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Waging a War

Living-wage protesters gather downtown.

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About 60 people gathered in Robert Church Park last Saturday afternoon to call on the City Council to pass the living-wage ordinance.

"Young and old/black and white together," sang Rebekah Jordon, executive director of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, before a diverse group of protesters.

Jordan, who served as choir director and marchleader for the gathered crowd, explained that the rally was organized to coincide with International Human Rights Day.

"A right to a living wage is included in the United Nation's 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights,'" she said.

The rally met in the park and then marched to the corner of Peabody Place and Third Street. At Third, protesters faced Peabody Place Entertainment and Retail Center and the Hampton Inn & Suites, two locations that event organizers see as emblematic of the city's problematic approach to economic growth.

"Right now, we subsidize companies that pay poverty wages. We should be supporting companies that support our citizens," said Jacob Flowers, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. Flowers was upset that tax freezes through the payment-in-lieu-of taxes (PILOT) program mean that neither the retail portion of Peabody Place nor Hampton Inn will pay full taxes until 2037, while the companies pay workers as little as $7 an hour.

Brad Watkins, chair of Democracy for Memphis and a member of the Living Wage Coalition, said that legislators recognize that the living wage is an important issue.

"Just recently, the executive committee of the Shelby County Democratic Party voted without a single nay in support of the living wage," said Watkins. "It is the intention of a lot of people in the party to focus on this issue."

Others at the protest focused on the moral issue at stake. Nabil Bayakly is a member of Muslim in Memphis, another organization that is part of the Living Wage Coalition. "It is an honor to make a living from your sweat. What these wages do is to enslave the individual and create a poverty class," he said.

The protesters waved signs and handed out flyers to passing cars for about 15 minutes before a security officer from Peabody Place crossed the street and told the protesters to move on. As the protest broke up, many continued to sing: "I ain't gonna be poor no more/ Down by the riverside/ Gonna fight for a living wage/ Down by the riverside ..."

Representatives of Belz Enterprises, developer of Peabody Place and the Hampton Inn, could not be reached for comment. -- Ben Popper

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