After showing up at work at a Garden District coffee shop at six a.m. to work the morning shift a couple Saturdays ago, my friend Sam shook off his midday fatigue and rode his bike down to City Hall to march in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the march passed through the French Quarter, some visitors to our city were displeased with this particular attraction, yelling out, “Get a job,” to Sam, who, among the hundreds of others in attendance, was holding a “We Deserve Better” sign, 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 proven false in the past two months of Occupy protests. Indeed, both here in New Orleans and at “occupations” around the country, all kinds of hard working people have showed up to air their discontent at the current state of affairs. And, indeed, the past few years of unnatural disasters and economic collapse have made 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 little piece of the America and its dream, have lost to powers and circumstances far beyond their control in spite of their good efforts. Go ask shrimpers and oystermen along the Gulf Coast after the BP spill, anyone who bought a house in 2007 before the market crash, a recent college graduate searching for their 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 that are responsible, that have enriched themselves at their expense, and 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 maybe that power feels close in New York City, 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, as it was a homeless village for many months following Katrina. Now, the homeless are joined by young anarchists and other idealists. Some of them seem to believe that 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 decency, overturn the existing order of contemporary life. Critics of the movement will no doubt continue to highlight the revolutionary aspirations of the scruffy though manifestly committed members of this movement in seeking to dismiss the entire protest. And more conventional people who might otherwise support the movement’s criticism of the overwhelming intersection of wealth and power in this country might feel like they don’t have a place in a movement where the group’s name suggests that moving yourself and your family 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 two-year-old daughter, my cousin, and a miniature dachshund — as someone for whom outdoor living is both undesirable and entirely untenable — I maintain both that the two month residency of occupiers around the country was 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 here seemed to be treated as a New Orleans problem) and that the viability of the movement — including steps that might limit or contain the corruption that it describes — will require the support of lawyers, barristas, artists, and other people that are not overt radicals but who instead can imagine a fairer, more just world without a complete overturning of the American way of life.
Thinking of the occupiers down at City Hall and all over the world as well as all of us that might join with them, I taped a sign that I got at Occupy New Orleans to my front door. In big red letters it reads, “Occupy Your Life.” In that state of mind, I passed through that same door the following morning, with a small “99%” button on my lapel, which was also given to me by the occupiers. I went down to a courthouse where I went upon my daily work of representing people facing prison and the death penalty. My own occupation.