Friday, November 4, 2011

New Orleans: Occupied


Today, I spent my lunch hour at the local Occupy New Orleans encampment. The movement has established their tent city, perhaps more like a village, at Duncan Plaza, across the street from city hall. As a political philosopher and a sympathizer, I wanted to finally make way out to the front line as it has manifested here, to talk to some folks, find out what has motivated them, what they are doing, and talk about what challenges they are facing.

I was only there for an hour, but I walked through the entire camp. Being New Orleans, a city that we locals know for its apathy and cynicism, I didn't find myself surprised at the low turnout. In addition to the ones directly involved in the action, many homeless have camped out there since the NOPD cleared the homeless encampment from their camp under the overpass at Oretha Castle Haley and Calliope. I spoke to a few groups of people, some making signs, some picking up stakes to join the occupation on Wall Street, and some digging in and looking to stick it out here.

Thankfully, the consensus at the camp indicated little to no problems with the police. The dominant concern was actually internal dissent. For those who don't know or haven't been able to keep track, Occupy NOLA's online services were recently hijacked by an unscrupulous character looking to funnel donations into his personal account. Aspects of the argument are documented in comments at the now-fraudulent site here and at the new official site here.The latter site also contains listings of upcoming events and minutes from the General Assembly, so those interested in getting involved can get the relevant information there. The stage mentioned at what is still the top of the blog (the entry on November 3) was still under construction when I arrived, though word was moving through the camp that the police had informed them that the stage was illegal since they have no building permit. When I left, there was still discussion of how much to resist when or if the police followed through on a threat to tear down the stage if the occupiers did not take it down themselves.

Interestingly, media blackouts work in both directions. The local (mainstream) news sources here have essentially neglected any coverage of the occupation, and since other localities have followed suit, some of the occupiers had only scattered information about the situation elsewhere. I listened to some rumors and passed on some of my own. In addition to wanting news, the occupiers were very interested in learning from the larger and more successful movements. Those folks determined to go to New York expressed a wish to come back after a couple of weeks, in hopes of finding out how to make the local movement better organized and more successful.

One major concern was security. As I understand it, the police have essentially forbidden the occupiers from working security within the camp and handling problems internally. In essence, they have been told that they cannot kick anyone out of the camp or tell anyone to leave, even if the person has threatened or done violence. By the same token, the police are not especially interested in enforcing civil authority within the camp, so problematic individuals are essentially problems waiting to happen. Of course, the occupiers have organized security anyway in an effort to keep the peace. One of the guys who covers a night shift told me that a few fights were broken up the previous night, and he is essentially waiting for someone to be seriously injured or killed since that would provide the police with an excuse to clear the camp. These folks have been placed in a classic Catch-22, and I supposed it's only a matter of time before we find out how that dilemma plays out. Of course, I'd like to see Occupy NOLA slip right through the horns of that dilemma somehow, but only time will tell on that front.

The camp had an information booth, but the gentleman running it, whom some of the campers seemed to identify as a key organizer, was engaged in conversation, so I didn't speak to him directly. Among the booth's pamphlets and tracts was a dry-erase board with a list of needed items for the occupation. Not on that list was one essential thing: bodies. There really are not that many folks there, and they need more presence to fuel more activity, I urge locals to drop by and at least talk to some people, see what the movement is all about, and take an honest look at our economy, our government, and the things that drive them. One person expressed a wish to raise the profile of the camp. Being downtown, at the heard of the Central Business District, cars, bikes, and pedestrians pass by the camp all day and much of the night, yet many people just pass by and ignore the camp or honestly have no idea what is happening there. He thought the occupation needed some people to take positions and address people walking by, raise awareness, hand out information packets, and just get people's attention.

By and large, folks were working hard to encourage others to come by with a tent and at least spend a night at the encampment themselves. Here, I have to confront the hard economic realities. It is easy to do that when one is at the point of desperation that some people had reached. I, on the other hand, am working hard to make ends meet. I can't afford a tent, and I certainly can't drop out to join the movement without giving up what ground I do have. Nevertheless, I think this occupation, and the others, can be helped a great deal by people willing to show up, bring what they have, serve some function for a couple of hours, and then go back out to continue spreading the word. As an academic philosopher, I'm in the position to participate in scholarship, to address the demands and arguments of the movement in writing and spread the word that way. I can inform my students about the movement and encourage them to make their own decisions about involvement, as I have already done. There is a role for everyone to play, whether they are holding ground in a tent city, scraping by with a time-consuming job, or positioned within one of our society's many institutions (law, university, medicine). I honestly hope that something comes of this movement because things need to change for the better, and I mean soon.