Occupy Nashville from the protestors’ view
Why we occupy
“They’re here! Everybody up!” we heard from our tents. It was 3 a.m. on October 28, an unusually chilly Friday morning. As we rushed into the center of the plaza to get into our formation, we saw more than 100 Tennessee state troopers forming a perimeter around us.
Earlier that day, we had strategized about our response to the impending police raid that threatened Occupy Nashville’s presence on Legislative Plaza. We had just been informed that a decision to impose a curfew on the plaza promised arrests for anyone who continued to occupy the area after 10 p.m. Due to our shared commitment to civil disobedience, we helped facilitate non-violence training and planned to stay to defend our rights to free speech, to assemble peaceably and to petition our government for redress of grievances.
The two of us met at a scholar’s day event just before we began our first year as VDS students. We felt an immediate connection based on our shared commitment to Christ-inspired social activism, and we realized that we were kindred spirits trying to embody lives as activist-minister-scholars. We promised to sit down and share our experiences at length someday, but homework, activism and ministry took up so much of our time that we never quite got around to it—until we were preparing to go to jail, that is.
After we realized that we both planned to defy the unlawful curfew and risk arrest in spite of the homework and reading assignments we were equally behind on (nobody ever said that joining a social movement while still in grad school would be easy), Lindsey quipped, “Oh great! You’re going to jail, too? I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to talk now. I always knew we’d be friends!”
Of course, volunteering to face arrest is no laughing matter. Although we had the counsel of Occupy Nashville’s legal team, recent reports of violent midnight raids on Occupy sites across the nation where tear gas, pepper spray and batons were used were less assuring. We kept vigil on the plaza, and after the 10 p.m. curfew passed and the trainings were finished, we crawled into our tents despite our nervousness. We knew that we were going to be raided, but we didn’t know when. Sure enough, at 3 a.m., when most people had either gone home or fallen asleep, the state troopers appeared and surrounded our tiny encampment.
As planned, those of us who were prepared to be arrested assembled in formation in the center of the plaza as the troopers closed in. When an officer with a bullhorn gave us a 10-minute warning to leave, we sat on the cold, wet ground and locked arms while singing “We Shall Overcome.” After the 10 minutes passed, the officers waded into our formation, pulled us apart and cuffed us. They began to drag us across the granite plaza because we refused to walk into an unlawful arrest. We were then loaded on a bus, and while we were being taken to jail, we sang songs and tried to care for the people whose handcuffs were digging into their wrists.
After our arrival at the jail, Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson refused to process us, and because Metro Nashville wouldn’t press charges against us, the state troopers started the long, arduous process of booking us themselves in the police station garage. We ended up there for several hours and finally had a chance to sit down and talk about God, theology, and activism. Our discussion soon turned into an impromptu planning session about how we could use the attention that our arrests would command to inspire more involvement in the Occupy movement. We were finally released around 8:30 a.m. After being greeted warmly by other occupiers with hugs and coffee and being crowded by local media eager to talk to the newly released captives, all 29 arrested occupiers marched defiantly back to retake the plaza that we’d been removed from so early that same morning. From there, two exhausted, sore, and very excited Divinity students joined their colleagues for VDS’s weekly community coffee hour bearing the good news of their release and hopes that they would soon be joined by even more friends from the School of the Prophets.
In our faith tradition, the prophetic cry for justice intends not only to wake the people of God from their slumber and complacency but to declare that another world is possible. When we look back at the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, we see them actively denouncing those who profit off the backs of the poor, who make unjust laws, who sit in the lap of luxury while countless people starve and suffer around them, who acquit the guilty for a bribe but deny justice to the innocent, who lose themselves in greed and corruption, whose religious rituals are empty, and who, as Amos said, “trample the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Even though the prophets spoke for God, they weren’t always embraced by the people of God. Too often, the people of God were aligned with the dominant, oppressive powers of the day. This continues in Christian communities today. Too often, the people of God side with mammon and create alliances between the sanctuary and the throne—alliances which directly benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent. Such alliances raise the question of the church’s ability to respond concretely and substantially to issues of poverty and injustice that devastate our time. In fact, as long as the church is considered separate from the marginalized in our society—the prisoners, the unhoused, the immigrants, the mentally and physical destitute—then, as Miroslav Volf says, “the only response… will of course be condescending, paternalistic charity.”
So where are our prophets today? Many in the church speak eloquently about seeking justice and peace and bringing about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but where are we when it counts? Where are we actively putting our bodies on the line with the millions whose bodies are bent and broken by oppression? It is our conviction that the Occupy movements are doing the work of the prophets and the church—the work of not only speaking out against systems that perpetuate injustice and inequality, but in imagining and living out an alternative with their physical bodies and the public spaces they occupy.
The Occupy movement is nonviolent, nonpartisan, and leaderless (or rather, “leaderful”), and the two platforms that unite us are ending corporate personhood and getting corporate money out of politics. Our faith and beliefs compel us to stand in solidarity with this movement. We believe that when corporations are legally treated as persons, it devalues the personhood of human beings created in the image of God. We believe that the unregulated campaign contributions from corporations unravel the fabric of a democracy that is of, by, and for the people. We believe that we, as disciples of Christ and U.S. citizens, have a social responsibility to make our voices heard when unjust systems benefit a few while marginalizing the masses. We believe with Jesus and the prophets that, as Arundhati Roy says, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way.” This is why we occupy.
When we stand in solidarity with those whose voices have been silenced, we stand in solidarity with Christ. When we march with the disenfranchised, we march with Christ. When we join hands with people from different political, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we join hands with Christ. Our faith is dry as dust if is it not united with faithful actions. Our hands are empty if they are not joined with others. For us, nonviolent direct action is our social witness to a world that is crying out for change. We can no longer depend on elected officials to seek justice. We must come to the realization that we are the hands and feet of the gospel, and what we do (or do not do) speaks more loudly than our words.
We invite all friends and members of Vanderbilt Divinity School, from all faiths or no faith, to consider the great witness to be made in this movement that is developing right before our eyes. For even if you choose not to be involved, there is no longer any doubt that the Occupy movement, American and abroad, is shaping history. As scholars, community leaders, and clergy, we would be remiss if we allow this moment to pass us by.