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Tale of a Southern 'Occupy': Nashville aims to bridge political divides

Christopher Berkey for msnbc.com

Samantha Blanchard works in the Occupy Nashville protest camp on Monday.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Compared to “Occupy” protests on the coasts, the rebel encampment tucked between Tennessee’s War Memorial Plaza and the Statehouse – a few dozen tents adorned with American flags and even a libertarian one – has a decidedly Southern feel.

While protesters in New York, California and elsewhere may often pass their downtime playing drums, meditating or knitting, their Tennessee counterparts could be playing football, hosting a square dance, flying kites, skateboarding or welcoming opponents with cookies. 


And if conversations on the coasts tend toward left-wing political theory, such as anarchy, Marxism and socialism, protesters here work on bridging a different divide: uniting the “blue” and “red” factions in their local audience.

"We do have a lot of conservative voices in this camp and the thing that is really appealing to all of us is we believe in the common ties that bind us,” said Samantha Blanchard, a 30-year-old office administrator who was sheltering in a tent as rain poured down on a frosty, grey Sunday afternoon. 

“This is a place where if people were really going to come together and form that 'purple' (combination of blue and red political affiliations) that everybody lusts for, it’s going to probably happen in this camp.” 

While occupiers in several other cities have been forced to retreat, Nashville’s protest -- a core group of about 90 and a looser support network of 400 part-timers -- has survived two attempted evictions on Oct. 28-29.  Fifty-five people were arrested on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing that were eventually dismissed, said William P. York II, one of the attorneys who represented them. 

Among them was 64-year-old Bill Howell, regional organizer for the Tennesseans for Fair Taxation.

'I've been treated like a rock star'
Howell, who said he had never been arrested before, had planned for the moment, leading other protesters in a reading of the Declaration of Independence before he was taken into custody.

Christopher Berkey for MSNBC

Bill Howell, 64, a regional organizer of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, at the Occupy Nashville protest camp on Monday, Nov. 28. The "23" tag signifies that he was the 23rd protestor arrested in Nashville.

Reaction to the “Occupy Nashville” protest has been varied, he said, with “some people going by honking and hollering, ‘Get a job!’ and you know all the usual stuff. In my community, in some circles, I’ve been treated like a rock star,” he said chuckling, as a train horn blared in the background.

A preliminary injunction has allowed the camp to remain for now, but a status conference will be held with a federal judge on Feb. 3. However, protesters say “side attacks” have continued, with city inspectors warning about food preparation safety standards and the state attempting to deny them port-a-potties, which was revealed in emails obtained under Tennessee's open records law, said another one of the Occupy Nashville attorneys, William W. Hunt III.

But efforts to squelch the movement only served to fire up “couch occupiers,” said Jason Steen, 32, an office administrator.

“We had a good number of people here, but it suddenly turned into a First Amendment issue when Governor (Bill) Haslam started evicting everyone for curfew rights,” he said, estimating that the camp size has more than doubled to about 60 tents in the wake of the arrests.

Though Steen has a home, he spends most of his time at the camp and sometimes sleeps there.

“I just feel that strong about it because if we don’t have people down here for when all the legislators are in session and looking out their windows … what kind of impact are we going to have?”

One of those drawn in over First Amendment concerns was Jon Louis, who describes himself as a right-winger with some liberal social tendencies. He said he grew "irritated" as he watched state troopers arrest protesters.

Christopher Berkey for msnbc.com

Samantha Blanchard, Matthew Hamill and Jon Louis spend time in the Occupy Nashville protest camp on Monday.

Louis, who said some on the right have cast him as a “plant” in the movement while friends have taken to calling him a "hippie," noted that he does not agree with all of the views put forward at the camp and that it took him a while learning about it before he joined.  

"There’s some like minds here and there’s also, you know, a melting pot of different opinions," he said, noting he was “trying to get to the more right conservative South … mindsets and try to explain it to them, that we aren’t just a bunch of lefties (because) I’m most certainly not a lefty."

Three goals
Despite the range of political beliefs represented in the camp – and  Nashville’s reputation as a liberal bastion in the state -- the protesters have winnowed their “goals” down to three, which are printed on a blue index card and handed out to visitors. They are: ending corporate personhood, getting money out of politics and supporting Occupy Wall Street.

“It’s a lot more conservative here so we definitely have to tailor our approach and our message,” said Elli Whiteway, a 21-year-old college student. “… We kind of pride ourselves on being a common denominator movement … that’s been our approach, just trying to be, not exactly centrist, but applicable to both sides of the political spectrum.”

That approach hasn’t won over all conservatives.

The Vanderbilt College Republicans organized a protest at the camp on Nov. 3 – which the occupiers said they welcomed with cookies and open dialogue.

"We wanted to make known that not all the youths are with the movement, as is perceived by many. Their demands will do nothing but add to the burgeoning debt already on our shoulders," Stephen Siao, the group's president, wrote to msnbc.com in an email. "We think the Occupy Nashville movement is misguided -- they should be protesting at the White House, not at the State Capitol or Wall Street. It's this administration's policies that are prolonging this dreadful economy."

He also said that while Occupy Nashville "might have one or two members who claim to be conservative," the "core of conservatism is personal responsibility, and that is completely the opposite of their demands. We don't believe prosperity should be punished."

At a General Assembly meeting on Sunday, the protesters shivered, stamped their feet and huddled together to keep warm in 45-degree temperatures while outlining upcoming protests, addressing financial donations and discussing a planned two-day meeting of all the state’s occupations – about a dozen total from towns and cities – for this weekend.

On the sidelines, Michael Custer, a 47-year-old father of four and self-described rabble-rouser, said that Nashville brings a "unique perspective" to the global movement but also has some additional challenges.

Christopher Berkey for MSNBC

Michael Custer shakes his hands in approval during the General Assembly at the Occupy Nashville protest camp on Monday, Nov. 28.

"We’re the incubation place for Martin Luther King’s nonviolent struggles. This is his test kitchen. … So we have some unique perspective on the nonviolent aspect of these types of struggles,” he said. “The South is generally a lot more laidback and a lot more difficult to motivate. But as you can see … we are out here in the cold and rain so obviously there are quite a few of us that are motivated.”

Custer said he will always be "vocal," but others are not as willing to express their opinions.

“People are terrified of government, they are terrified to the point that they won’t speak out. They’ll tell you what they think behind closed doors,” he said. “I think a lot of that’s held over from the old Klan days where when you spoke out, they came and beat you up, or tried to kill you.”

'Express yourself'
With other camps across the country shut down by authorities in recent weeks or facing the threat of eviction, “it really gives us an opportunity to step in and just become one of the most action-oriented occupations,” said Matt Hamill, 26, a self-described political conservative who works for Radio Free Nashville and hosts a weekly radio show on the movement.

Those actions include even lighter fare, such as a square dancing event with a live band held recently in the plaza.

“(It) really kind of hit home … (that) this is what occupying is about,” Hamill said of the livestream of the event, which garnered positive feedback from supporters around the country. “… You should be allowed to express yourself however you want to and not have to worry about anybody coming in and trying to silence your voice or shut you down.”

Blanchard also noted that people in the chat were saying they needed to see such a lighthearted event, that it was “so cathartic to see a camp having fun.”

“I feel like in a lot of ways … Nashville is starting to become maybe a bit of a tender spot or a hearthstone for other occupiers,” she added. “We’re like the little heartbeat, the little southern hospitality of the movement.”

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