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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

Applying Pressure

Small in size, Occupy Memphis movement seeking big change

By Bill Dries

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On Super Bowl Sunday, a group of 20 people huddled near a set of about as many tents on the Civic Center Plaza – the part of the Main Street Mall that is home to City Hall as well as the county, state and federal buildings.

It was a “general assembly” meeting of the Occupy Memphis movement with enough chairs but no shelter in the chilly weather that didn’t stop protesters from using unique hand signals to express their opinions when someone else was speaking.

The Occupy Memphis movement began Oct. 15 as other Occupy campsites sprang up in cities across the country in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. There, protesters railed against corporate greed, the financial crisis and the widening gap between the county’s haves and have-nots.

But the Memphis version has been more specifically about the problems of the homeless and the working poor as well as urging the city of Memphis to expand its lawsuit against Wells Fargo & Co. to include citizens of all races as the alleged targets of discriminatory mortgage practices. Its place in the annals of Memphis protest is as unique as the culture of protest in Memphis over the last four decades.

“My roommate said, ‘Let’s go protest and get arrested,’” said Jack Armstrong, who has been at the Memphis site since the Oct. 15 protest began. Neither he nor his friend got arrested and his friend moved on.

Armstrong stayed as the campsite began taking shape.

“It felt right. It felt good,” he said. “It touched a part of me that was repressed and hidden for so long. … I had a little dance with the IRS (in the 1980s) and they slapped my fingers and I was a good boy for a little bit. It just kind of came back up.”

The protest began with a good mix of education as well as protest.

The Occupy Memphis site is on a section of the Main Street Mall that has been a perennial favorite of the homeless who use the nearby fountains to wash clothes – and themselves.

Some of the campers quickly learned their strategies for survival including rules to avoid being beaten and robbed. Some of the homeless also shared food they had come across as it was about to be thrown out.

The connection to the cause of the homeless is both a constant thread of the Memphis protest and something the community has had to wrestle with.

The site is not a homeless shelter and those in Occupy Memphis have been forced to make the distinction as best they can. They can’t prevent the homeless or anyone else not interested in the movement from camping next to them.

Memphis police were called to the site three times earlier this month on a camper who was drunk and disorderly. Those in the movement regarded it as a threat to the movement and voted to “shun” the camper who was the problem.

The camper who admitted his family problems followed him into the Occupy movement insisted he was still a part of the movement.

“I’m here for the movement,” he said. “You can put my tent in Tahiti. But I’m still in Occupy.”

“If you’re detrimental to the organization, the question is: are you serious about this?” said Richard Robinson.

That night his tent remained, but the Occupy protesters who had been camped around him moved their tents away.

A few days later, the Occupy campsite was dramatically smaller as six tents were carried away. The shunning became an eviction as difference deepened.

Another controversy was the presence of an American flag flying upside down at the campsite. It was controversial among the campers. Some saw it as a legitimate expression of their feeling that America is in distress. Others saw it as disrespectful and damaging the movement’s goal of inclusiveness.

The flag came down after an animated general assembly discussion. The compromise was a burial site for the Bill of Rights that includes two American flags next to the mock coffin – one flying upright and the other flag flying upside down.

Andrew Cohen has a daughter who has been involved in Occupy Wall Street. He comes from a deep family tradition of labor involvement as well as protest. He was among the marchers at Selma, Ala., during the landmark 1965 marches and voter registration campaign.

“My family has been involved in movements of one kind or another since before we emigrated,” he said. “I’ve been doing this all of my life … anytime there is a chance to get the attention of the public and get them to think about the people at the top who like to think they run things and the people at the bottom who have nothing and serve the people at the top. I like to even it out a little bit.”

Cohen is working on a concert on Feb. 25 on the mall featuring performers in town for that week’s International Folk Alliances at the nearby Memphis Marriott Downtown hotel.

“The folk performers are all over this Occupy movement like white on rice,” Cohen said as he talked through the permission needed to get a sound system for the performance.

It is that attention to detail that makes Occupy Memphis different. Occupy website discussions have included comments from some critics who have wondered aloud “When do we occupy a bank building?”

Armstrong and the others say the movement isn’t about that.

"This is the only Occupy that has not had a run-in with the police. When you have 10,000 people, you can’t control everyone. So you are going to get factions that are going to come in and they are going to have their own agenda… We did have a little faction that wanted to do that but we rooted them out.”

– Jack Armstrong

“This is the only Occupy that has not had a run-in with the police. We’re not 10,000 people strong,” he said. “When you have 10,000 people, you can’t control everyone. So you are going to get factions that are going to come in and they are going to have their own agenda. And they’re going to start doing things. … We did have a little faction that wanted to do that but we rooted them out.”

The Occupy group had already built an alliance with the Memphis Police and Firefighters unions in the fall as the two unions battled Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration and the Memphis City Council over a 4.6 percent pay cut.

“We can support (Occupy) Wall Street but we can’t change that,” Armstrong said. “If we change Memphis then that will work its way up to Wall Street.”

The Occupy phenomenon is part movement – part community. Occupy Memphis is those who are camped out on the mall and those who support the movement in other ways. Some camp out from time to time and others are there for the duration.

There is precedent for such movements in American history and the best-known chapters met with mixed success. There was the Bonus Army march of World War I veterans on Washington and the Poor People’s Campaign of the late 1960s that Martin Luther King Jr. was planning at the time of his assassination.

In some ways, the original Occupy Memphis protester is Jacqueline Smith, who was the last tenant of the Lorraine Motel when it was still a motel. Smith was carried out of the motel by a group of Sheriff’s deputies in 1990 as renovation began on the motel that became the National Civil Rights Museum. But she wasn’t jailed.

The first models of what the museum would look like on the outside included a model version of Smith’s encampment.

Smith remains encamped on the sidewalk on the other side of Mulberry Street 20 years into the museum’s existence, still protesting that the building wasn’t used to house the homeless. Police drive by her protest site every day just as they do the Occupy site on the other end of Main.

The city’s culture of protest over the last 40 years has evolved. There were a few lunch counter sit-ins in Memphis in the 1960s. But the integration battles in Memphis were unique in the sites chosen by a movement that largely involved and was guided by the Memphis branch of the NAACP.

The targets for integration included the Memphis Zoo, a dining room at Goldsmith’s department store and the old Memphis Main Library.

Police made arrests and said unkind things to the protesters but as late as 1967, white leaders of the city thought themselves moderate and that their moderate course had spared the city the likes of the violent confrontations in Birmingham and Selma.

Then police gassed a group of marchers on Main Street during the sanitation workers strike in 1968. Those who got the biggest dose of the tear gas were NAACP members and ministers who were all part of the city’s black political leadership. The gassing put even those who questioned the strike solidly behind the cause through its duration.

Alicia Rumbarger wears an Occupy Memphis pin during a recent general assembly meeting at Civic Center Plaza. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

After the strike and its violent end, Memphis police worked to avoid such confrontations as much as possible into the 1970s.

Occupy’s latest endeavor is the organization of a “Memphis Bus Riders Union,” whose purpose is “to build a movement of city bus riders who can stand together and put pressure on the officials of MATA and our city government to improve transit services,” according to the flyers now making the rounds.

The group already held one public hearing this month at Central Station and wasn’t too happy with news accounts that made the hearing seem to be an event organized by the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

They quickly resolved to make that clearer at their next session without making the movement about just promoting an organization.

These are the kind of balance questions that the local Occupy movement works with on a daily basis.

There are also the mechanics of a movement with no hierarchy. Some members are more outspoken than others. But no one is the leader.

Cohen isn’t shy about saying that it is a “theoretical model of anarchism.”

But even here there are different definitions. Cohen repeats the often-quoted adage that “an anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.”

“We’re not going to turn the ship of state around on a dime,” Cohen added. “We’re not going to knock things over. There isn’t going to be a revolution next Tuesday that puts one of us in charge. That’s not the point here. … We’re here to apply pressure at a local level, at a regional level, at a national level.”

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