A Momentous Week in Knoxville and Across the Nation

Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial, Knoxville, November 2016
Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial, Knoxville, November 2016

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday. Lots of festivities have been underway for days and more is planned for today. The annual King March takes places on MLK, Jr. Blvd this morning starting at 10:00 and our historically warm temperatures make participation as easy as ever. Tonight there will be a King celebration at the Tennessee Theatre featuring the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra. Admission is free.

This Friday, of course, is Inauguration Day, and Donald Trump will be sworn in as our 45th president. A large portion of the country and our neighbors are excited to see what he will bring to the office, while at least as large a portion are very concerned. The thread connecting the King Holiday with the inauguration is race. Divisions related to race have been a theme of the campaign from President-elect Trump’s opening speech in which he referred to illegal immigrants from Mexico in pejorative terms, through his comments on those of middle-eastern decent, to his most recent twitter battle with civil-rights icon John Lewis.

In response to the inauguration, a number of events will happen in and around downtown Knoxville. Each of the events are taking care to point out they are not partisan, and while the the context cannot be denied, none of them address the pending Trump presidency directly, but rather maintain a positive focus. Two of the three primary events focus on raising funds for the ACLU and the other on supporting issues important to women.

The first kicks off Thursday night as 40 regional and local comics converge on downtown for “What a Joke,” a two-day comedy festival. The idea originated with two comics, Jen Welch and Emily Winter, in New York City and spread across the country. Thursday night’s events in Knoxville will be focused in Old City Venues Pilot Light and Pretentious Glass Company, while Friday night will shift to Happy Holler with shows in The Central Collective, Holly’s Corner, Ironwood Studios and Modern Studio. A $10 donation for Thursday night gets you into all the venues. It is $15 for Friday night or $20 for both nights.

I spoke to Shane Rhyne, organizer of the local efforts – and Knoxville joins Atlanta, New Orleans and Memphis as the only southern cities represented. He said he’d hoped to bring a few comics together to join the effort to support the ACLU whose issue, free speech, is at the heart of what comics do, and has been overwhelmed at the number of comics willing to travel to Knoxville at their own expense to volunteer for the impromptu festival.

He’s quick to point out that while, no doubt, political statements will be made, many comics will likely be non-political, so it is an event for anyone who enjoys good comedy. It’s not about being negative, he said, but about creating awareness and giving people a chance to laugh. Proud of Knoxville’s involvement, he was also noted that the farthest flung effort – in Oxford, England, has Knoxville roots with former Knoxville comedian Matt Chadourne leading the effort there.

You can see the complete venue list and buy tickets here. Tickets for Thursday only are $10, Friday only $15 and $20 for both nights and all venues. You area also free, of course, to donate more. Venues and comics have all donated their services and 100% of proceeds go to the ACLU. You can find the lineups under the discussion links on the Facebook pages for Thursday and Friday.

Cereus Bright, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, September 2016

If comedy isn’t your thing, there is music. Jason Hanna and Brian Paddock have organized an event they are calling “Shelter From the Storm” Friday, “to demonstrate commitment to equality for all people in our hometown and beyond.” The event at Scruffy City Hall benefits the ACLU and carries a suggested donation of $10. Emceed by Bill Foster, it will feature bands Cereus Bright, Hudson K, Bark, Black Atticus, Paul Lee Kupfer and Shimmy and the Burns, as well as guest speaker State Representative Rick Staples. The event starts at 6:00 PM.

I spoke with Brian and Bill who said they hope this is a constructive approach to what the next four years may bring. Brian framed the question as, “What are we going to do for the next four years to preserve and expand civil liberties for everyone?” He added, “We hope to have a large crowd to show support for people who are afraid of losing their civil liberties and to send a statement that these people are valued.” The two agreed that January 20th is just the beginning of the struggle and that this is the beginning of the effort to find a way forward. While not going negative, they are also not looking to make concessions.

Finally, if you’d like to take a more direct approach to a political statement, there is a Women’s March – Knoxville which parallels the Women’s March on Washington. The local group has quickly organized within the last couple of weeks and now boasts over 1500 people on their website. Everyone is welcome to join and their statement of purpose indicates, “We march in support of women’s rights, safety, and health, and in solidarity with the national Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on the same date.”

I spoke with Caroline Mann, organizer, and found in her a person who has never led and, in fact, has never participated in a march of any sort. I asked her, “Why now?” to which she replied that “November 8th changed me.” After watching the election results with a group in Texas, she went through phases of anger, depression and fear. She ranted, formed a private Facebook group, called representatives and ultimately saw a post on Facebook asking, “Why isn’t Knoxville having a march?”

That was the spark she needed. She soon found herself at the kitchen table of a neighbor with three women making plans for a kind of event she’d never even observed. She says the action is helping her have hope for the future of our country. Her role will be small Saturday- she’ll introduce the speakers – but her actions have inspired hundreds to get involved in a larger movement and to support the four chartered bus loads of Knoxville women who will be in Washington the same day.

The rally and march will start on Market Square, where a small group of notable political women will be assembled on stage. After brief remarks, the group will march to the Duncan Building and return to Market Square to conclude. A release form found on the site linked above is requested of participants and RSVPs are appreciated. Hundreds have done so, already.

Caroline has no intentions of stopping with this march. She hopes participants will become active, form additional groups and, perhaps, run for office. She’d also like a march in support of women’s issues to become an annual event, keeping those issues in focus. She’s hoping to tap in to a segment of the population who, like her, have been quiet.

She wants to ensure that, “women’s voices are heard more loudly on the issues that are important to us.” She says she’d like to see, “Empathy for others, the ability to see beyond yourself, to advocate for the common good.”