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Occupy Memphis amplifies a down-but-not out ‘voice’

With a breezy Sunday afternoon as a backdrop, James, a 46-year-old newly homeless African American, finds an audience willing to listen, and eager to learn. With a breezy Sunday afternoon as a backdrop, James, a 46-year-old newly homeless African American, finds an audience willing to listen, and eager to learn.

Seated in a circle in Civic Center Plaza, across from Memphis City Hall, is a coalition of folks traveling different walks of life – college students, business owners, activists, workers on their day off, and curious passersby. They are gathered at the Occupy Memphis encampment to engage in three-hours of community building.

James is not the only person without a job or without an address in this group, which swelled to 25 people at its peak.  While here, he finds his voice, something that often is lost early when one is down on his or her luck. His words are an orchestra of positivity and they offer those around him – including those holding good jobs – a lifeline of hope.

It is James who reassures those who feel they have not done enough. It is James who tells his fellow occupiers not to be too hard on Memphis Mayor AC Wharton Jr. and City Council members. He is convinced they would help, if not for the lack of resources. He asks the others to send good vibes their way. It is James who sits down with a journalist and shares part of his story – though he didn’t want his last name in the newspaper for fear of embarrassing family members.

James showed up at Occupy Memphis recently, part of his journey from unemployment to self-sufficiency. He lost a job working in at warehouse earlier this year – and ended up on the streets as a result.

“Last hired, first fired,” he says, with a shrug.

He spends part of his day in a career-training program, and then sleeps at night in a tent at the Occupy Memphis encampment. James is a go-to volunteer, who is earning respect at this camp. He is among the growing numbers of African Americans drawn to the movement by its message: More opportunity for the many, less privileges for the few.

“We get along really well, James says of his unlikely group of friends, campers and allies. “It’s been peaceful. We try to keep the place clean.”

The Occupy Memphis movement now has volunteer peacekeepers that serve the same function as police: protect and serve. They may facilitate disputes among members, or help defuse tensions that arise when passing strangers taunt the group.

With such diversity in their ranks – representatives come from all classes, many professions and a variety of neighborhoods – their camp has been turned into a laboratory for learning about diversity. On Sunday (Oct. 30), approximately 30 percent of the people attending the community building exercise were from minority or underrepresented groups. Jean Handley, a Memphian who has over 20 years of experience doing process-based restorative justice and conflict transformation work, led the exercise.

In the last two weeks, James has met people from all over the world. Since his arrival, he says tourists from Germany, New York, Nashville, a journalist for the New York Times and labor leaders have visited the camp, which typically has more than a dozen tents. On weekends, as many as 50 people sleep outside; during the week, the number falls to about 20.

In a community-building session, participants focus – not on learning about other cultures or discussing differences – but rather on listening and hearing the life stories of fellow travelers and “connecting to their humanity.”

In the circle’s closing moments, there is much reflection on lessons learned and sincere talk of personal transformation.

Sara B. Free, a youthful, passionate volunteer who has taken on much responsibility for the Occupy Memphis web operations, is not camping out but rather dropping in – as many of the supporters holding down fulltime jobs do.

This protest is also an outdoor classroom, Free says. As she speaks, there is a nearby table filled with books and reading materials called the “people’s library.” James shares that he is reading the Bible and a book on the Bush presidencies.

“I have a new found respect for people in different situations from different backgrounds,” says Free, who attended the community-building exercises alongside James on Sunday. Several members of the group tear up, and each time they are wrapped in loving arms and comforted, sometimes by stranger.

As he prepares to leave, James offers a final thought:

”Keep your eyes on this movement. We have a common denominator now. We depend on each other.”

With that he walks away, off to his next meeting. The others are waiting to hear what he has to say.

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