By Jeannie Alexander (Originally published in the June 2010 issue of The Contributor)
On the banks of the Cumberland before her rage, her screams, her mighty storm, there lived a community of ten people: four women, six men and a dog. A quiet community with humble dreams of lives lived in different circumstances, but lives lived nonetheless with dignity and grace.
They were a cooperative group who sought solace in their life together—lives free from drugs and focused on hard work at car washes and temporary day labor agencies. Lives of determination applying day in and day out for one job and then another. Lives, for some, of haunted dreams and restless nights, where the morning peace of the river whispered to anxieties born long ago in a Southern prison. Lives of laughter and living, of working and cooking and praying together, life lived as community. Lives determined to make their corner of the world better than it was when they found it.
And so as they founded their community and settled their unconventional family on the banks of the Cumberland by LP Field. They began the hard work of cleaning up years of accumulated trash under the bridges, and after removing thousands of pounds of rubbish (most of it deposited by those passing overhead on the James Robertson and Woodland Street bridges and those who parked in the LP Field lot) they worked together and landscaped their home, creating beautiful pathways lined with stone and a stairway made of river rocks. They built elaborate fire pits and constructed dwellings of bamboo tarps and thatched roofs. There was even a community kitchen where meals were prepared and eaten together. Below the camp they created a clean beach area perfectly situated so the residents could enjoy the concerts at Riverfront Park directly across the river, or play fetch with the camp dog.
And they were good neighbors, quiet neighbors, honest neighbors. But these good residents of what we came to know as the TA Camp committed a crime so severe that they were banished, their community was broken apart, and their carefully constructed homes would have been demolished by public works if the river had not taken their camp mere days before it was set to be razed. You see, these good people, your neighbors, who cleaned up a blighted area of Nashville and made an unwanted invisible area of downtown home, committed the terrible, unforgivable trespass of being visible.
They laid bare the truth of poverty in Nashville, and instead of hiding, they dared to wave and smile to those walking on the bridges overhead. Foolish, foolish people—they thought their fellow citizens of Nashville would be pleased with their hard work in cleaning up the riverbank under the bridges. Foolish people who dared to think that they could be liked and accepted in their unconventional home. Foolish people who did not know that, for some of those to whom they waved and smiled, appearances count far more than the right to life and dignity, that appearance counts far more than the right to exist and be left alone when you are causing no harm to those around you.
How could they know that some passing overhead would not see the beauty of their creation, but instead would only see the ugliness of homelessness, would only feel the embarrassment of peering into private lives, viewing people living each and every day by their own hand in homes they had constructed from the materials around them.
The embarrassment that the camp engendered was a dangerous embarrassment, for it was not caused by the moral shame that one should feel when confronted with the knowledge that a city of such wealth and possibility would allow some of its citizens to live in tents and bamboo dwellings because, despite working hard both day and night, they were denied a living wage. It was not embarrassment at the failure of a city to meet such desperate poverty with love and compassion. Neither was it embarrassment that those of us in the city have failed miserably to love our neighbors as ourselves. All such shame is and would have been appropriate.
Instead, the embarrassment was that such a camp dared to be visible, dared to exist, and therefore dared to run the risk of shattering our illusions about the quality of life in Nashville. And even more importantly, the camp dared to harm the image of our fair city, for such camps are like the leper’s skin abrasions, the tell-tale signs of rotting within and the first indication that all is not right.
And so employees of the district attorney’s office who walked over the bridge each and every morning, and whose eyes were greatly offended, complained to the district attorney who then registered formal complaints with the downtown central precinct against the camp. Offended eyes are the key to our heart, so let us blot out that which offends us lest we transform our human condition—those living below would have been better off if you had plucked out the eye that offended you. These complaints were filed not because the residents were a menace, and certainly not because they were concerned about the camp generating trash (the camp was spotless), and not because there were loud parties or fights, and not because members of the camp ever threatened or intimidated those who parked in the LP Field parking lot. They filed complaints simply because they did not like to look at the camp as they walked overhead on the bridges on their way to the office.
Oh what a hard inconvenience for those working in an office allegedly dedicated to the protection of Nashville’s citizens to witness the damnable truth that such protection does not extend to the harm inflicted by the whores of capitalism and the fiend of indifference. How dare the truth convict them and make them victims of their conscience?
Yes, the mere existence of the camp made some uncomfortable, and so in our society of immediate gratification, sound bite analysis, and unexamined lives where we do not treat the causes of illness, only the symptoms, it should not be surprising that the solution was not to address the injustice of poverty, extend hospitality to those in the camp, or offer the camp residents living wage jobs; the solution was to make the problem disappear by simply making the camp disappear.
My God, what hellish power some wield to destroy lives and homes because they do not like what they see. I wonder, could I drive through your neighborhood and decide that your mere existence was an affront to my sense of well being, and, deciding that I really did not like the look of you and your neighbor’s house, call Commander Huggins at the Central Precinct and have your homes razed in thirty days?
The week we were notified that complaints had been filed we visited the camp and marveled at its landscaping and enjoyed the excellent hospitality of its residents. Thinking that there must have been a mistake, because we were told initially that there were safety concerns and concerns about trash, we brought a representative of the Homelessness Commission to the camp, an “important man” as some at the camp later said. He, too, was very impressed and promised to speak out for the residents and to arrange a meeting with the district attorney. He promised to convey a message from the residents of the camp to the district attorney’s office inviting all who were concerned about the camp to come down to the camp and meet the residents. He promised to send a group of concerned Nashvillians down with trash bags to help clean up the areas under the bridge away from the camp where trash still remained, an area the camp residents were currently cleaning because they wanted not just their home but the land around their home to be clean too. They wanted people to be proud of their work.
After the important man left we consulted with the residents and asked them if they wanted to organize students and congregations to resist the closing, or if they wanted to work with the important man in an attempt to avoid the closing—and, if closing was inevitable, to then work with the police in an attempt to gain as much time as possible to close the camp down properly. They had some faith in the important man, and they were a quiet people not wanting to cause trouble and so they opted to work with the important man and with the police in an attempt to save their home.
So the little community was cheered and felt more at ease because an important man had come down to their camp, had said good things, had promised to be on their side and then had gone away to act as their champion.
But then the important man was not heard from again, and those of us who had witnessed the destruction of three large camps within the previous five weeks began to smell blood in the air. By Thursday we were simply told that the DA’s office never returned the call made by the important man and by Friday—the last Friday in March—we were told that the camp was going to be torn down Monday morning and assured “nothing can be done to stop it.”
I wish that I could tell you that advocates and pastors met with the police and Homeless Commission members and appealed to the better angels of their nature and that they in turn responded with compassion and said, “Oh my, what were we thinking, ten people and one dog with little to no resources cannot find a safe place to live in three days. We want to act with compassion and justice. Please tell us how much time they need, and in fact let us see if we can find some section-eight vouchers to help make housing them easier and to provide them with more options.” But that would be a lie. Instead, as always, the only language that those who live by the threat of inflicting violence through force speak (and never forget that it is always force at the end of the barrel of a gun) is the language of counterforce, and it was only when we made known our intention to engage in non-violent soul force in the form of organizing non-violent resisters to guard the camp that we were given 30 days (ultimately 37 days) to relocate and house the residents of the camp. It was only after the promise of resistance that any meeting occurred.
The residents of the beautiful camp were devastated. “So they just want us to disappear, to be invisible?” In their attempt to grasp the consequences of a world ruled by mammon, the illogic of the camp residents ran thus: “If they don’t want to use the land for anything, and we haven’t hurt anyone, and we have actually made the land better by cleaning it up and landscaping it, and if by living here we aren’t dependent on community resources to provide us with housing, and if we just want to be left alone, why can’t we stay?” The police response, predictably, was: “You’re trespassing, you don’t own the land, and somebody registered a valid complaint.” To which the reasonable question is raised, “Complaint about what?” And the truth of the matter is confirmed: “The people walking overhead don’t like the look of the camp.”
Time and time again we bear witness to the confusion and hurt and fear inflicted upon the least of these when those in power want them to “move along” and become invisible. And I hear the ghosts of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad and tenant farmers: “But it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it… And now the owner men grew angry. You’ll have to go… But if we go where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We’ve got not money. We’re sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours… Maybe you can go on relief.”
But there is no relief, no sweet air, no peaceful river to lull you to sleep. There is only the indignity that the powerless and poor have always suffered, the indignity of being herded and forced to move along. During the 34 days we worked to relocate the TA Camp residents, we learned that before the flood it had become the unofficial policy of the central precinct to destroy all encampments and to relocate the camp residents to Tent City, thus turning Tent City into a defacto reservation. Dare we thank God for natural disasters?
You magicians of secular power—for all such power is mere illusion—what must we show you, what must we say, what must our brothers and sisters do to convince you of the fact that they too are human and thus possessed of certain God-given dignities and rights? What must we do to convict your hearts and win your minds? How many faces covered with tears must you see, how many shaking hands clenching air, hands rendered impotent by your guns, as they stand forced to watch as you destroy their homes over and over again? Ears ringing with your policy of “move along,” muscles aching, feet bleeding, minds clouded from lack of sleep, depression and alcohol—each insular and seemingly benign act of “move along” having the cumulative effect of a death march. By your sinful, capricious whims, and at the command of “valid” complaints, communities are destroyed and living, breathing, beautiful humans made in the image of God are tossed around and shuffled like so many dirty rag dolls.
Our brothers and sisters are told to “get it together” and to “take pride” in themselves, but how can they take pride in themselves when every single day the message is sent in no uncertain terms that they are not wanted, are a damn inconvenience, and are not even to consider themselves citizens? And they know that if you do not want them to cease to exist outright, then at the very least you want them to become invisible. Numerous times in the past I have witnessed friends leaving an area where they were minding their business and doing no harm because they were told by police to “make yourself invisible.”
I fear not just for my friends suffering under such injustice, I fear too for those who are forced to execute the hell-born policies of this city that crush individuals while hiding under the false pretense of community standards and twisted paternalism. The oppressors themselves are dehumanized and violated when acting under orders to “clean the city up” and to “clean those encampments out” because they are “dangerous.”
Those in uniform often dreamed of being police officers because they were told all of their lives that the police were the “good guys,” and they wanted to be good guys, they wanted to make the community better for all, and while there are far too many who put on a police uniform because they get off on the false sense of power that it imbues, there are even more who simply want to do good. And so, “woe to you, teachers of the law (policy makers and judges), you hypocrites” who, through your lies, “win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Woe to you who dehumanize your strong arm by teaching it to dehumanize others. Woe to you who create and feed a system that creates disproportionately high rates of divorce and alcoholism among those charged with carrying out your orders. And woe to you when those whom you oppress by locking them up, and those you oppress by destroying their own inner moral compass so that you may use them to harm others: realize that they are both victims of your lies and iniquities and refuse to do your bidding anymore.
There will come a time—in fact, it comes now in fits and starts—when we will live our reconciliation with God through being reconciled with our brothers and sisters. And when that time comes, as it comes now, we will embody Paul’s message to us that we are no longer Greek or Jew, male or female, master or slave, for we are all heirs. And when we truly know that we are all heirs we will weep for the injustice that we have perpetrated, and we will weep for joy as we remove our policies of invisibility from our brothers and sisters, and, with open arms, we will embrace them like Lazarus unwrapped, retrieved from the tomb where he was laid because we didn’t know what to do with him.
This flood which devastated poor and rich alike left hundreds who lived in encampments along the river without community and without a home. As I evacuated the last of my friends from the TA Camp that Saturday night when the heavens opened up and the river rose with heretofore unseen fury, my friend “Jon”, a camp resident, smiled sadly at me and said, “At least it was the river that finally took our home and not people and bulldozers.” The river at least allowed my friend some dignity as it equally destroyed all in its path, rich and poor alike. For once, my friend was not singled out to bear a burden and a shame that others do not bear.
In a sense, perhaps the flood was a baptism, another chance to start over for all of us. Let us die to this world in the waters of the flood and be reborn not of this world but of as heirs and children of God’s Kingdom. Let us take this God-given chance to help rebuild the lives of all of our siblings, those in neighborhoods and those in campsites. And as the Kingdom of God works exactly contrary to the kingdom of man, let us go together back down to the private wooded areas and once again calm river banks and rebuild instead of tear down. And then, with renewed conviction, let us create housing affordable and safe for all, and then let us go back down to those riverbanks, reach out with love and compassion, not judgment and reproach, and bring our brothers and sisters fully into our community. And let us ask for forgiveness and weep for joy, for it is we who were prodigals, saved at last by those who were outcast, God’s chosen ones.