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.