The morning after the state attorney general’s office declined to resist Occupy Nashville's federal lawsuit, Gov. Bill Haslam again defended his crackdown as necessary to protect public safety and refused to acknowledge any mistakes.
“For us, this isn’t about winning a legal argument, OK?” the governor told reporters during a brief availability after he spoke to higher education officials in Franklin.
Haslam insisted public safety was at stake, citing thefts and public indecency on the Plaza during the occupation, and he complained that state workers had to clean up “human waste.”
“Actually, it was just a common sense issue,” he said. “People are camping out. There are no public restrooms.”
At the same time, Haslam seemed to welcome the temporary restraining order issued yesterday by U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger.
“Our purpose is to provide a safe environment. If we can come up with rules to make that happen, then that’s what we’re for. Our goal is not to remove people from the Plaza. Never has been, never will be. Period. Our goal is to provide a safe environment. That’s not just our goal. That’s our legal responsibility.”
As for the arrest of Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador, Haslam said his only regret was that troopers didn’t ask for his press credentials after he insisted he was a reporter. The governor said he was unaware of the arrest of another reporter who was trying to cover the story, MTSU student journalist Malina Chavez Shannon.
Here’s the Q&A:
Haslam: I know there are a lot of questions about Occupy Nashville, and I am willing to take questions on that. There are certain things I can’t answer because of the lawsuit. But what I can, I’m more than willing to talk with you about.
Q: The state attorney general’s office won’t even defend your actions. Do you concede that you’ve made some mistakes?
Haslam: What we agreed to was a temporary restraining order. That’s what the state attorney general’s office agreed to. There’s still a lawsuit to come so again, I can’t comment on a lot of those things. But let me back up and talk about this. For us, this isn’t about winning a legal argument, OK? It really is about our responsibility for safety, and we had a condition where we had multiple people come and ask us saying, we don’t feel safe here. We had state workers saying, you know we’re cleaning up human waste every morning. We had situations where even the group itself, Occupy Nashville, was saying, would you help on this? Actually, it was just a common sense issue. People are camping out. There are no public restrooms. There are no public parks in Metro that I know of or in the state that allow overnight camping without a permit. There’s a reason why you don’t go to Centennial Park and camp. It’s really common sense. There are no public restroom facilities. I’ve seen a whole lot of newspaper articles and TV news shows. I haven’t seen anybody interview our General Services workers who have been cleaning up in the morning.
Q: If you had it to do over again, would you make the arrests?
Haslam: Well again, our point was we thought it was important to set up a curfew. It was just common sense. There were people camping down there are no public restroom facilities, and crime had become an increasing issue. And so we set a curfew, which we again felt was reasonable. That being said, the only way to enforce a curfew was to do what we did.
Q: Governor, did the two speakers ask you to remove the protesters?
Haslam: I had multiple requests, not just from the speakers. I don’t want to blame the speakers. We made the decision. But I had multiple requests, not only from the speakers, but also from legislators, Republican and Democrat.
Q: What do you say to the two journalists who were arrested?
Haslam: I thought there was just one.
Q: There was also an MTSU student journalist.
Haslam: OK, I wasn’t aware of that. In this case, I think Commissioner Gibbons has communicated with the editor of one of the journalists [Nashville Scene reporter Jonathan Meador] and said this, when folks came in, that particular individual was not wearing media credentials. And when all the other media moved to the side, this person moved to the middle. I think, as he said, he regrets that we didn’t ask when he identified himself as a member of the media, we did not ask for his credentials at that point. We regret that that didn’t happen.
Q: Do you think the arrests just drew attention to the situation?
Haslam: A lot of people say, well y’all are just helping these people. It’s not about for us helping or hurting the movement. We have a responsibility. Think about this. We’re not out trying to prove a legal point. This isn’t fun for us or our highway patrol officers. They have other things to be doing. But we feel like we have a responsibility for safety, and if something happens there, I can promise you this whole group will just be here saying, governor how did you let that happen?
Q: If you’re going to arrest people, don’t you also have a responsibility to do it legally? Do you think you’ve been doing this legally?
Haslam: Again, there will be a time for a legal hearing on these issues and that’ll be the proper time to address this. Again, we acted on a situation where we felt like safety was threatened, and we had multiple requests from legislators and by the way from other people who work in the area saying something needs to happen here.
Q: Is it possible, sir, that your attorneys failed you in not advising you that they needed to go through the rule-making process?
Haslam: I really don’t know about that. Again, the legal hearing on this hasn’t been argued yet. We agreed as the state for a temporary restraining order. Again, go back to what’s our purpose? Our purpose is to provide a safe environment. If we can come up with rules to make that happen, then that’s what we’re for. Our goal is not to remove people from the Plaza. Never has been, never will be. Period. Our goal is to provide a safe environment. That’s not just our goal. That’s our legal responsibility.
Q: Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to provide a little security and cleanup rather than arresting 55 people over two nights with 75 troopers?
Haslam: Well again, there will be a time because there’s a lawsuit right now I can’t comment on everything. But put yourself in the position of a state trooper. You can’t go in and say, well this is somebody who’s with this group, this is somebody that’s not. And the group has said they would like to stay there indefinitely 24 hours a day, and at some point in time, as the state, you know, we have 6 million citizens.
Q: Did you talk about having two or three troopers there for their protection?
Haslam: We talked about a lot of things. Remember this, this group has said we would like to stay here indefinitely. Let’s say they are there for a year, 24 hours a day. We have limited resources as a state.