By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn.– Tennessee state troopers cleared out Wall Street protesters from the state Capitol grounds early Friday because they didn’t have the resources to “babysit” the overnight encampment, the state’s safety commissioner said.
Commissioner Bill Gibbons said Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s office approved the pre-dawn roundup of protesters for refusing to comply with a new overnight curfew and permit requirements.
About 75 state troopers began moving into the Legislative Plaza a little after 3 a.m. Twenty-nine people were arrested, but a night judge refused to sign their warrants because the policy had only been in effect since the previous afternoon.
They were instead issued misdemeanor citations and released about six hours after they were arrested.
Friday’s arrests came after a week of police crackdowns around the country on Occupy Wall Street activists, who have been protesting economic inequality and what they call corporate greed.
In Oakland, Calif., an Iraq War veteran was seriously injured during a protest clash with police Tuesday night. In Atlanta early Wednesday, helicopters hovered overhead as officers in riot gear arrested more than 50 protesters at a downtown park. In San Diego, police arrested 51 people who occupied the Civic Center Plaza and Children’s Park for three weeks.
Gibbons said the policies were changed in response to deteriorating sanitary and security concerns about the protest. Members of the Occupy Nashville group had asked for enhanced protection that the state was unable to provide, he said.
“We don’t have the resources to go out and in effect babysit protesters 24-7 … at the level that would have been necessary to address their concerns,” Gibbon said.
It is unclear how the overnight curfew will be enforced against pedestrians who frequently cut through the area after leaving nearby performing arts and concert venues.
“That’s a good very question,” Gibbons said. “And we’re going to take a reasonable approach on that: Was a person knowingly and intentionally violating the curfew, or was that person just unaware of it?”
Night Court Commissioner Tom Nelson said in court that the state didn’t give the protesters the opportunity to comply with the new curfew.
“I am not criticizing the Highway Patrol, but you have no lawful basis to arrest or charge those people,” Nelson said on a courtroom video obtained by WKRN-TV.
Gibbons disagreed: “The judicial magistrate is obviously entitled to his opinion. I think it was adequate notice.”
The arrests were made about 12 hours after the state announced the new policy and erected signs around the plaza about it. Gibbons said the early morning was the least disruptive time to citizens who visit, work, and live in downtown Nashville.
Protester Adam Knight, an eighth-grade English teacher from Nashville, was among those arrested. If anything, he said the arrests galvanized the group.
“I think it was a great first step,” said Knight, 27. “We showed solidarity. I think it’s going to gain momentum.”
He said the group planned a march later Friday and would likely assemble again on the steps of the plaza, which could mean more arrests. When asked how long the group would protest, Knight responded: “As long as it has to.”
Bill Howell, a lobbyist for Tennesseans for Fair Taxation who was among the 18 men and 11 women arrested, agreed.
“It’s just completely outrageous that the state would make new rules and enforce them in less than 24 hours after they were cooked up,” said Howell, 64.
Police last removed protesters from the legislative office complex in March during discussions of anti-union bills. Seven were arrested for disrupting a Senate Commerce Committee meeting and resisting arrest but later acquitted.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press