It's high noon in the heart of the state's political and commercial nexus as some 400 people coalesce around an open pit on sun-baked Legislative Plaza. Within the eye of this building human storm, various speakers air their grievances with the Powers That Be. Some speak through a bullhorn; others utilize the call-and-response magic of the "human microphone." They are young and old, black, white and colors in between, and they are, to be sure, mad as hell — at greedy Wall Street bankers, at a political system corrupted by corporate cash, at 30 years of declining wages and growing income inequality.
Despite a lone protester wielding a "Vote Ron Paul" sign, however, Tea Partiers they are not.
"We are not anti-GOP or anti-Democrat," bellows Michael Custer, a speaker in the crowd's center. "We are here to take greed and corporate influence out of government. We are here to take our country back. We are the 99 percent!"
"We are the 99 percent!" the crowd roars back.
So begins the first action of Occupy Nashville — a local iteration of the amorphous, leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement hatched over the summer by Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, and begun officially on Sept. 17 in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park with an as-yet-undefined message of defiance against the concentration of power by the nation's wealthiest 1 percent. Over the past month, as scores of the largely peaceful Wall Street protesters have been pepper-sprayed, arrested and summarily beaten by New York's finest, similar Occupy movements have galvanized thousands into the public spaces of roughly 100 U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles — and closer to home, Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville.
Retired preschool special-ed teacher Jane Hussain believes that these displays of unrest are born partly from youth-led frustrations with President Barack Obama's lackluster response to the problems facing the country — particularly the economy, which, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employs fewer 16-24 year-olds than at any time since 1948, the year that the BLS began tracking such information.
"I'm 65," Hussain says, "and it's about time that the people took over. In the '60s, we thought it was urgent to take action because of the military draft. Now, it seems that underemployment and joblessness provides a similar urgency for young people today to act."
"Young people really got involved in 2008 for Obama," she continues. "But after he was elected, reality set in and they became disillusioned with politics to the point that they sat out in 2010, which enabled the Tea Party to elect conservatives in large numbers. Now, I think, they're seeing that elections aren't the only route to change things. Yes, of course you should vote, but it takes more than just voting to shape the discussion."
Others think that whatever ails America is a sickness found not just on Capitol Hill, but in our own backyards.
"I'm particularly disturbed by the attitude of the average Tennessean," the Rev. James Hubbard, a Springfield alderman and Vietnam War veteran, tells the Scene. "We're 49th in education, we're a right-to-work state with rising unemployment ... and we keep electing people like [Gov. Bill] Haslam, who is not sensitive to the needs of the average Tennessean because he was part of corporate America, the kind of person who in the political arena dictates policy that favors corporations and not people. We're tired of people like him perpetuating the problem."
Figuring out what aggrieves people like Hussain and Hubbard is as simple as talking with them. Yet the meaning behind these protests has so far eluded the mainstream media, which is categorically mystified by the Occupy movement's lack of a coherent, Madison Avenue-approved message in lieu of tricorner hats outfitted with Lipton tea bags.
Among the protesters who spoke with the Scene, their reasons for taking it to the streets are myriad: bank bailouts, unsustainable and illegal wars, democracy bought and paid for by tax-dodging corporations unaccountable to the masses, crony capitalism, the influence of money in elections — and as George Carlin put it, a sinking feeling that "the system is rigged, folks."
To this end, representatives from various Tennessee social-justice nonprofits are peppering the energized but respectful assembly, including Meagan Riggs of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation.
"Tennessee has the third-highest food tax rate in the nation, at 5.5. percent," Riggs says. "Coupled with a regressive sales tax, that unjustly places the greatest burden on lower- and middle-class families. We're here today to educate people about how taxes in this state are hurting the people at the bottom."
If you're still confused as to why these people — none of whom, it should be noted, has brandished a single conga drum — are occupying Nashville, look no further than the group's website.
"Occupy Nashville is a group of people representing a wide cross-section of Middle Tennessee who have come together in support of the many occupy movements across the country with the goal of ending the corporate corruption of our political system and thereby giving the voice of democracy back to the people," reads a post on occupynashville.org. "[We are] not bound by any political affiliation. We wish to remind all citizens in the state of Tennessee freedom is not free, but must be paid for in the form of time and action. We urge the citizens of Tennessee to unite and donate your time, your skills, and your actions to help this growing movement."
Easy enough to understand, right? But if your only knowledge of these protests comes by way of the cable-news punditburo, you'd be forgiven for dismissing them as little more than ragtag mobs of self-absorbed trust-fund types wielding iPhones and hacky sacks, hellbent on turning the United States of America into a full-fledged Communist dictatorship.
"These people are only interested in destruction," declared Glenn Beck on his radio show in an Oct. 5 broadcast. "That leads to gas chambers. That leads to guillotines. That leads to millions dead. That leads to Mao. That leads to totalitarianism, every single time."
This paranoid ethos toward a movement not dissimilar to early Tea Party gatherings (minus the xenophobia) is having a trickle-down effect among the right's rank-and-file.
"They're just doing this to be spiteful, because they don't want to get a job," says self-identified Tea Partier Robert Johnson, a public school teacher visiting Nashville from his native Paducah, Ky, who has been heckling the Occupy Nashville contingent from afar for about half an hour.
"These people are delusional," Johnson continues, adding that they are wasting their time protesting (despite having attended a half-dozen Tea Party protests himself) before returning to his chants of "Republicans! Tea Party! Get a job!"
At that moment, Mary, a young protester wearing a placard, approaches Johnson and shakes his hand, saying, "You've been trained very well."
Johnson responds by grabbing the girl's wrists with both hands, trying to get at her poster. "What do you mean, 'trained'?" he retorts. After a momentary tussle, Johnson lets her go and launches into a diatribe about capitalism and freedom going hand-in-hand before sauntering off with his 7-year-old granddaughter, who informs the Scene that she doesn't like politics.
In the week since the Legislative Plaza demonstration, the General Assembly of Occupy Nashville has made plans to indefinitely occupy the space. And by Saturday, Oct. 8, they made good on them. Protesters in varying numbers have been sleeping alongside the homeless denizens of downtown Nashville night after night in solidarity with thousands the country over.
When asked how long they plan to stay, an organizer for Occupy Nashville responded, simply, "Forever."