Cook: This is what democracy looks like

Cook: This is what democracy looks like

November 3rd, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

With nearly 100 members of the Occupy Chattanooga movement before her, Councilwoman Sally Robinson opened Tuesday night's City Council meeting with a prayer: "Our creator, we give thanks tonight for the privilege of living in a democracy."

Yes, what a privilege. What a messy, chaotic, beautiful, rebellious, grand privilege democracy can be.

You should have been there to see it Tuesday night.

Shortly after 6 p.m., City Council room: "You have a choice," Patricia Bazemore told the nine council members.

Bazemore was one of the Occupy protesters who filled the council chambers. Her message was clear: Give us, she asked, a public place to build our movement; local ordinances, set up to prohibit anyone using public parks after 10:30 p.m., can be changed.

She's right. The City Council in Los Angeles passed a resolution (11-0) expressing support for the Occupy protesters camping out on the City Hall lawn. A Nashville judge recently ordered police to stop arresting curfew-violating protesters.

Our own City Council could have agreed Tuesday night to a compromise: a two-week suspension of the ordinance. The use of the downtown library. Or the City Hall lawn.

But before giving the first of three protesters (they were allowed 11 minutes total) the chance to speak, the council made its stance clear. The ordinance was staying.

"Please don't ask your City Council to violate an ordinance," said Robinson.

"I'm very sympathetic with you," Councilman Jack Benson told the crowd. "But you're not going to succeed by breaking any laws."

Two hours later, in Miller Park: Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd gets a hug or two and plenty of handshakes. All from the Occupy protesters.

You've seen footage from other cities. Tension between police and protesters grows. Smoke from tear gas spreads. The plastic-tie handcuffs appear. Horses clomp in the distance. Billy clubs loom.

But Dodd, the epitome of a gentleman Tuesday evening, spent two hours -- along with Councilman Andraé McGary -- with the protesters, negotiating, joking, pleading.

"We are on your side. We don't want to arrest you," Dodd told the crowd. "We will help you in any way we can between 8 a.m. and 10:30 at night."

Already, Dodd told me, he had asked Larry Zehnder, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, to waive the $500 deposit any large group needs to gather in a public park. And on the other occasion when Occupy gathered without any deposit or permit, Dodd didn't step in.

Late Tuesday night, the protesters and Dodd reached a compromise: Without tents or obstructing traffic, they would begin a 24-hour vigil and occupy the sidewalk outside the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Or so I thought, as I drove home to go to bed.

10:45 p.m.: The phone call went straight to voice mail.

"Hey David," the message said. "This is Landon. Me and one other person are going to do civil disobedience tonight and defy the law."

Landon Howard is a social worker, leader within the activist community in Chattanooga, former student and a friend. He loves Dr. Martin Luther King, especially his belief that "there comes a time when silence is betrayal."

In a society where more Americans -- when asked by researchers -- can name the five members of "The Simpsons" cartoon family more easily than the five freedoms in the First Amendment, Howard represents active, direct, engaged democracy.

So Tuesday night, believing that sometimes conscience and conviction trump everything -- even ordinances and police chiefs -- Howard and Heidi Davis walked to the green grass lawn outside City Hall and, underneath the American flag flying on the pole, unrolled their sleeping bags and climbed in.

They were willing to get arrested for what they thought was right.

For the end of families having to sleep in their car. For veterans paralyzed and foreclosed. For groceries purchased with more than minimum wage. For the end of politics married to money and the beginning of politics in the hands of the people.

And though Landon and Heidi didn't get arrested Tuesday night, they are what democracy looks like.


David Cook can be reached at