published Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Demonstrators threaten to occupy Tennessee Capitol

NASHVILLE — Occupy Nashville protesters are warning Gov. Bill Haslam, state lawmakers and the highway patrol that, if evicted from Legislative Plaza, their members will occupy the state Capitol, other public areas and even restrooms at the Haslam family-owned chain of travel centers.

In an "open letter," the protest group denounces legislation they say is designed to oust protesters from the plaza, where members have camped since October. The bill is sponsored in the House by Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland.

"If you pass this bill to evict Occupy Nashville and criminalize our un-housed friends, then you have chosen to escalate the conversation," the letter states. "If you pass this bill, we will prevail in the courts and on the streets."

Passing the bill, the letter states, will lead to protesters moving to occupy the state Capitol, other public property and foreclosed homes. Protesters also "will occupy the restrooms of all Pilot Travel Centers."

The Pilot Flying J Travel Corp. chain is owned in part by Haslam and other Haslam family members.

Haslam spokesman David Smith on Tuesday said he had no comment on the threatened action, which protesters say they will take if the legislation passes and Haslam signs it.

"We're tracking the language of the bill, but we're focused on the rule-making process," Smith said of Haslam's move to use emergency rules to prevent protesters from continuing to live in tents on the Legislative Plaza.

A Pilot Flying J spokeswoman had no immediate comment about the threat Occupy Nashville made about the prospect of protesters moving to the company's travel centers.

The bill is sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville.

Haslam has not endorsed the bill and is going through the state's emergency rule-making procedure to end what he, Watson and many lawmakers say has become a public nuisance and public health threat with protesters living in tents on the Legislative Plaza.

In October, state troopers arrested dozens of protesters on the Legislative Plaza, but the charges were thrown out by a Nashville magistrate. A federal judge later barred the state from taking action because the state had no set rules governing conduct on the plaza.

Relations between the governor and protesters have been somewhat cordial since the injunction, but protesters are angry over the legislation.

As filed, the bill makes it a misdemeanor to "maintain living quarters on publicly owned property that is not designated or permitted for residential use."

It bars any "use or assembly upon publicly owned property" that's deemed to "pose a health hazard or threat to the safety or welfare of another person using, assembling upon, or employed to work upon that property."

Watson, who has been working with the state attorney general's office, said he intends to offer an amendment when the bill comes up in a House subcommittee today.

"I believe in protesting," Watson said, noting that before his election to the House, he himself twice participated in anti-abortion protests on the Legislative Plaza.

"This bill has nothing to do with protesting," he said. "They can sit down there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But when it comes to housing, it becomes an issue."

He said right now, "other groups can't use it [because] they dominate it."

Watson said he and other legislators have witnessed people on Legislative Plaza, which includes a number of homeless people, having sex and have seen human excrement there.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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