On Fat Tuesday, some 30 members of Occupy Nashville gathered at War Memorial Plaza for a general assembly. The plaza’s eastern steps were darker than when they were lit by floodlights from television news vans four months ago. There was enough light for the Occupiers to see each other but not quite enough to illuminate where they’re going.
In October, at the height of the group’s clash with the state — which resulted in 55 arrests on the plaza — such assemblies played out like defiant pep rallies, incited by the clear sense that there was constitutional and geographical ground to defend. A common cause and a common enemy were like an elixir to the waning occupation, which at the time wasn’t even a month old. But the winter, though not as severe as it might have been, has been long.
On this night — which ended with a meal and party celebrating the Mardi Gras season — the meeting is more like a snapshot of a hallway bulletin board in a college dormitory.
A man named Eric invites the group to take part in a “die-in” on the plaza March 12, organized by local anti-nuclear groups to commemorate the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan a year ago. Another man, Ben, says he’s started a faith-based “Occupy the Spirit” group, which is looking for a new location and invites those assembled to join if they wish. A woman who doesn’t give her name reports on a visit to several Occupy encampments in California and proposes the group “do something” for International Women’s Day on March 8.
Later on, Michael Custer, a bearded man with long hair and a voice that carries like a prophet’s, brought forth what amounted to a sermon, citing Nashville’s “proud history of nonviolent struggle,” recalling the events of October and urging the group to remain peaceful. Custer is perhaps the group’s most vocal member and certainly the most recognizable.
He is right, for the most part, to say that the group has remained peaceful. Aside from their refusal to disperse, which caused troopers to carry them off the plaza, the group did relatively little to resist the enforcement of the state’s short-lived curfew on the plaza and hasn’t been entangled in the kind of violent clashes with police seen in Oakland, New York and elsewhere. The group has denied any association with the criminal activity claimed by legislators on and around the plaza. Privately, though, members admit tempers flare from time to time and have occasionally led to physical confrontations.
That much was evident following another general assembly just days after Custer’s exhortations. An administrator, posting minutes of that meeting on the group’s online forum, noted: “This GA was the roughest GA I’ve ever been to. There was so much tension and hostility in the air. ...” After the meeting ended, two longtime members of the group — Andrew Henry and Jason Steen — got into what witnesses described as a “shocking” fight. State troopers patrolling the area intervened, and Steen, who says he was knocked unconscious, was sent to the hospital with facial fractures while Henry, who has a long list of prior arrests, was transported to jail. Steen says Henry attacked him in response to Steen exposing his lengthy criminal record online — a tactic known as “doxing,” which has become a weapon of infighting within the group.
“As Kevin said in an email from yesterday,” the online administrator said, “There was real damage done today. I think this prolonged eviction process is eating [Occupy Nashville] alive.”
Alongside this possibly withering social organism — quite literally parallel to it — has been the creation and passage of legislation that would remove the encampment, if not the Occupiers themselves, from the plaza. Gov. Bill Haslam said he would sign the bill, but added that he might be slow in enforcing it. After their first attempt to clear the plaza failed spectacularly on legal grounds, his administration has been focusing on tightening the rules for use of the plaza. A hearing on the matter has been set for April 16, leaving many to wonder if the group might get a reprieve until then.
Putting aside the looming interference of the state — which has been less emboldening to the group this time around — Occupy Nashville faces trouble from within. One of the country’s longest-running encampments, the 150-day-old (and counting) protest is beginning to show signs of age. As the group’s focus splinters — with their attentions increasingly divided among various causes — needy egos, short tempers and competing factions have been exposed, and a movement once tightly bound together has begun to fray.
In their highest aspirations, the Occupy Nashville camp and sites like it around the country are Petri dishes for their vision of a new society — a place where their boldly democratic ideas and communal practices can be worked out and perhaps even modeled for the society around them, in which they see so much decay. While more conventional protest movements relied on occasional rallies and marches to announce their presence and their complaints, Occupiers have made it a point to maintain a constant presence.
But the now ubiquitous idea of occupation has become a wedge for the Nashville contingent. As a would-be eviction notice has moved through the legislature, the tent count has gone from around 60 at its peak to less than 20. The cold pavement of War Memorial Plaza feels harder to some than it did months ago. To them, the situation is disheartening, but the analysis is simple: Only true believers sleep on a marble bed.
“The people really talking ‘Occupy’ aren’t walking it,” said a man who would only give the name Fox and who said he’s been on the plaza since the beginning. “The fight’s not over, and they’re giving up. I feel kind of let down.”
Others in the group, like Tom Sweet, who has been on the plaza since he lost his home in January, say they’re fine with different members playing different roles. But it’s true that some of the group’s more outspoken and visible members either have packed up their tents or never pitched them in the first place.
Custer, who was among those arrested on the first night of the curfew enforcement, has never slept on the plaza and only stayed out overnight when things heated up in October. Since then, he says, there’s been no need for him to set up permanent residence on site.
“Some people need more than a tent can offer,” he said, sitting next to his wife. “But we hold up those who stay here 24/7 as American heroes.”
He admits that full-time Occupiers sometimes take offense when those coming from home try to make decisions at general assemblies. He also concedes that egos have occasionally stood in the way of harmony.
“Most of those fights have been broadcast online,” he says. “And most of them have been stupid.”
Dorsey Malina, who has been the primary go-between for Occupiers and the media since the group first formed, also has never occupied a tent. The movement is not about living in tents forever, she says, adding that if it were, the end would be nigh.
“There are people who feel like, if you’re not on the plaza, you’re not an Occupier,” she said. “If it were only about the tents and the encampment, I think we’d have a very limited scope of what we could do. It’s always been — and this is just me — about moving into the communities.”
Malina has become more involved with the Occupy Homes working group, which has focused its efforts on resisting foreclosures and evictions by banks on behalf of homeowners. In Occupy Nashville’s first identifiable success since their temporary triumph over the state last year, the group leveraged a settlement between 78-year-old Nashvillian Helen Bailey and her mortgage holder, JPMorgan Chase. A petition started on her behalf gained more than 100,000 signatures and garnered attention from national media outlets.
For Malina, the effort, and eventual victory, was a welcome diversion from the growing dissonance within the group at large. In recent months, it drew her away from the plaza and those with a public presence on it, tented or otherwise.
Time isn’t always a healer. Sometimes it just makes room for wounds. Since the new year — and particularly since the return of state legislators has forced Occupiers to ponder phase two — various factions within Occupy Nashville have cropped up, vying for attention from within and without. Once-celebrated differences among members have become deepening fractures.
In a recent story, Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador — who was arrested along with the protesters in October — quoted Malina and cited her as the group’s “public relations liaison.” In what has become a recent trend of decreased cordiality with the media, Steen, who has become one of the group’s loudest online voices, took issue with that title. In a Twitter post directed at Meador, he said, “Dorsey is not our PR liaison, nor does she speak for us.”
Minor as it may seem, the comment did stand out, given Malina’s long and prominent role with Occupy Nashville. In response to an email inquiring about the apparent discrepancy, Steen — who says he has lost his job and his home since moving to the plaza in October and slept there until a couple weeks ago when he moved into a hotel — clarified but also extended his criticism.
“Dorsey was certainly a great part of our media team for a while. However, in the past eight weeks she’s written everyone off and said she wants nothing to do with Occupy Nashville as a whole and will direct all her focus only to the housing campaign,” he wrote. “[She] has only been to one GA in two months. That’s why we’ve been trying to keep her away from the media, because she has no interest in Occupy any more other than to further her own agenda. Seems that everyone has their motives.”
Malina agrees, with that last bit anyway. She says some within the group seem bent on staying in the media spotlight, however dim it may now be, whether by quote or incarceration. It’s a claim other longtime members don’t dispute. Moreover, she says, disputes like the ones she’s found herself in of late are tools in a struggle for power.
“I’ve been on the media team since Day One on the plaza,” she said. “There are people who have come along — I won’t name any names — and they’re vying for control and managing the message.”
She added, “There are some people there, I believe, that have an agenda for themselves. There are a couple of teams that have been co-opted.”
The fear of co-option and interference by provocateurs with personal motives has been present since Occupy Nashville’s inception. It has lingered, perhaps, because of the inherent difficulty of proving or disproving such a suspicion. In any event, the purity tests are on.
Malina told The City Paper she is one of three or four people who have received multiple threats and emails that she called “highly uncomfortable.” She says her computer and Blackberry have been hacked, and she’s sought the advice of an attorney.
“They seem to want to get people out of the way,” she said of her opponents, adding that a lack of women in leadership roles has been noted. “Anybody that doesn’t toe their line gets attacked. I don’t want to create a future like that. What I’m more interested in is making sure everyone is fed and has a home.”
That sounds more like what Ben Grady is after, but he too is pursuing those ends by different means. Grady, who joined Occupy Nashville just days after they set up camp and has maintained an on-again, off-again presence on the plaza, has been working on what he calls an “Occupy the Spirit” group. He envisions it as a faith-based wing of a movement with a “godly purpose,” that of making earth as it is in heaven.
“We’re moving on to phase two of the occupation. We have a house for a short period of time, and we’re relying on God for the long-term situation,” he said. “The most important thing right now is that we build ourselves and each other up. If we don’t, we’ll fall again, because we won’t have a strong community.”
While he hasn’t experienced the type of aggressive pushback that Malina describes, he hasn’t seen many upward-wiggling fingers — that’s support in Occupy-sign — either. The name ‘Jesus,’ he says, tends to polarize the group. But he’s not yet deterred — his standard response to a casual, “How’s it going?” is to answer, “Hopeful.” But, like others, he hasn’t missed the schisms in the movement.
“If it’s going to be a combined movement, then everyone’s going to have to realize that they’re not the end-all, be-all of the movement,” he said. “Ego has gotten in the way of this movement. It’s destroyed things.”
Back on the plaza that Fat Tuesday night, Custer added a postscript to his speech just before the meeting adjourned. Amid talk of the need for increased numbers in the event of another sweep of the plaza, he called on the members present to be prepared to march right back on the plaza.
“We’re not leaving,” he said, his voice rising for emphasis with the end of each proclamation. “They can take our tents. They can expose us to the elements. They can starve us. But we’re not going to leave.”
Clearly, there is not consensus on that point. But despite the group’s emphatic rejection of hierarchies, Custer is seen by many as a leading voice, if not a leader, of the movement in Nashville. Though he does not stay on the plaza himself, he testified before state House and Senate committees in opposition to the legislation that would evict those who do. Without the type of influence wealthy Americans wield through ads and political contributions, he says the group needs the tents: “They are our billboards.”
While members who talked to The City Paper were not inclined to question his motives on the record, some say his power within the group relies on a maintained presence on the plaza. After all, they say — and it’s true — it was Custer and his wife, at a gathering in Centennial Park in early October, who insisted that the occupation begin immediately and named the place.
At the Feb. 28 general assembly, held after tensions had culminated with the fistfight, several members proposed methods to restore peace and unity to the camp. Both proposals, however — one to address conflicts on the plaza and at general assemblies, and the other to curtail the online bickering that has consumed the group as of late — involved either creating authoritative councils to address conflicts or granting more power to those who already wield it, such as the group’s Web team. Those look like problematic suggestions for a micro-society designed to eschew hierarchies and thus eliminate, or at least minimize, the chance that power will be abused.
Later during the “soapbox” portion of the meeting, Matt Hamill rose to express his frustration with the proceedings. Hamill, who has maintained a nearly constant presence on the plaza from the beginning, made news last month when he briefly occupied the city-owned Metro Courthouse before leaving voluntarily when police showed up — a victory for semantics (as in the words “Occupy” and “Nashville”), if nothing else.
“It kind of pains me that we’re under threat of eviction this week, but yet at this general assembly, all we’ve managed to get accomplished is talking about drama,” he said. “We have made no proposals that deal with eviction. So it really makes me question where our focus is at as a group.”
Still, he had some drama of his own to address. He revealed to those who didn’t already know that he had served 16 months in jail for a marijuana-related offense and was now on probation. Now, he says, thanks in large part to the Occupy movement, he has turned his life around. But when he reported to his probation officer the day before, his car and person were searched and he was given a drug test, which he says he passed.
It seemed someone had called his probation officer and tipped them off, informing them that he had left the state without notifying them and claiming he was doing drugs. To Hamill, it was clearly the work of someone lurking within the movement, looking to discredit the group by sullying his reformed status.
“We definitely have [provocateurs]. I can’t sit and say that I know who they are, because I have no clue. As a matter of fact, I have no clue who I can trust,” he said. “Be careful who you trust, be careful who you confide in, because we have provocateurs, and they’re documenting everything.”
Whatever threats the Occupiers face from within their ranks, state troopers aren’t marching to the plaza just yet. Despite the legislature’s relatively quick work, the governor has given them a full week to leave, and court action may delay their eviction even longer. Occupy Nashville may be getting exactly what they don’t need — more time.