Signs denouncing corporate greed bobbed above the crowd late Saturday morning as Occupy Johnson City participants marched down the sidewalk along West State of Franklin Road toward Downtown Square.
The solidarity event made its way to Johnson City following a string of protests in big cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Those who gathered in the parking lot across from McDonald’s on West Walnut Street had a variety of homemade signs with slogans like “More education, less war” and “We are here for the needy, not the greedy.”
Chants of “We are the 99 percent” rang from the crowd of more than 100 once they descended downtown with the help of Johnson City police who stopped traffic so the string of people could walk through busy intersections. Sgt. Van Mominee, with the Johnson City Police Department’s Community Policing Unit, said he and other officers were there to safeguard the participants as they exercised their civil rights.
When asked what it means to have an international protest make its way to a city of about 60,000 people, East Tennessee State University student Steven Garnett said local interest in the occupy movement “shows that people are getting tired of how things are.”
“The mainstream media is really making it look like this movement is a lot of people who don’t have jobs who are on welfare or whatever, but the truth is even here in our Occupy Johnson City we have people with full-time jobs, people with degrees and full-time jobs, college students, business owners, mothers, daughters, nurses — you name it,” he said. “People are coming out and representing the people, not just the unemployed, who are also here.”
The demographic present at Occupy Johnson City was hard to define, as even those too young to walk were part of the action. People living outside Johnson City came, too, including a noted author.
“It is a mixture,” said Barbara Kingsolver, of Meadowview, Va., author of “The Poisonwood Bible” and several other novels. “There are people here in a stroller and you see a lot of white hair. I would say this group represents every decade of life, every walk of life.”
Taking part in an international movement was exciting for Kingsolver, who said Saturday’s event is the beginning of something huge since Occupy already made its way to Johnson City by the fourth week of its origination on Wall Street.
“I think there are millions of people who agree with us and I think that before you know it, you’ll be hearing from all of us,” she said.
The number of participants were somewhat surprising to Garnett, who attended Occupy Johnson City planning meetings that consisted of about 30 people. He says the Johnson City Assembly group has put on marches for other causes before, but with small participation. The response to Occupy Johnson City may have come from the national attention the movement has received in the past few weeks.
“I think it’s charging up.” Kingsolver said. “The 99 percent of people who would like their government to look out better for people rather than profits. That 99 is everywhere. It just takes a little longer in small cities to reach a critical mass, but it hasn’t taken very long. If you notice, this started on Wall Street about a month ago and now it’s everywhere.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement and others it has spawned continue to draw criticism for it not having any certain demand and for the way decisions are made collectively with no designated leadership. The Johnson City solidarity event followed the same format. Kingsolver explained that Occupy surrounds basic principles and its collaborative decision-making shows what democracy looks like.
“It is a movement in its early stages that’s getting on its feet,” she said. “If you look at the signs here everyone agrees on certain principles of mercy for people, principles about distributing the wealth of this country more fairly and principles of humanitarian kindness.”
Though opinions may differ for each individual taking part in the Occupy movement, Garnett says it’s an opportunity to gather individuals for a cause that affects each of them in some way.
“I think the good thing about this particular movement is that it’s so many people coming together and everybody kind of has different concerns, but we all are starting to realize that all of these problems stem from the same place basically and that’s corporate greed,” he said.
As Occupy unfolds, Garnett said the Johnson City Assembly will possibly help plan additional events. Attendees like Kingsolver look for Saturday’s solidarity event to be one of others to come.
“I think a whole lot of us hope to participate as this continues,” she said. “I think it’s a very exciting moment in political history. I think this is going to be a force to be reckoned with.”