October 6th: Report from Occupy NOLA
by Elizabeth Cook
Over 100 folks turned out at the beginning of the march at Tulane and Broad, to protest the prison planet that New Orleans, and Louisiana has become. New Orleans, with double the national average of incarceration, and Louisiana with the highest incarceration rate in the nation, made Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) an excellent starting point to expose the underbelly of the capitalist system.
Sheriff’s department staff were out and watching with curiosity. I shouted to one group of staff as I walked to the march that Sheriff Gusman allowed people to drown in OPP after Katrina. This is a coverup that has never been exposed adequately. In the course of my activism after Katrina, I ran into many former OPP prisoners who witnessed drownings during the chaos of Katrina in OPP.
Some chants revolved around shutting down our school to prison pipeline system. Many more chants called for the rich to pay, and abolish the Federal Reserve. Personally speaking, the abolish the Federal Reserve folks, out in full force, got a bit annoying. More on that later.
Several African American activists helped lead the chants in a spirited manner, including Malcolm Suber, Sharon Jasper and her two daughters, Kawana and Shannon, Reverend Brown, Leon, and Sam Jackson. Suddenly Sam and Reverend Brown led the marchers onto the street, and it began. I followed in my truck so that I could ride folks who couldn’t march. As we turned onto Basin Street from Tulane Ave., I noticed that it took several minutes for the marchers to make that turn. The crowd had swelled impressively. I later estimated the crowd to be around 500 folks.
Once in Lafayette Square, marchers occupied the statue of Lafayette there and began handing around a bullhorn for folks to speak. A couple of folks who want to abolish the Fed tried to hog the bullhorn a bit but got shouted down eventually. Some of them declared themselves as Ron Paul supporters, and behaved as expected, with a bit of fanaticism evident. They got roundly booed when Ron Paul’s name was brought up. In my view, abolishing the Federal Reserve as an antidote to our nation’s ills just isn’t enough.
One of those same protesters tried to shut Sharon Jasper down at OPP when she tried to bring up affordable housing issues. New Orleans has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, since Katrina. Sharon brushed her off of course. Ron Paul’s shrinking government message is not the answer to our problems, and this country’s problems, btw, didn’t start with the creation of the Federal Reserve. Once the abolish the Reserve, you still have a cadre of politicians in Washington D.C. sold out to corporate interests.
Students spoke about mounting debt, which prompted a great deal of cheering from these young protesters. I would say the average ages of the protesters favored the youth. Many spoke of corruption in the financial industry, and the need to keep this movement rolling. Spirited debates in the crowd broke out here and there.
I happened to be standing at the base of the monument to Lafayette, near some of the old guard who obviously were advocating reform of the capitalist system, and near a crowd of young anarchists who successfully shouted down and led a chant against the message of “voting” as a form of protest. Their point was that the electoral system is completely compromised by capitalism, and voting is not going to solve our problems at this point. I have to say I completely agree with them.
One older man began chanting, “tax the rich, tax, the rich, at which time I started chanting “eat the rich, eat the rich”, and then a young woman joined in and chanted “snatch the rich, snatch the rich”. It was a bit playful that way. An older woman standing near me preached about the need to vote, that if you don’t vote, you won’t be seen or heard. I interjected, vote for whom, which sold-out party or politician do we vote for? The young anarchists were in complete agreement.
I think that debate hinted at a broader division in the Occupy Wall Street movement that is flying below radar, which is probably a good thing at this point. The utilization of consensus building in the occupation gatherings, gives folks of disparate views an opportunity to work together on projects. Clearly though, there is the camp of we can reform capitalism, and there is the camp of we need to oust capitalism and create a different form of self-governing system that isn’t necessarily a representative form of government, but more related to direct democracy.
These disparate groups have largely stayed clear of each other, but are now coming together realizing of course, that we can’t ignore each other any longer. These encampments give the groups a chance to learn to work together on common goals, leaving aside differences for the moment. The differences aren’t going to go away though.
Anarchists, college students, middle age activists like myself, mostly young though, attended an assembly at Duncan Plaza next to City Hall at 6pm. Duncan Plaza was the scene of a homeless occupation for several months in 2007, before being disbanded by police on the day the New Orleans City Council voted to demolish public housing, after violent rejections and abuse of protesters in and outside of that meeting.
We are returning to our contemporary activist roots by setting up in Duncan Plaza. I heard a news report this morning that stated the NOPD will allow protesters to camp there, for now.
About 150 people were in attendance; it was an impressive turnout. I spoke to a couple of women who had already moved out there with the intention of encamping. I also spoke to a college student from LSU who intended to sleep out there the first night.
The meeting utilized the techniques developed in New York for running meetings without a bullhorn, mic checks, hard blocks etc. The meeting kind of got bogged down with disagreements over process, consensus, the definition of nonviolence, etc. One young man suggested that rule by majority vote actually allowed for a platform that tolerated more forms of dissent within the group, which I found to be a fascinating analysis.
Frustration at the slowness of the meeting and coming to consensus agreement was expressed, and one wonders how long the consensus model will last. Nevertheless, these discussion offer an opportunity for folks to get to know each other, exercise their own thought processes within a group, and learn what it means to function in a community such as this.
I think the difficulties in communication have an opportunity to bond people, if they stick it out to work it out. There will be growing pains, and hopefully folks won’t be discouraged by this. As one young woman said, the Arab Spring is changing into America’s Fall. It’s about time.
I couldn’t stay for the entire meeting, but I suspect there will be a meeting each night at Duncan Plaza, probably at 6pm, as long as the encampment remains.
Note: This is my personal report, replete with my personal, political views. I know others may have alternative takes on the event, and it would be great to hear your views. — Elizabeth (firstname.lastname@example.org)