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Occupy Wall Street offshoot now ready to Occupy Memphis

Occupy Wall Street, a group of sons and daughters, moms and dads think this nation is less democratic than it ought to be. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

– Barack Obama,  Feb 5, 2008

A new movement is spreading across the country with the sizzling speed of Texas’ wildfires: protests, marches and mass occupations are renewing calls for change in cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington and LA, and soon, organizers hope, in Memphis.

Occupy Wall Street, a group of sons and daughters, moms and dads think this nation is less democratic than it ought to be. They have decided to become the force for the change they seek. On Sept. 17, a small group of  “occupiers” began camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York City, where they protested wrongdoing, presented demands and, in scenes reminiscent of the civil rights movement, boarded buses to jail after their arrests.

Now much of the world is watching them. Their agenda – standing against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other disparities between rich and poor – has brought unwanted attention to Wall Street, the heart of the nation’s financial system, where past decisions helped to bring about a near-collapse of the financial industry and sharp declines in property values, especially among African Americans.

This past week, the grass-roots movement used the Internet, Facebook and social media to travel to Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. Occupy Memphis, which essentially picked up the Occupy Wall Street playbook and ran with it, attracted about 100 folks on Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 to its General Assemblies, which basically are planning meetings where citizens gather to talk, discuss ideas and then vote using silent hand symbols. One person has the power to block any action or proposal.

Mid-Southerners from various walks of life gathered near dusk at the Overton Park Pavilion: teachers, nurses, police officers, small business owners, entrepreneurs, students and the jobless. They worked, in small groups, long after the sun set, using flashlights and batteries and cell phones to light the darkness. In small circles, they stood patiently waiting for their turn to talk.

Ultimately, Occupy Memphis decided to delay the encampment it plans to hold near downtown Memphis until mid-October.

“We take our time in Memphis because we want to get it right,” one participant quipped. However, the Assembly voted to hold its first demonstration at 10 a.m. on Thursday, October 6th at Court Square downtown. A Fourth General Assembly is scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening at Court Square. The meeting is open to all citizens, with participants asked to adhere to a non-violence agreement, which reads, in part:

“Our attitude will be one of openness and respect toward all whom we encounter, regardless of their attitudes and actions. We will use no violence, physical or verbal, toward any living thing. By violence we include comments or behavior that are racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, classist or otherwise oppressive. We will carry no weapons. We will not bring or use any alcohol or illegal drugs. We will not destroy property. We will respect each other’s voices and tactics and work to insure that all of our issues are heard.”

In Memphis, a stay-at-home mom named Kelly Baker launched the Occupy Memphis page on Facebook that since has inspired a community of volunteers to take turns chairing meetings, giving media interviews, conducting outreach, making phone calls, taking notes and working on the website. In this movement, the followers also lead.

As Baker, a self-described optimist strolled through the gathering on Wednesday night, she met people from many ethnic groups, generations and from warring political parties.  Participants, some clad in suits, others in shorts, were bonded by a shared future to a common movement.

But discovering what they stand for, well, that’s complicated. They don’t agree and that seems to be OK.

In fact, when the General Assembly’s messaging committee read its draft of the Occupy Memphis declaration, objections arose, and the declaration was sent back to committee for revision. The Assembly decided to go with a broadly worded agenda, rather than a partisan one, so it could attract a wider following.

Baker’s concern primarily is with the financial system. A young mother, she said she is too young to remember the good old days and anxious that the times of plenty may never return.  

“The living standard has gone down my entire life,” she noted.  If this downward spiral continues, and the income gap widens, she is not sure her young children will have much of a future.

“I don’t want my children to be serfs,” she said.

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