Perspective: Occupy New Orleans

Billy Sothern on why he supports the ongoing protest movement



After showing up for work at a Garden District coffee shop at 6 a.m. to work the morning shift a couple of Saturdays ago, my friend Sam shook off his midday fatigue and rode his bike to City Hall to march in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the march proceded through the French Quarter, some visitors to our city were displeased with this particular attraction, yelling "Get a job," to Sam, who, among the hundreds of others in attendance, was holding a "We Deserve Better" sign and chanting "We are the 99%."

The implication of the heckling — that people only complain about the system because they are too lazy to make it work for them — has been proved false in the past two months of Occupy protests. Here in New Orleans and at "occupations" around the country, all kinds of hard-working people have shown up to air their discontent with the current state of affairs. The past few years of un-natural disasters and economic collapse have made it plain that millions of people who play by the rules, go to school, work hard, buy a home and try to grab on to their small piece of the America Dream, have lost to powers and circumstances far beyond their control despite their efforts. Go ask shrimpers and oystermen along the Gulf Coast (how their livelihoods fared) after the BP spill, anyone who bought a house in 2007 before the market crash, a recent college graduate searching for a first real job, or someone who has tried to get health insurance after surviving cancer.

The modest suggestion that can be distilled from the Occupy protests is that these people who have lost are not losers and that they deserved better and got worse. And the next logical step in what appears to be the collective thinking of this leaderless group is that there are others who are responsible, who have enriched themselves at group members' expense, have created a rigged system that benefits them, their corporations, their friends and their families — and in the process co-opted a government that was supposed to promote the common good.

While that power may feel close in Zuccotti Park in New York City, where the Occupy Wall Street protest began and continues, Wall Street titans feel impossibly far away from Duncan Plaza, where Occupy New Orleans has its home. New Orleanians are used to seeing tents and people camping there since it was a village for the homeless for months following Hurricane Katrina. Now the homeless are joined there by young anarchists and other idealists. Some seem to believe the occupation is an end in itself, that they are modeling a new society where people are treated with dignity and equality which will, by force of its decency, overturn the existing order of contemporary life. Critics no doubt will continue to highlight the revolutionary aspirations of the scruffy though manifestly committed members of this movement in an effort to dismiss the entire protest. More conventional types who might otherwise support the movement's criticism of the intersection of wealth and power in this country might feel they don't have a place in a movement in which the group's name suggests that moving to a former homeless camp is the cost of admission. But as a lawyer who lives in a Lower Garden District home with an artist wife, a 2-year-old daughter, my cousin and a miniature dachshund, for whom outdoor living is both undesirable and untenable, I maintain that the two-month residency of occupiers around the country is important and necessary to raise issues of wealth inequality that I haven't seen discussed this much in my lifetime (including during the moments following Hurricane Katrina, when blatant inequality seemed to be treated as a New Orleans problem). I also believe the viability of the movement — including steps that might limit or contain the corruption that it describes — will require the support of lawyers, baristas, artists and other people who are not overt radicals but can imagine a fairer, more just world without a complete overturning of the American way of life.Thinking of the occupiers at City Hall and all over the world, as well as all of us who might join them, I taped to my front door a sign that I got at Occupy New Orleans. In big, red letters it reads, "Occupy Yourself." In that state of mind, I passed through that same door the following morning, with a small "99%" button on my lapel, which was given to me by the occupiers. I went to a courthouse, where I proceeded with my daily work — my own, small occupation — standing next to and up for people the government wants to throw in prison or kill.

Billy Sothern is a criminal defense attorney and the author of Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City.

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