The Occupy Wall Street movement officially landed in Nashville Thursday as several hundred members of the local group Occupy Nashville gathered at Legislative Plaza to protest corporate greed and, as one demonstrator put it, to emphasize there is “no wealth without labor.”
The event occurred one day after what was perhaps the largest protest yet in New York City, where upwards of 20,000 people marched on Wall Street Wednesday night, according to multiple reports. The Wall Street protests started Sept. 17 and have spawned similar demonstrations across the country.
Demonstrators in Nashville carried signs and led chants expressing the group’s primary complaints — chief among them, corporate personhood and corporate involvement in politics. At one point, the group marched a lap around the state capitol, chanting, “We are the 99 percent,” a statement to identify themselves as those beneath the wealthiest 1 percent on the economic ladder, which has become a rallying cry for the movement. One woman even pushed her child in a stroller adorned with the message.
In between group chants, various members of the group stepped forward to address the crowd. Most speakers received cheers and shouts of encouragement with each statement, but one man was shouted down after expressing support for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Occupy Nashville has stated that it will not endorse any political candidate.
Speakers amplified their voices by way of the “human microphone,” a technique where the speaker’s statements are repeated loudly by the crowd so that all can hear.
Among the speakers was Springfield alderman James M. Hubbard. A Vietnam veteran and associate pastor at Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville, Hubbard told The City Paper he attended to continue a history of defending the ideals America holds most dear.
“I’m here today because I spent nine years defending this country in Vietnam and around the world — specifically to protect and defend the preamble to the Constitution, ‘We, the people.’ And with sad regards, corporate greed and inconsiderate conservative politicians have made America a hostage,” he said. “The present climate has deemed the average American powerless in all aspects. The dream has died.”
Officially, the group has rejected the idea that it is following a specific group of leaders or head organizers, though some have been particularly vocal. Michael Custer, who stood to welcome the crowd to the “first public general assembly of Occupy Nashville” Thursday and spoke several times at the group’s organizational meeting last Sunday, said the group doesn’t have one leader, but that he’s “been loud all [his] life.” Asked why he believed the group had gathered Thursday, he wanted to clarify a point he thinks some have been missing.
“We’re not here because we’re anti-wealth or anti-corporation. We’re here because of the greed,” he said. “No man is worth 1,000 times more than another man. I don’t care if there are wealthy people. But there is no wealth without labor. When they attack labor, they attack their own wealth.”
While most in the plaza Thursday appeared to agree with Custer’s statement, the demonstration did draw some detractors. One man appeared several times, once shouting at the protesters to “get a job” and “make some money” and later exclaiming “Tea Party,” as he pumped his fist. Observers even witnessed a brief physical altercation between the man and a young woman.
Jeff Howe, of Wilson County — which he called, “home of the GOP” — was more subdued in his opposition to the demonstration, but no more convinced of its merits. He said he has seen this before.
“It’s the same old thing; class-baiting, race-baiting. It’s Obama-nation. You know what they want? They want a handout,” said Howe, a father of six who is a former Marine and has a son currently serving overseas. “Veterans paid so these people can be here saying whatever they want to say.”
Some of what demonstrators were saying didn’t seem too far from Howe’s own feelings.
“Ninety-eight percent of congress probably is bought and paid for by corporations,” Howe said, adding that not all corporations are greedy. “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Moreover, he said, most are missing the real point, a point he brought up in several conversations with demonstrators.
“I’m a born-again believer,” he said. “All this is a side show to the spiritual battle that’s going on.”
Sarah White, Mark Brooks and Salmun Kazerounian, members of the National Lawyer’s Guild, kept watch on the outskirts of the plaza, ready to provide legal support, if necessary. They said they attend such demonstrations in order to report any police misconduct, but that they had not witnessed any problems and didn’t expect to.
By approximately 2 p.m., the group had largely dissipated, with plans to reassemble for a second rally to be held later in the day at Centennial Park.