we don’t need a TRO today because we are not going to move and then they move anyways.” Federal Judge Jay Zainey concurred: “I am not particularly happy that the mayor did this either.” In a visit to the encampment afterwards, Quigley told protesters that he believed the mayor’s trespass is what won Occupy NOLA the case: “If the mayor hadn’t acted, they probably would have given us 48 hours to vacate.” By disrespecting due process and the supremacy of the federal court system, the mayor lost round number one.
Unfortunately, this victory only bought the encampment another week. On Tuesday December 13th, Judge Lance Afrik denied Occupy NOLA’s motion for a preliminary injunction. While tents had to be taken down, protesters vowed to fight on. In a press release distributed after the judgment, they declared: “Today’s ruling in Federal Court will not nullify our efforts nor dissuade us from future action.” They note that the ubiquitous movement has refocused national attention on “issues of social and economic justice,” while also exposing “the grave unconstitutional patterns of violating citizens’ civil rights” throughout the country. They specifically single out the mayor for his egregious overstep in raiding camp on December 6th despite the pending federal court proceedings.
For his part, Landrieu offered no remorse after the initial camp closure. Instead he celebrated the execution of his decision. When asked by a reporter why he chose not to wait for the pending hearing on the TRO, he smugly replied: “why!?”
In response to the invasion of their camp, Occupy NOLA repaid the favor by taking the movement to Landrieu’s doorstep on Sunday December 11th. In a heavily patrolled picket before the mayor’s house, protesters laid out four demands, including compensation for personal belongings destroyed during the raid and respect for their right to peacefully assemble. They also demanded that charges be dropped against the one arrestee, and asked that the mayor begin to address the city’s homeless epidemic by opening up “the over 300 empty apartment-homes available in Iberville (a public housing facility).”
Homelessness has been a particularly prescient issue at Occupy NOLA, as there are nearly 10,000 people lacking permanent shelter in the greater New Orleans area. Throughout the duration of the camp, dozens of individuals were there with nowhere else to go. In the days leading up to the final eviction on December 13th, the city leaned on non-profit resources to aid the camp’s homeless population. Exodus House, a local shelter, helped service forty-three of these individuals. Their director, Donald Wilkerson, told the Gambit, a New Orleans weekly, "Mostly all the people, except eight, have been placed somewhere.” He emphasized that the majority of them were transferred to some form of temporary housing, but would be sent to “service providers who can help them get set up in permanent housing.” However, Occupy NOLA supporters say the city should not have to rely on the non-profit community. In a news conference Tuesday December 13th, Direct Action organizer Derrick Morrison said: “The mayor is doing nothing to provide permanent housing for the homeless people here. He is just re-shuffling the deck.” He suggested one potential solution: “This city is full of vacant buildings. Just across the street from the camp there is a hotel that never re-opened after Katrina. The city needs to seize that property and open it up for the homeless population.”
Homelessness is just one issue that Occupy NOLA has brought to public attention through its efforts. By creating the spectacle of an encampment, the movement has captured significant local media attention, thus stealing camera time away from the typical trivialities of corporate news. Even more than spectacle, mainstream media feeds on conflict, which the mayor manufactured through his brash actions in the final two weeks of camp. His demands for congratulations for repressing freedom of speech in peaceful fashion is the equivalent of a parent wanting thanks for not being abusive. It exposes the violent arrogance of the American political elite: the Charlatan class that has brutalized this movement from coast-to-coast. Elites resent that Occupy has elucidated the reality of the American nightmare: that 1 in 2 citizens now live in poverty. They see the movement as a mere nuisance: no different than a house fire. In their eyes, people are not meant to observe any narrative besides the one they dictate: the story of the powerful, where elections are an efficient arbiter of public opinion.
The local dictator wants congratulations for his tenderness. Instead, he should be admonished for disrespecting the democratic process. Not only did he insist on breaking up a peaceful protest, he showed up a federal judge in so doing. Meanwhile, he gratuitously trashed thousands of dollars worth of private property, much of it belonging to homeless people. As a “peaceful” authoritarian, he is not sufficiently different than his barbaric counterparts in Oakland and New York City. In deploying deception and foolhardiness rather than overt violence, he achieved the same ends as mayors throughout the country: stifling the free speech rights of the country’s most dynamic social movement in many years.