Haslam Broke Tradition With Occupy Nashville Arrests

(Note: This column was written for Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
Protesting at the Legislative Plaza and the adjoining state capitol complex has a long history, and governors have traditionally dealt with the demonstrators through an attitude of benign neglect.
Gov. Bill Haslam has broken that tradition. One suspects that he did so without a top-to-bottom review of the matter.
The traditional stance for governors — who are often, but not always, the focus of the sign-waving, chanting and such — has been to ignore the protesters with the assumption they’ll go away. Some, of course, have been harder to ignore than others over the years. But they have, indeed, eventually gone away.
Perhaps most notably Gov. Don Sundquist was pretty resolute in ignoring anti-income tax protesters, who turned out in hordes. But they went away after achieving victory in the form of enactment of the biggest tax increase in Tennessee history, based on sales rather than income.
Gov. Phil Bredesen once briefly violated the rule of ignorance by meeting with activists, some of them disabled, who occupied a hallway of the state Capitol to protest cuts to TennCare. It was a calculated show of good will toward people in wheelchairs who evoked some understandable sympathy. But it didn’t work, and Bredesen reverted to ignoring them. Eventually, they went away.
During the legislative session this year, there were protesting sieges by groups ranging from Muslims worried about the so-called Sharia law bill to tea party people worried about many things. A small group of pro-labor activists tried to disrupt a Senate committee hearing to protest anti-collective bargaining legislation.
Haslam pretty much ignored them all, though several conservative legislators verbally embraced the tea people, and Highway Patrol officers were summoned to drag protesters from the committee hearing room. The latter were being disruptive and could not be ignored.
Enter the latest group of protesters, the Occupy Nashville offshoot of the national Occupy Wall Street protest. Haslam ignored them for a couple of weeks, then decided to go active against them. The administration announced a brand new policy of requiring a permit to protest, posting a bond and, most strikingly, a 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew on the Legislative Plaza, where the protesters were camped.
State troopers then arrested a total of 55 protesters in two days of enforcing the new curfew. A Nashville magistrate declared the charges had no legal basis when the arrested protesters were brought before him.
A couple of days later, a U.S. District Court judge declared basically the same thing and the lawyer representing the state quickly threw in the towel, a fairly clear signal that enforcement action was illegal. Further legal action is anticipated. A lawyer for the protesters says those arrested were effectively kidnapped in the eyes of the law.
When the Occupy Nashville protesters were being ignored by the governor, they were largely being ignored by the media and everyone else. Conversations with a few of them indicate they were generally gentle folks, upset with corporate influence in the national political system but with little knowledge of specifics — even such things as Tennessee law allowing direct corporate contributions in unlimited amounts to legislative caucuses and political parties.
Haslam and Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons have, in effect, contended the protestors were disruptive by being unsanitary. The protesters do not dispute that there were some unsanitary situations but say this was because homeless people, who frequent the Capitol complex, had infiltrated their ranks. Some had also apparently been victims of thieves.
Gibbons said troopers were not going to “baby sit” protesters. So they arrested them. Also, he fretted that the protests could cost the state money through trooper overtime and such. So now the state faces costs in the courts.
The governor, commissioner and others of officialdom have been pretty silent about specifics of how they arrived at the decision to shift from ignoring to acting, citing the pending legal action for violation of First Amendment rights. It’s unclear where that will all lead. Be that as it may, it is clear that the move from benign neglect to aggressive action has dramatically enhanced the profile of the Occupiers in Nashville. The arrests have brought national attention.
And now that they haven’t been ignored, it may be a long time before they go away.

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