The first draft of these ideas, written in a notebook while living at Nashville’s Legislative Plaza with Occupy Nashville, was impounded by Tennessee State Troopers in the early hours of Friday, October 28th.
We didn’t know when the troopers would come, so we stayed on guard. I, who once had a perfect eight-hours-and-up-at-dawn sleep schedule felt myself devolving into a nocturnal creature. It’s safer in the daylight, so I slept then, sporadically.
Our bodies were already uneasy enough with the basic act of sleeping in a public space—the complete vulnerability of it, a shuddered-awake worry over any peeing dog or pooping pigeon or petty thief. But a person could work out a life around that, before Governor Haslem added immanent arrest to our sleep-worries.
Three weeks into the occupation, Haslem cobbled together an emergency curfew for our Legislative Plaza, sending a smiling man in a suit to hand us the paper and zip-tie up notices and parry our questions with a bland ‘you’ll have to ask someone else.’
We were told the curfew wouldn’t begin until the next day, so that night I tucked myself into the tent. Just at the edge of sleep, around 3am, I heard shouts of “Heads Up.” Exaggeration maybe, I thought. But by the time I had my shoes on and tent zipper up, a full line of 80 State Troopers had already formed, backlit surreally by the War Memorial columns. ‘Next day’ begins at midnight.
We were being evicted.
For all its self-parodies and laughter and drum circles, the Occupy movement carries at its core a seriousness I haven’t seen in the States before. The kind that can make even cool 20-somethings want to sing Civil-rights-era songs un-self-consciously; that can lure a hodge-podge of people day after day, to huddle in sub-freezing temperatures with those they didn’t even know three weeks or three days before. Even in Nashville, Tennessee.
This is the seriousness of Holding Ground. We talk about the First Amendment as guaranteeing freedom of speech, but what we’re learning with each tent-staking and eviction notice is that the right to assemble—or even just the right to bodily exist—means freedom of space. They’ve given us speech long ago: there’s perhaps nothing we can say anymore that threatens established hierarchies. But the claim of space still has an edge.
The Occupation movement has pushed us up against the need to hold a place, to BE somewhere. And when it does this, it both focuses our interest back to the ground under us and clarifies the danger of eviction. The downtown landscape, once a welcoming gleam of music and art and food, turns its bank-spined back to us. Here, you don’t even hold the right to be left out in the cold.
In a bumbling, awkward way, we’re moving toward the seriousness of a long line of occupiers—the ones who have been occupying as a way of life, and sometimes as the only way of life possible. I remember the Mayan campesinos occupying Guatemala’s fertile Polochic Valley, where I spent some time last summer. Suffering from expanding waves of evictions from the Spanish invasion on, and facing astronomically high child malnutrition rates, 18 Kekchi communities had formed a union and reclaimed their ancestral land. This means they planted food and erected shelter where there was once only monocultures of sugar cane, grown for biodiesel.
The lines of black-clad men with guns came for them, too. But because this was Guatemala, and the occupiers were poor and indigenous, those guns were drawn, with live rounds inside. The residents showed us the pictures of their dead, and a bag of spent tear gas canisters: you could still make out the company’s Philadelphia fax number on the side, to call for Questions or Comments. As I write this, Paraná, another town in the Polochic Valley, is being completely destroyed, burned down and bulldozed, under the direction of biofuel magnates. Just like 440 towns were destroyed during the 80s at the behest of United Fruit Company magnates.
And each time this happens, some people move away from the fertile plains, up onto the steep slopes to find some scrap of land too unpleasant to be coveted by a corporation. And some come back, reoccupy and reoccupy, plant again what seeds can be found.
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Against this story, and the thousands like it around the world, our own evictions seem like a capture-the-flag game with some aw-shucks Troopers. But our shared focus on a tenuous homeground teaches our bodies something, and that changes the character of the movement. I suspect this is why, when the 29 who were arrested were finally released (at 9 in the morning, five hours after a judge threw out the warrants, objecting to the Administration’s arbitrary declaration of a curfew in order to evict a specific group), they didn’t stumble home to sleep but marched back to where they had been arrested, shouting jubilantly, “Whose Plaza? Our Plaza. Whose Plaza? Your Plaza.” The next day 26 would go through the same ordeal.
We start to love our insecure home. The cold granite tiles and uncomfortably noisy fountains. The statues of men running with guns, celebrating armed victory below the cut-stone message that AMERICA IS PRIVILEGED TO SPEND HER BLOOD AND HER MIGHT FOR THE PRINCIPLES THAT GAVE HER BIRTH AND HAPPINESS AND THE PEACE WHICH SHE HAS TREASURED. Words of Woodrow Wilson before sending out working-class American boys to shoot up and be shot up by working-class German boys. War Memorial is now the People’s Plaza. We’re not letting go.
LAND AND LIBERTY
Let me be clear why this is strange to me. When the poor of the world fight the powerful, their rallying cry is often Land and Liberty. Tierra y Libertad. In the U.S., typically it’s more liberty and services. While the ‘global south’ struggles for agrarian reform, here we ask for food, healthcare, or shelter without much thought for the land-bases that birth them. Part of this is just the blessings of good fortune: care over land is a sign of the kind of necessity we often don’t have to worry about.
But one result of having an un-grounded culture is an over-willing surrender of space. We’re usually good-natured about not having any particular right to bodily exist in a place. We default to an acceptance of spatial existence as something you have to buy: rent or mortgage or property taxes. Anything you don’t personally pay for is a special treat, which you can sometimes earn if you fill out the paperwork correctly or are dressed well enough; or which you can sometimes use so long as nobody notices.
This is true even of that most quotidian of public spaces, the sidewalk. Even if you try not to block foot traffic, and keep yourself moving in a picket line, it’s been made clear that the sidewalk is not for politics. We’ve all been to demonstrations where police have told us a sidewalk is off-limits, and order dispersal. Maybe we complain, maybe jeer a little, but we typically move along where they tell us to go, provided we get the chance.
I remember watching my friend Chris during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh being shoved off a sidewalk by riot cops, pushed into a moving car, and then charged with blocking traffic. The only time I was arrested was when I walked down a public sidewalk with others in Columbus GA, while holding a puppet. The judge decided the puppet and I (and 25 others, including a barber who had stepped out of his shop to see what was happening) were committing the three crimes of picketing, protesting without a permit, and unlawful assembly. I wound up with a day and a half in jail, $300 in fines, 80 hours of community service, and an 18-month banishment from Muscogee County. My story causes no surprise to those who have been involved in movements. In Nashville currently, we are committing a crime if we’re walking on the sidewalk as a group if there are more than nineteen of us. The twentieth person strips us all of the right to spatially exist, even in the most open and public place we can find.
The end result of the criminalization of existing-bodily-in-space-while-being-political is the Kettle, in which demonstrators are simultaneously ordered to leave and denied an exit, foreclosed from both their current location and any path of escape. In that case, it’s wrong for a group to be in a space, but there’s no movement from that space that would be any better. Thus, Obedience can only mean Not Being in Space. When the trapped disobey this impossible mandate, as Occupiers of Wall Street learned, they may be met not only with arrests but also with pepper spray to the face.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the State for the arrests, and bought us some time: 21 days without a worry of evictions. Now we can get back to what we really want to be doing, my new friend Chris tells me, working to end corporate control and corruption of government, instead of spending all our time on the distraction of defending the First Amendment.
But the moment of eviction—when members of a General Assembly were yanked apart, zip-cuffed, dragged to a bus headed toward jail—is, for me, the embodiment of any message we’ve got. Physically stopping real humans from speaking freely and gathering peaceably in public spaces is both precursor and consequence of allowing moneyed interests unlimited ‘free speech’ in the form of buying politicians in private spaces. As one large placard at Nashville demonstrations reads, it’s citizens united vs. Citizens United. Humans on actual ground vs. fictional corporate persons who exist in the interstices of magnetic traces revealed on computer screens and tax-haven office fronts. Who speaks: a body or a ghost?
The tents are back at Occupy Nashville, and multiplying. When November 21st comes, we’ll be on our plaza, waiting for eviction. And we’ll be part of a sea of people around the world; farmers in Mozambique waiting for the bulldozers to clean out their houses and subsistence crops for a hedge fund’s land grab or a foreign mine; families drowning in mortgages, expecting the sheriff’s knock at the behest of a bank; the Undocumented, one traffic stop away from deportation, sucked up into the prison system to slake the thirst of a CCA lobby. And of course, we’ll be with the rest of the neo-Occupiers around the country and the world, hunkering down in public under tents and tarps, our insecurity waking us up to the experiences of a kind of global 99%, the ones who don’t know if they’ll be allowed to hold their ground through the night.
Katy Savage got her MA in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.