Last Friday evening, local teachers, students, lawyers, retirees, parents, and grandparents became activists.
They gathered in Overton Park for the first Occupy Memphis meeting, held in response to the national Occupy Wall Street movement in which hundreds dissatisfied with the "one percent" of people who control the financial and political realms in the U.S. have been camping in a park adjacent to New York's financial district for weeks.
The protesters consider themselves the "99 percent," meaning the majority of Americans who don't hold financial or political power. According to Adbusters, the magazine that inspired the action in New York, the central demand of the protests is to convince President Barack Obama to "ordain a presidential commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington." But since the protests have spread across the country, the focus has become more about showing a general disdain for social inequality and corporate greed.
"[The Occupy movement] is about making the changes in the United States to equalize things so that our children will be able to realize the American Dream," said one protester at Friday's Memphis gathering, which was organized by the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center.
When the meeting began at 6 p.m., a seemingly uncomfortable group of about 20 people sat around a row of picnic tables, perhaps uncertain of what the night would bring. But as the sun set on Overton Park, and as the group grew more confident in their discussion, the ranks swelled to about 70 people. As people introduced themselves, they followed their name with "I'm a proud member of the 99 percent."
"We've been following what's been happening on Wall Street," said Jacob Flowers, executive director of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center. "A lot of people have been interested in supporting what's taking place [in New York]. We started getting calls and emails late last week from our members wondering if there'd be Memphis support for [Occupy Wall Street]."
Since it began in New York City on September 17th, the Occupy movement has spread to roughly 40 cities across the U.S. with most gatherings organized through Twitter and Facebook.
While Occupy Wall Street issued a list of demands last week, which included shutting down Wall Street and the Capitol building in Washington for a day, Occupy Memphis is still in the planning stage.
Occupying various sites in Memphis to holding simple candlelight vigils were among the ideas tossed around at Friday's meeting. The group never came to a consensus, but all agreed that whatever action the group takes has to be nonviolent.
"We want to make our point, but we don't want to cause any damage. We don't want people to get hurt," said one person in attendance.
"Everyone in this city is an ally of ours," said another. "I don't think there's a single one-percenter in Memphis, so that means 100 percent of the people of this city are the reason we're here. We're not here for ourselves but for those who can't take the time to be here."
In New York, there have been several instances of police brutality. In late September, a group of unarmed female protesters were rounded up in a mesh pen by New York police officers and sprayed with mace. And there have been more frequent arrests, including 700 last Sunday, when members of Occupy Wall Street marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge.
Though those at the Occupy Memphis meeting were uncertain how a local movement will play out, they remained steadfast in their commitment.
Said one woman at the meeting: "[Memphis] will be the canary in the coal mine for what's going to happen to the rest of the country."
Information on future meetings or actions of Occupy Memphis may be found on their website at occupymemphis.tumblr.com or on the group's Facebook page.