With the state dropping all its Occupy Nashville charges — as close to an apology as the arrested are likely to receive — and a state representative drawing fire for saying the U.S. should boot Muslims from the military, Gov. Bill Haslam had many questions to avoid this week.
On Monday, the day the charges were dropped and expunged (including those against Scene reporter Jonathan Meador, arrested on Legislative Plaza while covering an Oct. 29 raid), Haslam put his own spin on last week's news that the Tennessee Highway Patrol went undercover and infiltrated Occupy Nashville. It turns out the troopers weren't spying on the peaceful protesters, despite reams of internal THP memos showing round-the-clock status reports on the protesters' doings. No, the troopers were there to protect Occupy Nashville, just as the demonstrators requested. We're glad that's all straightened out.
In one of his patented catch-him-while-you-can availabilities with reporters after a National Governors Association meeting at the Vanderbilt Plaza hotel, Haslam revealed a completely new understanding of how to make government regulations. Now, thanks to the intervention of a federal judge and the outrage of much of the state, Haslam realizes there's a democratic process that the government generally follows before dragging political opponents off to jail:
Q: What are you doing regarding Occupy Nashville and new rules for use of the plaza?
Haslam: There's a rule-making process that we need to go through, which we will do. We're going to involve a lot of different people in that discussion. What is the right use for state property, whether it be Capitol grounds or War Memorial Plaza or anything else. We intend to get a lot of input from constitutional lawyers and users of the space and other folks, so we can then start the rule-making process.
Q: Do you regret making those arrests?
Haslam: Number one, as we always said, our primary emphasis there and our primary responsibility was safety. That's why we acted that day. Obviously, the federal judge says you need to have the rules set before you do that. So we thought, given all that, the best thing to do was to ask the DA to drop those charges.
Q: Do you think it was appropriate for the highway patrol to infiltrate a group of peaceful protesters?
Haslam: I don't know if I'd call it infiltrate. Remember, the Occupy Nashville folks had said we need some more presence here. And I think what you had was highway patrol officers trying to get a better sense of exactly how big a problem was there.
Q: Have you been getting a lot of complaints since the arrests about what's happening on the plaza?
Haslam: You know, this is one of those that there's a lot of opinions on. I have a lot of people who thought that when we went in and tried to implement a curfew that we were wrong. I've had a whole lot of people say, 'I can't believe that's happening on that property. If I went and set up a tent there four weeks ago, would you have let me stay?' So there's a lot of passionate feelings around it on both sides.
Q: So you're saying the highway patrol went undercover to protect the protesters, not to spy on them?
Haslam: I haven't had that exact conversation in terms of what motivated that, but my understanding was ... there had been a lot of complaints about the activity here. We were getting a lot of complaints. It's been portrayed as well that was coming from some Republican legislators. That was coming from Republicans, Democrats, people who use the plaza, etc. And so I think the highway patrol said we need to go in and understand exactly what is the situation there.
That same day, Muslims around the country were calling on state officials to rebuke Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, for remarks he made at the anti-Muslim "Preserving Freedom Conference" over the weekend at Madison's Cornerstone Church. Speaking on Veterans Day, no less, Womick told interviewers the U.S. should purge Muslims from the military, claiming that "[p]ersonally, I don't trust one Muslim in our military because they're commanded to lie to us through the term called Taqiyya."
But if American Muslims wanted a strong defense of their freedom of religion and their status as citizens, Haslam wasn't their guy. Asked for comment on Womick's remarks, the best the state's chief executive and the head of the Tennessee Republican Party could manage was, "I don't think I would agree with Rick on that." As for denouncing Womick's denunciation, Haslam said, "I don't know that's my role. I would just say that on that issue I don't agree with Rick."
Womick, however, had no trouble figuring out where he stood.
"Who are we at war with?" Womick asked the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. "We are at war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who are Muslims. It's a Catch-22. They are not allowed to kill their fellow Muslims, we're at war with Muslims. The only solution I see is that they not be allowed in the military."
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