Last week started with peaceful Occupy Nashville protesters arrested on Legislative Plaza, an incident that drew media attention as far abroad as the London Guardian and had state newspapers comparing Gov. Bill Haslam to a Communist-bloc tyrant. It ended with Occupiers offering cookies to counter-protesting student Republicans, a conciliatory new tone toward the protesters from a kinder, gentler Haslam, and Port-A-Potties arriving on the plaza for the duration.
Perhaps life still has some surprises after all.
Last Thursday, just days after winning a major victory in U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger's courtroom, Occupy Nashville protesters sent Haslam a letter asking for a fresh start in their rocky relationship.
"Governor Haslam, we plan on being here for a while, and we would like to be good neighbors," the protesters wrote. Reiterating the Occupiers' commitment to orderly conduct and sanitary conditions on the plaza, the letter asked for cooperation from the Haslam administration "to achieve the best possible outcomes."
"It seems that democracy is alive and well in the state of Tennessee," the protesters wrote. "We are happy that Legislative Plaza is available once more, not only to us, but to anyone who wishes to exercise their rights under the First Amendment."
The first test came that evening, as a shouting, sign-waving band of Vanderbilt Young Republicans marched onto Legislative Plaza. If the students expected a belligerent response, they didn't get one. "We love you!" Occupy Nashville chanted.
Undeterred by their warm welcome, the Republicans held their signs aloft and screamed, "Occupy the White House! Fire Obama!" But after only a few minutes, they were smiling, shaking hands and chatting amiably with their fellow demonstrators at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. The GOP club president, Stephen Siao, was even invited to address the crowd through the People's Microphone.
"The things you are demanding are unrealistic and will do absolutely nothing but add to the burgeoning debt that's on each of our shoulders. You should be protesting at the White House, not Wall Street or the Tennessee Capitol," Siao told the crowd of a couple dozen Republicans and approximately 100 Occupy Nashville supporters. Occupiers expressed their disapproval by lowering their hands and wiggling their fingers.
As the Republicans stood yelling at the Occupiers, Jake Fentress appeared behind them and waved his own sign: "I Got Mine! Screw You! That's How Capitalism Works!"
"I'm exercising my First Amendment right to satirize," Fentress said.
The peaceable, relatively good-natured scene on Legislative Plaza bore little resemblance to the melee the previous weekend, when Tennessee Highway Patrol officers carted 55 people off to Metro jail (including Scene reporter Jonathan Meador and an MTSU student journalist), only to have the warrants thrown out Oct. 28 and 29 by Metro Night Court Magistrate Tom Nelson. Days later, Haslam was still getting pummeled for the arrests by everyone from The Tennessean's Gail Kerr to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which compared the governor's tactics to those of "a petty Balkan dictator."
"I don't think I'm so petty," Haslam joked last Friday, taking questions at a brief press availability. He said he couldn't answer whether he might meet the protesters' demands to maintain their encampment on Legislative Plaza when Judge Trauger's temporary injunction against arrests ends on Nov. 21. That's likely to become the major point of contention in negotiations between Occupy Nashville and the state's attorneys. Besides, Haslam added, "a lot of other people" have cheered him on.
" 'Hey, way to go!' " Haslam said he's heard.
But perhaps to ward off getting tagged as the 21st century Bull Connor, Haslam's public stance toward the protesters has softened. Asked Friday whether taxpayers would be footing the bill for some of the clean-up on Legislative Plaza — a perfect opportunity for the governor to unleash yet again on the occupation as a band of nasty bums — Haslam didn't take the bait.
"I do think there's been a real effort by Occupy Nashville folks to be really responsible about how they maintain that area," Haslam told WSMV-Channel 4's Cara Kumari. "We have to make certain we're fair to everybody. That's part of the consideration we take into account."
That tone held in Haslam's response to the protesters' letter, issued last Friday. "Please be assured that this administration wholeheartedly supports your First Amendment right to express your views," the governor wrote, suggesting that the reasonable, respectful tone of the protesters' letter may have done more to melt his resolve than the avalanche of bad press.
"As you said, Legislative Plaza should be a place where you and other citizens have an opportunity to exercise their rights of speech and assembly," Haslam wrote.
He went on to thank the Occupiers for "acknowledging the professionalism of the Tennessee Highway Patrol" and their "willingness and commitment to do your part to help make it an orderly, clean and safe public space" — before signing off, "Warmest Regards."
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