Occupy, New Orleans, and the Vast Security State

By Elizabeth Cook

It is my belief that in order to understand where the occupy movement is headed, it is important to remind ourselves of where we’ve been these last several years. Here in New Orleans, we witnessed the imposition of disaster capitalism in the form of demolition of public and affordable housing after Katrina. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said there would be fewer black people in New Orleans after Katrina, and he set about to make it so by keeping most of the 5000 units of public housing closed. Iberville public housing residents, located next to the French Quarter, reopened their own development, and several hundred units, by returning on their own, cleaning their units, and living without electricity for a time. Activists and residents of public housing valiantly fought back against demolition plans for 2 years after Katrina. It was pepper spray, tasers and a vote by the city council to demolish, all occurring on December 20th, 2007, that finally ended the movement effectively. The council chambers were shut down before the seats were filled, keeping out activists, who staged a protest of their own and were pepper sprayed and tasered for their efforts; some were badly injured and tasered more than once. Inside council chambers, activists started a chant, “Let the people in”, and were violently evicted with the use of tasers. When I showed that video to a national blog, one person remarked, in so many words, “look at how valiantly you guys fought; this is our future.” Even then it was clear, at least to some, that we were headed for a showdown with the ruling class.

In the four years since that day, December 20th, 2007, New Orleans’ homeless rate has become one of the highest per capita in the nation, although an “accurate” account has not been taken in a number of years. It is known that Katrina has affected the rate of homelessness severely. New Orleanians spend a greater percentage on their rent than any other residents of a major American city. Policies implemented by Bush, and then continued by Obama, and implemented by local officials, have resulted in the growth of poverty and desperation in New Orleans. Some say we were a laboratory for privatization; I think perhaps though, in reality, we were catching up with the trends in the rest of the country, particularly the demolition of public housing. It’s just that it all was imposed so quickly after Katrina.

The homeless population is quite evident in the neighborhood surrounding the New Orleans Homeless Mission. Many folks have been camped on the sidewalks surrounding the mission where they could at least obtain meals from the mission, or brought in by churches. However, the Central City Neighborhood Association has made inroads in influencing the city to enforce various laws which resulted in a further scattering of homeless folks throughout the abandoned neighborhoods and properties in the city. A sizable encampment in the last two years emerged under the I-10 overpass next to the New Orleans Mission, but that was recently completely cleared to make way, it was said, for special events coming to New Orleans early next year, including the annual Sugar Bowl. We held a press conference with residents driven from under the overpass recently to garner attention to their plight, and several Occupy NOLA folks attended.

Many of the homeless ultimately wound up at Occupy NOLA, which has blossomed into scores of tents mostly inhabited by homeless folks. We all predicted this, given the extent of the issue here. Duncan Plaza, renamed by activists as Avery Alexander Plaza, is a large expanse of green space, made larger with the demolition of the state office building on the same lot, directly across from City Hall. Duncan Plaza was the home of a large encampment of homeless folks beginning in August of 2007 that endured for 5 months. The encampment was cleared by police on, yes, December 20th, 2007. It was an encampment supported by numerous public housing activists and residents. Daily meetings and meals were held there for strategizing. Public housing residents and activists recognized the importance of the availability of low income, affordable housing and its lack thereof, and its effect on the homeless in the city. When the encampment was cleared, many of the homeless moved under the I-10 East overpass along Claiborne Avenue in the shadow of the Superdome and by the old medical district that was virtually shuttered by the state, including the art deco Charity Hospital, after Katrina. Slowly, tents were seen sprawling and spilling out onto small vacant spaces across from the overpass as well. I met folks who lived in public housing prior to Katrina living there in tents, as well as folks who worked special events at the Superdome, including the annual Essence Festival.

The city finally cleared this space as well after several months. New Orleans is well versed in encampments, as there are literally thousands of them in any given night sleeping in the numerous abandoned buildings all across the city. Perhaps this “familiarity” with homeless encampments has imbued the city mayor and officials with a greater degree of tolerance for Occupy NOLA. The city initially was mostly tolerant and patient with the encampment. However, on Friday, December 2nd, Mayor Landrieu indicated that there will be an eviction of the camp in short order.

He carried out this threat in early morning hours on Tuesday, December  6th, in a raid in which there was one reported voluntary arrest. A homeless woman who has since returned to the encampment reported to me that she believes several other folks were arrested, but this has not been verified. While there was absent the violence directed towards protesters physically, the raid, as several folks described, was intimidating, authoritarian, and destructive of the personal property of occupiers. Several people have reported that they were awakened by a sweep of over 100 police, and told to “line up”. Some were able to grab personal belongings, but many lost everything. It is believed that the police purposefully set out to destroy personal property so as to insure that there would not be an attempted reoccupation. Many lost computers, cell phones, personal ID, personal papers, clothing, tents, blankets, and equipment that was being used to feed people.

Quite possibly Occupy NOLA had the largest homeless contingency of any occupation in the country. The presence of so many homeless folks brought with it special challenges to self-governance in the encampment. A split developed between homeless occupiers and non-camping occupiers/supporters. The encampment itself divided into tribal entities of campers, mostly homeless, each with differing ideologies, or so was expressed. Many distrusted the General Assembly Process, and so didn’t participate. I read of difficulties in organizing in other encampments due to large numbers of homeless folks. The Occupy movement must nevertheless find a way to encompass homeless folks and their issue into the movement. No one of the 99% should be left out due to inconvenience. Many more of the middle class are facing poverty and potential homelessness now, and the issue will likely explode in the coming years.

At this point, it is apparent that the police violence around the country directed towards peaceful occupiers and the shutting down of the occupation of public space is having a chilling effect on the growth of the movement. It is my belief that this pause in the growth may in fact be temporary, but it is difficult to ascertain at this point. Certainly, the need is there, and where there is need, action follows. What kind of action is the question. Cities could easily in the next couple of years deteriorate into chaotic drives for survival as unemployment is already predicted to remain high or grow.

The OWS movement inadvertently has shined a light on the vast security apparatus that has been carved out of the post 9/11 paranoia. Just a bit of research reveals that the militarization of the police was stepped up during Reagan’s expansive War on Drugs, and reinforced by a little known law in 1994 that allows the Pentagon to donate surplus weaponry to police departments. With the creation of Homeland Security, and the dispensing of DHS grants to county and state governments, the national security “interests” and apparatus are now embedded locally. It is no wonder that early on the crackdowns on OWS appeared coordinated. They were. With the existence of shadowy organizations like The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) that assisted with conference calls in November with mayors (PERF admits this on their web site) regarding OWS, it is difficult to not be suspicious of a wider coordination of the crackdown.  The PERF Board of Directors reads like a who’s who of police chiefs from around the country: Sacramento, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Toronto police chiefs and/or commissioners are on the board of PERF.

It is not a stretch to believe that Homeland Security is involved in the crackdown. Homeland security officials are embedded in every state, county and parish.  The national officials of Homeland Security need not take that much of a visible role in repression of the Occupy movement, although at this time it is not known just how much of a role national officials of DHS have played in this coordinated, violent repression. The state security apparatus is doing its job through thousand of local police departments, with grant funded training and militarization of thought, attitude, equipment and approach. We in OWS had no idea what we were walking into, as these past decades the security apparatus grew up right under our noses. I know many of us expected a degree of repression, but I’m not sure we expected the degree of violent and sadistic repression that this security apparatus is capable of, and apparently has the green light to engage in.

A quick view of the Advisory Council of the Department of Homeland Security reveals a who’s who of local and state leaders all across the nation. Raymond Kelly, Police Commissioner of New York is on the DHS Advisory Council, as are two current state governors, several security company CEOs, several members of the academic community, and significantly, Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of PERF. The lines between state (national) security concerns and local police have completely blurred so that we see Occupy protesters treated like dangerous criminals or terrorists. It is the gradual and complete criminalization of dissent in America that has been accomplished, yet again, in the last 30 years, since Reagan’s War on Drugs. We’ve seen this before of course. This is simply the modern, contemporary version of the criminalization of dissent.

The recent eviction of Occupy LA revealed violent and sadistic treatment of occupiers after their arrest that was not widely reported in the corporate media, but circulated extensively in alternative media. One particularly vivid account was written by a writer from the animated sitcom “Family Guy”, who participated in the occupation, and subsequent violent eviction by LAPD. He witnessed the purposeful physical torture of occupiers to get them to release their linked arms, and the use of the plastic cuffs as a torture device. He himself reported he may have suffered nerve damage in one hand from the plastic cuffs.

The Occupy movement is tasked with generating more widespread support in the face of violent, police crackdown. This will not be easy. On December 12th, two west coast ports were shut down for a time by Occupy protesters. While a significant victory, the numbers participating were down. In addition, widespread public acceptance of such actions just isn’t there yet. The Occupy movement must also battle corporate owned media’s skewed coverage, with very few exceptions. Somehow, the movement has been betrayed as violent, with corporate owned media successfully, for now, masking the extent of the coordinated, violent crackdown. Several well-known incidents such as the pepper spraying of UC Davis students have been widely broadcast, but a general, massive outcry against the violent crackdown of OWS has not yet occurred.

OWS would do well to consider taking on contemporary, immediate issues such as the Internet Censorship Bill, SOPA, and Defense Authorization Bill that would potentially disappear Americans into a Guantanamo like hell hole of no end. Taking on these issues and others that are immediate might actually win some battles for OWS. These are issues too that many Americans can identify with, whether they have participated in OWS or not. Ultimately, these issues would mean targeting the political class much more for protest, Republicans and Democrats alike. Occupying political offices is not really a strategy taken up yet by OWS, although an SEIU sponsored D.C. protest recently involved many OWS supporters, and involved temporary occupation of D.C. political offices. Occupying political offices, in D.C. and locally, in the name of defeating SOPA, for example, could have resonance for thousands of Americans. Ditto for the Defense Authorization Bill. These events could also serve in a sense as educational for those unaware of the ongoing and current erosion of civil rights in this country. It’s no guarantee of course, that the corporate media would cover the events, but the fact that both bills will be up for votes at least has the potential to bring the protests to the public eye. It may be too late to address these issues as I write, but certainly, a contemporary approach to current bills and events could garner more attention and support. For example, leases for oil drilling in the Gulf were opened December 14th, and mass protest of this event would have most definitely generated attention given also that several organizations have filed suit to block the leases.

OWS will have to play it smart to grow and recruit and be recognized as a movement representing the concerns of most Americans and worthy of support. The 99% chants and slogans and attacks on financial institutions have served the movement well early on, but specificity and focus could go a long way to broadening the movement at this point. Assisting homeowners and homeless folks to re-occupy and occupy homes is an important step to increasing the movement’s relevance and importance in defending Americans from outright fraud of major financial institutions. Occupy needs to not be afraid to make the demands that fit the bill, and the moment.

Recently, Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics published an article advising Occupy “How to Occupy the World”. Hickel advanced that Occupy was too provincial, “even Eurocentric”, that most of Occupy participants “simply want to reclaim decent, middle class lives”. Hickel, embedded in Occupy London, cannot speak for the American Occupy movement. There is a recognition here, in my view, among American occupiers and supporters, that this global system of capitalism is destroying the ecology of the planet, and rendering most into wage slavery. Yes, opportunities must be created to go global with the movement, but the ‘60’s saying “think globally, act locally” still applies. Occupy movements everywhere must be translated into local actions that reflect the core principles. The United States in its foreign policy of continuous war has demonstrated that there is nowhere more important to strengthen this movement than right here at home. Many of the most destructive international finance companies reside here; a strong Occupy movement has and can send a clear message to the world: we don’t approve of this and we want real change. The potential success of such a movement in America will have far-reaching ramifications for the entire world, and will inspire participation that will speak to the concerns of international communities.

Cherri Foytlin became a Gulf coast activist in the wake of the BP oil disaster. She ventured to the Gulf often to document and organize, and has seen been tested positive for the chemicals associated with the disaster in her bloodstream, as have thousands of others on the Gulf coast. Recently she spoke to Occupy NOLA, and encouraged everyone first and foremost to “occupy your mind”. Occupy has succeeded in breaking down barriers of public discourse and re-prioritizing public concerns.  Many who didn’t participate in even one Occupy protest have become more emboldened to speak directly about issues of concern, and evaluate the current political system more rigorously. My own parents, though avowed Democrats, cheered many of the protest events on the sideline, and were moved by the courage of the occupiers.

You might say many of us have been “occupying” and “re-occupying” our minds through these short few months since the birth of the Occupy movement.  Many of us dared breath life again into beliefs that had been mothballed: that the “ordinary” civilian could be a catalyst for the change needed in this country. For many of us who participated and/or watched the unfolding events of the last three months, Occupy put us back in touch with each other, refocusing our attention from the daily actions of the wealthy, spoiled political class to the thoughts and beliefs of those in communities across the country. For many of us, we liked what we saw and heard. Communities have been created that transcend space. Believing it possible for “ordinary” folks to exact real and positive change, to recreate the circumstances of our existence on this planet, is a gift of the Occupy movement. Making that gift a reality is the next step.

2 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Outcomes of OWS

2 responses to “Occupy, New Orleans, and the Vast Security State

  1. Pingback: Occu-Links 1/4/12 | OccupyNWA

  2. Pingback: Occu-Links 1/4/12 | Occupy News

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