About one week ago, I visited Occupy Memphis. It was the fifth stop on Firedoglake’s #OccupySupply tour. Here is my report on the visit [and much thanks to FDL member Gordon Ginsberg and his wife for hosting me while I was in Memphis]:
It is a beautiful sunny day, quite a contrast from the cold and snow that Occupy Wall Street and other occupations in the New England states are experiencing. It is a Saturday, which leads me to expect there will be many people at the occupation. The plans for the day involve a broadcast of a “Labor Agenda Radio Show” that will be giving Memphis occupiers a chance to tell their story and discuss Occupy Memphis on air.
The occupation is located in Civic Center Plaza right across from a building where the City Council meets. The plaza has a fountain on one side of it with a few planters nearby. The plaza then opens up to an area paved in stone, which forms a tile pattern. It is on the stone that a few rows of tents have been setup.
When I arrive, the radio show is playing. Speakers have been setup so that everyone can gather in the square and listen. The radio show, supported by AFSCME Local 1733, which represents sanitation and other city workers, IBEW Local 474, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the Fire Association and the Police Association, airs from 3 to 5 pm.
Union leaders talk about how occupiers just want their voice to be heard and emphasize how “Occupy Memphis is not just a bunch of crazy people.” They are “highly intelligent people” who are “finally getting fed up with just taking what’s given to them.”
The leaders go on to discuss the city’s treatment of labor and how they went into negotiations with AC Wharton and agreed to not push for raises. The unions had no problem. A contract was signed. But then two weeks later the mayor came back asking unions to make more concessions and give up paid holidays.
“I didn’t understand how Big Business could dictate what would happen with civil servants,” a union leader says during the show.
He explains the reason the private sector or Big Business wanted unions to accept pay cuts was because businesses “like FedEx don’t want their employees to look at us and say, well, public sector employees are getting all kinds of benefits and, even though” the company, is “posting record profits” CEOs “don’t want to share that with the part-timers.”
Occupiers speak out on the show. One says something that I have been hearing at many of the occupations: people are occupying for those in Memphis, who work two or three jobs, have children, bills to pay and/or medical problems and cannot be out occupying Memphis twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. This occupier also declares, “Workers, this is everyone to firefighters to janitorial, culinary to industry, have been exploited for far too long in the name of maximizing profits for the very wealthy and as long as that continues to go on I don’t think that we can have anything but the illusion of equality and freedom in this country.”
Another occupier named Laura addresses a caller, who finds the Occupy movement is a “stagecoach running with no one in control.” What she says is clear, concise, profound and a rebuttal to a person, whose opinion seems to stem from hearing misconceptions promoted by the media:
It is true that we have people of all political persuasions here. The only requirement for people to join in is an agreement to nonviolence, no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons, and everything peaceful and they identify with the 99 Percent. It is not true, however, that we are completely disorganized, we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t have any goals and we don’t have a plan. I think one of the things that confuses people, who come from backgrounds with hierarchical organizations, where leaders make decisions and those decisions are handed down to members or people that are in an organization—It’s that this is a completely different way of organizing. It’s not disorganization.
She says the General Assembly meets three times a week and that all decisions are made by consensus. She highlights how she has had numerous political conversations with people on what needs to be done for change and champions the fact that the movement has been slow to offer a quick solution to the nation’s problems:
The thing about this movement is we aren’t trying to come up with change in one week or two weeks or one month or push for one piece of legislation or anything like that. We want to make serious, lasting change systemically to address inequality. And to do that, we are here. We are here to stay.
Following the radio show, I interview a Memphis occupier. She tells me about why she is occupying and also discusses a local issue, which involves a classic case of Big Business pursuing profits at the expense of the people.
Bass Pro, a sporting company, has been cleared by the city to takeover the Pyramid Arena, where the University of Memphis Tigers used to play basketball. The arena in downtown Memphis was to be where the Memphis Grizzlies played but the city spent millions to build the FedExForum. She describes the scheme that will be impacting Memphis residents for the next years:
The thing about Bass Pro is they are supposed to guarantee so many hundreds of jobs. But if you take 1200 jobs that Bass Pro is supposed to produce and they want maybe a $1000 in tax cutoffs to pay for that—You take $1200 times 1000, that’s over $1.2 million that they want in tax savings not to mention the fact that they want the entire block down there taken off so they get the revenue for it.
It’s only going to benefit downtown Memphis. It’s going to benefit young suburbanites who come and shop and do their thing. It’s not going to help communities like Orange Mounds, which is suffering with massive unemployment rates. It’s not going to help communities like Frayser and in other places where they are suffering [from high unemployment].
I leave to go pick up supplies for Memphis. Like other occupations, they need gear to help them survive the cold. I pick up three sleeping bags that will make it possible for them to stay warm during nights where the temperature drops to about 20 degrees. I also purchase a bunch of hand and toe warmers.
I deliver the materials later that night. The occupation is gracious that the Occupy Supply Fund is able to help them. In fact, a middle-aged man named Jack says, as I inform him that the fund donated sleeping bags, “you’re the real deal.”
All the Memphis occupiers have an acute awareness of the history of Memphis, how the sanitation workers went on strike in 1968 and earned the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They are proud of the strike that took place and how the people of the city took a stand. It is that pride, which they draw from, as they occupy Memphis.
Interview with a Memphis occupier