Occupy Nashville, unbowed by the governor's crackdown, has returned to the Legislative Plaza this afternoon. About 100 cheerful demonstrators are talking about Wall Street greed and income inequality as they prepare to hunker down for another night of defiance.
What’s also happening at the Plaza stands as incontrovertible proof that God loves irony. In full view of the rag-tag protesters, a who’s who of Nashville fat cats will gather tonight for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s gala $450-a-plate fundraiser, which this year honors country crooner Tim McGraw as well as big-time Republican money man Ted Welch.
Up the Plaza steps in the portico of the War Memorial building, volunteers are busily setting up tables in preparation for the silent auction that kicks off the black-tie affair, which also features cocktails, tasty hors d'oeuvres and a ballet performance. Organizers tell Pith the gala will run late into the evening, meaning all these well-dressed patrons of the arts will violate the state’s new 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew just like Occupy Nashville. But not to worry.
“We’ve rented this space. So it’s ours. We paid for it,” fundraiser co-chair Patsy Weigel explains to Pith. “We’re not special. We’re exercising our freedom right here. We’re not going to bother those protesters. They’re out there right now. We’re not bothering them. But it would be nice if they went to the bathroom in the bathrooms. That would be a big help. Are they going to clean up after themselves like we do?”
At this point Weigel, obviously annoyed by our questions, ended the interview.
Even if TPAC hadn’t rented the space, its guests presumably could party down on the Plaza after 10 o’clock anyway. That’s because the Haslam administration has given them “specific authorization” to break the curfew under the new policy imposed this week to crack down on Occupy Nashville, according to Safety Department spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals.
TPAC guests used their “specific authorization” last night after Wicked let out, crossing the Plaza unmolested by the authorities. Only about an hour later, 75 state troopers swept in to handcuff and haul away 25 protesters, plus Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador who was covering the story.
For the second straight time, Metro Night Court Judge Tom Nelson rebuffed the troopers and refused to jail anyone. Last night, he told them, "I have reviewed the regulations of the state of Tennessee, and I can find no authority anywhere for anyone to authorize a curfew anywhere on Legislative Plaza."
But Donnals tells Pith the state will enforce the curfew against Occupy Nashville again tonight (presumably after Ted Welch and the rest of the TPAC hoity-toity go home).
“I can’t get into specifics,” she says, “but we will continue to enforce the policy set forth by the Department of General Services.”
Q: Even though the night judge has told you that you have no grounds to do it?
Donnals: We feel that we have grounds to enforce the policy.
What is that authority? Well, it’s TCA 4-8-101, a statute that essentially empowers the state Department of General Services to cut the grass and weed-eat on the Capitol grounds and tidy up in the offices. There’s also this provision:
The department, through proper agencies, has the authority to preserve order among visitors who may be in and around the capitol and annexes, and to keep improper persons out of the different offices and rooms, in the absence of the regular occupants.
We guess Occupy Nashville protesters have been deemed “improper persons” while TPAC patrons have not.
A judge will eventually decide whether any of this is legal. Occupy Nashville lawyers are talking about joining with the ACLU and going to court on Monday for an injunction to stop the madness.
“There are a lot of people who want to sue from all over the place, and there are a lot of lawyers involved and we’re working it out,” one of the attorneys, Patrick Frogge, says.
There are many possible grounds for this lawsuit. The weakness of the enabling statute is one. Free speech and equal protection violations are two more. It’s hard to imagine a judge letting the governor pick and choose whose free speech to permit at perhaps the most prominent public forum in Tennessee. There’s also the little matter of Thursday night’s apparent unlawful six-hour detention of the protesters who were held even after Nelson told the troopers to free them.
“They’re outlawing speech because they don’t like its content,” Frogge says. “I can’t talk about this much because I start sounding like a tea partier, quoting the constitution and saying this is America and stuff. But this is outrageous.”