by Jim Ridley
The upcoming March/April issue of the literary journal Nashville Skyline will center on the theme of "Home." But for her piece, Amanda Cantrell Roche chose the opposite tack. She spent a night in a tent on War Memorial Plaza with the Occupy Nashville encampment, which led her to make this video.
With the encampment's days on the plaza likely numbered, and the journal not coming out until next month, we asked Roche — a founder of Murfreesboro's Blue Moves Modern Dance Group, now in its 23rd year, and a veteran of numerous local arts groups — to describe her experience:
What made you decide to go down there?
I have been an activist since high school and a firm believer in free speech and peaceful protests, and so when the Occupy movement started happening in October I was inspired. What an exciting time to watch it spread across the country! If my father had not been dying and in residential Hospice in October, I'm sure I would have been more a part at the beginning.
In November, I took my 12-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son with me on a Saturday to a General Assembly (GA) to get a better idea of what the movement was about. I was impressed with the process of the meetings, and how it allowed so much participation and the expression of ideas and proposals which were not necessarily popular, as well as a process to try to reform the proposals in an effort to gain consensus. I've been wanting to get back since then, and when the Nashville Skyline writers chose the theme "Home" for our next issue, it seemed like the perfect time to write about the people who call Legislative Plaza home.
Being a journalist can be a perfect avenue into putting oneself into a scene. Because I was drawn to the movement but as a parent and teaching artist not logistically able to be a part of it long-term, this satisfied a personal desire to experience, at least briefly, what it is like to actually camp out on Legislative Plaza as part of the Occupy movement. I also felt that spending only an hour or two there would not be an authentic enough experience to really write about living on the Plaza, and I didn't think it would allow enough time to develop enough trust for people to feel comfortable talking to me. I also felt that my willingness to join the camp — on a night when the low was 29 degrees! — would show some solidarity with the people. It seemed to work.
You're best known for your work with various local arts organizations. Do the issues raised by the Occupy movement have any bearing on the arts?
I don't feel they have a direct bearing on the arts, though the arts are of course dramatically affected by the economy. Arts funding is one of the first to be cut in education as well as in funding of organizations when budgets are tight. The movement has inspired some great music.
What were the people like, and what was the mood you found given the unease about the encampment's future?
I spent time with a dozen or more people, and spoke in depth — an hour or more — with five people. There are all kinds of people there. Some are the official Occupy Nashville folks, such as Matt, a fairly young guy who knew I was coming and showed me a spot to pitch my tent and introduced me to my tent neighbor Anthony, another "official" Occupier who keeps an eye on the food tent and supplies. Clay, a soft-spoken, intelligent Occupier who spent October in the camp but now does not stay there in the evenings, gave me a long tour of the camp that evening and spoke honestly of some of the challenges, such as fractiousness within the camp. He pointed out where some someone had painted "Power Struggle" on the media tent.
There are several other "official" Occupiers, many of whom do not Occupy in the sense that they are actively involved in organization, events, GAs ... but they do not sleep nor live on the Plaza. Michael is one of these, an articulate, knowledgeable activist whose heart is deeply devoted to the cause, but also to his 14-year-old son and wife. Then there is a group of Occupiers who live there and firmly believe in the cause and the idea that corporations are unjustly favored by laws, there is not a strong enough safety net for the homeless and struggling, there are too many lobbyists buying government and our freedoms are being eroded. They help man the tables and have signs and talk to passers by, but they don't usually attend the GAs.
Two of these men in particular were the last two featured in the video, Tom Sweet and Joe Mallard, and they were my guardian angels while I was there. Tom, a middle-aged gentleman who is partially disabled from a stroke he suffered on Feb. 14, 2011, lost his townhouse in late January and is homeless and jobless. In the 1970s he owned and lived on a boat in Florida with his wife and two kids and worked as a fisherman until widespread drug smuggling on the water made it too dangerous and he sold out. His wife died of cancer in 1999 and he "lost" three years to drinking before he became sober and turned his life around.
Joe Mallard is a former Marine whose benefits have been tied up in paperwork because all the "I"s were not dotted. After serving in the Marines for 18 years, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he returned to the states and spent a couple of years wandering around the country and ended up in Nashville. He is articulate, smart and determined. Like many there, he is looking for work and accesses applications online, but not many people are interested in hiring a middle-aged man who spent several years in combat situations. He made sure I was safe and told me the next day, "Three days ago, I would have never left your side. There have been some unsafe situations here." Joe and Matt and others have had to self-police the camp because police have stopped responding to emergencies there and unsafe situations, such as a homeless woman fighting with and badly cutting her husband a few nights before I was there.
Judah, a middle-aged man from Miami who has a friendly smile and easy-going karma, is another person I spent quite a bit of time with. He struck up a conversation with me, asking my opinion on what should be done about the homeless man sitting at the corner of the camp. He had defecated on himself, and was sitting under a sleeping bag, refusing help from the Occupiers. Judah was obviously concerned about the man and what to do, and talked of the Baker Act, which allows police to hold someone against their will for 72 hours for emergency care and mental evaluation.
Another woman I spoke with for about an hour I will call Karen, because she did not want her name used due to a situation with DHS and her son who is currently living with her mother. She is homeless and switched between using "you" and "we" when referring to the Occupiers. She works at a Mexican restaurant, showers wherever she can, looks after her husband and is looking for work. Like many, she was originally there because she has no home, but the presence of the Occupiers has given her a cause to support.
The line is often blurred between Occupiers and homeless. There were many other transients I spoke with who were there because they had no home, including a 17-year-old Sudanese girl who was pregnant with twins, but who seemed to enjoy the community of the Occupy movement.
I was told by Clay and others that the left side of the Plaza were the ostracized. These people do not adhere to the Occupy Code of Conduct (including no drinking or drugs). Personally, I think some of these people are the ones giving Occupiers a bad name. But as Michael said today when I went by to visit, their presence is also indicative of the economic problems in our society. I'm sure people would prefer the homeless out of sight because it can be unsightly to be sleeping on the sidewalks, but pushing them under bridges doesn't make them or the problem go away.
The mood for some was despondent. Some of the chronically homeless don't know where to go but their lives are transient and they are just living one day at a time. Others are actively planning strategies and discussing where the camp might legally be moved. Several, such as Joe, are determined to stay and are willing to go to jail.
Was it anything like what you expected from the media coverage?
Much of the media coverage I have seen has been focused on what I consider the "official" Occupy people, the GAs and the various legal issues involving camping on state property. I expected a younger group of people there and there certainly were several younger people, but those who took the time to spend with me were mostly middle-aged and, at least temporarily, homeless but very much committed to the cause. I haven't seen those people very often featured in media stories.
Based on what you saw, what would be the hardest thing about staying there long-term — and after staying there yourself for a night, did it change the way you thought about the Occupiers?
It's hard to live without electricity and running water. They have had on-and-off access to electricity which is helpful for Internet access, media outreach, research, planning and just basic needs such as charging a phone or laptop, but their electricity has again been cut off. It is a challenge to find places to stay clean, especially for those like Karen who have to go to work every day. And the cold is tough. Luckily I had a good sleeping bag and some Hot Hands packets to wear in my socks and gloves while sleeping, but it was bitterly cold outside the tent. A couple of nights after I was there the low was in the teens, and that is dangerous.
This experience absolutely changed the way I thought about the Occupiers. I admired them for doing this, but now I have formed a bond with some of them, my respect and understanding and admiration has been deepened, and I am on a mission to help chip away at the false, negative stereotypes many people have of Occupiers. Joe Mallard is my new hero. I went to the Plaza today to see him and give him a big hug and wish him well. If he and others are willing to go to jail for raising awareness of problems in our society and standing up for what they believe, they deserve to be recognized as people with ethics and morals and not people who just need to be swept out of sight.