Building a Movement for a Better Tennessee

Friday, June 16th, the Northeast Tennessee People’s Movement welcomed visitors to the opening of its latest project, the Appalachian Liberation Library. Located in downtown Johnson City on W. Walnut Street, this free community lending library focuses on historic and current struggles for justice and liberation.

The collection features sections on Appalachia, labor history and organizing, social movements and social issues, political theory, and more, plus selected works of fiction, a section of children’s books, magazines, and a number of pamphlets on economic, environmental, and social justice.

The open house was well-attended. Visitors browsed the collection, signed up for free library cards, and enjoyed discussions on topics such as food justice, city planning, worker rights, and—of course—books. A representative from PFLAG brought a bag of LGBT-related book donations, and another patron arrived with an armful of back issues of The Nation.

Appalachian Liberation Library opened with just over 200 books in its collection, and they expect the collection to grow every month. Two areas they specifically need coverage for are accessible books—large print and audio (plus devices to listen to the audio books on)—and Spanish-language books, including texts for English-speaking Spanish learners and ESL; however, they’re happy to accept any donations. Books that don’t fit the collection’s needs will be found other homes (including potentially being sold to help pay rent on the space).

The library shares its space with the Workers Alliance of Northeast Tennessee, another Northeast TN People’s Movement project, as well as with the People’s Movement itself.

Visit or follow the Appalachian Liberation Library on Goodreads to see what’s on the library’s shelves, or follow them on Facebook to be notified when they hold events.

Posted by: In: Report Backs 11 Feb 2017 Comments: 0

The best laid plans… This was going to be our first regular People’s Assembly of 2017, and we were going to get right down to work on coming up with ideas for projects to address the issues we’d identified at previous assemblies. But just as we were getting ready to begin, we received a request for solidarity support.

A few days previous, one of our neighbors—Gaelyn Porter—heard voices, male and female, outside her house. Someone clearly said, “Put it there.” She looked out the window in time to see a white diesel pickup truck speed off. The next morning, she discovered that what the police and news stations called a “cow carcass” had been dumped on her property, and 70 or so nails had been scattered by the household’s vehicles. Neither she nor the home’s other residents know of anyone, personally, who would have reason to do this.

Gaelyn lives on the corner of a well-trafficked road. Her house is hard to miss: over the past year, she and her housemates have been slowly enclosing their wrap-around porch with Pride flags.

She, and many in the community, believe the carcass-and-nails incident was in response to those flags.

The Tree Streets neighborhood in Johnson City—indeed, the city in general—isn’t the smartest place to perpetrate an anti-LGBTQ hate crime. We have a surprisingly large and connected LGBTQ community, and an equally large community of LGBTQ allies. By the time news of the incident broke, the South Side Neighborhood Organization was working to make Pride flags available to anyone in Johnson City who wanted to fly one as both a show of solidarity and a statement that we will not put up with hate in our communities. The Pride Community Center also made flags available; we had a bunch on hand, thanks to that group, at our February 8th assembly. PFLAG Tri-Cities Tennessee has also ordered Pride flags in various designs for those who want one.

Gaelyn showed up at our assembly Wednesday night just as we were about to start. She explained that she was doing an interview with a local news station in half an hour and she was nervous. She also thought it would make a statement if, while the news crew was interviewing her, a crowd of supportive folks were there. Also, she told us that the same people had come back by her place just the night before, apparently to clarify the information the news had gotten wrong: “It was a pig!” they shouted before peeling away. Craziness.

So we took a (very quick and enthusiastic) vote and decided to march down to her home with flags, candles, and signs, and support her. No one, I think, regretted the decision. In fact, we were all glad that we had a group available and ready to mobilize for our community. This time, it was just fortunate that we were already assembled. We’re working on setting up a system that can mobilize people at a moment’s notice any time.

Rallying in solidarity of one of our neighbors

We had around 30 or 40 people in the yard by the time the news crew showed up, and back at the meeting afterward, we had a good 40 people stick around for the assembly.

Our assembly got started an hour later than planned. I was still ramped up from marching back at a quick pace, in hopes of avoiding being caught in another downpour, so I’m sure I sounded like I was racing through the introductory part of the meeting. Also, given the late start, I dropped some things from the introduction, like a summary of what had gone on in the previous assemblies and some more nuanced explanations and examples of what we were about to do.

Basically, the main portion of this assembly was devoted to brainstorming ideas to address the issues people face in our region. Everyone had a flyer with a list of those issues, and we broke into small groups for the actual brainstorming. The group I sat in on spent a good bit of time talking about immigrant issues. One of our group members works in admissions at ETSU and explained to us the obstacles undocumented immigrants face in getting higher education, even if they attended and graduated from Tennessee’s public K-12 school system. There’s definitely discrimination going on there. These people are even barred from opportunities, like scholarships, that are available to people coming from other countries.

After our time was up, a representative from each group read out the project ideas their group had come up with, and we collected their papers so that we could post the ideas on line. (You can find them right here!) Our next task is to discuss and explore each of these ideas. We have to figure out if an organization is already doing that task, and if one is, are there gaps in what they’re doing that our project could be shaped to? If no one’s doing that project locally yet, are there organizations outside the area who would be able to help us get it underway? What skill sets would the project need? What resources? What organizations, institutions, or businesses in or outside of this area could we collaborate with to expand our resources and skills? Are there grants available for that type of project? Would we have enough volunteers willing to commit to the project? What would “success” look like for that project?

The discussion period lasts through March 9th and will be conducted on our online discussion forum. All are invited and encouraged to participate. There’s even a thread where you can suggest additional project ideas.

March 10th, we’ll open up voting on the projects. We’ll be mostly trying to ascertain where the greatest interest is, and where the greatest willingness to commit time and energy is.

Toward the end of March, we’ll have our next People’s Assembly.  The date, time & location for are still to be determined. In a couple weeks, we be post a “Doodle” online to gather info on when would work best for everyone. (Shout out to Nat from our Skills Building Working Group for introducing me to Doodle!) At this assembly, we’ll go over the results of the voting and discuss what we what to do. We should leave that meeting with an official list of first projects we’ll commit to, we’ll start building lists of people willing to work on each of those projects, and we’ll get some people to volunteer to anchor the project groups’ first meetings.

Other things that happened as this assembly:

The Public Education Working Group has put together a draft of Points of Unity for the Northeast TN People’s Movement. That draft is available here. Please read it and share your thoughts and suggestions. Public Education will finalize the document using this input, and at the next assembly we’ll vote on adopting it. They’re working out the date/time/location of their next meeting. If you’re interested in joining the group, there’s a form for that on their website. They’ll add you to their email discussion listserv, and you’ll get info on upcoming meetings and what they’re currently working on.

The Community Outreach & Support Working Group is working on hosting two events in the near future, a volunteer event in March and a barbecue/picnic in May. They’re also compiling lists of community resources so that, whatever you’re facing, you can hit up their website and find a resource to help. Their next meeting will be Friday, February 24th, and 6:30 pm at ETSU (room to be confirmed). You can join their working group here.

The Skills Building Working Group has identified four main areas that folks seem most interested in developing skills in: Health & Wellness, (Community/Activist) Relationship Building, Campaign Building, and Community Defense. They have done a lot of work identifying local/regional trainers to provide workshops in these areas, and their members are now researching locations and seeing what it’ll take to bring skills training here. Also, there will definitely be a “Health & Safety in the Streets” workshop happening at the end of this month, Next Door @ the Acoustic Coffeehouse. Dates are TBA soon. If you’re interested in receiving notifications on classes and workshops, sign up for the mailing list. If you’re interested in working with the Skills Building group, you can join here. And if you’d like to teach a workshop in any of the identified areas, let the group know here.

Until next time… Don’t forget to participate in the project discussions! And if you want to make sure you receive the link to vote on projects next month, sign up for the Northeast TN People’s Movement mailing list or like our Facebook page.

Posted by: In: Report Backs 22 Jan 2017 Comments: 1 Tags:

Here’s a copy of the speech given by Zoe Wells at the start of our People’s Assembly on the steps of City Hall in Johnson City, TN, January 20, 2017.

Inauguration Day Shutdown (photo source: WJHL)

We are in uncharted territory. We are now in a place where will wake up every morning aware that we have no idea what the president of this country will do or say today. We will wake up every morning and think, “Please don’t let today be the day World War III gets started by a tweet.” Rates of depression and anxiety among youth, teens, and adults have been climbing in this country for decades. It’s a product of the society we live in, a society that says if your job doesn’t pay enough, get a new job. If you can’t get a job, go back to school. If you get that education and come out of it with debt and still no job that pays a living wage, you shouldn’t have taken out those loans knowing they’d have to be paid off. If you have kids, get laid off, lose your house, and have to move your family in with friends—or your car—you shouldn’t have had kids.

We live in a society of judgement. We live in a society where, if we aren’t living the American dream, it’s our failing—despite the stagnating wages, despite the precariousness of jobs, despite the rising costs of housing, despite wage discrimination and job discrimination and the fact that there are too damned many people and too damned few so-called “good” jobs. It’s our failure despite the breathtaking hikes in the cost of going to even a state college. It’s our failure despite the fact that there are 27—thank you, Kentucky—27 states that have adopted “Right to Work” laws that can be more properly described as “Right to Fire.” It’s our faults despite the fact that mental health was significantly defunded in favor of funding prisons. Our faults despite the high costs of health care—if we get sick, it’s our fault for not taking better care of ourselves. Twenty percent of adults in this country have a mental health issue. I would not be surprised if, after four years of President Trump, one hundred percent of this country has PTSD, because, folks, on top of the toxic, individualist culture we’ve already been living in, we now add utter and complete uncertainty every morning we wake up.

I’ve spoken with many people between November and now, and one common thread has been an overpowering feeling of dread and helplessness. It’s like we’re on the Titanic. We can see the tip of the iceberg sparking ominously in the ocean before us. The captain doesn’t care—it’s a great iceberg, you’ll love the iceberg, it’s the most beautiful iceberg—and what can we do?

What can we do, so far from the nation’s capital, so far from any sphere of influence? What can we do?

We can start by building lifeboats. Our sphere of influence is right here at home. We start where we’re at. We figure out what we need. We make it happen. Making it happen can mean pressuring our local and state governments. Making it happen can mean running our people for school boards, city councils, state district reps. Making it happens means creating our own resources where there are none. It means boycotting if we have to, it means demonstrating, it means, sometimes, making a racket so loud they can’t ignore us.

We’re on the steps of the Johnson City municipal building, where our city council holds their twice monthly meetings. I recommend we all start going to those meetings, get to know these people, how they vote, how they respond to citizen concerns. Let them see your faces and get used to seeing your faces. If you’re not from Johnson City, find out when and where your local government meets and put your face there in the audience as often as you can. We are going to want things from them. We’re going to expect things from them. They’re not going to do these things on their own. We are only going to be able to achieve what we need if we come together as a force they cannot ignore. And if they still ignore us, we will replace them. We will replace them.  With God as my witness, we will replace them.

Now I’m going to turn things over to you. I said we need to build lifeboats right here at home. Let’s talk about what these lifeboats are going to look like. What do we need to keep us safe, to keep us healthy, to keep our children clothed, fed, and educated, and reduce our struggles in this getting-harder-every-day-to-make-ends-meet world we live in? I know there’s no shortage of needs. What are they?

What a heartbreaking and spirit-lifting weekend. Here are the bad (some might say “nasty”) things that happened this weekend:

  • The Civil Rights, LGBT, and Immigrants pages on were replaced with a commitment to more law enforcement and a promise to defend gun rights through all levels of the justice system.
  • The Climate Change page was replaced with a vow to eliminate environmental regulations, extract oil and natural gas from publicly owned lands, and revive the coal industry.
  • An executive order was signed to allow the dismantling the Affordable Care Act.
  • Violence against women grants, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for Humanities were put on the chopping block.
  • The Trump administration lied—repeatedly—about crowd sizes, and even the weather, of all things (and to the CIA, of all people), showing that we cannot take their word for anything—except for the policies they promise to implement, or destroy.

I’m almost afraid for Monday to come and the administration to have their first real day at work.

But there was good this weekend, too—so much good. Trump’s pre-inauguration concert was desolate compared to previous such concerts, his parade & inauguration were virtually deserted, and it was all overshadowed by the massive turnouts in D.C. and across the country both on inauguration day and the day after. We, in fact, had the largest protest in United States history on the 21st, with an estimated 3,000,000 people turning out across the country. They were joined by a million more in the rest of the world. We can stand up to the system. We will continue standing up to the system. And we will not stop at blocking the actions of the Trump administration; we will not stop at returning the country to its previous status quo: We will not stop until we have achieved economic, social, and political justice in this country and beyond.

Right here at home, we tested out our “standing up to the system” capabilities as well, starting Thursday night.

January 19, 2017

Instead of watching Trump’s pre-inauguration concert, people came out to our pre-inauguration benefit show at The Hideaway in Johnson City. Local bands Secret Bleeders, Yog Sothoth, and POVERTYBOMB, as well as a dozen noise musicians, gave their time and some phenomenal performances to help raise money for the Northeast TN People’s movement. The event turned out better than anyone expected, everyone enjoyed themselves, and we are all stoked to do it again.

POVERYBOMB playing to a crowded house on January 19th.

January 20, 2017

We staged an Inauguration Day Shutdown here in Johnson City. Fifty people turned out for our march, rally, and people’s assembly.

Inauguration Day Shutdown People's Assembly

Our People’s Assembly on the steps of City Hall during our Inauguration Day Shutdown event, January 20, 2017.

This was an amazing event, starting at Memorial Park, we all met up and learned some chants. At 11:30, we began our march across the street, around the Municipal Building, and up the steps of City Hall, where we rallied for the next half hour. People who’d never yelled into a megaphone before that day took turns leading chants like pros. At noon, we had a moment of silence…or, well, we tried. Before the second hand could tick all the way around to 12:01, we ended the only silence this administration will get from us and began our People’s Assembly on the steps of City Hall. As a group, we discussed the issues we face here and what we expect—and demand—from our local and state governments. At the end, people shared what the organizations they’re working with are doing and how we can get involved with them. Then we marched back to the park, shared hugs, and left looking forward to seeing many of the same faces the next day in Jonesborough.

January 21, 2017

Jonesborough was the scene of the local Women’s March held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. The sidewalks and street in front of the courthouse were packed—an estimated 1,000 people attended. Spirits and solidarity were high. People there were hungry for next-steps and ways they could get involved; it was great to see such renewed interest in getting involved. We were there flyering for our February 8th People’s Assembly, and a number of other organizations had representatives there as well. The organizers are putting together a page of local organizations; in the meantime, you can check their Facebook post for a list.

Women’s March in Jonesborough, TN, January 21, 2017 [photo by Whitney Prater]

Going Forward

As we said in the graphic we made for the Inauguration Day Shutdown, this is the start of Four Years of Fight Back. We are committed to working right here in Northeast Tennessee to protect our communities, defend our rights, and change the neoliberal and neoconservative policies that have led us into the situation we have now. We hope you’ll join us.

Posted by: In: Report Backs 03 Dec 2016 Comments: 0

Huge thanks to everyone who participated in last night’s meeting! Here’s a little run-down on what we did. Read more…

Posted by: In: Report Backs 17 Nov 2016 Comments: 0

Fifty people attended our very first People’s Assembly held a week after the 2016 elections. This initial event was a response to Trump’s election, and we spent our time answering three questions: Read more…