What ended up happening in Duncan Plaza at 12:05 a.m. today turned out to be theater, and really it was bad theater. We in the media didn’t get the brutal mass arrests we wanted. We only got two people in handcuffs: Mike Raso and David Dantonio, one of whom — Raso — wasn’t even put into a police car.
Raso, wisely and at the urging of fellow occupier Nadra Enzi, aka Capt. Black, founder of the group Good Citizens for Good Cops, accepted New Orleans Police Commander J.D. Thomas’ offer to go home with a court summons rather than go to Orleans Parish Prison. Raso should be grateful to Enzi today.
(Dantonio, on the other hand, doesn't have a local address and was therefore ineligible for the same deal. He was driven off in a police car but never booked. Officers ultimately took him to a hospital for treatment of a pre-existing hand injury.)
Raso’s decision was despite day-long proclamations — which he gave, along with his full life story, to every media outlet in town — that he was willing and able to brave OPP. “I’m a constitutional criminal!” Raso yelled sitting in a chair atop a hill (really) and waving his arms in the air (again, really) as 10:30, park closing time, rolled around. To be fair to Raso, a lot of this self-aggrandizement can probably be put down to nerves. So can the chair. He was trembling at times. He really didn’t want to go to jail.
(More, including videos of last night's police action, after the jump)
The police operation, if that’s what you’d call it, was commendably civilized. Friendly even. Before police drove away, Thomas shook hands with Raso and a small group of his fellow protesters who were still lingering just outside the park. Thomas repeatedly told the group that he respected them for fighting for their beliefs.
The final eviction of Occupy New Orleans won’t gain the national notoriety of New York or Portland or other cities where police officers (from departments with better reputations than the NOPD) seemed almost gleeful at getting their chance to crack hippie skull.
But that doesn’t mean that what happened in Duncan Plaza this past week or the two-month-long occupation preceding it, wasn’t important. It is, and not (or at least not only) because of the sort of abstract, dinner-conversationey First Amendment issues — whether the protesters had a right to camp there forever, whether that is or should be considered protected speech.
Occupy in general is a story about income inequality, corporate ethics and influence in government, all of those things to which it’s diligently managed to, finally, draw our attention. Occupy New Orleans and the people in it, however, touched on major problems (maybe all of them except, happily, the murder rate) specific to this city. It’s a City Hall story, meaning local government and what it can and should be doing, not the actual location of the encampment.
The very presence of the occupation, of course, necessarily drew attention to the city’s persistent homelessness problem. Organizers at Duncan Plaza had — throughout the occupation — prepared meals, purchased tents and provided very basic medical care to its most vulnerable residents.
“We’re doing the city’s work for them,” protester Derrick Morrison is fond of saying. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has, of course, recently announced an ambitious 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.
Not for nothing were long-time local activists like Morrison, who before this was a major player in the movement to save Charity Hospital, involved with Occupy New Orleans.
Protesters in the larger Occupy movement have often called for improved social safety nets for the poor and an end to the massive transformation, reform, privatization (or whatever you want to call it depending on your politics) of the public sector. See also W.C. Johnson, who, among other things, has for the past several months been painstakingly documenting and fighting in the ongoing battle between city employees and the Civil Service Commission over Landrieu-administration-supported civil service rules changes. Landrieu and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin argue that the proposals will make City Hall more efficient. Johnson, along with Randolph Scott and others, say they will undermine vital worker protections.
Then there’s the local criminal justice system. Why were so few protesters arrested? Why did so few people defy the city as they have elsewhere? In some cases, it was because the city had arranged to put them into shelters. In others, it was because they were too scared to end up in OPP.
On Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 5 a.m., protesters claim that two NOPD officers came into the park, flashing their lights and threatening arrest — telling the group it was in violation of its 7-day temporary restraining order allowing a round-the-clock occupation, granted by U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey last week. The TRO didn’t actually expire until 10:30 p.m. City officials acknowledge that police were there. They were reportedly responding to complaints that occupiers were running a generator and using extension cords — violations of the court order. Plus, it’s on video. But they deny that officers told occupiers they had to leave.
Following that incident, and leading up to the sort-of-not-really arrests, New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson visited the camp twice to monitor the police and speak to the group.
"We want to get every single complaint we can from you about what went down," she said. Later, she told Gambit that she was there, as well, on a department-wide fact-finding mission. She said she was at the camp to take notes on NOPD’s treatment of and policies for dealing with non-violent civil disobedience.
A week before, police evicted the camp in a much larger action, even as the TRO was pending in federal court.
Attorneys for Occupy New Orleans claim that on Monday, Dec. 5, the night before the raid, they received assurances from City Attorney Richard Cortizas that police would not be evicting the park until after a Tuesday, Dec. 6 hearing on the TRO. The city acknowledges that there was a conversation but denies any such assurances were made.
As one justification for the action, City officials repeatedly cited health and safety violations in the park during the encampment, and those are not difficult to verify.
Another was that groups, some with permits, had been denied use of the park. Asked last week to name them, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni offered this:
“There have been a number of requests and also city employees and other citizens who work in the area often visit the park at lunchtime and have been unable to do so.”
Yet another was the cost of the occupation, which city officials claimed, in a Dec. 6 statement, was “well over $50,000.” (Occupy New Orleans attorney Miles Swanson says he plans to file a public information request detailing all costs.)
The week before, the only cost cited by Landrieu was “nearly $1,000 per week” (or about $8,000) to maintain four portable toilets. Berni later clarified, saying that the city-initiated action itself — the police eviction and clean-up — represented the vast bulk of that total cost.
Then there was the action itself. Police gave occupiers 30 minutes to get out of the park. If they were unable to do that, their belongings were thrown away. (The group’s attorneys are planning on filing a civil damages lawsuit against the city for this loss, potentially at a greater cost to the city.)
Asked for details on the action, including why the city destroyed the occupiers’ belongings instead of retaining them, Berni offered the following last week:
“Mayor Landrieu asked the ‘campers’ to come into voluntary compliance immediately on Friday afternoon. The NOPD passed out nearly 500 fliers warning of violations of the law and impending enforcement over the course of 4 days. In addition, NOPD gave approximately 30 minutes for campers to remove themselves and their belongings from the park prior to any enforcement action.”
But he didn’t answer why the city threw the campers’ belongings out.
Anyway, here’s some videos of people getting handcuffed: