Haslam would rather avoid making Occupy arrests

Friday, March 9, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 10

NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he wants to avoid arresting Occupy Nashville protesters unless there is a flagrant violation of a new law intended to evict them from their camp near the state Capitol.

The law, signed by the Republican governor, prohibits camping on state property that is not specifically designated for it.

State troopers had an opportunity to arrest 24-year-old Christopher Humphrey early Monday morning. He was maintaining his vigil at the group's camp on War Memorial Plaza.

Humphrey said he was asked to come out of his tent. When he did, he said he stood in front of the tent and extended his arms to be handcuffed.

"The officer very carefully grabbed my arm, walked me about four paces ... and said that I wasn't being arrested," Humphrey said. "That was disappointing to me because I knew that I was going to be arrested."

He said the troopers proceeded to remove his tent, as well as two others nearby from the plaza. State workers then begin pressure washing the plaza.

Safety Department spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals told The Associated Press in an email that "no arrests were made and no citations issued as all protesters on the plaza cooperated with the troopers."

Haslam later told reporters that he doesn't want to put anyone in jail unless "somebody is just flagrantly disobeying the law."

"I don't think the purpose of any of this was to arrest anybody and put them in jail," Haslam said. "The purpose was to do what the Legislature asked us to do with Legislative Plaza, which was to clear it of tents and folks camping out there."

The state gave the protesters a seven-day notice on March 2 to remove their encampment, but it wasn't clear when the Tennessee Highway Patrol would start enforcing the law.

Republican Rep. Eric Watson of Cleveland, the sponsor of the legislation, said he asked that the protesters be given a warning even after the seven-day period.

"My request as the bill sponsor was to give these folks a fair shake," said Watson, a former sheriff's lieutenant. "I've always said, even as a law enforcement officer myself, a lot of times it's better to enforce the spirit of the law than the letter of the law."

The main provision of the legislation makes it a misdemeanor to lay down "bedding for the purpose of sleeping" on government-owned land at the Capitol. It refers to items associated with camping, "including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, stakes, ropes, blankets, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."

Violators can face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.

State troopers raided the encampment in late October and made 55 arrests, but Haslam ordered the charges dropped when Nashville courts refused to jail the protesters. The state backed down and decided not to fight a federal court order that found the raids had violated the First Amendment rights of the protesters.

Critics contend the new law passed will in effect criminalize homelessness. The protesters in Nashville have used the plaza area near where lawmakers work to protest corporate influence in government and income inequality.

Humphrey said getting arrested is one way the group can "continue making a statement" and he doesn't plan to stop contesting the law.

"Something that criminalizes ... people is worth coming out here day after day," Humphrey said.

Protester Jane Hussain agreed.

"I think we can definitely say there will be more tents on the plaza," she said.

At one time there were as many as 60 tents on the plaza. As of Monday afternoon, there were none.