What the Occupy Movement Can Learn From a New Orleans Subculture

By Adam Chandler

For six years, the Krewe of Eris has been challenging authority through colorful parades. But infighting and clashes with the law are bringing the group's very mission into question.

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At 4:23 PM on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, the mass text message went out:

THE PARADE'S THE THING. True Erisians! Meet to march tonight. 630pm. [address redacted] No cops. No fools. This message will self destruct. (Not really.)

The selected recipients were an amorphous, leaderless collection of New Orleans artists, activists, and anarchists -- a trinity of local insurgencies called the Krewe of Eris. They would be gathering at a secret address 127 minutes later to parade without a permit through the city's 9th Ward while the city-sanctioned Mardi Gras went about raging uptown. The smirking, clandestine communique was theatrical and apotropaic for good reason -- the group, named for the Greek goddess of discord, would be gathering for the first time since it had been violently confronted by the New Orleans police during the previous Carnival. Despite the danger, an ostentatious protest tradition was about to continue.

"I like the idea of having a beautiful parade," said Victor Pizarro, the author of the text. "And this is also a greater conversation about what's happened with New Orleans since the storm. So I saw it being this incredible thing and I wanted to be part of it. Ultimately, it's about empowerment, it's about getting people to be able to create."

Pizarro is something of the paterfamilias in the New Orleans anarchist collective. He is well-known and well-spoken and one of the faces of Plan B, a community nonprofit bike project that helps residents build bicycles more affordably using donated parts. The shop teaches repair workshops (including a class for "ladies, trans, and sissies only") and once partnered with a national network to give away 1,000 bicycles to New Orleans residents following Hurricane Katrina.

Pizarro is a tall 40-year-old Roman Catholic Cuban with a baritone voice, his partner, Tim, is a Midwestern-born newcomer to New Orleans and a veteran of the Coast Guard. Pizarro has at his ready a palette of stinging barbs for the post-Katrina influx of disingenuous do-gooders, temporary volunteers, and gentrifiers from New England and the Pacific Northwest. Owing to his local celebrity, he is a prominent fixture in the Krewe of Eris, which he envisions as a vehicle to engage in a sophisticated dialogue with the city of New Orleans.

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The ill-fated 2011 Eris parade had been one such attempt at engagement. Its theme, "Mutagenesis," was a creative response to the BP oil spill. Lampooning corporations and oil companies, some Erisians dressed as the fish, shorebirds, and other Gulf creatures whose ecosystems had been choked by the disaster. The unruly but mostly contained pageant of ornately costumed locals, raucously carousing and dancing second line behind by a 60 person marching band, had become a point of wide fixation on Facebook calendars, blogs, and Twitter streams.

By that time, Eris, which had first rolled in the spring before Hurricane Katrina, had been infected by its own set of toxins. The 2011 parade attracted participants who wished to not just dance wildly in the streets but to leap on top of cars, heft residential trashcans about, and paint phalluses on random objects.

As the spectacle neared its finish, Eris was met by members of the New Orleans Police Department's Fifth District. A melee ensued. Revelers were tazed, batoned, and pepper-sprayed. Tires of police cruisers were mysteriously slashed and brass instruments were crushed. A brick was reportedly thrown at a cop. Phones and cameras documenting the raid were whacked. Police officers were injured. Erisians were hospitalized. Twelve arrests were made. Charges of chaos and police brutality were howled in the weeks after. A few days later, Plan B was raided by the New Orleans Police and shut down for a lack of permits, forcing the bicycle project to relocate.

***

While the New Orleans Carnival itself predates the American annexation of Louisiana, many of today's most recognizable Mardi Gras traditions grew out of the Civil War era. Leading the way have been the "krewes," groups that have historically thrown the city's most colorful parades and balls. Predictably, the oldest city-sanctioned krewes comprised a racial caste system that, until somewhat recently, excluded groups like African-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Jews. This exclusion birthed its own protest tradition as ostracized groups formed their own krewes and marching clubs. Some of these have now entered the mainstream, and their presentations famously and joyfully flaunt Carnival's divisive past.

But for groups like Eris, segregation wasn't the issue. The whole Carnival culture, with its outlandish expenses and required coordination with the city, seemed elitist in itself. Eris, which grew out of another downtown-based group known as the Krew de Poux, was meant as a very public response to all of this money and organization. Two of Eris' founders, known locally as Ms. Lateacha and Lord Willin, created the group to bring the spirit of anarchy out on display, taking over the streets in a public reclamation of space.

Half a year after the 2011 Carnival, hundreds of American cities were swept off their feet by their own anarchist suitors. American public spaces became campgrounds for the Occupy Movement--eschewers of hierarchy who didn't just want to stay for a night of Carnival but were ready to move right in.

While the Krewe of Eris is a collective that prides itself on its singularity, it's hard to ignore the hallmarks it shares with the Occupy movement: its rudderlessness, its youth, its frustration, its creativity, and its fractious infighting, as well as its clashes with law enforcement. Pizarro unwittingly added a few other common features as he tried to explain what made Eris so unique.

"Eris is different from other New Orleans [protest] traditions because it's a bunch of fucking white kids for the most part," he explained. "I think it's different in the fact that it's newer, it's not such an old tradition. You can have parades in New Orleans that are reasonable and you don't get fucked with, but Eris got too big. And it's because of that whole structurelessness."

Accordingly, those wondering how the Occupy Movement will reorganize itself this spring might glean some clues from the way Eris reconstituted for the 2012 Carnival. After the debacle of the previous year, the Krewe found itself facing a number of thorny questions: Would the group still organize without leaders? Would it try to distinguish between those who wanted to parade and those who sought confrontation? Would it limit its ranks to a more carefully defined body? Would it still march without a permit? Would it craft a more specific message to an increasingly skeptical public?

As the group gathered for the parade on a mild Louisiana night, most of these questions had been answered. Behind the scenes, a few more assertive members of the Krewe, who half-jokingly christened themselves "Eris Alpha," had taken on the task of handling more of the decision making, much to the chagrin of everyone.

"The problem with structurelessness is the implied hierarchy," said one member of Eris Alpha. "Even the hierarchy itself gets resentful because you're doing all the work for everyone else."

Unlike in previous years, Eris would avoid the French Quarter entirely and limit information about the group's whereabouts. The Eris marching band, by many accounts the heart of the group, would avoid another conflagration by skipping the parade and performing instead at a ball at a venue nearby. It would also be the first year that the founders, Ms. Lateacha and Lord Willin, would not be present. The chosen theme, a nod to the subterfuge, was "The Trickster's Ball." Eris 2012 would aspire to be nonviolent and nondestructive--a credo that caused a fissure. A splinter group, calling itself "The Krewe of Witches" and impelled more by chaos, set a boisterous course through the streets of New Orleans one night earlier.

As the appointed hour approached, the many costumes lining the sidewalk included gumshoes, politicians, spiders, fairies, carnival folk, clergy, unicorns, wolves, and lecherous old men. These were not the bubblegum-and-Scotch-tape costumes of the Quarter. The Eris costumes incorporated dyed hair, body paint, fur, glitter, hand-stitched wings, and Victorian wigs. As in previous years, elaborate invitations had been crafted. Despite all the festivity, the crowd seemed anxious to get moving. As word spread that the Eris band would not march, discontent began to swirl.

"We don't have a fucking band?" cried a nymph. "That's the foundation of the Krewe. I'm not dancing second line to a boombox."

The parade pushed off down the avenue, led by a few stereoes playing the Eris Anthem, a hypnotic, woozy, brassy song that swerved between a dirge and a hymn. The Krewe followed sluggishly behind, devolving into chatter, largely about what had happened at last year's parade. A few blocks into residential streets, a raven-haired badger stopped and turned around.

"I hate this. I'm leaving."

As the processional went by, families stepped out on their porches to watch the parade, their children waving and pointing. Eris itself, along with some street drinking and weed smoking -- traditions seemingly as old as the Carnival -- had a few younger participants as well, children who knew to bow and curtsy to the onlookers.

Along the route, I met a clown who introduced himself as Damien Weaver, whose a name I recognized from the 2011 accounts. Weaver, a web designer in his mid-30s, had received the most severe of the criminal charges stemming from the previous year's arrests. For charges alleging battery on a police officer and attempting to assist an escape, he was facing a possible five-year jail sentence. Weaver, who had an exceedingly genteel disposition, was dressed in a three-piece suit with an oversized green bowtie.

"I'm thinking about wearing this to court," he joked.

Numerous people approached to ask about his well being. One passerby offered him a drink and he declined. Weaver explained to me that he hadn't had a drink in years. There was a palpable note of concern in the air about his being there and the possible trouble it posed to him if things went awry.

"Eris is important because it reclaims space," he said as the party wended its way down the city streets. "It's native to here, it's rooted here. It's not like anything else anywhere."

***

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."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/what-the-occupy-movement-can-learn-from-a-new-orleans-subculture/256281/