Occupy Nashville leans toward fractured conclusion, but not done just yet

Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 11:59pm
By Steven Hale
Michael W. Bunch/SouthComm

On Fat Tuesday, some 30 members of Occupy Nashville gathered at War Memorial Plaza for a general assembly. The plaza’s eastern steps were darker than when they were lit by floodlights from television news vans four months ago. There was enough light for the Occupiers to see each other but not quite enough to illuminate where they’re going.

In October, at the height of the group’s clash with the state — which resulted in 55 arrests on the plaza — such assemblies played out like defiant pep rallies, incited by the clear sense that there was constitutional and geographical ground to defend. A common cause and a common enemy were like an elixir to the waning occupation, which at the time wasn’t even a month old. But the winter, though not as severe as it might have been, has been long.

On this night — which ended with a meal and party celebrating the Mardi Gras season — the meeting is more like a snapshot of a hallway bulletin board in a college dormitory.

A man named Eric invites the group to take part in a “die-in” on the plaza March 12, organized by local anti-nuclear groups to commemorate the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan a year ago. Another man, Ben, says he’s started a faith-based “Occupy the Spirit” group, which is looking for a new location and invites those assembled to join if they wish. A woman who doesn’t give her name reports on a visit to several Occupy encampments in California and proposes the group “do something” for International Women’s Day on March 8.

Later on, Michael Custer, a bearded man with long hair and a voice that carries like a prophet’s, brought forth what amounted to a sermon, citing Nashville’s “proud history of nonviolent struggle,” recalling the events of October and urging the group to remain peaceful. Custer is perhaps the group’s most vocal member and certainly the most recognizable.

He is right, for the most part, to say that the group has remained peaceful. Aside from their refusal to disperse, which caused troopers to carry them off the plaza, the group did relatively little to resist the enforcement of the state’s short-lived curfew on the plaza and hasn’t been entangled in the kind of violent clashes with police seen in Oakland, New York and elsewhere. The group has denied any association with the criminal activity claimed by legislators on and around the plaza. Privately, though, members admit tempers flare from time to time and have occasionally led to physical confrontations.

That much was evident following another general assembly just days after Custer’s exhortations. An administrator, posting minutes of that meeting on the group’s online forum, noted: “This GA was the roughest GA I’ve ever been to. There was so much tension and hostility in the air. ...” After the meeting ended, two longtime members of the group — Andrew Henry and Jason Steen — got into what witnesses described as a “shocking” fight. State troopers patrolling the area intervened, and Steen, who says he was knocked unconscious, was sent to the hospital with facial fractures while Henry, who has a long list of prior arrests, was transported to jail. Steen says Henry attacked him in response to Steen exposing his lengthy criminal record online — a tactic known as “doxing,” which has become a weapon of infighting within the group.

“As Kevin said in an email from yesterday,” the online administrator said, “There was real damage done today. I think this prolonged eviction process is eating [Occupy Nashville] alive.”

Alongside this possibly withering social organism — quite literally parallel to it — has been the creation and passage of legislation that would remove the encampment, if not the Occupiers themselves, from the plaza. Gov. Bill Haslam said he would sign the bill, but added that he might be slow in enforcing it. After their first attempt to clear the plaza failed spectacularly on legal grounds, his administration has been focusing on tightening the rules for use of the plaza. A hearing on the matter has been set for April 16, leaving many to wonder if the group might get a reprieve until then.

Putting aside the looming interference of the state — which has been less emboldening to the group this time around — Occupy Nashville faces trouble from within. One of the country’s longest-running encampments, the 150-day-old (and counting) protest is beginning to show signs of age. As the group’s focus splinters — with their attentions increasingly divided among various causes — needy egos, short tempers and competing factions have been exposed, and a movement once tightly bound together has begun to fray.



In their highest aspirations, the Occupy Nashville camp and sites like it around the country are Petri dishes for their vision of a new society — a place where their boldly democratic ideas and communal practices can be worked out and perhaps even modeled for the society around them, in which they see so much decay. While more conventional protest movements relied on occasional rallies and marches to announce their presence and their complaints, Occupiers have made it a point to maintain a constant presence.

But the now ubiquitous idea of occupation has become a wedge for the Nashville contingent. As a would-be eviction notice has moved through the legislature, the tent count has gone from around 60 at its peak to less than 20. The cold pavement of War Memorial Plaza feels harder to some than it did months ago. To them, the situation is disheartening, but the analysis is simple: Only true believers sleep on a marble bed.

“The people really talking ‘Occupy’ aren’t walking it,” said a man who would only give the name Fox and who said he’s been on the plaza since the beginning. “The fight’s not over, and they’re giving up. I feel kind of let down.”

Others in the group, like Tom Sweet, who has been on the plaza since he lost his home in January, say they’re fine with different members playing different roles. But it’s true that some of the group’s more outspoken and visible members either have packed up their tents or never pitched them in the first place.

Custer, who was among those arrested on the first night of the curfew enforcement, has never slept on the plaza and only stayed out overnight when things heated up in October. Since then, he says, there’s been no need for him to set up permanent residence on site.

“Some people need more than a tent can offer,” he said, sitting next to his wife. “But we hold up those who stay here 24/7 as American heroes.”   

He admits that full-time Occupiers sometimes take offense when those coming from home try to make decisions at general assemblies. He also concedes that egos have occasionally stood in the way of harmony.

“Most of those fights have been broadcast online,” he says. “And most of them have been stupid.”

Dorsey Malina, who has been the primary go-between for Occupiers and the media since the group first formed, also has never occupied a tent. The movement is not about living in tents forever, she says, adding that if it were, the end would be nigh. 

“There are people who feel like, if you’re not on the plaza, you’re not an Occupier,” she said. “If it were only about the tents and the encampment, I think we’d have a very limited scope of what we could do. It’s always been — and this is just me — about moving into the communities.”

Malina has become more involved with the Occupy Homes working group, which has focused its efforts on resisting foreclosures and evictions by banks on behalf of homeowners. In Occupy Nashville’s first identifiable success since their temporary triumph over the state last year, the group leveraged a settlement between 78-year-old Nashvillian Helen Bailey and her mortgage holder, JPMorgan Chase. A petition started on her behalf gained more than 100,000 signatures and garnered attention from national media outlets.

For Malina, the effort, and eventual victory, was a welcome diversion from the growing dissonance within the group at large. In recent months, it drew her away from the plaza and those with a public presence on it, tented or otherwise. 



Time isn’t always a healer. Sometimes it just makes room for wounds. Since the new year — and particularly since the return of state legislators has forced Occupiers to ponder phase two — various factions within Occupy Nashville have cropped up, vying for attention from within and without. Once-celebrated differences among members have become deepening fractures.

In a recent story, Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador — who was arrested along with the protesters in October — quoted Malina and cited her as the group’s “public relations liaison.” In what has become a recent trend of decreased cordiality with the media, Steen, who has become one of the group’s loudest online voices, took issue with that title. In a Twitter post directed at Meador, he said, “Dorsey is not our PR liaison, nor does she speak for us.”

Minor as it may seem, the comment did stand out, given Malina’s long and prominent role with Occupy Nashville. In response to an email inquiring about the apparent discrepancy, Steen — who says he has lost his job and his home since moving to the plaza in October and slept there until a couple weeks ago when he moved into a hotel — clarified but also extended his criticism.

“Dorsey was certainly a great part of our media team for a while. However, in the past eight weeks she’s written everyone off and said she wants nothing to do with Occupy Nashville as a whole and will direct all her focus only to the housing campaign,” he wrote. “[She] has only been to one GA in two months. That’s why we’ve been trying to keep her away from the media, because she has no interest in Occupy any more other than to further her own agenda. Seems that everyone has their motives.”

Malina agrees, with that last bit anyway. She says some within the group seem bent on staying in the media spotlight, however dim it may now be, whether by quote or incarceration. It’s a claim other longtime members don’t dispute. Moreover, she says, disputes like the ones she’s found herself in of late are tools in a struggle for power.

“I’ve been on the media team since Day One on the plaza,” she said. “There are people who have come along — I won’t name any names — and they’re vying for control and managing the message.”

She added, “There are some people there, I believe, that have an agenda for themselves. There are a couple of teams that have been co-opted.”

The fear of co-option and interference by provocateurs with personal motives has been present since Occupy Nashville’s inception. It has lingered, perhaps, because of the inherent difficulty of proving or disproving such a suspicion. In any event, the purity tests are on.

Malina told The City Paper she is one of three or four people who have received multiple threats and emails that she called “highly uncomfortable.” She says her computer and Blackberry have been hacked, and she’s sought the advice of an attorney.

“They seem to want to get people out of the way,” she said of her opponents, adding that a lack of women in leadership roles has been noted. “Anybody that doesn’t toe their line gets attacked. I don’t want to create a future like that. What I’m more interested in is making sure everyone is fed and has a home.”

That sounds more like what Ben Grady is after, but he too is pursuing those ends by different means. Grady, who joined Occupy Nashville just days after they set up camp and has maintained an on-again, off-again presence on the plaza, has been working on what he calls an “Occupy the Spirit” group. He envisions it as a faith-based wing of a movement with a “godly purpose,” that of making earth as it is in heaven.  

“We’re moving on to phase two of the occupation. We have a house for a short period of time, and we’re relying on God for the long-term situation,” he said. “The most important thing right now is that we build ourselves and each other up. If we don’t, we’ll fall again, because we won’t have a strong community.”

While he hasn’t experienced the type of aggressive pushback that Malina describes, he hasn’t seen many upward-wiggling fingers — that’s support in Occupy-sign — either. The name ‘Jesus,’ he says, tends to polarize the group. But he’s not yet deterred — his standard response to a casual, “How’s it going?” is to answer, “Hopeful.” But, like others, he hasn’t missed the schisms in the movement.       

“If it’s going to be a combined movement, then everyone’s going to have to realize that they’re not the end-all, be-all of the movement,” he said. “Ego has gotten in the way of this movement. It’s destroyed things.”

Back on the plaza that Fat Tuesday night, Custer added a postscript to his speech just before the meeting adjourned. Amid talk of the need for increased numbers in the event of another sweep of the plaza, he called on the members present to be prepared to march right back on the plaza.

“We’re not leaving,” he said, his voice rising for emphasis with the end of each proclamation. “They can take our tents. They can expose us to the elements. They can starve us. But we’re not going to leave.”

Clearly, there is not consensus on that point. But despite the group’s emphatic rejection of hierarchies, Custer is seen by many as a leading voice, if not a leader, of the movement in Nashville. Though he does not stay on the plaza himself, he testified before state House and Senate committees in opposition to the legislation that would evict those who do. Without the type of influence wealthy Americans wield through ads and political contributions, he says the group needs the tents: “They are our billboards.”

While members who talked to The City Paper were not inclined to question his motives on the record, some say his power within the group relies on a maintained presence on the plaza. After all, they say — and it’s true — it was Custer and his wife, at a gathering in Centennial Park in early October, who insisted that the occupation begin immediately and named the place.



At the Feb. 28 general assembly, held after tensions had culminated with the fistfight, several members proposed methods to restore peace and unity to the camp. Both proposals, however — one to address conflicts on the plaza and at general assemblies, and the other to curtail the online bickering that has consumed the group as of late — involved either creating authoritative councils to address conflicts or granting more power to those who already wield it, such as the group’s Web team. Those look like problematic suggestions for a micro-society designed to eschew hierarchies and thus eliminate, or at least minimize, the chance that power will be abused.

Later during the “soapbox” portion of the meeting, Matt Hamill rose to express his frustration with the proceedings. Hamill, who has maintained a nearly constant presence on the plaza from the beginning, made news last month when he briefly occupied the city-owned Metro Courthouse before leaving voluntarily when police showed up — a victory for semantics (as in the words “Occupy” and “Nashville”), if nothing else.

“It kind of pains me that we’re under threat of eviction this week, but yet at this general assembly, all we’ve managed to get accomplished is talking about drama,” he said. “We have made no proposals that deal with eviction. So it really makes me question where our focus is at as a group.”

Still, he had some drama of his own to address. He revealed to those who didn’t already know that he had served 16 months in jail for a marijuana-related offense and was now on probation. Now, he says, thanks in large part to the Occupy movement, he has turned his life around. But when he reported to his probation officer the day before, his car and person were searched and he was given a drug test, which he says he passed.

It seemed someone had called his probation officer and tipped them off, informing them that he had left the state without notifying them and claiming he was doing drugs. To Hamill, it was clearly the work of someone lurking within the movement, looking to discredit the group by sullying his reformed status.

“We definitely have [provocateurs]. I can’t sit and say that I know who they are, because I have no clue. As a matter of fact, I have no clue who I can trust,” he said. “Be careful who you trust, be careful who you confide in, because we have provocateurs, and they’re documenting everything.”

Whatever threats the Occupiers face from within their ranks, state troopers aren’t marching to the plaza just yet. Despite the legislature’s relatively quick work, the governor has given them a full week to leave, and court action may delay their eviction even longer. Occupy Nashville may be getting exactly what they don’t need — more time.

17 Comments on this post:

By: frodo on 3/5/12 at 7:36

I give credit for the sincerity and determination of the Occupy Nashville crew, even though I think their energies are misspent. And I will not miss the blight of their encampment on the Plaza. May each of these gifted persons find more productive ways to contribute to society. Merely living for the next protest isn't it.

By: Nitzche on 3/5/12 at 7:59

Any chance they will now occupy a shower........NAAA

By: Radix on 3/5/12 at 9:09

My advice to these people. Go take a shower, study history, study logic, stop reinventing a broken wheel. Socialism does not work. Everyone prospers when everyone adds value to society. Go do your part.

Every repeated epic failure of the Occupy movement shows that Socialism has hit the high-water mark in the US. The tide is starting to turn back the other way. The people will not be fooled forever, and eventually people wise up to freeloaders.

Now its to take the Kryptonite off of Superman (the US) with a new President, and we will see what we can really do. Prosperity for all only comes through hard work by all.

By: Just Sayin on 3/5/12 at 10:26

Just Sayin, I'm so glad that our state legislatures are working on some of the important issues. Making this top priority shows how the people in our state government really care about the problems facing Tennesse.

By: concretemike on 3/5/12 at 12:10

"I'm 76 and I'm Tired"
By Bill Cosby

I'm 76. Except for brief period in the 50's when I was doing my National
Service, I've worked hard since I was 17. Except for some some serious
health challenges, I put in 50-hour weeks, and didn't call in sick in nearly
40 years. I made a reasonable salary, but I didn't inherit my job or my
income, and I worked to get where I am. Given the economy, it looks as
though retirement was a bad idea, and I'm tired. Very tired.

I'm tired of being told that I have to "spread the wealth" to people who
don't have my work ethic. I'm tired of being told the government will take
the money I earned, by force if necessary, and give it to people too lazy
to earn it.

I'm tired of being told that Islam is a "Religion of Peace," when every day I
can read dozens of stories of Muslim men killing their sisters, wives and
daughters for their family "honor"; of Muslims rioting over some slight
offense; of Muslims murdering Christian and Jews because they aren't
"believers"; of Muslims burning schools for girls; of Muslims stoning
teenage rape victims to death for "adultery"; of Muslims mutilating the
genitals of little girls; all in the name of Allah, because the Qur'an and
Shari'a law tells them to.

I'm tired of being told that out of "tolerance for other cultures" we must let
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries use our oil money to fund mosques
and madrassa Islamic schools to preach hate in Australia , New Zealand ,
UK, America and Canada , while no one from these countries are allowed to
fund a church, synagogue or religious school in Saudi Arabia or any other
Arab country to teach love and tolerance..

I'm tired of being told I must lower my living standard to fight global
warming, which no one is allowed to debate.

I'm tired of being told that drug addicts have a disease, and I must help
support and treat them, and pay for the damage they do. Did a giant germ
rush out of a dark alley, grab them, and stuff white powder up their noses
or stick a needle in their arm while they tried to fight it off?

I'm tired of hearing wealthy athletes, entertainers and politicians of all
parties talking about innocent mistakes, stupid mistakes or youthful
mistakes, when we all know they think their only mistake was getting
caught. I'm tired of people with a sense of entitlement, rich or poor.

I'm really tired of people who don't take responsibility for their lives and
actions. I'm tired of hearing them blame the government, or discrimination
or big-whatever for their problems.

I'm also tired and fed up with seeing young men and women in their teens and
early 20's be-deck them selves in tattoos and face studs, thereby making
themselves un-employable and claiming money from the Government.

Yes, I'm damn tired. But I'm also glad to be 76.. Because, mostly, I'm not
going to have to see the world these people are making. I'm just sorry for
my granddaughter and her children. Thank God I'm on the way out and not
on the way in.

Go tell it like it is Bill.........

Goodbye Occupiers it's time to take a shower, change clothes and go find a job. There are no more handouts coming, if you want something you are going to work for it. There will be no re-distribution of the wealth in our country because those who have it have worked to make it and will do everything in their power to protect it. My wife and I are by no means rich but we have both finished high school, served our country in a branch of the military services, gone on to college and graduated while paying our own way by working and saving. Our families were not rich or well off and never gave us a dime toward school, getting married or starting our life. We didn't need it either we are stronger for it there is nothing we can't overcome! If you want my wealth you can come pry it from my cold, dead hands!!!!

By: Ronny on 3/5/12 at 12:20

Everyone should read these stories also.







By: shinestx on 3/5/12 at 12:21

Former SEIU leader Stephen Lerner is now using the Occupy movement to take private property away from all Americans... anti-capitalist... pro Marxism... http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/03/04/SEIU-lerner-Occupy

By: nash615 on 3/5/12 at 3:00

Glad to see we're still not at risk of an intellectual revolution springing forth from the fertile melting pot of the City Paper comment threads. I was getting worried that a People's Revolution might spring up and we as a complacent nation would be overwhelmed and overtaken...

Just a few factual points to break the monotony of erroneous ignorance, in case there are some readers left who don't breathe through their mouths:

- Occupy isn't promoting Socialism. In fact, corporate welfare is the problem under discussion. A truly free market wouldn't see corporations bailed out to the tune of $7 TRILLION by a government which uses military force to back up its robbery of citizens via taxes and plundering of Social Security. Some of the protestors may not be in tune with a Free Market either, a mythical beast none of us has ever seen, but Planned Economy is here, and we're living it, but only the tiniest sliver of the populace (dear reader, you ain't it) is on the upside of our current, already-here socialism.

- Bill Cosby didn't write that redneck retard screed, as much as you wish he'd put his imprimatur on it. That's straight from talk radio, the land of self-congratulatory circle-jerking. Pretending you're the foundation of the greatness of an America which no longer exists is doing nothing but making it harder for you now and in the future, as that greatness trickles away abroad through a combination of Globalization and the reluctance of foreigners to risk travel to an emerging Fascist state in North America.

- Left vs. Right; Socialism vs. Capitalism; Occupy vs. Tea Party -- non-sensical distinctions, battle lines in a war that exists in your mind.

Occupy is the first political movement to speak to the real battle lines: the few thousand people with all the money and power, vs. everyone else. THAT is why shutting down the Occupy message is the most important item on the legislative agenda in every legislature in our country. THAT is why you've seen jackbooted thugs with pepper spray, rubber bullets, dogs, batons, and military sound weapons taking out what are basically unarmed peaceful resisters and the occasional drum circle.

While you've been taught to hate the drum circle demographic by your FoxNews masters, you might ask yourself, if they don't really pose a threat, why is the corporate-governmental-military infrastructure spending so much effort to destroy them and their message. They clearly are not a physical threat. They must be an ideological threat. They're only an ideological threat if their message (that corporate dollars own our government, and hence own us) is correct.

Their message is correct. And you've been complicit in shutting it down, while cheering on the legislation to criminalize ever speaking the truth. While you're creatively screaming "GET A JOB, HIPPY" from the cab of the pickup truck you're still upside-down on, the dirty hippies on the plaza are fighting the fight you should be fighting -- presuming you really are against Socialism, and all about standing for The American Way and the free market (whatever those things are).

Good job.

'Merica!!!! #$^@ yeah!!!!

By: frodo on 3/5/12 at 3:13

You beat me, nash615, in pointing out that the "Bill Cosby" rant was not written or said by Bill Cosby. I'm not sure that makes it wrong, nor that you listen to so much talk radio to know they are at fault for the miss-attribution. But at least you got that one point right. Otherwise, wow, you are cooking a whole lot of hatred there, nash.Bitterness at the very least. And you are sure of a lot of things for someone who wants others to consider they might be wrong. You are not making much sense. My advice...dial it back a bit and make a rational case before you go on to the next unsupported point. You'll have a better chance of winning my mind over.

By: nash615 on 3/5/12 at 3:27

Great critique, Frodo! Thanks for pointing out the problems in my argument. I particularly like how you should the logical error I was making in that specific step in my argument where I, what ... oh, right, you didn't do anything but say I was wrong and using an angry tone so I could win over your mind.

I'll get to work on that.


By: frodo on 3/5/12 at 4:10

Sorry, nash615, I guess a gave you a glimmer of hope I was going to support your comments, and then let you down. It isn't the facts or (mostly) opinions you put forth here that I have a problem with. It is that your way of presenting your points is perhaps too lofty for my mind. The only things that come through clearly to me from your writing here and in other posts is that you are really down on Christians, Republicans, corporate welfare (although I think you are a little confused on the origins of corporate welfare), George Bush and any governor who acts outside the bounds of law (oh, except when there is a new law, and then you don't like that, either).

Otherwise, your points pretty much go over my head. I'm still waiting for you to mail me a check to put "frequent commenters into a degree program" (10/3/11), because when you say things like, "I presume I don't know which party line I am supposed to spout..." (said sometime last year), then how are we suppose to follow your line of reasoning?

About corporate welfare, by the way, my observation is that a lot of the corporate welfare we see today is simply central planners trying to control everything you and I do by rewarding some companies for getting with the political agenda (Solydra, Government Motors, etc.) while punishing others for true innovation.

By: nash615 on 3/5/12 at 5:59

Frodo, I'd be a fool (which I surely am, but I'm guessing for different reasons) to look for glimmers of hope here. So far the best I can derive from your responses is that I have a fan devoted enough to keep a notebook of my commentary, with dates, even though I am talking over your head, and that I have negative opinions about Christians (fundamentalists, to be fair), Republicans (see also Democrats, but they don't seem to bother spouting off here), corporate welfare (the more recent the more egregious, especially when the giveaways the last few years dwarf the sum total of all such in the decades before), and, yes, acts of treason by elected officials. I'm thinking pointing out that I hold such opinions is a criticism, but I'll take your word for it.

Hm. Best I can tell, for shooting down the idiotic dribblings of armchair redneck pundits I've been told I am opposed to fundamentalism, and I'm evidently too smart, but somehow I'm wrong and would be criticized if there were anything to criticize in my arguments other than that I make them and I should really be wrong, somehow.

Good show. Maybe I'll start a newsletter and tell you where you can subscribe.

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By: Jughead on 3/6/12 at 10:24

I love the Chinese posts. Promote Marxism and body odor, just like the Occupytards.

By: yucchhii on 3/6/12 at 11:32

yucchhii Dear FRODO, I appreaciate your respect toward the occupy protestors. But allow me to point out something that I see in regards to Occupy protestors.
You see their energies being waisted and I understand TO A POINT the point YOU are making. However, with as bad off as this USA government is getting OR RATHER...has GOTTEN, it's ovbious that the politicians, republican or democrat (makes no difference) are digging this great country of ours into a HUGE hole and if no one takes a stand, especially on our behalf, then we will be lost and the rest of the world can TREAD on us. I can see that happening, oh hell, it's been happening for a while now, it's getting worse.
If not the occupy protestors, then WHO? I hope you understand the point I am making. Take care.

By: yucchhii on 3/6/12 at 11:39

yucchhii Hey NITCZHE...Any chance that you can occupy the operating table to install a brain in your head?

By: ancienthighway on 3/6/12 at 1:47

The splintering of the Occupy Nashville movement comes as no surprise to me. When I looked into it last fall, there were no long terms goals of the movement in place. It's actions were focused on symptoms of the problems, not the cause of the problems. It wouldn't be a shock to me if I was to talk to 10 different members of this group and found out there were 10 different opinions about what the movement was about. Let's see the finger wiggling in agreement.

Oh, yes, the finger wiggling. It is simply a means to silence dissenters. If you are wiggling your fingers down, it's easy for a leader to say he didn't see you. Voice your opinions and dissent get's you noticed and heard.

Cries of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and no suggestings of what can make it better, fall on deaf ears.

Tell me, now that the occupation is winding down, what exactly did you expect to achieve with your tent billboards and sitting on your bum in front of the state legislative building? The state government has no power that I know to regulate banking or change Federal Income Tax laws.