It’s Nashville, It’s America

The night of the Global Day of Action here, an active-duty soldier from Fort Campbell opened the GA in full throat, not needing the people’s mic to be heard by about 65 people gathered on the steps under the gaze of the state capitol, but using it anyhow, for effect:

In the spirit of Gandhi—
First they ignore you,
Then they laugh at you,
Then they fight you,
Then you win.

I had seen this soldier earlier in the day, after a rally and permitted march that drew somewhere between 200 and 400 people. I didn’t know he was a soldier then. It is not wise for him to wear his uniform off post. It is not wise to use his name or rank or identifying features in print. He is 25, older in spirit. Death brought him to Occupy Nashville. Death and waste and the mind-blowing immorality of war. “Afghanistan committed me to change the world”, he told me; a year’s tour, another one ahead; the memory of dead friends, dead strangers, and the expectation of more.

Occupy Nashville was only a week old on October 15, and I don’t know how many of the protesters at Legislative Plaza know the story of that young man, or the stories of the others who count themselves among the committed: the retired country music industry executive who is pretty sure he falls in the 1 per cent; the 37-year-old massage therapist working two jobs to help her mother save her house; the 47-year-old cook and songwriter who just got $10/hour work after a year-and-a-half jobless; the recent PhD and adjunct who also teaches literature at a maximum security prison; the graffiti artist working in a bar where even the kitchen staff is paid $2.15/hour; the young collectivists who have been studying radical democracy for the past year; the 21-year-old doer and dreamer who’s been wandering the country in search of genius and wound up in Nashville just in time; the 26-year-old divinity student who believes with St. Francis, “Preach the gospel everywhere you go, and if necessary use words”; the student of English at Vanderbilt who left St. Louis four years ago, jaded at 17, tired of being scared of police, and who was happy to be anonymous, apolitical, disconnected from all but local news until early October when the first report on Occupy Nashville came like a cool, welcome slap, “Wake up!”

“Wake up!” not just to the rule of money power and shriveled democracy. Occupy Nashville sets off another buzzer for a nation on Snooze, because here the ritualized homelessness of occupation comes face to face with the real. At least half the people encamped on Legislative Plaza are there out of necessity. They are a small part of the city’s floating world of 4,000 homeless, a population that is everywhere visible and invisible at once and that, though harassed from benches and stoops and even some church property, has not been swept, Giuliani-style, from Music City’s most traveled streets.

There is nothing romantic or automatic about their participation. “I find this enthralling”, Christopher Humphrey said to me on Day 4 of the occupation. Enthralling in revolt, but he, 24 and feeling the weight of the job of living six years on and off the street, was standing back from the GA, watching. The night before, two homeless men near the encampment had had a fistfight. The GA discussion was flecked with words like “bums”, “vagrants” and marked by a genuine, if ragged, aspiration for solidarity and safety. I thought Christopher was a college student until he said he had no phone and spent a lot of time in the library. He had a poem in The Contributor, the biggest circulation street paper in America, I’m told, so I bought a copy.

We ask a lot of people
To be accepted equal
 To love our good tidings
as well as our evil…

“Could There Be Unconditional Love” was the title; the lines that followed seemed to answer, Probably not, but love’s still worth a try.

What Occupy Nashville is doing is refusing to accommodate to the national disgrace of homelessness. It is harder than any march, any rally, any arrest, for people just to see each other: hard for those so long ignored, so despised and ridiculed just for being, to allow themselves to be seen and to engage; hard for others so immersed, however unwillingly, in a culture that accommodates poverty, war, torture, suffering, to shake off its perceptions. But each day of that first week of the occupation, everything got better—the food, the safety, the organization, the code of conduct, the communication, the energy.

“The world is homeless, if you think about it,” Kenneth Blaylock said on October 16. “People might still have a house, but something’s missing. That’s why we have this movement.” That night he had taken to the soap box to recognize newcomers and to tell the assembly, “If Occupy Nashville has done nothing else in its first week, it has changed me.” Protest, politics—he had always thought they were pointless. Kenneth was as associate supervisor at Electrolux in Springfield until 2009. A layoff, a temp job and a few wrong moves later, he was on the street in March 2011. He came to the encampment almost as it began, and the day we talked he was manning the kitchen and working in the outreach committee.

“To be honest, I think I was spirit led. The first night, they nicknamed me the Shadow Man. I would lean in, observing mainly. I paid close attention for a few days, and I saw the change. I saw the growth in it, and I saw the sincerity, too. I saw the love in it. It makes me feel appreciated. Thirty-seven years old, and I’m just waking up. It’s a blessing is what it is.”

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI is on the road in a ’63 Valiant, sending stories to CounterPunch as she goes. She can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.com

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JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American ViolenceShe can be reached at jwyp@earthlink.net.

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