Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Whose Plaza?

Anyone who even occasionally aspires to put into words something they don't want to acknowledge will understand when I say this blog entry is the most difficult I can recall ever undertaking.  This piece has been "written" a hundred times in my head, considered for hours over days and weeks.  I've assigned "deadlines" for myself more than once in the past week for when I was sure I'd get it done, even assuring others that it was forthcoming and promising when that would be, efforts to push myself to overcome my reluctance to say what I knew in my gut needed to be said.  Today, I've had the tab open to begin writing for three hours because I still don't want to do it.

I'm not the only one with a dilemma today.  This afternoon, the Tennessee House of Representatives Judiciary Committee will hear arguments relative to proposed legislation that could potentially lead to the sooner rather than later eviction of Occupy Nashville from Legislative Plaza.  HB2638, introduced by Republican Representative Eric Watson from Cleveland, would make law specific to the issue of using publicly owned property as a place of residence.  This bill and its sister bill in the Senate (SB2508, introduced by state Senator Delores Gresham, Republican from Somerville) have already been reviewed by Fiscal Review Committee and found to not represent a significant increase in either expenditures or revenue for the state if enacted.  Sponsors of the legislation have publicly declared the Tennessee Attorney General's office has given the green light about the constitutionality of it all and there seems to me no reason to expect this won't pass and become law relatively easy.

What should Occupy Nashville's response be to this?  Supporters of ON have been engaged in writing letters, meeting with lawmakers, and will gather to Occupy the meeting room when the Judiciary Committee convenes this afternoon.  Their position might be best presented by their own open letter to Governor Bill Haslam, members of the Tennessee state legislature, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.  In short, ON is (rightfully) making the case that this law will have impact on much more than the physical occupation of the plaza by people affiliated with the movement.

Occupy camps have been evicted all over the country since the first tents went up for Occupy Wall Street on September 17, 2011 and Nashville has enjoyed relative immunity from any such attempts since their legal counsel successfully petitioned the federal court for an injunction after the state attempted to evict on the grounds of hastily drawn up new rules governing use of Legislative Plaza last fall.  The proposed legislation, however, potentially broadens the scope of what the legal issues are, and while there are arguments on both sides of how effectively the new law might be implemented in face of the currently in place injunction, common sense should dictate the reality that ON will not "occupy" the plaza forever.  What remains to be seen is how they will leave.

The issue of homeless people and Occupy camps has been one of much discussion and I've had a bit to say about it on this blog as well.  I'm not sure any aspect of the overall issue has been more picked over than that of who is an "occupier" and who is "just" homeless.  This is a distinction that has always seemed artificial, at best, to me and one that, at worst, perpetuates the very system and its abuses that we've proclaimed our opposition to.  In ON, for example, I've repeatedly seen the numbers of occupiers represented to the public to be inclusive of anyone who's physically on the plaza for any reason, while all the while seeing the same people who declare and repeat those numbers complain to a different audience about who gets to eat food first on the plaza.  Over and over again, the clear message from some in ON has been that the homeless count when they're needed to show large numbers presumed by the presence of their tents and bodies on the plaza, but not so much when they should go to the end of the line to eat because someone deems their participation on the site not valid enough to eat the same and when others do.

Here's what I'd like to see.  I'd like to see some honesty and transparency about who exactly is "occupying" the plaza these days.  For starters, let's acknowledge the truth that there are basically no occupiers on the plaza now who have homes to be in elsewhere.  By that definition, they are, in fact, all "homeless."  The small group of people on site now who earlier in the occupation could have been said to have homes have quit their jobs since the movement began and either abandoned or otherwise lost their places of residence.  In effect, those "occupiers" need the plaza because it has become their home and they need the support of the ON community in order to have their daily needs (like food) met.

As I've contemplated what it might mean for Occupy Nashville if they were to be evicted from the plaza, I keep coming back to the same place, which is to ask myself if ON is even still on the plaza now.  I'm not sure that it is. The simple truth of the matter lies in looking at who's in GA meetings.  Whose faces are those?  Most of them don't stay on the plaza.  Who are the people behind the scenes making things like the action to save Ms. Bailey's home from foreclosure happen?  Who are the volunteers that have helped the group with their finances and legal issues?  Again, these are mostly supporters of ON, not ON people who are staying on the plaza.

For me, the question has certainly arisen over just what is the value of a physical occupation in Nashville in the first place.  Going back to last fall, I was in favor of occupying and most specifically in favor of occupying Legislative Plaza.  The symbolism of taking over public land in the shadow of the state capitol and holding it in such an in-your-face manner is powerful.  The location also has made it a very visible instrument of public relations, with its high pedestrian traffic and proximity to TPAC.  As many of us have noted, it's a photographer's dream too; I defy anybody to find a more visually attractive Occupy site than Nashville's.  When I walked the perimeter in the wee hours of the morning one late October morning looking for signs of the Tennessee Highway Patrol about to swoop in for another night of arrests, it seemed terribly important to me that the camp be maintained.

Since that time, I've seen camp conditions deteriorate.  Emails circulating internally this week make it clear that the problems with things like stolen personal property, misappropriation and/or theft of camp funds, physical assaults haven't improved.  Even the issue of food and its availability is a source of contention, with an almost farcical episode of what I'll call "The Great Kitchen Caper" being streamed live last night.  With increasing frequency, I hear from supporters of ON that they're no longer feeling safe to come to the plaza.  To borrow from another vernacular, Houston, we have a problem.

The bills before the Tennessee legislature are bad law because they're one more step in the ongoing process of making it illegal to be poor or homeless in this country.  I'd hope that Occupy Nashville can be an active part of a successful process to oppose it on those grounds.  But, I'd also like to see them use this as an opportunity to take a look at just how revolutionary they are here.  It's one thing to giggle giddily about the thrill of being in camo while tooling around town in street theater, it's quite another to take a stand and declare with public honesty that those who do not have homes to be in have a right to exist and not have their very being outlawed by legislation that makes it impossible to live on public land when they have none of their own.  If ON wants to be truly revolutionary here, perhaps they'll take a stand that says they support an occupation of the plaza by anybody who needs to be there because they have no other place to be, and that includes people who are "just" homeless, as well as those who abandoned the homes and jobs they had in what could otherwise go down in their personal history as the chapter in which they got to play revolutionaries.  As I've noted here before, the laws that have been used to harass Occupy camps all over the U.S. are the same laws used to harass the homeless before the first Occupy tent was ever pitched.  If nothing else, can we not make a stand that assures change for them after the last Occupy tent is gone?