Bill could drive wedge between legislators and Occupy protesters

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 11:39am
By Steven Hale

Just weeks after returning to Capitol Hill, state legislators may be setting the stage for another showdown between law enforcement and the encamped Occupy Nashville protesters outside their offices.

A bill filed Jan. 17 — by Rep. Eric Watson (R-Cleveland) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) — would make it illegal to “maintain living-quarters” on public property that is not designated for residential use. A violation of the statute would be a Class C misdemeanor and call for an action that will be familiar to protesters, press and casual observers who spent their nights on the plaza three months ago: eviction of people from the property by the appropriate law enforcement agency.

When first they met, the state and the occupiers tangled over the enforcement of a hastily devised overnight curfew, put in place by the Department of General Services and endorsed by the governor.

So far, the Occupy Nashville response to the bill would seem to indicate that such an episode could repeat itself. In a letter outlining their concerns with the proposed legislation, which they’ve urged supporters to sign and send to legislators, the group flatly declares their intentions, should the bill become law.

“However, should HB2638/SB2508 be passed, and be used to evict Occupy Nashville,” the letter’s closing line reads, “I will once again be at the Plaza, willing to risk arrest on behalf of our First Amendment rights.”

Not surprisingly, at least one of the bill’s sponsors said limiting speech is not its aim at all.

“The bill that Rep. Watson and I are bringing has nothing to do with the abridgement of the people’s right of assembly, to the right of speech or to the right of redress of grievances,” said Gresham. “That is not even in our lexicon. But it is clear that Occupy Nashville has been the critical event that sparked the bringing of the bill.”

A subsection of the bill also dictates that a person’s use or assembly on public property should not pose a health hazard or safety threat to other people who use or work on the property. This is a response to reports of sex acts and defecation on the plaza — largely unsubstantiated — that were the subject of much ado the last time around.

For their part, Occupy Nashville representatives have denied any involvement by their members in such acts. Whoever committed them, though, Gresham said her partner in the legislation has firsthand knowledge of the unsavory activities.

“The war stories, if you will, that are in the rumor mill are not necessarily rumor,” Gresham said. “Rep. Watson, whose office overlooks the plaza, has seen some of these egregious acts going on.” Watson, a former sheriff who chairs the House Judiciary Committee where the bill currently resides, could not be reached for comment.

Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought a lawsuit against the governor and others on behalf of Occupy Nashville in October, declined to comment on how the legislation, if passed, would affect the pending federal case. She did say, however, that she’s not confident the law will pass legal muster and expressed a concern about consequences beyond the eviction of Occupy Nashville (along with Occupy groups across the state). 

“The bill is problematic, over-broad, vague and constitutionally suspect,” she said. “It seems to outlaw homelessness, which is not something our government can do.”

Gresham said they are considering language that would allow law enforcement to give a warning — say 24 or 48 hours — before forcibly evicting anyone from public grounds. A spokesman for the governor’s office said they’re focused on the rule-making process — as opposed to legislative action — with regards to the issue, but that they are tracking the bill’s language.    

As for the bill’s legal strength, Gresham does not share Weinberg’s concern.

“I think working closely with the attorney general’s office — I think the constitutionality will not be in question,” she said.

Filed under: City News

8 Comments on this post:

By: jvh2b on 1/31/12 at 4:31

How in the world would this out law homelessness? Talk about reaching for it.

I hate to say it as I'm an occupy sympathizer, but yeah...they need to go. It's turned into a homeless camp...walked by it the other day to see a guy just urinating on the walls of the plaza.

It's time to go. And this bill makes sense...you shouldn't be able to live on public property not designed for it.

By: Ingleweird on 2/1/12 at 10:23

@jvh2b:
Hogwash. I've not simply walked by the plaza; I've actually spent hours there over the last few months, and NOT ONCE have I observed public urination or defacation on or around the plaza. The claims that is this is actually going on is, however, full of bowel movements. And even if you had witnessed such activity, how can you state with certainty that the alleged culprit/s are actual occupy participants? You can't.

By: JeffF on 2/1/12 at 10:32

This isn't even about protesters anymore, it is about their tents left empty at the plaza. They are now just setting there for a media photo-op. They will remain unoccupied until the police finally evict the tents from the plaza then the "Occupiers" will suddenly show up just in time to be on the video for the news.

The Nashville edition of the occupation movement has really gotten off easy compared to their comrades in other cities. Here in Nashville they do not even have to occupy to be occupiers.

I suggest police remove an empty tent or two and see how long their occupiers take to show up (after their friends call them on their IPhones). If it takes more than 20 minutes then their protest argument is moot and they do not get their stuff back since they were abandoned on public property. Repeat until you only have just the tents of the real occupiers or the homeless.

By: ancienthighway on 2/1/12 at 10:41

I've said it before and I'll say it again. What is the purpose of a 24/7 protest when there's no one around to see it but 12/5 or maybe 12/7 if there's something interesting going on in the area.

Pack up your tents, kids, and go home. You can come back and play tomorrow.

By: frodo on 2/1/12 at 10:48

I reroute my day to avoid a public space that was designed to be a pleasant airy escape from the towers that surround it. And I'm sick and tired of ceding my public space to one set of interests. It is time to end it. It is time to regain some balance and sanity in the use of public space. And, JeffF, you make a good observation about the occupiers in name only.

You can bet that Occupiers and their supporters would go into convulsions if a church set up camp there.

By: rickgibson5 on 2/1/12 at 1:59

KInd of a desecration anymore. Whatever their cause is, it's yesterday's news. I go by it on the way to work and wonder if I had an RV, would I be able to park it on state property up there in the middle of the tents, get free rent, water, electricity, food, etc. Poor tourists who didn't see it coming when they came to see the capital.

By: Left-of-Local on 2/2/12 at 9:53

This state will do anything to maintain the cold clasp of it's Republic-controlled greedy hand. It is one thing to clean up a problem with anything abandoned or enforce health laws, etc. It is another thing to do everything you can to squash dissent, and that has been the ONLY motivation of anti-occupy efforts, nationwide.

By: spooky24 on 2/3/12 at 8:08

If Haslem had thrown they out when all the others did this would have been over months ago.. They gave them 6 hours to get out of Central Park or else-and they got gone. The tried it in KC and the next morning all their crap was in the landfill.

sp