ThinkProgress filed this report from Nashville, Tennessee.
During a short reporting trip to the Nashville-area for a conference last Friday, ThinkProgress stopped by Occupy Nashville, one of the most vibrant and headline-grabbing occupations in the country. The group recently staged a “human auction” outside of the headquarters of the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, for example. We didn’t make it to the camp until well past 9:30 p.m., but there were still several occupiers strolling around, happy to talk to us.
Occupy Nashville became the center of controversy several weeks ago, when Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN) sent his state troops to arrest the protesters during midnight raids. A recent investigation by the Tennessean, a statewide paper, found that troopers had infiltrated the movement in an attempt to discredit it. One occupier we spoke to said that for a short period, it appeared that police had encouraged troublemakers to find their way to the camp, a tactic police departments are accused of in cities across the country.
The diverse group we encountered on that night in Nashville included retirees, unemployed college graduates, students, and local activists. One regular Occupy Nashville member, named Michael Custer, said that despite the media frenzy around the belligerent police actions, his group has tried to lead the country in its moral interactions with law enforcement. Custer explained that he viewed any aggression, even shouting insults at police officers, as a form of violence that he condemns. Every protester should welcome the police with open arms, recognize that they too are part of the 99 Percent Movement, and be as respectful as possible while being arrested. Just as Martin Luther King pioneered his nonviolent tactics in places like Nashville, Custer said he hoped to inspire a new form of police interaction for other demonstrations taking place in major American cities:
FANG: What inspired you? You tell me.
CUSTER: Well, knowing that no matter which of the two parties one might vote for, they’re sponsored by the same corporations. […] Nashville is also one of the incubation places for Dr. King’s civil rights tactics. Nashville is also one of the first places there was sit-ins at lunch counters and the non-violent struggle was introduced to the world, here in the United States.
FANG: And you see a parallel here with the struggle from back then?
CUSTER: Well I see the interaction of the police and our group compared to dozens of others from around the country. We knew the police were coming, and we prepared ourselves to be arrested. As Martin Luther King, and I’m paraphrasing, I believe said something to the effect of, if you’re not willing to be arrested for your principles then maybe you have no principles at all. We decided to present ourselves for arrest and avoid all the hassle of truncheons and tear gas and mace. They don’t have enough jail cells for all of us. [looking to the camera] CCA, you don’t have enough!
View a short video of ThinkProgress’ interviews with Occupy Nashville protesters here:
Custer said his group has refused to allow their members call police “pigs” or show other forms of disrespect — and the strategy has paid off. Many state troopers and local Nashville police, Custer told us, have quietly signaled their approval of the movement. Local support from the community has been overwhelming. And in one now-famous incident, when of group of Vanderbilt College Republicans stormed the plaza to intimidate the protesters, after minutes the Occupy Nashville protesters began shaking hands and forming friendships with the GOP students. At one point, the College Republican president was invited to address the group using the people’s mic.
A recent public records request of email to Tennessee’s governor shows that of 400 e-mails sent by the public about his actions against the protesters, only 11 supported his policy of arresting demonstrators.