Not to be left out of the would-be American Spring — one that began in New York before sweeping the nation — the discontented members of Nashville’s 99 percent announced their presence with a rally on Oct. 6.
On that Thursday afternoon, the crowd on the plaza in the Capitol’s shadow — which, it turns out, is not technically called Legislative Plaza — swelled to more than 300 people. They may well have been inspired by the reports of a 20,000 strong march on Wall Street in New York the night before.
But the members of the newly formed Occupy Nashville group stayed put, claiming the plaza with promises of a continued presence, underscored by repeated chants — “Whose plaza?” one would shout, calling for the crowd’s response, “Our plaza!” Throughout the afternoon, various members of the group stepped forward to address the crowd, making use of of the “human microphone,” a technique by which a speaker’s words are repeated, and thus amplified, by the rest of the crowd.
The short speeches served as a vehicle for the airing of personal grievances and the refining of the group’s main thesis — that corporate personhood and corporate involvement in politics further enriches the few at the expense of the many — an argument encapsulated in their now ubiquitous slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”
Two days later, at a meeting in Centennial Park, they reached the conclusion that it was time to begin their occupation. And so, that night, they annexed the plaza, setting up tents, establishing a makeshift kitchen and even drafting a code of conduct. They held nightly General Assemblies and broke into various working groups focused on more specific goals — a media team to get the word out, a direct-action group to plan smaller, targeted protests, and a security team to keep the peace.
As the temperatures dropped, though, and the group’s resources diminished, their numbers began to wane. At meetings, the remaining occupiers discussed strategies for sustaining the movement through the winter, a prospect that was looking increasingly dim.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, rejuvenation came in the form of a permit requirement and an overnight curfew on the plaza, announced by the state’s Department of General Services on Oct. 27. The policy, which cited alleged criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions as its impetus, served as a siren-call to Occupy sympathizers, local media and suddenly interested citizens. Even those who had boisterously opposed the protesters’ message — most notably, perhaps, former communications director for the Tennessee Republican Party, Bill Hobbs — were drawn to the plaza to defend their right to declare that message.
As the curfew went into effect at 10 p.m., the group announced their intention to defy what they saw as an attack on free speech. As midnight passed, it appeared they might have called the state’s bluff. But at around 3 a.m., after the protesters’ ranks had thinned and the media presence had lessened, 75 troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol moved in and, after giving the group a 10-minute warning, arrested 29 protesters who refused to leave.
The following night, the episode repeated, when 26 more people were arrested, including Jonathan Meador of the Nashville Scene and Malina Shannon, a student photojournalist on a class assignment.
That Monday, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger, responding to an ACLU-brought lawsuit against Haslam and other state officials, issued a temporary restraining order, barring any further arrests. The order reinforced the rulings of Metro Night Court Magistrate Tom Nelson, who twice denied warrants for the protesters’ arrests and asserted that the state had no authority to authorize the curfew. Eventually, the state asked that all charges against those arrested be dropped.
Emails later released by the THP and other state agencies would show that troopers had gone undercover among the protesters, reporting on their numbers and keeping tabs on the media’s presence. Additionally, they revealed a concern among some officials, that the force required for the evictions could lead to more fatalities on the roads, as troopers were pulled off duty to compensate for time spent on the plaza. They also included claims of criminal activity and “orgies” occurring on and around the plaza, charges Occupy Nashville members have vehemently denied.
In the months since, the group has remained, though they have returned to the status of an occasional blip on the local radar. They have continued to carry out direct actions, including a controversial demonstration at Corrections Corporation of America and, more recently, a bit of volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank. Despite the indefinite restraining order, they have occasionally found new ways to attract the attention of law enforcement, though arrests have been few.
While Occupy factions around the country have continued to face harsh crackdowns, the Nashville encampment has endured. Having declared multiple victories over the state, their claim on the so-called “People’s Plaza” remains intact. And for the time being, Nashville remains occupied.
Other top city stories from 2011
MCC: Even though the Music City Center has been in the works for the past several years, 2011 is when the 1.2 million-square-foot facility got real. What started out as a large protrusion on Eighth Avenue in January developed into a physical sketch of the massive convention center by year’s end.
MCC (2): A jury found that the Metropolitan Housing and Development Authority undervalued a key parcel of Music City Center land owned by Tower Investments. The court decision determined that the Tower parking lot was worth $30 million, more than twice what MDHA offered for it.
Gaile Owens: A Former death row inmate Owens was released on parole from Tennessee Women’s Prison in Nashville on Oct. 7 after more than 25 years behind bars. She was originally sentenced to death for hiring a man to kill her husband, Ron, in 1985.
TSU: A year that began with a warning from creditors ended in jubilation for Tennessee State University. TSU interim president Portia Shields’ decision to slash six academic programs and consolidate others was criticized by a “Save TSU” coalition. But good news came in December as TSU was re-accredited for the next 10 years.
WRVU: Vanderbilt-based radio station WRVU entered into a contract to be sold to Nashville Public Radio in June, amid clamoring from the station’s longtime fans who mourned the loss of independent music’s only outlet on Music City airwaves. The purchase is not finalized, though — the FCC still needs to approve the sale in 2012.