“Occupy” Goes South for the Winter
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.
The obvious intent of the city is to provide small cover for its crackdown on the movement. Instead of launching rubber bullets a la Oakland, officials create thoroughly arbitrary rules, fail to provide due time for their implementation, and then prohibit re-entry based on violation of those illegitimate rules. Meanwhile, the remaining encampment, which numbers 40-60 according to Kenneth, is forced to sleep on the steps of City Hall sans tents. The city’s excuse, according to a memo from assistant city manager Michael McDonald, is that protesters have caused “damage to the turf, planting beds, and sprinkler system in several places, and need to take steps to preserve these areas from further damage.”
Given the unwelcome treatment at City Hall, it is no wonder Occupy Austin is keen on finding a new location. When protesters asked if there were any other parks they could use, the city replied with this bit of babble: “The City’s parks are for the use of all of the public, and permitted uses need to be consistent in order to be fair to all. Further, overnight use is regulated by the City Code. Therefore, we are unable to accommodate this request.” In other words, the city has no legal grounds for denying their request to camp in a city park, given that the law must conform to constitutional guarantees, so they just refuse without actually providing a coherent reason.
Next, Occupy Austin attempted to expand to the State Capitol grounds, only to see state authorities conjure up even more resistance. When 30 protesters arrived at the Capitol last week, troopers informed them that their presence would be limited to three hours per day. The officers cited regulations of the Texas State Preservation Board (TSPB), chaired by Gov. Rick Perry, which maintains the state capitol building as well as two other historic sites. In a quote issued at the time, occupier Ihor Gowda said, “There's no free-speech zone on the entire Capitol grounds, which we obviously find a little disturbing.” Like their counterparts in city government, state authorities have arbitrarily invented regulation to stifle free speech in an effort to discourage Occupy Austin. To date, it hasn’t worked, as the encampment endures on the steps of City Hall.
Likewise, Occupy Nashville sustains a riveting presence at Legislative Plaza. These protesters also came face to face with state authorities, which raided their encampment over a two-day period on October 28th-29th. The overnight raids came after providing only fourteen hours notice about new rules prohibiting an overnight presence. The eviction order was issued by Bill Gibbons, Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, who defended the action by saying: ““We don’t have the resources to go out and, in effect, babysit protesters 24/7.”
During the raids, 55 people were arrested, only to find a surprising ally in the night court magistrate, Tom Nelson, who refused to sign the warrants. He explained: “Fourteen hours is woefully inadequate time within which to allow the group an opportunity to comply with the newly enacted rules, regulations, curfew and permit requirements.” He also pointed out: “It is of particular consternation that the rules and curfew were enacted after a protest movement and occupation of Legislative Plaza had been tolerated for just over 3 weeks, with no notice that the group members were involved in criminal activity.”
Nelson’s defiance is a notable act of courage and principle. Dozens of cities throughout the country have evaded constitutional restraint in trampling on first amendment rights, often violently, with hardly a peep of resistance from anyone of note in a position of power. In New York, Oakland, Chicago, Philly and Los Angeles, civic leaders failed to blow the whistle in defense of the United States Constitution. Instead, this happened in the traditional south, in a solidly conservative state, albeit in a city that leans more left than its surroundings. Nonetheless, the issue should not be viewed politically, as this is merely a matter of a public servant dutifully upholding the rule of law. In so doing, Nelson also helped draw substantial local attention to the movement, whilst attracting several self-professed conservatives to the camp. One who joined prior to the crackdown is Matt Hammill, member of the media working group, who described himself to me as a conservative with “what many people would call libertarian leanings.” Nonetheless, he sees corporate power as the principal threat to functioning democracy. He described their encampment alongside the State Capitol, looking out on commercial downtown Nashville: “This is a powerful image, very symbolic to see these corporate logos dwarfing the Capitol building.” He says he is certainly not the only conservative in camp, as he could think of at least 5-6 others there at that moment. He emphasized that after the arrests, “a lot of conservatives stepped up, because a lot of them are free speech/ civil liberties types.”
When asked what stood out about Occupy Nashville, Hammill stated “We are one of the longest running occupations, as we have been here since October 6th continuously, except for when people were cleared out (by police), and we are the first one to have the ACLU successfully fight for a restraining order against a judge (to prevent further arrests).” He also had a message to those people from cities where encampments have been closed: “If you are looking for somewhere to go, Nashville’s got its doors open to you.”
Similar messages have been sent from Austin and New Orleans. The latter has already seen its share of “traveling kids” and visitors from other camps. It is also a city that typically takes on a heightened population through the winter months, as musicians and artists make their rounds, while revelers point towards Mardi Gras in late February. As Occupy NOLA organizer Derrick Morrison told me: “If we can hold out until Mardi Gras, this could get real big.”
For the moment, “Occupy” holds strong in these three culturally rich cities of the south: sharing the libertarian virtues of respect for free expression and tolerance for diversity of ideas. Occupy Nashville and Austin have been entrenched through the winning of legal battles, or at least positioning authorities into a state of relative stalemate. Occupy Nashville, in particular, seems unlikely to face eviction any time soon. The situation in New Orleans has suddenly taken a turn for the worst, but the Mayor's threats may prove to be empty. He does have a liberal image that he would like to guard, and unleashing the NOPD in on protesters would not help that image. The occupation of physical space remains significant, as it was this element of the movement that allowed it to burgeon and capture media attention. While the evacuated “Occupies” regroup and plan their resurgence in the spring, displaced protesters will likely continue to eye southern locations. Occupy the South is ready to take the baton and carry it into 2012.