Occupy NOLA lives to see another week, after securing a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the City of New Orleans in federal court Tuesday. This victory capped a five-day scramble that started when Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered protesters to clean up camp immediately beginning Friday afternoon. He told reporters at a press conference: “I am asking them to leave right now. Any time after this may see enforcement.” In response, the vast majority of the camp stayed true to the promise that “this occupation is not leaving.” Meanwhile, the National Lawyers Guild assembled a legal team to take the movement’s cause to the courts. The heroic group of lawyers led by Bill Quigley visited the site at Duncan Plaza Saturday evening to advise on potential legal avenues. During that General Assembly, Occupy NOLA agreed to seek the TRO against the mayor. However, spirits were visibly low. Given the failure of the judicial system to defend the fundamental 1st amendment rights of Occupy protesters in virtually every other American city, the battle appeared hopeless at the outset. Nonetheless, a few surprising turns later and they emerge victorious over a mayor that has been uniquely devious throughout the life of Occupy NOLA.
The legal score came just twelve hours after the mayor ordered a pre-dawn raid of the camp, in which thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including tents, cookware, and personal effects, were destroyed. In a statement after the proceeding, Occupy NOLA attorney Davida Finger said the legal team witnessed this happening: “We watched all the belongings being thrown into trash trucks and (getting) ground up.” The timing of the raid on the morning of the court case was an act of executive trespass that Quigley said he has never seen in his long career: “This has never happened in my thirty years of practice that one side argues we don’t need a TRO today because we are not going to move and then they move anyways.”
Fortunately, the outrage at this singularly disgraceful act was not limited to protesters. The federal judge assigned to the case, Jay Zainey, was also not pleased about the mayor disrespecting the pending federal procedure. He responded to Quigley’s statement by saying: “I am not particularly happy that the mayor did this either.” In a visit to the encampment afterwards, Quigley told protesters that he believed the mayor’s overstep is what won Occupy NOLA the case: “If the mayor hadn’t acted, they probably would have given us 48 hours to vacate.” Mayor Landrieu, known as “Mini Moon” by critics (in reference to father Moon, former mayor himself), shot himself in the foot with his wanton act of aggression.
He did not use rubber bullets, instead opting to conceal his offensive in a cloud of connivance. Like other mayors throughout the country, he played the role of sympathetic “liberal” early on, as he visited the camp and pronounced his support for their first amendment rights. However, suspicions were raised when dozens of new faces joined Occupy in late October, after being displaced from a “homeless encampment” beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway at Calliope Street. While the movement has steadily been open to those with nowhere else to go, a large inundation of society’s most vulnerable has proven to be an overwhelming burden for an encampment that lacks the necessary resources, including medical and psychiatric care.
Whether or not the city intentionally diverted the Calliope “refugees” to Occupy NOLA or not, their presence at the camp has served to refocus local attention on the continued crisis in housing. New Orleans, continues to suffer from an acute homeless epidemic, six years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city’s housing stock. There are currently 10,000 people lacking permanent shelter, according to data provided by UNITY, a local homeless non-profit. Much of this stems from city officials using the storm’s devastation as cover to engage in a historic privatization bonanza, which saw four reparable public housing facilities razed. Meanwhile, 40,000 houses remain battered and vacant, and the current administration has elucidated no plan to rehabilitate them. Instead, the mayor has just issued a “10 year plan to end homelessness,” which leans heavily on an already-tapped non-profit community, and is short on any concrete explanation of how the current bed shortage is going to be addressed.
While the city denies malicious intent in its closing of the Calliope camp, there is no denying their recent machinations. Just two days before his Friday closure announcement, mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni claimed that there were still no plans to shut down Occupy NOLA. In an email to me, he said: “We are closely monitoring the issue in Duncan Plaza and have been working with the group to keep the area safe while they exercise their first amendment rights. Public safety and public health are our priorities. There is no deadline at this time.” Less than 48 hours later, Landrieu pulls an about-face and invokes an immediate deadline. In so doing, he said: “It is a violation of the law to be in Duncan Plaza from 10:30pm to 6:00am. It is unlawful for people to be in Duncan Plaza while they are storing equipment that includes tents, palettes, kitchen supplies or other items.”
This press conference was replete with lies and deception. Firstly, he said that protesters “are aware they are in violation of the law.” This is despite the fact that he had yet to communicate such to the encampment. Meanwhile, the movement naturally questions the legitimacy of any law restricting their right to remain on site. Secondly, he claims that the encampment has encroached on the rights of others to peaceably assemble in the plaza: “There were a couple of other groups that had permits that had to be pulled because Occupy NOLA was using the space.” This statement is ludicrous, as permits for use of Duncan Plaza are generally not granted. Furthermore, the city has not responded to requests to provide proof of this claim. Thirdly, he says that giving protesters notice prior to closing camp is not required: that he is being especially conciliatory in so doing. This further demonstrates the mayor’s narrow grasp of the law, and his duty to make public space regulations clear prior to enforcement. Fourthly, he tells the public that the park’s homeless population will all be provided some form of shelter. In reality, the administration shipped a few dozen homeless individuals off to Exodus House, a local shelter, where director Donald Wilkerson describes available services as such: “It’s probably not going to be a lot of housing. It’s going to be a lot of services. Housing might be available for some people. That’s the end goal. But we’ve got to get that other stuff out of the way.” Many of these individuals will wind up back at Occupy NOLA, which slowly reassembled late Tuesday after word spread of Judge Zainey’s decision.
The camp is now required to play by new rules, including a ban on “open flames,” “animals” and “weapons.” Meanwhile, the gazebo that often housed GA’s is now fenced off. The protesters will also be required to provide their own port-a-lets, which Mr. Quigley arranged for them. As part of his heroics, he also arranged for donors to put up the necessary $5,000 bond.
Through the day Wednesday, the park will begin to resemble the full-fledged Occupy encampment, if only for another six days. Next week, the lawyers will attempt to extend the restraining order indefinitely, as the case gets passed over to Judge Lance Afrik. Attorney Davida Finger warns that Occupy NOLA still faces an “uphill battle.” However, the contest already won is quite significant. Few other Occupy camps have victored in court, with only Occupy Nashville also securing a TRO. The movement needed a little help from a mayor that was ready to encroach on the hallowed domain of a federal judge. With that and a dynamic legal team at their disposal, Occupy NOLA schooled Mini Moon in court on Tuesday.