As one of the longest-lived appendages of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Nashville will finally be forced to pack up after nearly 160 days of sustained protest against the stacked deck that is the American electoral system.
Just two months ago, Occupy Nashville's encampment at War Memorial Plaza swelled with dozens of tents and a bustling energy focused on localizing the main goals of the nationwide political uprising: To draw attention to the influence of corporate cash on politicians and gross, class-based income inequality. It even outlasted the movement's flagship camp — New York City's Zuccotti Park — by three months, and in the process formed a community within a community, with members taking on various responsibilities — from security and logistics to first aid and food procurement.
Despite its decidedly left-wing message, the otherwise collectivist encampment evinced decidedly libertarian ethics in which each member — whether they personally occupied the plaza or phoned in an order of pizzas for the diehard faithful, whether a Christian Anarchist or a 9-to-5 working stiff — contributed to the cause of their own volition.
Now only a third of Occupy Nashville's plaza presence remains, down from 60 tents at the camp's apex. On Tuesday morning, a handful of Occupiers stroll the quiet plaza grounds, while the inhabitants of the roughly 22 tents scattered across the plaza remain inside them, sleeping or starting the occasional anti-bank-bailout chant as passers-by, mostly state employees, amble to and from the Capitol.
The camp's lending library, food service station, media tent and other ad hoc accoutrements are long gone. So are most of the protesters who joined the camp last fall following two nights of highly publicized arrests ordered by Gov. Bill Haslam, which netted the arrests of 50 people — your humble correspondent being one of them — on charges that were eventually dropped.
Since those galvanizing arrests, Occupy Nashville has branched out. Occupiers have taken their protest to the doors of Corrections Corporation of America to lambaste the privatization of the country's corrections system, and they've mounted a petition drive that halted the home foreclosure against 78-year-old Nashvillian Helen Bailey by JPMorgan Chase. Yet the momentum that propelled Occupy Nashville has waned in terms of warm protesting bodies. The movement now faces an uneasy future amid a hostile political climate in the Capitol committee rooms housed beneath the plaza.
In addition to bouts of cold, wet weather during the fall and winter, supporters say that pending state legislation — which would effectively make it a crime to camp on public-owned property — has caused their ranks to dwindle sharply.
For weeks, the Tennessee General Assembly has debated legislation that would effectively evict Occupy Nashville from the plaza, citing a familiar chorus of complaints centered on the protesters' bodily functions. The most notable of these was Rep. Eric Watson's comment that the protesters "need to be peed on" — a reference to an alleged public-urination incident hotly denied by Occupiers. Last week, Watson's HB 2638 sailed through the House, 70-26. The bill means to levy a jail sentence of one year and a $2,500 fine against anyone — whether Occupiers or any of Nashville's approximately 6,000 homeless individuals — caught with "bedding for the purpose of sleeping ... including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."
As of press time, the General Assembly is expected to vote Thursday on the Senate version of Watson's bill, SB 2508, sponsored by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, which would make camping in the vein of the Occupy movement a misdemeanor offense and permit the seizure of the offender's private property by the state. It's uncertain how quickly the new law would be enforced should the bill pass, as evidenced by media reports that Gov. Haslam — likely not looking for a repeat of last fall's crackdown snafu — is reaching out to the state attorney general's office for guidance on the bill's execution.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, declined to comment on grounds that the legal advice her office provides to the governor is confidential. When asked if the bill sufficiently differentiates between, say, a protester with a tent and a family camping on publicly owned grounds, Curtis-Flair remains mum.
"You'd have to go to a legislator and ask him or her to request an opinion," she says.
Members of Occupy Nashville, however, are decidedly more vocal about the bill's portents.
"If our tents — the things that protect us from the elements during our vigil — are outlawed by the state of Tennessee, there will definitely be people who are willing to get arrested and challenge unjust laws like those that the House and Senate have been crafting," writes Lindsey Krinks, a 27-year-old Vanderbilt Divinity School student who works primarily with Occupy Nashville's housing and foreclosure campaign, in an email to the Scene.
"Some Occupiers are talking about taking shifts on the plaza to continue the 24/7 vigil without tents," Krinkle contonues. "Others are discussing moving the vigil and encampment to another site. Still others have talked about a kind of strategic re-organization of the Occupy Nashville movement. We're currently not sure which direction(s) we'll go, but we have faith in one another and in the consensus-building process that happens at our General Assembly meetings."
Among those willing to get pinched is 24-year-old Joshua Ehrhard. He's been camping on the plaza for the past month, and when asked if he plans to be among those arrested should the eviction bill be signed into law, he peeks his head out from his tent and shrugs his shoulders.
'Why not?" he says, adding that those who are on the plaza right now are the true Occupiers. "I'll get arrested. I've got a clean record, so this won't bother me."
Not exactly the heady resolve of martyrdom, but therein lies the split within Occupy Nashville's ranks as the clock runs out on what Dorsey Malina, Occupy Nashville's public relations liaison, calls the "conclusion of the first phase" of the movement. On one side, some longtime Occupiers suggest, are those concerned about the movement's longevity and adherence to the original Occupy Wall Street ethos. On the other, they say, are those eager to incarcerate their way into 15 minutes of fame.
"[Some] believe that if you're not in a tent, then you're not an Occupier," Malina says. "I feel very fortunate to have met the people I've met, and I keep telling people, 'We're not going away.' The tents may fold up and not be there any more, but in two years you might see [General Assemblies] going on in neighborhoods around town organizing for change."
Malina says that General Assemblies will continue to be held at the plaza on a weekly basis regardless of the legislature's actions. They'll continue to focus on housing and poverty, discuss creating a new permanent camp, and perhaps eventually field political candidates of their own.
"The thing that will fuel this movement is if the status quo in Washington keeps on doing what it's doing," she says. "If and when the Occupy Movement makes an [electoral] turn, you can bet it's going to be unlike any you've ever seen."
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