Tents in varying shades of green and blue line the walls of War Memorial Plaza. Each tent has been strategically tied, zip-tied and bungee corded to withstand even the roughest winds. Duct-taped peace symbols and spray-paint decals give a little bit of personality to the normally bleak abode.
For nearly four months, those tents have been home to the Occupy Nashville movement, but following the passage of House Bill 2638 and the seemingly inevitable passage of Senate Bill 2508, the tents are coming down and along with them, possibly the entire movement.
The Nashville group, which proclaims on its website that it has been “occupying Legislative Plaza since Oct. 7, 2011,” is one of more than 100 citizen-led movements in the U.S. that were formed in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The movement began in New York last September to protest “an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”
For roughly 30 people in the encampment in Nashville, the death of the movement signals more than just the end of Occupy. It means a separation from a dream and from the group they call family.
Wood strikes the marble steps at the plaza with every step Tom Sweet takes. His cane keeps him steady during the rounds through the tents. Everything about Tom Sweet is methodical, timely and even-keeled. Until he speaks with passion, that is. His whole demeanor changes and his normally soft-spoken voice booms across the plaza.
At 53 years-old, Sweet’s 6-foot-2-inch frame is bent and withered, a side effect from the three strokes he suffered in Montana.
“The doctors say I’m a miracle, and, well, I already knew that cause I’m walking,” Sweet said.
Crippled, he calls himself. A social defect in normal society. But at Occupy, he’s a respected individual.
It’s Sweet’s turn on the soapbox during General Assembly, the group’s daily meeting.
“Our rights are being violated,” he said. “We need a government for the people by the people. … We must be in unity, but we’ll take this one day at a time.”
He’s a late joiner to the movement, but so is most of the group on the plaza. Sweet is willing to risk jail time for the cause.
“Come back out on Thursday to see the show,” he said. “I’ll be in my tent just waiting for those troopers to take me away, to take the cripple away.”
Sweet sings a gospel tune he wrote himself as he limps off to the safety of his tent and home for the final days of the movement.
Andrew Henry proudly strolls into the public library, pointing out inspirational photos and quotes as he goes.
“I draw inspiration from this room,” Henry said as he walks into the Civil Rights Room.
A college degree, a championship fighting title and a well-off family are in a past that Henry doesn’t talk about much.
Conversations with him center around big topics. Corruption in government, education and sports are just a few of his favorites. For Henry, the world is his soapbox.
Occupy Nashville provided the chance for him to take a stand and fight inequalities.
“This movement really comes down to inequalities,” he said. “Being black, this is a prominent issue for me. This has always been a passion of mine.”
With the passage of the De-Occupy Bill in the House and the almost certain passage of its sister bill in the Seante, Henry is not only losing his platform, but his new family.
“You really get to know people out here. You become family,” he said.
Dubbed the “big bad bill” by Occupiers, HB 2638, along with its sister bill SB 2508, were created with the intent to protect the proper use of government property. If passed, it will have a direct effect on the Occupy Nashville movement.
State Representative Eric Watson and Senator Dolores Gresham, the sponsors of the bills, have both told several publications, including The Tennessean and Nashville Public Radio, that freedom of speech is not an issue here and are quick to reassure their bill is not an attempt to stop this right to freedom of assembly.
As soon as the ink dries on the bill, Tennessee Highway Patrol can descend on the camp, breaking up one of the last remaining Occupy camps in the country.
During an emergency crisis meeting on Monday, Feb. 13, the majority of Occupiers decided to move the encampment to Metro Square, shifting the control from the state to local government. A small group, including Sweet, want to hold off the move and wait for police action.
Both bills were scheduled to be presented on Thursday, Feb. 16. The State House passed HB 2638 70-26, but the Senate pushed off voting on the bill. The debate will be picked up on the next scheduled floor meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23.