The Longest Occupier

Wall Street protesters are 23 years and 10 months short of a record.

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The Occupy Wall Street protest has spread to Nashville and Memphis, among other cities, and shows signs of having staying power and, perhaps, picking up steam. The Memphis protest on the plaza across from City Hall began October 15th, or 17 days ago as I write this.

How long will it last? Who knows? But take note, occupiers and city officials everywhere. The mother of all occupations of public spaces began in Memphis 23 years and 293 days ago, give or take a month or two, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the other end of downtown.

I stopped by the other day to visit with Jacqueline Smith at her solo sidewalk vigil on Mulberry Street. Considering what she has been through, she looked and sounded remarkably like the thin, articulate young woman I interviewed on January 12, 1988, when the Lorraine Motel, where she worked at the time, was shut down. She was evicted, literally kicking and screaming, on March 2, 1988.

Since then, she has been encamped, more or less continuously, on the sidewalk with her blue tarps, desk, posters, worldly possessions, and well-worn books, including Martin Luther King Jr. conspiracy theorist William Pepper's Orders to Kill. Her occupation is older than the museum itself. After efforts to persuade or force her to leave failed, the city and museum officials reached a live-and-let-live standoff, and Smith became a sort of unauthorized adjunct exhibit, part living history, part protest. In addition to her books, snapshots, and laminated copies of news articles, she has a website, fulfillthedream.net.

I wanted to find out what she thinks about the current occupation movement and what advice, if any, she might have for the protesters about logistics, determination, publicity, or anything else. The day before, I briefly visited the Occupy Memphis site, sprinkled with tents and tarps, and asked a woman how long she planned to stay. "Until things change," she said. Well, I thought, the weather will change for the worse a lot sooner than the distribution of wealth in the U.S.A., and that will test the resolve of the protesters.

But Jacqueline Smith didn't want to talk much about that. She is, as political consultants say, relentlessly on message.

"I really haven't given any thought to what they're doing," she said. "I have to stay focused on what the issue is here."

The neighborhood around the museum has gentrified somewhat, but there are still blighted areas nearby. The museum is in the midst of a campaign to raise $40 million for a major renovation. Last month, Mulberry Street was taken over for the River Arts Fest. There were bands, dancing, and beer vendors, and the stage was sponsored by a casino. Smith was dismayed.

"This is sacred ground and should be respected as such, like Ground Zero," she said. "There is no room for festivals and alcohol on the property. That is not being done in Washington where you go to pay respects to Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Or Graceland. Those places insist upon silence and respect."

Has she ever thought about packing up and moving on?

"Absolutely not. I feel this is the least I can do because of all that Dr. King did for us."

What's it like living alone on the street?

"I won't make any comments about that. The issue is that there is not affordable housing in this area on Mulberry Street."

Does she get hassled or urged to move?

"I make no comment on that either. I have no problems with the people working at the museum. I am here because of the system."

Does she get help with the website?

"I will not make any comment on that. It has been up for years. It is a homemade website."

And with that I gave her a cup of coffee and some chocolate rolls and said good-bye. A short while later she called me to add a comment on the protesters outside City Hall.

"They are doing what Dr. King was doing back in the Sixties. Their right to protest is guaranteed under the Constitution. As far as their issue, I don't know, but they have a right to raise their issue, the same as I do and as Dr. King did."

If I am still around 10 or 23 years from now, I fully expect to see Jacqueline Smith at the corner of Mulberry Street, behind the fire station and across from the National Civil Rights Museum, with her tattered books, blue tarps, winter coat, and her undying resolve.

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