Occupy Memphis, tea party members meet

Associated Press
A member of the Mid-South Tea Party asks a question during a meeting, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011, in Bartlett, Tenn. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Occupy Memphis member Mallory Pope had just finished telling a group of about 75 tea party followers Thursday night that politicians should not allow themselves to be influenced by lobbyists and unions when she received an unexpected invitation.

"It sounds to me that y'all ought to be joining us," said Jerry Rains, a 64-year-old computer programmer and tea party member. "You have a lot of the same goals we have, which is to take our country back."

Pope and fellow Occupy Memphis protester Tristan Tran had a lively, sometimes strained and confrontational, but mostly civil discussion with members of the Mid-South Tea Party at a municipal meeting hall outside Memphis.

The factions saw eye-to-eye on some issues and clashed on others. And, while the young speakers didn't change many minds, they did earn praise from the tea party members for their passion, honesty and courage.

The 21-year-old University of Memphis students had been invited by the tea party group to talk about the goals of the Occupy movement. The invitation was extended after a discussion between members of both groups on the tea party's website, meeting organizer Jim Tomasik said.

Occupy Memphis set up camp last month at Civic Center Plaza in downtown Memphis, within view of City Hall and federal and county government buildings. Their numbers have ranged from a dozen protesters to 100 or more, depending on the time of day. They have had no clashes with police and city officials have said they will not evict the protesters as long as they remain peaceful.

Tea party members said before the meeting that they didn't know what to expect, and that most of what they know about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots were from confrontations with police in New York and Oakland, Calif. Some said they were confused about the purpose of the Occupy movement because it has no leader and no consistent list of goals promoted by every Occupy group.

Almost every chair in the white-walled meeting room was taken. Pope's speech and a question-and-answer period were supposed to last about a half-hour — they went for nearly two hours.

Pope gave a rundown of some of the goals of Occupy Memphis and some of her individual beliefs as well, including that Wall Street executives "gambled with our economy and housing market."

Both Pope and Tran stressed at times during the discussion that they were speaking for themselves and could not speculate on what other members think.

"The Occupy movement has remained adamant about not drafting a list of demands because terrorists make demands, and we're not terrorists," said Pope, a graphic design student. "We shouldn't have to demand a democratic process."

By the end, the Occupy Memphis members and their audience — made up mostly of whites over 40 years old — reached common ground on some issues, such as their perception that the government and politicians no longer listen to and serve the people they represent.

They also found some agreement in their stances against taxpayer-sponsored government bailouts and "crony capitalism," the idea that close ties between lobbyists, businesses, and other self-serving interests can influence government officials and the exercise of capitalism.

"We all want the same form of government, which is one that listens to its constituents," said Tran, a business and American history student who said he served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 with the Army.

But some disagreements also emerged. Tea party members expressed frustration with big, intrusive government, while the Occupy Memphis speakers opposed what they perceive as the corporate world's manipulative influence on government policy. Some tea party members noted that each of their protests were one-day events and they cleaned up after themselves, while the Occupy movement calls for long-term encampment at sites officials say have become unsanitary.

Tea party members praised themselves for using the power of the vote to bring about the change they desired, and that the Occupy movement won't be successful until it does the same.

During the meeting, a tea party member showed a picture of pro-communist images at the Occupy Memphis movement, drawing shakes of the head and disapproving comments from audience members.

Tensions rose when a third member of the Occupy movement, Karen Seus, was told to sit down and stop speaking because only Tran and Pope were invited to address the meeting.

"Are you trying to divide us now?" Seus said loudly.

But the conflict blew over quickly, Seus was allowed to stand with the college students and she apologized for raising her voice.

Tran found himself on the defense at times, saying he does not approve of the illegal behavior seen at other Occupy sites and denounced the idea that most Occupy protesters are debt-ridden, unemployed troublemakers who don't vote.

"We do not condone violence. We do not condone destruction," Tran said.

Page Gregory, a retiree in his 60s, stood and praised Pope and Tran for having the passion and courage to stand before the tea party group and address its questions.

Then he said the Occupy groups should go home and work within their community to try to bring about change.

"Get people elected," Gregory said.

As the meeting closed, the Occupy Memphis members were inviting tea party members to join them at Civic Center Plaza, and everyone shared chocolate chip cookies.

Pete Dresser, 68 and retired, said the meeting confirmed what he believed about the Occupy movement.

"It's a ramshackle movement that is not organized, not focused and more emotional than purposeful," Dresser said.

Tran said the meeting was productive.

"The discussion and the exchange of ideas and the exchange of approaches, it's fundamental for American people to do that," Tran said. "It's progressive, it's constructive."

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