One week ago, police evicted Occupy Memphis, one of the longest continually-running occupations in the U.S. The following statement was approved by Occupy Memphis in response to the eviction. We felt that it summarized what many in our movement have felt and experienced over the past year.
August 10 was a sad day for all of Occupy Memphis and especially for our many sisters, brothers, and family who have been holding down the camp and supporting this movement for the past ten months. There have been many wonderful times as well as challenges. Yet Occupy Memphis (OM) has been an instrumental voice for social justice in this city for almost a year, and it is shameful the way in which our cowardly Mayor, AC Wharton, has gone back on his contractual agreement with the camp: not to evict as long as the occupiers remained a peaceful encampment. Those camping have been gracious and cooperative with local law enforcement, Downtown Commission, and other city officials. Now, many of those who were newly experiencing homelessness when this occupation began, again have nowhere to call home. They didn’t just evict some protesters from Civic Center Plaza – they have displaced a family, our family.
The media reports about the eviction echo city officials’ mantra that the tent city was “out of control” and their attribution of every ill in the Plaza area (e.g., homelessness, public urination, and instances of violence) to the presence of OM. Prior to the eviction and during the entire ten months of its existence in Civic Center Plaza, Occupy Memphis had a very good relationship with Memphis police and city government. The calls concerning problematic activities were primarily coming from Occupy Memphis participants who reported potential violence, health concerns, and other issues, functioning as a de facto ‘neighborhood watch’ for the Civic Center Plaza area.
Another complaint about Occupy Memphis, echoed uncritically by the much of the mainstream media coverage of the eviction, is that OM ‘did not have a singular or coherent message.’ Nationally and locally, Occupy participants are portrayed as scattered and unfocused; on the contrary, what people in the Occupy movement understand is the intersectionality of many issues within the systemic inequality that characterizes our society. What these tired depictions of the movement fail to consider is that the systemic inequality being protested by Memphians and the Occupy movement as a whole is reflected in many issues that affect people’s daily lives, from the lack of affordable housing to predatory lending practices and foreclosures, from race and class discrimination to appallingly high unemployment rates, from the cutting of funding to public services (such as parks and libraries) to the diversion of public money to corporations and development projects, and from the struggles around public transit to the corporate funding of elections and voter disenfranchisement. Along these lines, another common meme repeated by local and national media has been a delineation between activists in the movement and those made homeless by the great disparity of our current economic system, as if those actively fighting against social injustice and those who have been most affected by these inequities are somehow disconnected and essentially different.
The other frequent accusation of critics has been that Occupy Memphis ‘didn’t do anything’; nothing could be further from the truth. Occupy Memphis is an important venue for popular education efforts, having organized dozens of teach-ins and trainings on a wide range of topics, including the nature of the financial system, the Civil Rights Movement, political art, racism, economic exploitation, immigrants’ rights, civil disobedience, and Memphis labor history and current policies around labor and privatization.
Additionally, Occupy Memphis has held numerous rallies and protests, supporting a variety of causes and encouraging city leaders to focus on the needs of people above the profit imperatives of big business. OM has stood side by side with local unions such as AFSCME and the Police Association, fighting against privatization and the illegal paycuts. Last December 17, OM hosted a rally for the 99% that brought together marches concerning predatory lending, immigrants’ rights, and the rights of homeless people. On May 1, 2012, OM oversaw a march through downtown that culminated in a ‘People’s City Council Meeting’ that combined grassroots activism and street theatre, where speakers from social justice organizations spoke out in opposition to the City’s skewed funding priorities. OM also joined forces with the Gandhi-King Conference and the Folk Alliance, sending a message to tourists and visitors from across the globe that Memphians are conscious and active in a global struggle against oppression and injustice.
Moreover, Occupy Memphis has provided a crucial launchpad for several grassroots efforts and organizations, including H.O.P.E. (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality) and the Memphis Bus Riders Union. And many of the women currently organizing with the Women’s Action Coalition of the Mid-South (WACoM) met and began working with one another as a result of the networking space provided by the encampment.
Although there is no longer a tent city on Civic Center Plaza, Occupy Memphis is not over. The spirit of the movement that brought so many together to redefine the idea of public space on a chilly night in October almost a year ago is still alive and well. The shared experiences and relationships forged by the downtown encampment will have a lasting effect on the culture of organizing in Memphis, Tennessee, a city fraught with challenges spanning a history of internalized and externalized oppression. The people who were awakened by police and city officials at 3:30 a.m. on Aug 10, 2012, are a family, thrown from their home. They struggled together through hard times, bitter cold, and severe storms that sometimes tossed tents across the Plaza, confronting the material conditions of poverty in the “poorest city” in the U.S., trying to answer questions that the city and county have refused to confront, and learning to live with one another, attempting to create the kind of society that many of us, the 99%, believe is possible. The end of the camp does not mean the end of OM. Ideas are bulletproof. Memphis knows that. OM is here to stay, in one way or another.