Most nights, War Memorial Plaza is quiet.
Aside from a play at the nearby Tennessee Performing Arts Center that draws patrons across the plaza's marble-topped surface, or the occasional private event teeming with black ties and white gowns, nocturnal activity on this patch of downtown Nashville real estate is limited to the errant urban wanderer — or more commonly, nobody at all.
That wasn't the case one year ago this week, however. The seemingly innocuous parcel of public land was the veritable heart and home of Occupy Nashville, a 30-tent strong local chapter of the national anti-inequality movement Occupy Wall Street. National and international observers gathered to witness Occupiers' forcible eviction at the hands of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, under orders from the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Since then, despite its brief moment on the global stage, the movement has largely faded from public view. But the remnants of Occupy Nashville remain alive, albeit under the radar.
From the moment the Occupiers — a makeshift community of veterans, families, First Amendment absolutists, Libertarians, homeless people and a few opportunistic troublemakers — established an encampment the first week of October 2011, controversy followed. Sanitation and safety issues soon plagued public perception of the camp. Tensions grew between the protesters and elected officials in the offices beneath War Memorial Plaza, who didn't take kindly to the group's message denouncing broken government and fiat rule by the rich.
"There is an orgy going on out on the plaza," wrote State Capitol facility administrator David Carpenter in an Oct. 25, 2011, email. "These people have been smoking pot, defecating and urinating all over the place and from what we understand our security has it's [sic] hands tied. People are getting upset. I think someone is calling the governor's office... Why can't the powers that be run these law-breaking hoodlums off government property?"
Those tensions came to a head during the early hours of Oct. 29 and 30, 2011, when dozens of THP officers arrested 59 people in the span of two nights. (Full disclosure: I was among those arrested, even though I was covering the proceedings as a reporter. My charges, first mentioned as resisting arrest and later altered to public intoxication, were dropped shortly after the Scene's Pith in the Wind blog posted video evidence to the contrary. Full coverage of the saga can be found online at nashvillescene.com.) The Haslam-ordered crackdowns roughly coincided with others across the country, from Oakland, Calif., to New York. As images of police brutality were relayed across the airwaves and online media, the protesters' meme of "99 percent" occupied the zeitgeist, provoking a national conversation about class warfare, and who its aggressors really were.
In the days immediately following the plaza roundup, the charges against those arrested were summarily dismissed by the state attorney general's office, citing insufficient legal grounds. The widely panned arrests, as well as a temporary federal injunction against Haslam to make further arrests, only served to embolden the ranks of the encampment, whose numbers swelled in the waning days of autumn.
"This whole episode smacks of an abuse of state police power akin to those of a petty Balkan dictator," read a Nov. 3, 2011, staff editorial published by the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "There was no probable cause to arrest peaceful protesters. And there was no precedent for interrupting protesters' traditional and constitutional rights to use the Capitol plaza to make known their grievances about government tax policies."
But a bitter winter drove many Occupiers back to the warmth of their West and East Nashville domiciles as other factors conspired to chill the Nashville branch of the nascent movement. Rebounding from their October failure, the state legislature stuck a final nail in the encampment's coffin with a bill, signed into law in March of this year, that prohibited the kind of camping that enabled Occupy Nashville's tent city — not to mention the lifestyles of Nashville's urban homeless population. Additionally, the new legislation carried with it a fine of up to $2,500, a year in prison, or both.
Within the span of a few months, the number of tents dwindled from about 50 to zero amid fears of a fresh round of arrests. Eventually, the camp was cleared away, as lone holdouts were arrested on prior charges or simply stopped showing up. Local and national media refocused their attention on the Republican presidential primary this spring. By summer, typical election-year horse racing had shifted the national conversation away from income inequality and the influence of money in politics, and back to the comforting familiarity of Candidate Coca-Cola versus Incumbent Pepsi.
Meanwhile, internal power struggles and a lack of cohesion dwindled Occupy Nashville's ranks. Critics close to the movement lament the political capital it squandered in the wake of the arrests and its penchant for ineffective grandstanding. Accordingly, public attention has moved elsewhere. While the gains made by Occupy still reverberate in corners of the mainstream media, the goals, luster and efficacy of the movement are not as clear as they were this time last year.
"I stopped going when I realized it wasn't going to be more than six to 10 people showing up for major global actions," says Michael Custer, who occupied much of the media spotlight in Occupy Nashville's heyday. "I feel like I can reach more people talking on Facebook, and that's really, really sad."
But like the broader movement that spawned it, Custer says, Occupy Nashville isn't dead. Despite a massive decrease in press coverage, semi-regular meetings still happen upon the steps of War Memorial Plaza, albeit in smaller numbers. And the group still maintains various issue-focused subgroups that continue to meet.
Perhaps the most visible, tangible artifact of Occupy Nashville's legacy is the so-called Housing Group, which informally meets about once a week to discuss issues related to affordable housing and housing justice. Lindsey Krinks, a homeless advocate and member of the Occupy Nashville housing group, says the personal and professional connections made as a result of participation in the movement remain its most powerful attributes.
"One of the best things about the Occupy movement was that it opened up space for people to come together across economic, racial, and political lines and learn from one another," Krinks writes in an email to the Scene. "It equipped and empowered a new generation to make decisions through consensus and to be more vocal and engaged in issues of social and economic justice."
While that hasn't translated yet into change at the ballot-box level, as former Occupy Nashville media liaison Dorsey Malina hoped it would, it has already made a difference on a much smaller, more local scale. Krinks and others point to the housing group's success in January 2012 in halting a foreclosure on Helen Bailey, a 78-year-old woman whose North Nashville home's Chase Bank mortgage was underwater.
More recently, the group has shifted its focus to tenants' rights, applying tactics like legal challenges and media pressure that the Occupiers learned during their winter on the plaza. Its current target is Lexington Gardens, a northern Davidson County apartment complex well known to Metro Codes inspectors, law enforcement officers and emergency personnel.
The Metro Nashville Codes Department website lists the Madison complex as having 26 open sets of complaints containing dozens of individual violations that date back as far as January 2011. The complaints vary, ranging from plumbing and electrical issues to lack of heating facilities and smoke detectors.
In 2009, Lexington Gardens made headlines when it was the subject of three fires in one 48-hour span. "According to the fire department, the family that lived in the apartment that caught fire Monday had just moved from another Lexington Gardens apartment because it too caught fire," read a WTVF-Channel 5 story published Oct. 19, 2009.
"Stoves catch on fire when they're turned on. Blood stains on the carpet that weren't even cleaned up. Sewage backs up into some of the rooms. Rats, bedbugs, drug dealers and prostitutes ... it goes on," says Laurie Green, director of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for People and Animal Welfare. Over the past four years, Green says, she has worked with approximately 35 residents of Lexington Gardens, whose ranks she describes as including disabled people, Section 8 qualifiers, ex-felons and others too poor or hobbled by background checks to afford other options beyond a shelter. She, Krinks and others familiar with the conditions of the property further allege that some tenants are forced to do work around the complex in exchange for unequal forms of remuneration, such as lunch at a local Chinese buffet.
The Scene interviewed the owner of the 335 Forest Park Road property, Un J. Kim, as well as two sons who assist her in its day-to-day management. While the Kims admit that conditions in the complex are bad, and that tenants behind on their rent are allowed to work their debt off, they categorically deny paying their tenants in food or that they are exploiting them in any way. They further contend that the complex is in compliance with the city, despite the litany of outstanding violations listed on the Metro website.
"Otherwise we would be shut down," says Andrew Kim, who identifies himself as a health care professional and who contacted the Scene after his brother and mother abruptly ended their telephone interviews. He added that if anyone is the victim, it is the Kims for being too nice to tenants who abuse their property.
The Occupy Nashville housing group says it will mount a campaign on behalf of Lexington Gardens' tenants, seeking help from legal experts who provided assistance last year during the heat of the plaza raids. But the days of public demonstrations, it would seem, are over — at least until after the presidential election.
"I'm sure the governor's filled with glee right now that those heathen hippies are gone," says Custer. "I know that they believe it's done, but it's never done, because it was never just 'Occupy' in the first place. Occupy is one slogan in a movement that has been going on since the beginning of the labor movement, since the beginning of the abolitionist movement. Occupy is just one slogan out of several hundred years of people trying to achieve freedom. Just because the slogan du jour has changed, doesn't mean the soup isn't the same."
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