NASHVILLE—Tennessee state troopers dragged Christopher Humphrey from his tent at 4 a.m. Monday morning, ending the longest running Occupy Wall St. encampment in the United States. Or so state officials thought. A new law, passed last month by the Republican-controlled legislature here, prohibits camping on state grounds that are not specifically designated for it. But Humphrey was only evicted, not arrested, and two days later, he was back, wearing his tent and walking around the plaza in front of the War Memorial Building. He got the idea from Occupiers in Melbourne, Australia, who used it to defy similar restrictions there.
“We were hoping that if he did that all day long maybe he would get arrested. But he wasn’t,” said Jane Hussain, a retired teacher and Occupy Nashville supporter. After Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed the bill, he said he only wanted flagrant violators of the new law to face the penalty for breaking it…a $2500 fine or a year in jail, or both. And so Humphrey settled down in his tent Wednesday night on the plaza to test the Governor’s concept of flagrancy. He was not arrested.
Humphrey was the last holdout of about 75 campers who have lived on the plaza nonstop for almost six months. State offices and hearing rooms are directly below the plaza, so protestors have been in the face of TN officials and literally on top of their heads all that time. Anticipating a police raid any day, occupiers took down their medical tent, social media tent, cooking flies, and rented a locker to store them and collected donations to rent a room from which four fulltime protestors can coordinate activities without risking arrest. When about 30 state troopers finally arrived, all but two tents were gone (and have since been removed.)
Humphrey was not the only stalwart Occupier the night the troopers cleared the plaza. Jeremiah Carter, 19, and Preston Gilmore, 24, had their feet propped up on the information table when troopers pulled Humphreys from his tent. Two of 30 troopers on the raid approached the table and carried it about 30 feet and then up a dozen steps to the sidewalk.
“We should get our table back because they are breaking our constitutional rights,” recalled Carter. And so they did. It was a 20-minute tug of war. In the end, the table stayed and has been there ever since. “Just because they get to carry guns doesn’t make them greater than me,” said Carter.
“It is a very poorly drafted law,” said Tripp Hunt, a pro bono lawyer, who has been negotiating with state officaials on behalf of the occupiers since they first set up camp on the plaza above legislative offices in October. Hunt says he doesn’t know what will happen next on the legal front, but the law means people who bring campers to the Folklife Festival at nearby Bi-Centennial Park would face a year in jail for cooking; organizers of the Southern Festival of Books, who bring campers to the plaza every year, would too.
“So far we have been very lucky. We’ve had very stupid opponents and good lawyers but I’m afraid we’re running out of that luck,” said Hussain who has manned the information table almost non-stop for days since state troopers cleared the plaza. State officials say they are not violating anybody’s free speech rights, just dealing with the drunks and lewd behavior that gave Occupy Nashville a black eye in the local press.
“They want to shut up both protestors and homeless people …poor people, destitute people. They want to sweep them out of sight and under the carpet,” said Hussain. What is happening in Nashville has already occurred in many cities, she said, and is part of a national trend to end occupations everywhere.
Nashville’s homeless population has doubled in the last five years and the city’s $40 million plan to build 1,900 units by 2015 has not produced a single new home, although the city has commissioned 252 old units for the homeless since 2005. Nashville’s inability to solve chronic homelessness for thousands of its citizens, and the desperation of the estimated 4,000 homeless who sleep on the street any given night here, is one reason why Occupy Nashville holds the record as the longest continuous occupation in the nation. Some of the occupiers simply have no better place to go.
“The governor just gave his state of the state address and, of course, the state of the state is strong…everything is good and getting better. And the Chamber of Commerce has decided to put up billboards calling Nashville a boomtown. And so having all these people on the plaza is upsetting their vision of how everything is wonderful. And of course it is for rich people. So I feel people have done a very valuable service by being in their face as long as they have.”
Although state officials used the bad behavor of some homeless people as a pretext to criminalize all the occupiers, it remains a diverse group, united not only around the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government, but also in solidarity with Nashville’s homeless population. Occupy Nashville protestors spent days after the draconian law passed convincing the homeless campers among them to vacate the plaza, which had provided them food and security for months, because as lawyer Tripp put it, “As bad as it is off the mall, it was going to be worse if they stayed,” he said.
Tom Sweet, 52, manned the Occupy Nashville information table every day for two months prior to the police sweep. He became homeless after he suffered a stroke, couldn’t work, was denied disability and Social Security Insurance. After the bank foreclosed on his townhouse in December, Sweet pitched a tent on the plaza and left just days ago.
“We’re trying to lead by example in all the good things that we’re doing,” Sweet said. He mentioned the man who came to the plaza suffering from exposure one cold day. Occupiers got him to a church and then to the hospital. Sweet said they probably saved his life. “We’re trying to show our representative what can be done when we’re all in this together,” he said.
But only a handful of Tennessee lawmakers have actually talked to any of the protestors. Hussain, 65, who has never been homeless herself, says the 1% who are blind to the plight of so many who lack food, work, shelter, healthcare, and security in America, are living in fear that they will slip into the underclass themselves. When enough of them do, Hussain says Wall Street will collapse.
“It’s going to be the job of the 99% to pick up the pieces and build a new economy,” says Hussain. She points to the creative campaign that saved Helen Baily’s home from foreclosure as an example of how to take on Wall Street and win. A 20-member foreclosure committee meets weekly at a local Friends Meeting House in Nashville and those activists started an online petition with Change.org that collected 3200 signatures in the first few days.
Bailey, 78, is a former civil rights activist, who took care of autistic children for two decades in her North Nashville home. She paid her mortgage for 13 years at 7 percent interest but fell behind when her two daughters moved out and JP Morgan Chase foreclosed. That’s when Occupy Nashville started a campaign to keep her from being thrown out on the street. They held a potluck at Bailey’s home and got the local media to cover the event.
Then organizers made a YouTube video to embarrass Chase, which honors Martin Luther King Jr. and brags about the bank’s support of Civil Rights on its corporate website. The Associated Press and MSNBC picked up the story and within a few weeks, 80,000 signatures were collected urging Chase to renegotiate Bailey’s loan. Every time someone signed the petition, an e-mail was automatically sent to the local law firm handling Bailey’s foreclosure for Chase in Nashville.
“When those emails started coming it put them on notice, “ says Johanne Greenwood, one of the campaign organizers. “When the signatures started going up in the tens of thousands, Chase started to work with Bailey’s lawyer in a way they hadn’t done in the previous six months.”
In addition to the petition and media coverage, Occupy Nashville organizers contacted Occupy Atlanta which demonstrated in front of Chase Bank’s headquarters there and Occupy Nashville protesters demonstrated in front of the local law firm in Nashville that Chase hired to foreclose on Bailey. That firm received tens of thousands of emails on Bailey’s behalf. Just one month after the campaign started, it ended with an agreement that allows Bailey to stay in her home until she dies.
“I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Bailey said. “I love my home and my community and I am so blessed to be able to stay here. I am thankful for the support of my neighbors and the nation.”
Occupiers have discussed many ideas but have not decided what to do next. Whatever happens, Hussein says the occupations have moved the national political conversation away from only talking about working families to a much broader constituency including the poor, the unemployed, the foreclosed upon, indebted students, the elderly… in short, the 99%.
“I’m always inspired partly by youth and partly by inventiveness. Back before Christmas when Occupy Wall Street had been shut down in the morning and one judge ruled they could go back to Zucotti Park and then they found another judge in the afternoon who said ‘No’ they couldn’t, there couldn’t be any camping, I was very depressed,” said Hussain.
“And I went to general assembly that night. It was a rainy night. There didn’t seem to be anybody around and then they started doing ‘Mic check!’ ‘Mic check!’ and there was a general assembly up under the pillars and peoples’ reaction was…’Yes, they are closing everybody down. Yes, this is homeland security. What are we going to do about it? Let’s go occupy homeland security! And the next day we occupied the plaza in front of the state building that has the homeland security offices and we had a mock funeral for the bill of rights and we spent the whole day there. There was this spirit of ‘lets go on the offensive we’re not going to take this lying down.’ And I find that very inspiring.”
Hussain compares the spirit of the times and the sangfroid of the Occupy Movement to the pre-revolutionary days in Germany, France, and Russia when many diverse kinds of people worked together to end absolute monarchies there. Her personal goal, she says, is to keep people working together despite their divergent views about property rights and political tactics.
“We have young anarchists and middle class professionals. We have people of different religions, backgrounds, and walks of life, all living and working together in very challenging physical conditions. Four months is a long time in that cold. Yet they have persevered. I do expect there will be an American Spring. As the weather gets warmer we will be out on the street more and more doing direct actions. So, I am expecting great things.”
Sweet found some private property to pitch his tent after police raid the plaza. He isn’t giving up either. “Even after the tents are gone, we’ll be out here,” he said.