While Gov. Bill Haslam was defending the state’s actions in the arrests of Occupy Nashville protesters, the feeling was not unanimous at Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Some lawmakers said the situation should have been handled differently. And then there were the protesters.
When protester Steven Pottinger of Nashville heard that Haslam had defended the arrests on the grounds of safety and the need to address unsanitary conditions, Pottinger replied, “If he doesn’t like the sanitary issues, provide us with Port-a-Johns.”
Pottinger and protester Elizabeth Johnson of Memphis said there were portable toilets at the site when the protest began but that they’re gone now.
In terms of safety, Occupy Nashville protesters are taking matters somewhat into their own hands. At their “General Assembly” meeting Tuesday night, protesters agreed to a code of conduct and vowed that people disruptive to the movement by starting fights or committing crimes would be compelled to leave by their own security team.
Legislators didn’t seem especially caught up in the issue, but the matter did stir some broad opinions.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, sided with the protesters.
“I think the protesters have every right, as I understand the judge ruled, to handle themselves as protesters with an understanding that it’s got to be peaceful, it’s got to be respectful. But if they’re not breaking any laws, then they certainly in my opinion have a right to peaceful protest on public property,” Hardaway said. “Of all things, we’re talking about the Capitol, where we make the laws.
“If we can’t stand to have a little inconvenience, a little noise with some extra people here at the people’s house, then I don’t know what we’re doing up here.”
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, said he hadn’t followed the events closely, but he said he was troubled about legal aspects of the issue.
“I’d have some legal problems with the way a new policy was initiated and enforced, and I think the judicial system obviously had the same problem,” Fitzhugh said.
“So I think it would behoove us all to make sure that we do things in due time and legally if there is a situation we want to avoid in the future. Make sure the appropriate policy is there.”
Haslam said Tuesday the goal was not to remove people from Legislative Plaza but to provide a safe environment, adding that the problem was that the protesters wanted to stay indefinitely, 24 hours a day.
Not everyone disagreed with the governor.
“I do believe you have the right to protest your government. Of course you do. I do wish more attention, though, would have been paid to what was going on down here leading up to this,” said Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, the House Republican Caucus chair.
“We’ve had a lot of unhappy staff, and they should be, because unfortunately and sadly some of the folks that are out there protesting have been doing things during the day in broad daylight they shouldn’t be doing and causing a lot of concern.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit claiming the arrests were violations of free speech. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted a temporary restraining order against arrests, and the state did not contest the order.
State troopers arrested 29 protesters at Legislative Plaza on Friday morning and 26 on Saturday, enforcing a new curfew that had been put into effect in response to complaints.
The state, citing “criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions,” imposed a curfew on Oct. 27, closing Legislative Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. When protesters, who had been on the scene for several days, did not leave, they were first arrested Friday at 3 a.m. A magistrate in Nashville, however, would not jail the protesters.
Haslam expressed no regret Tuesday about his decisions, although he did say Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons contacted an editor to express regrets about the arrest of reporter Jonathan Meador of the Nashville Scene in the roundup. Chris Ferrell, CEO of SouthComm Inc., which publishes the Nashville Scene, said Tuesday he did not consider Gibbons’ response an apology.
“It was more of a rationalization for their actions than an apology,” Ferrell said when contacted by phone.
Ferrell had publicly asked Haslam for an apology for Meador’s arrest. Ferrell talked to Gibbons on Monday, and Gibbons sent a follow-up e-mail. Ferrell said the conversation lasted two or three minutes.
But when asked if he was satisfied with the response he received, Ferrell said, “No. Because they still haven’t apologized for what seems to me a clear violation of the First Amendment, that when the officers grabbed Jonathan he clearly identified himself as a journalist.
“They should have verified that and then let him go. The fact that they did not, I think, is of concern to journalists everywhere.”
Ferrell said he had not talked to Haslam, although he had tried to contact the governor through his communications office as recently as Monday.
Gibbons’ statement to Ferrell said, in part: “Obviously, it was not our intention to take any member of the press doing his or her job into custody for trespassing. I regret any confusion regarding Mr. Meador’s role.”
The Middle Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists also issued a formal request for an apology. A journalist from Middle Tennessee State University was also reportedly among those arrested.
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, was at a higher education event Haslam attended in Cool Springs Tuesday and said he felt action was necessary.
“Look, I’ve been up there, and it stinks,” Casada said. “They’re doing acts that aren’t appropriate in public.
“They are using the restroom, if you will, without facilities, just on the grounds. It’s just an unsafe environment, and the governor had to act. And he did the right thing.”