At least it was nice and sunny outside, 65 degrees, with just a touch of a cool fall breeze in the air. It was lunchtime, and Market Square was teeming by Knoxville standards—packs of people out for a midday break from work, eating complicated foodstuffs from sort-of-fancy restaurants on the patios, sitting on the park benches, or just taking a walk through the city's renovated historic meeting place. Everyone was looking and feeling very young, urbane, and sophisticated.
So it seems it would have been a perfect time for a young, urbane, and sophisticated publicity stunt. And, according to a few spotty sources on the Internet, one was coming. It was Knox Charter Petition's "Freeze Mob," in which a couple hundred people were supposed to walk along and suddenly freeze in place for five minutes, indicating their support for two controversial charter amendments that will reduce the size of Knox County Commission and make four elected county positions mayoral appointments.
The announcement came a few weeks ago through somewhat unorthodox channels—a community web forum, a circulating e-mail, and a few blog posts.
"We will appear to be walking and going about our days, when at the same moment we will freeze," the announcement read, linking to a video of a similar stunt in New York's Grand Central Station earlier this year. Watch it, the note said, and "you will be able to tell that people notice this."
In short, the idea is to accomplish something—getting people's attention—by, in essence, doing nothing for a little while.
It's a brash, high-concept idea for a town that, despite recently embracing an expensive-looking renovation of its central business district, complete with a brand new hot dog cart, still closes down at six most days.
The minutes leading up to the big Nothing were filled with tension and anticipation. People in the know scanned the crowd, trying to figure out just who may be involved. It could be anybody, and that felt a little eerie.
Was the pack of stiff looking, gray-suited men in on this thing? What about that bicyclist?
Was that woman in the green pantsuit on the park bench about to stiffen up, hot dog halfway stuffed in her mouth, in support of local government reform?
Was that bearded, unkempt, wild-eyed guy wearing a shirt that said "Feudalism Now" about to stop beating on his little black drum?
"I'm just getting some ‘people enjoying the nice weather in Market Square' footage," explained WBIR cameraman Josh West to a curious onlooker. When the man walked away, West turned around, saying conspiratorially, "I don't want to ruin the surprise for anybody."
But, to the disappointment of almost no one except this reporter, West, and a few angry-looking hecklers, the only surprise was that there was no surprise. The nothing failed to happen.
"This is a bunch of bullshit," said David Garrett, Jr., after waiting until 12:45. He was wearing a "Vote No on Charter Amendments 3 and 4" T-shirt. Garrett, who ran for the Tennessee State House in 2006 as an Independent, and a small group of friends were there to jeer the amendment supporters. "This is just [KCP Organizer Gary] Drinnen trying to get support for his thing, but maybe he realized it was the wrong thing to do."
Garrett's associate Brian Moneyham, the man wearing the "Feudalism Now" T-shirt, agreed, in not so many words.
"Could it be? Do they hate the bearded?" he asked, then explained the eccentric garment, all the while lightly tapping his drum, giving you the feeling that it was more an outlet for a nervous tick than a heckling aid. "Feudalism seems to be where we're headed with these two amendments."
Maybe it was all a hoax, a prank on the media and the saveknox.org crowd. Maybe, more likely, they just couldn't get enough people together on a weekday afternoon, since a handful of participants did ultimately manage to pull it off on Saturday, to the apparent confusion of everyone around. Either way, last Thursday was a bit of a shame. Clearly it would have been a thoughtful, stirring debate.