They gathered at noon at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street. Men and women on foot and on bikes, with children in arms, with cameras and camcorders, signs and banners. They mustered under the towering façade that reads "the impartial adminstration of justice is the foundation of liberty." They marched from the Orleans Parish Criminal Court, where four of the "Danziger Seven" were charged with murder and attempted murder. The crowd moved downtown along Tulane Avenue, past the crumbling remnants of the Dixie Brewery, through water from two fractured sewers, past vacant lots and demolition, office buildings and construction. Some hissed and booed the police, but most chanted along with the cantor, slogans from "Capitalism must go" to iterations of "What do we want/when do we want it."
Some 400 marchers joined "Occupy NOLA" yesterday, a solidarity march in the spirit of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations that have been going on these last three weeks. The crowd was comprised mostly of twenty-and-thirty-somethings, but rather diverse nonetheless. Westbound cars honked in solidarity while motorists trying to turn onto Tulane from the south glared in frustration. The marchers were bouyant, even joyful; besides that (very limited) booing at the beginning of the march, they were respectful and calm. But the nature of the march itself is still bewildering.
Reactions to the protest have run the gamut from enthusiastic support to mocking derision. It's unclear whether the movement is an earnest attempt at political participation, or an attention-grubbing political temper tantrum from underemployed trustafarians.
Well, as it turns out, it was neither – at least, not definitively.
Occupy NOLA has no set agenda, no visible organizational structure, no list of demands. It dawned on me that it is best defined not by what it is, but what it is not.
Occupy NOLA is not simply a reiteration of Occupy Wall Street because the presence of large corporations in New Orleans is minimal. Which is not to say that corporate scruples are better or worse in New Orleans. But money markets are not the financial engine that drives the city. However, big banks are definitely on some people's minds. "They've got to be regulated better," Burton Mayeux, an older marcher, told me. "It's time to speak out against corporate greed." He added that he was frustrated by partisan political battles in Washington that were distracting Congress from what he saw as an unregulated, predatory corporate banking behemoth.
Occupy NOLA was not a parade, although at times, it felt like one. (The marchers made it all the way to South Claiborne Avenue before I smelled marijuana smoke.) A 55-year-old tourist from Tampa who identified himself only as Wayne pumped a Saints umbrella in the air and told me that he'd held over his trip home to participate in the march. "This is the most important thing I could do while I was here," he said. He added that "if we don't participate in our democracy, we will lose it."
Occupy NOLA is certainly not a reiteration of the first occupation of Duncan Plaza. The group has invoked the rhetoric of Homeless Pride, an organization of residents of a tent city that was bulldozed out of Duncan Plaza in 2008. A veteran of that expulsion warned the Occupiers, once they had settled in at the Plaza for the evening, that the police "would use any excuse" to arrest them. But these protestors aren't sitting in because they're homeless and have nowhere to go; they're sitting in for – hey, just why the hell are they sitting in?
That's the first troubling ambiguity of Occupy NOLA. The second is that they proclaimed in a written statement on Tuesday to have no leaders and no spokespeople, but as Leila, a member of their "press team," clarified, there is a group of 40 or so who organized the permits and collaborated on the press release – but that "none of the organizers are authorized to speak on behalf of the group."
Okay, I get it. They want to respect everyone's opinion. Or something. But when an organization (or whatever they are) professes opposition to a corporation, or a culture, or a political reality, or really anything, there needs to be a reason, some compelling factor. So far, it's just been a melee of "show up if you're pissed."
So is it just an excerise constitutional rights? A sort of "use it or lose it" movement, as Wayne from Tampa would say?
I decided to turn to the experts.
Dr. Celeste Lay, a professor of political science at Tulane, put it thus: "There is a lot of anger and frustration in American today, mostly due to the poor economy. When people are angry and frustrated, it is not uncommon for them to react with these emotions about an array of issues. It is unrealistic, in my opinion, to presume that people who have lost their jobs, are under water in their mortgages, and/or are generally struggling economically to have a completely coherent, focused message. They see that there is a lot to be angry about in politics today. To ask them to boil it down to one thing seems to miss the point of their anger and frustration."
Fair enough. But is that going to hurt their message, if they can figure out what it is?
"Given that marches are taking place across the country and the media attention to them is increasing, we should not ignore them or their potential impact on helping to set the agenda," said Lay. "The intial Tea Party marches began in much the same way and this movement has had a profound impact on American politics."
Dr. Daniel Lewis, who teaches political science at the University of New Orleans, puts the march in starker terms. "I'm skeptical about it having a direct effect; it will probably influence the [congressional and presidential] debates, but Congress is split right now, and there's not a lot that can get through in either the liberal or conservative direction." He added that the national legislature only began discussing the Occupiers on Wednesday.
And that might be what the Occupations really aren't – they aren't the Tea Party. No matter which side of the aisle people identify with, they are still pissed off at rampant unemployment, a floundering economy and their own perceptions of who is abusing who, and how, and they'll take their message to anyone who will listen.
What are your thoughts on Occupy NOLA/Occupy Wall Street?