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Occupy Nashville protesters camp out downtown

by Nicole Young

As the sun dropped below the War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Nashville on Saturday, Michael Custer, 47, strode up to the steps of Legislative Plaza, blanket and guitar case in hand, and looked over the group of about 35 people who had gathered there for the first wave of Occupy Nashville.

“I’m going to be here until I get arrested or killed,” said Custer, a Davidson County resident who works as a cook in a local restaurant. “I’ve been a political activist my whole life, and I’ve watched these corporations take over. It’s time to fight.”

The group on the steps cheered. While many of them were absorbed in small talk — what they do for a living and how much they disagree with the direction of American politics — a police officer walked up and briefly peered down at them from Legislative Plaza before turning around and heading back toward War Memorial Auditorium.

He never spoke a word.

Law enforcement is monitoring the situation, said Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“It’s a public place, and they are allowed to occupy that space so long as they are obeying the laws and are protesting peacefully,” she added.

Like Custer, some of the protesters said they planned to stay overnight. Others, like Hannah Brooks, 24, planned to stay a while, go home and then return in the morning.

Brooks, a recent Middle Tennessee State University graduate who is working as an appointment scheduler at a local massage business while applying to graduate school, said she heard about the campout about five minutes before it started. She wasn’t a part of the group’s earlier rallies, held at Legislative Plaza and at Centennial Park, last week, but she said she agreed with the cause — specifically that the government doesn’t care about its people anymore and that corporations keep getting richer while more and more Americans struggle in a weak economy.

“Personally, I was paid more 10 years ago than I am now,” the West Nashville resident said. “That’s an issue for me and no one is talking about it, except these people.”

‘100 percent peaceful’

Earlier on Saturday, about 150 people showed up at Centennial Park for an organizational meeting about how to continue their support of the ongoing protests on Wall Street. The protesters split into four main groups: media, outreach, legal and technical support.

“This is all very organic, like cooking,” said Darlene Neal, 45, an artist and stay-at-home mom with three sons. “I think we’re changing the recipe as we go, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awesome.”

Neal, a Murfreesboro resident who described herself as “just a participant,” appeared to be more of an organizer at Legislative Plaza. She laid out ground rules for campers: no drugs, no alcohol, no guns, nothing.

“We are 100 percent peaceful and respectful,” she said. “We will clean up after ourselves and obey the law. Nashville is not New York City. We are welcome in our plaza.”

Indefinite stay?

No one could say how long the protesters would be in Legislative Plaza. The consensus was indefinitely.

“I’ll be here until I see a change,” Custer piped up. “One percent should not control 99 percent. We have to return democracy to the smallest of the people. Personally, I’d like to see the police kick down the doors of Wall Street and arrest the criminals who have stolen so much from America. Shoplifters are arrested, but not the ‘robber barons’ who took the government bailout money that was meant to help the people and gave themselves bonuses with it.

“This is my chance to be a part of something bigger than myself. It has no choice but to grow.”

On Thursday, Custer and Neal were part of a larger group: Several hundred protesters sang songs, gave speeches and led chants at Legislative Plaza for an hour and a half. Later that day, about 250 people, most of them from Legislative Plaza, showed up at Centennial Park for a rush-hour protest.

Call to action

Cory Amons, 22, of Cottontown, an artist and recent Volunteer State Community College graduate, also was at the Thursday and Saturday events. Amons, who hopes to one day become a college professor, says he already owes $11,000 for his education. He has an associate’s degree and plans to attend college in Chicago for his bachelor’s.

“The American dream is a lie,” he said. “We tell all the kids that they can be anything when they grow up, but who pays for it?”

Chris O’Brien, 36, an unemployed information technology worker who moved to Nashville from New York about a year ago to find a job, and his girlfriend, Patti Lee, 43, an assistant at a local real estate firm, said they were tired of doing nothing about the issue. Like most of the Occupy Nashville participants, they had learned about the local events through the Internet after watching Occupy Wall Street coverage.

“I’d hate to be an old man and look back on my life if I just chose to stay at home and do nothing,” O’Brien said. “I’d regret it.”

Contact Nicole Young at 615-259-8091  or nyoung@tennessean.com.

source: Occupy Nashville protesters camp out downtown | The Tennessean | tennessean.com

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