By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Backlit by the insistent neon signage of New Orleans City Hall, the Rev. Jesse Jackson last night told Occupy Nola protesters that they had a right to assemble peacefully in Duncan Plaza, the Loyola Avenue public green where Occupy first set up camp in early October.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson tells a crowd at Duncan Plaza to “keep hope alive.” Photo by Ariella Cohen

“This park is our park,” he said, employing the call and response speech structure of Occupy protests nationwide. “We have the right.”

Our partners WVUE FOX8 News caught some video of the event.

The veteran civil rights leader’s short appearance fell on the eve of a planned sit-in at City Council chambers, scheduled to coincide with a national day of action being observed in cities across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in Lower Manhattan.

Though occupiers have maintained a non-hierarchical structure that isn’t conducive for sending a singular dominant message, the movement’s main demand is for a lessening of the growing income gap between the county’s top earners and the other 99 percent of its citizens.

Unlike in other cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, where council members have been vocal in support for the Occupy movement, the New Orleans council has kept out of the fray. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has in recent weeks been more vocal about the possibility of evicting demonstrators from the public space, an often empty, if well-maintained, stretch of green that last made it into the news when homeless people formed an encampment there in 2007.
“We think that we have been a great host to Occupy NOLA,” Landrieu told The Times-Picayune. “They have been there in a peaceful way. But at some point in time, we’ve got to say ‘Look, you’ve worn out your welcome.’

“At some point in time, it’s going to get beyond just a First Amendment expression.”

The last tent city in the space became politicized as a symbol of a post-Katrina housing crisis caused in part, activists said, by the decision to not reopen the city’s largest public housing developments after the storm. In late 2007, the state and city gave more than $1.4 million to the nonprofit UNITY of Greater New Orleans to relocate people into temporary and permanent supportive housing units.

The Landrieu administration has not explained what its logic would be for the eviction of the peaceful Occupy protestors. A spokesman for the mayor could not be reached Wednesday evening for a response to this question.

Landrieu wouldn’t be the first to evict the protesters. Occupiers have been forced out of encampments in Oakland, New York and Portland, Ore.

Legal reaction to such forcible removal has differed. Earlier this week, a judge in Dallas upheld the right of Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings to evict the demonstrators from City Hall. Yesterday, a judge in Boston temporarily barred such an action there.

Citing the demonstrators’ right to free speech in her decision, Judge Frances A. McIntyre said that without emergency circumstances such as a fire, medical emergency or outbreak of violence, the city would need a court order to shut down Occupy Boston.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week banned the use of tents, tarps and sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park, effectively ending the two-month downtown Manhattan encampment. His legal argument depended on a legal clause requiring the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, to maintain the privately held park for all New Yorkers.

The eviction was supported by a court ruling.

“The protestors will be able to continue to exercise their First Amendment rights in Zuccotti Park, or anywhere else in New York City,” Marc Lavorgna, a spokesman for Bloomberg said in a statement. “Brookfield requested the City’s assistance so they can meet their obligation to maintain this public park for all New Yorkers. Protesters can remain in the park during Brookfield’s section-by-section clean-up and they will be able to return to the cleaned sections once work is completed tomorrow and can stay in the park 24/7 so long as they follow park rules. We will continue to defend and guarantee their free speech rights, but those rights do not include the ability to infringe on the rights of others, which is why the rules governing the park will be enforced.”

In New York, progressive council members have kept up support of the Occupy movement. A letter signed by 13 of the council’s 51 members implored Bloomberg to “respect the deep traditions of free speech and right of assembly that make this is a great, free diverse and opinionated city and nation.”

The mayor’s political foes have also jumped on the issue

“Mayor Bloomberg made a needlessly provocative and legally questionable decision to clear Zuccotti Park in the dead of night,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a public statement reported by the website Capital New York. De Blasio is planning a run for mayor in 2013.