I write from inside a cold, snug tent with the rattle of the Main Street trolley, yards away, for a nighttime serenade. Winding down my night with the Occupy Memphis protesters, I try to answer three questions:
1) Why camp? We live in a country where the top 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent and the top 10 percent more wealth than the bottom 90. Specifically, we live in the poorest large city of said country, a city with one of the widest gaps between rich and poor.
This situation was not some random accident but the result of policies that persisted despite their known consequences.
We let deregulated financial elites speculate the world economy to ruin. We then bailed them out without requiring them to repair the harm their unchecked greed caused and had the nerve to blame "irresponsible" middle-class home borrowers.
We resisted all attempts to make our tax system more progressive. In the midst of a narrowly averted second Depression, when jobs should have been Job One and stimulative spending our laser focus, we became fixated on ways to cut spending so as to trim the deficit and almost defaulted on our debts in the process.
Then a bunch of people in tents, first in Manhattan, then around the world, changed the conversation and forced us to look at the real issues.
Why wouldn't I camp?
2) What are "they" like? As the name "the 99 percent" might suggest, they — we — are a diverse lot. Young and old, black and white, unemployed and busy professionals.
They include Jack Armstrong, a large, sardonic 40-something restaurant-industry consultant to whom the Occupy Memphis site between City Hall and the county building "feels like home now" after a month in residence. And Dana Wilson, an earnest 20-something youth education coordinator at Bridges who appears regularly but, because of her dog, sleeps at home "so far."
My favorite bio is that of Tony Newton, a mortgage-investment lawyer and Occupy camper, who describes his political evolution as going "from Goldwater boy to anarchist" and who favors nationalizing the banks and the Federal Reserve.
They are organized. James Mack, a calm, even-tempered, displaced warehouse worker, coordinates PR. Leroy Crawford, a former songwriter, is part of the "peacekeeper" team, charged with security, who take regular classes in nonviolent conflict resolution.
Regular meetings of the "process" team fine-tune such minutiae as how to maximize use of the hand signals used at the "general assembly" meetings to further their culture of consensus decision-making.
"This is a community," as Jack (first names are de rigueur here) put it simply the night I was there. He's right. It's an experimental community, and so far it's working.
And they are committed. Committed enough to sleep on blanket-strewn wooden pallets indefinitely through freezing rain and violent thunderstorms, as they did the night before I arrived. Committed enough to drive nonstop to Washington, D.C., to join protests there in the expectation of getting arrested, as several did the night I was there.
In short, they're not how they've been caricatured. As occupier Patrick Buttram, an adjunct University of Memphis professor, put it, "First they said we were hippies and stoners. Then they said we were anarchists and communists. Then they said we were dirty or violent. They'll keep trying till something sticks."
3) What do "they" want? Many have asked this question, because the occupiers don't have five-point plans and faxed talking points. But it takes no clairvoyance to figure it out. They want to bring the fat cats who made the mess to justice and to convert those ill-gotten gains into help for the poor. They point to publicly owned buildings that lie vacant when they could be used to house the homeless and to unlimited corporate campaign spending.
Ask any three of them for solutions and you'll get four answers, but it's not hard to put together a list of likely candidates: Tougher regulation of the financial sector. Higher taxes on the wealthy. More spending on the poor. Reducing corporate influence over politics, our economy, and our culture.
Most of all, they want everyone to care about these issues the way they care. "I'm here 24 hours," said Jared, the tent-erector, peacekeeper, and all purpose fixer of the site. "if we don't win this time, the fascists take over."
A little apocalyptic for my taste, I'll admit. But I wish his sense of urgency on all of you.
Why did I camp? That's the wrong question. The question you should be asking is, why haven't you?
Steve Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor and a Shelby County commissioner.