Monday, October 10, 2011


Here are some notable facts about the public-private divide in Memphis politics, that, while by no means exhaustive, can provide points of inspiration:

*In recent months, a bloc of members of the city council and the Mayor have launched an all-out attack on city employees, starting with an effort to privatize the sanitation department and continuing with an illegal deduction of 4.6% of the salaries of public workers that came after good-faith negotiations and contracts already signed. Such policies mean reduced services, salaries, benefits, and numbers for:

*police *sanitation workers
*firefighters *parks services

They’ve even outsourced towing, which, like all privatization efforts, means laying off workers and costs the city more than keeping such services in-house.

*The city has claimed a ‘budget crisis’ even though it is sitting upon over $75 million in its reserve fund and gives millions to private ‘development’ efforts. They have used this so-called crisis to slash funding to public services, which has meant reduced facilities, workers, and hours for:

*parks *libraries
*code enforcement *community centers

*The city’s donation of $215 million to Bass Pro for its planned takeover of The Pyramid has led once again to questions about why our city continues to fund private businesses and buildings with public funds. As public assistance (‘welfare’) is disappearing, such ‘corporate welfare’ is becoming the norm.

*Most decisions about the city’s spending of large sums of public monies are undertaken with absolutely no public input or debate. The voices of the people who will be most affected by such policies -- the raising of bus fares or the displacement of people in areas of ‘redevelopment’ (i.e. gentrifcation) – go unheard.

*Through the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) program, the city has given away a quarter of a billion dollars since 2007. Companies receive huge tax breaks – public money being given away – to provide a certain number of jobs, etc., with no system of accountability, as businesses are just supposed to monitor themselves.

*While 40% of Memphians do not have private transport, our city’s bus system is deficient, providing inadequate services and an outdated system of routes that were originally designed to take African-American ‘domestics’ out to suburban homes in East Memphis. Instead of improving bus services, the city is working towards the development of an expensive ‘light rail’ system that will primarily move businesspersons and tourists from the airport to the Central Business District (i.e. downtown).

*The priorities within housing issues are similarly skewed, as federal grant projects provide excuses to tear down public housing in areas that developers find appealing, and to displace and scatter long-time residents to the outskirts of the city. There is no pretense that public housing needs will be served by the city, as head of Memphis Housing Authority, Robert Lipscomb, declared to The Memphis Flyer that he hopes Memphis “will eliminate public housing from our vocabulary” (18 March 2011).

*The local chapter of Food not Bombs has been serving free meals to the homeless in Court Square every Saturday afternoon for over ten years. In 2010, the Center City Commission started taking steps to kick Food not Bombs out of Downtown. The CCC’s Jerome Rubin told a Food not Bombs member that the group was encouraging unruly behavior in the park and thereby discouraging people from renting the $1500 condominiums that line the park. Meanwhile, a recent city ordinance confines panhandling to a 2’x2’ mat, while the Mayors’ own Plan to End Homelessness goes unfunded.

*We acknowledge that there are instances in which the divide between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is not as neat as we have outlined here. For example, in city officials’ schemes, ‘business’ is equivalent to ‘big business’, such that the interests of local small business owners are rarely considered.

Artists and practioners, individuals and collectives, can address any of the preceding dimensions of the public-private divide in our city and in the city government’s priorities or suggest your own topic along these lines.

The event will be comprised of offerings that people can peruse as well as performance pieces. Submissions may include:

*paintings *dance
*video *music
*projected images *slam poetry
*installation art *narrative or monologue
*photography *posters or other graphic design/art
*film *sculpture


Branston, John. “The End of Public Housing in Memphis.” 18 March 2011.

‘Food not Bombs harassed in downtown Memphis’