What the Occupy Movement Can Learn From a New Orleans Subculture


The parade next entered Bywater, which is part of the city's 9th Ward. Land in the Bywater district is slightly elevated by the natural levee formed by the Mississippi. "The Sliver by the River" was largely spared the deluge that washed out the areas nearby during Hurricane Katrina. Walking around Bywater earlier, I'd noticed galleries and art spaces and some new houses and cafes, the shiny paraphernalia of gentrification.

At the corner of Press and Royal, I came across a historical marker near the train tracks where Eris had launched each year until the raid. The sign marked the 1892 site where Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black shoemaker from Treme, was removed from a "whites only" car of an East Louisiana Railroad train and arrested for violating the Separate Car Act. Plessy's case (or Plessy v. Ferguson, as it's known to American history students) made it all the way to the Supreme Court where the doctrine of "separate but equal" was colophoned, paving a path for decades of court-sanctioned racial segregation. What's perhaps less known about the Plessy case is that it was a test case, a premeditated act to see how segregationist laws would stand up in court in the South. Plessy knew he was going to be arrested, and his act of sitting in a "whites only" car despite being only seven-eighths Caucasian was a deliberate provocation.

Before finishing the mile-plus march, Eris came to a stop again at a street corner so that the parade's tail could catch the head. Fully condensed, the parade had well over 100 people, mingling and smoking, taking pictures and sharing bottles of beer and whiskey, complaining about the lack of music. It was there that Pizarro introduced me to Peter. "He's a real radical," Pizarro explained. "You should talk to him."

Peter was dressed up like a forest. His face was painted and he was covered in so much netting, branches, and leaves that he had no peripheral vision and couldn't help but whack passersby with his costume.

"You know the cartoon tree?" he asked. "In cartoons, there's a guy with a tree over him that scuttles around? That's my costume."

If Pizarro's Catholic priest costume befit his role as Eris's stern, paternal figure, Peter's costume was in many ways its ideological foil.

"So Eris is the goddess of chaos," Peter explained. "So to me it actually does mean a lot. You summon that and you're begging to overturn the social order. I think that people who were summoning it [last year] didn't take that very seriously and that was a mistake that was made. People were like, 'We're talking a lot of shit about chaos, but let's make chaos fucking happen,' and people weren't prepared for it. And that kind of pisses me off a little because you have to stand behind what you say. If you're saying, 'I want to see chaos,' you know? Sometimes that's people doing things you don't expect and that's going to end up in a little bit of a battle."

One of these battles had taken shape while planning Eris's 2012 parade. Although the group had forged ahead without a permit, Pizarro explained to me that he didn't oppose the idea of obtaining one next year. With a permit, the group would immediately be safer.

"It is more offensive to pay $500 for a permit than it is to pay thousands and thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees?" Pizarro had posited earlier in the day. "As far as my cynicism of old age, I don't think this [Eris] can be as free. I think it needs to be taken care of and not necessarily managed, but care-taken. It's like a kid, you've got to take care of it. You can't just let it do what it's going to do. It's going to end up eating its own crap. It's a kid."

When I asked Peter whether he'd be open to a permit in 2013, he was against it.

"My fear is that if there is a permit, the police will be with us the whole time and I personally don't like being around police. I don't like being around cops. I want to have a certain level of freedom. I'm not looking to fuck up someone's car or break someone's window, but I am looking to have that experience, that existential experience of freedom that the police rob you of with their immediate presence. In New Orleans, the cops don't just put people in jail for crimes. They just grab people and put them in jail."

When I asked him about the people whose property had been damaged during the parade last year, Peter explained that while residents "are not the enemy," he didn't dismiss the destructive actions of the others as senseless vandalism.

"I just kind of acknowledge that I don't completely know the right way to celebrate or resist -- it wasn't what I did. I'm also like, 'Okay, you did that, I don't necessarily agree with that,' but it doesn't draw the same amount of anger out of me that it did for others. I understand the need to be radical and aggressive."

On the topic of Occupy Wall Street, he asserted hopefully and confidently that the group would grow against the "atomizing forces of capitalism."

"I deny the need for aggression and property damage in this [Eris]. I don't deny the need for aggression and property damage in the fight against capitalism. I'm an anarchist. I think that what has happened around the country only needs to get bigger."

When I asked Peter what the ultimate message of a project like Eris is, I got an answer I hadn't expected--one that made cogent everything that had confused me about the goals behind Eris, Occupy Wall Street, and anarchist displays in general. He explained to me that Eris was a social act meant to put on display "a horizontal model" for people to see as an alternative. The prevailing vertical model, or "the pyramid," stunted creativity and pitted people against each other. He suggested instead that "anything from a farm to a factory to a parade to a movement" could be organized by everyone and the results would be better.

"It's like the aesthetic antithesis of those Beijing acrobats, which is just creepy."

The parade reached its endpoint, which was a warehouse-turned-event-space on the corner of Piety and Chartres. Pizarro stood at the door charging a $2.22 sliding-scale cover for the Eris Legal Defense Fund. The lither partygoers hopped the wall to avoid the fee. Inside, the band began the Eris Anthem before carrying on into waltzes and dirges, while the dance floor crowded thick and the sidelines became alleys for the sleepy and overindulged.

Throughout the night, various projects seemed to be underway. A line of flag twirlers performed an elaborate dance. A series of lavish cakes exploded. People scribbled aphorisms on strips of paper and dropped them in a box: If a cat follows you home, keep it! Erisians drank and offered each other acid, and the intrepid scaled scaffolding and hung from the rafters watching. The scene emitted a sense of danger without peril.

After nearly two hours, the Eris band performed a final song written for the occasion: "The Trickster's Waltz," a 10-minute coda flecked with klezmer and polka. The band played the crowd out to the street, where some dispersed for the bars. Others hung around Bywater performing music and setting off fireworks at intersections. One couple employed the much-maligned vertical model for upright sidewalk sex. A few of the Eris faithful stared plaintively at the side of the venue that had been tagged with graffiti during the party: Rest in peace, Eris! Eris is dead! Long live Eris!

"Next year either we march or we dissolve," said Erin, a local artist and one of the flag performers. "If we don't march then there's no point. I am not going to participate in something that just turns into a ball."

Despite the graffiti, the horizontal model had mostly succeeded with some improvising. Fistfights were broken up by the crowd. A man who was in the midst of allergic attack was aided by an attendee with EMT training. When it was discovered that the crowd needed water, I joined Pizarro's partner, Tim, on an errand to a shop about ten minutes away. As we walked toward St. Claude, away from the gentrifying Bywater, and deeper into the 9th Ward, we began to look out of place, two extravagantly dressed partygoers in the darkness of evening in a poor, practically silent neighborhood in New Orleans. On the last block before our turn, a teenager pointed out Tim's getup to a friend.

"There go the Grim Reaper," he called out from the sidewalk.

Tim adjusted his raccoon costume and whispered a response to no one in particular.

"People see what they want to see, I guess."

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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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