Oct 7, 2011 by

I wanted to go to the Occupy New Orleans march yesterday out of sheer curiosity.

There’s been a catch-all aspect to the various occupations all over the country: so many grievances seem to have been brought under the same umbrella in an attempt to get some serious consciousness-raising going

Sal Cioffi and Randy Otero are union electricians from Local 3 of the IBEW in New York. They’re working on the Freedom Tower a few blocks over in lower Manhattan. Over the past couple of days, they’ve taken to having their lunch in Zuccotti Park, in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street protesters who have set up camp here. The event has grown sufficiently that it’s now attracted almost as many food trucks and mobile falafel units as it has television-news trucks, so there’s always some place for Sal and Randy to buy lunch. So they park themselves on the stone bench, put their hard hats on the ground and, almost organically, they become part of the event.
“We’ve had demonstrations, and it never makes the news,” says Sal. “We could have 10,000 workers demonstrating, and it won’t make the news. At least, something like this, they get the publicity.”

“We had a rally for the workers, two months ago, and we marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, and there were people crossing that bridge for an hour-and-a-half, and it didn’t hit the news,” Randy adds. “All organized labor, no press coverage whatsoever.

“Now, this here, they’re not leaving, so the media has to cover it. And it’s very close to Ground Zero, and once the police get involved, they have to cover it.”

“They’re waiting for someone to do something wrong,” Sal says.

What the two of them have found for themselves, here amid the guitars and the drums, and the indistinguishable forms shifting in their sleeping bags against the advancing autumn chill, is a public space for ideas. If the primary criticism of the ongoing demonstrations is that they seem to lack, as a hundred media reports have put it, “a cohesive public message,” that is also one of their great strengths. This is a very loud and clear yawp against the irresponsible use of power by unaccountable institutions, including, increasingly, the government itself. The protests here are omni-directional. They appear inchoate because their target is so diffuse — an accelerating sense in the country that there is no pea under any of the shells, that the red Jack is not in the deck, that the wealth of the country is being swindled and gambled and frittered away by so many people in so many ways that to sharpen the focus on one of the long cons is to let a dozen others reach fruition. This is a protest about declining wages and corporate greed, about baroque financial schemes and the unfathomable fine print on the back of your credit-card statement, about a grand critique of mutated capitalism and outrage at the simple tragedy of foreclosure fraud. So, for today, Sal and Randy are sitting on the stone bench and talking about the life of a union electrician in New York City in 2011 and, in what they say, there is the shadow of all these other things, waiting for one slip, one accident, one missed paycheck. Except for the very few, economic survival in America is a fragile, perilous journey over an increasingly narrow road. That’s the cohesive public message here in the park, if you can see past all the dreadlocks and hear it over the drum circles, which most of the mainstream coverage of this event has been sadly unable to do.

“We have 200 guys out [of work] now,” Sal explains. “There’s a 60-week wait now if you get laid off today. That’s the wait now, but the wait’s going to get longer because it always does. The 70’s were bad — the late 70’s — but this is worse. Sorry to say it but, if that didn’t happen down here — 9/11 — we’d have had a lot more people out of work.”

…and yet…I am still on the fence about this beginning, not the least because the aspect of “waiting for someone to do something wrong” was pretty strong with the New Orleans grouping throughout the marching and the gathering. There were signs – and chants – demanding that NOPD chief Ronal Serpas be fired, that we take back our streets from crimes of all sorts, that Mitch Landrieu be canned, all of those voiced grievances being filmed by the police at Tulane and Broad.

To be sure, there were more than enough cameras all around, and not just from the media arrayed to cover the day’s events. So much of Occupy New Orleans’ beginnings seem to have been made for the cameras, backed by the gorgeous weather and the barrenness of the land that is being remade for the LSU/VA hospital complex that served as the backdrop for the march to Lafayette Square. I spoke to Jason, who asked me to test if the livestream he was charged with making was working, about why he was doing Occupy NOLA, and he mentioned being inspired by the livestreams of Occupy Wall Street, which he’d been watching since the second day of that assembly.

As the crowd neared the CBD, chants reflected anger at corporations and a desire to “end the Fed.” There seemed to be a “pass the megaphone” aspect once the crowd got to the foot of Lafayette’s statue, and the strange metaphors coming from the squawking instrument made me wonder if the Occupy NOLA organizers should have taken some cues from the “human microphone” at Wall Street, despite its creepy effect. Judging from the tweets, the Occupy NOLA folks now camping at Duncan Plaza currently seem to be doing the things many charitable organizations around New Orleans are doing, except on their own terms.

So, fine. We’re mad as hell at the corporations and at our justice system, that’s for certain, but I haven’t seen much cohesiveness in New Orleans – or in any other city on the occupied track – beyond that, not even a true leader or a serious set of demands. There are, at the most, stories and more stories….but not too much to distinguish this uprising from the Tea Party stuff, other than no backing from the right-wing and a generally lower average age among the protesters. Hell, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote these stories years ago.

Thing is, though, these stories are a hell of a start. Especially with regards to looking realistically at what the failures of our health care system are doing to our families. Not to mention the cost of living outpacing workers’ wages. Those are two big ones right there. Predicating promotions and higher pay on advanced degrees simply adds a form of indentured servitude (in the guise of the repayment of student loans) atop those two hard facts in this country today. John Prine sang about your American flag decal not getting you into heaven anymore; these days, he could just as easily sing about your degrees not guaranteeing you a damn thing anymore. Too much working, not enough time to spend with our own family members…forget about starting a family, even. Your ass is in hock to your debts. Why be alive?

Isn’t that, really, what all this boils down to?

Guess that’s why, deep down, despite my misgivings about this latest round of protests, I don’t really want to see all of this fail.


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