One thing that is noticeable within the first twenty minutes of traveling around Chattanooga is the number of new buildings. Walls upon walls of bright, young brick of beige to rose hues seemed to shout for attention from entrepreneurs, business ventures, and other good ol’ capitalist leeches. In Chattanooga, a hotel and resort have been erected in place of the eponymous Choo Choo. The amount of new money architecture, however, is not enough to make you forget southeast Tennessee’s valuable history.
One day, in 1961, a place called the Highlander Folk School had its land and buildings seized by the state after having been under government investigation. The Highlander Folk School was a social justice leadership school, established in the 1930s, where notable alumni such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King received their priceless activist training. The next morning, the institution reopened as the Highlander Research and Education Center, and has been standing tall ever since.
The Highlander periodically awards grants from its We Shall Overcome Fund. The 2012 grant recipient was a grassroots social justice organization called Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA), to work on a media project to raise awareness and provide education about the history of the Westside Community Association and its years of resistance against racism and economic oppression.
COA meets weekly, holding healthy, consensus-based meetings around the organization’s strategy and campaign coordination, as a means of “sowing the seeds of democratic leadership” and implementing their visions:
- Reaching across racial, economic and social lines to create a diverse Board of Directors and membership base.
- Cultivating and fostering the creation and development of grassroots organizations led by those most directly affected.
- Promoting citizen-led decision making practices.
Since Chattanooga mayor Ron Littlefield invited Warren Buffett’s organization, Purpose Built Community, to tear down one of the last standing public housing communities in order to build new “mixed income” housing condos and business complexes, the people of Westside Housing Community have been rising to voice their dissent. COA provides a space for organized resistance while upholding their community values:
- Acknowledging the experiences of exploitation and institutionalized racism and sexism by promoting safe and honest discussion in which people can understand how privilege has shaped our understanding of ourselves and one another.
- Promoting consensus-building as an organizational method as opposed to divisive decision-making.
Lately COA has been working to strengthen its arm of anti-repression training and tactics in order for residents of Westside Housing Community to have tangible ways of fighting back against routine police intimidation and harassment. We witnessed the birth of a neighborhood copwatch program, an effective way for residents to not be bullied into moving out of the Westside neighborhood so that high-rises can move in.
We heard an account of police harassing a COA member, maneuvering the phone out of their hand, verbally abusing them in the vicinity of the Westside Housing Community. When two female-presenting onlookers took out their phones and began recording video. The cops eventually left, empty-handed. When the COA-member approached the two witnesses to request the footage, they chuckled and revealed that their phones don’t have cameras.
The people are ready and mobilized, they’re just preparing their tools*.
*So if you have an old camera phone, send it to:
1211 Boynton Drive
or visit chattaction.org
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