Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Occupy Nashville Breaking Camp, But Vowing to Keep Protesting Despite New Crackdown

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 12:24 PM

occupy.jpg
With the legislature about to enact a sledgehammer law against Occupy Nashville, protesters are talking about changing tactics. Under the bill the House and Senate are expected to pass by wide margins tomorrow, it’s nearly a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for unauthorized camping on state property. So after a four-month occupation—one of the anti-Wall Street movement’s longest—some protesters are taking down their tents and packing up their soggy sleeping bags. They say they won’t camp anymore. Instead, they will operate in shifts to maintain a diminished 24/7 vigil on War Memorial Plaza.

“We’ll just be out here in the middle of the night protesting,” Jane Hussain told Pith as she helped occupiers haul away things today. “We’re not allowed to have blankets. We’re not allowed to have basically anything to protect us from the elements.”

“We’re talking about phase two,” said another protester, Eric Lewis. “It’s no longer an encampment, but it’s still a protest. Our actions will continue. Get the money out of politics. That’s still the message. The message hasn’t changed. The tactics will.”

That kind of protest wouldn’t violate the soon-to-be new state statute. As much as many lawmakers would love it, they can’t get away with enacting an outright ban on the exercise of free speech and assembly by long-haired hippie types on state property. They hope that by forcing protesters to do their thing on their feet in the cold, they will chase them away just the same.

That law the legislature is about to adopt will be open to challenge on First Amendment grounds because it obviously specifically targets Occupy Nashville and not some random happy campers who might decide to pitch a tent at the Capitol in the future. Some protesters are talking about disobeying the statute. They say they will sit in their tents or in their sleeping bags until the troopers twist on the zip-ties.

Support for the protest has declined since Gov. Bill Haslam’s outrageous October crackdown gave liberals and conservatives alike reason to rally around the encampment. Lately, organizers say, there have been only maybe three dozen protesters on any given night—about half as many as at the height of the occupation, those heady days of kite flying, square dancing and fist shaking on the plaza.

To some people, the whole thing is getting a little tiresome, like a reality TV show that’s run its course. Gail Kerr, the voice of Nashville’s establishment, made it official this morning in her column: “Occupy Nashville is about to get ousted by state and local officials, and frankly, I’ll be glad to see it over with. I’m pretty sick of hearing about it after four months.”

We guess Gail doesn’t care anymore whether we are witnessing state suppression of free speech. In other cities, they’re passing the same kind of laws to stamp out occupations. At Salon, this article puts what’s happening here in the national context. The National Lawyers Guild’s Heidi Boghosian explains what’s wrong with these "no camping" laws:

Clearly the law is used politically. Occupy has shed a spotlight on that fact. Laws are enacted arbitrarily and interpreted as to how the status quo wants to interpret them.

It’s one thing to say people can’t sleep in the parks after midnight, but it’s another to create that law after they have already camped for an extended period of time. That is a political act … In several jurisdictions we have seen laws created targeting specific people who have a political message. As well, existing laws are frequently being enforced arbitrarily based on the political content of the message and that violates the First Amendment.

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