By Kristen Hall, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Occupy Nashville protesters who have been living on Legislative Plaza are preparing for more arrests under a state law passed last month making it illegal for anyone to camp on state-owned land that is not specifically designated for that purpose.
The protesters were given a seven-day notice to remove their campsites last Friday and members of the group said Thursday the state could start enforcing the law starting after midnight.
Jason Steen, a protester, said the law that was designed to evict Occupy Nashville affects anyone who is homeless in Tennessee. The number of tents at the plaza has dwindled, but several remained on Thursday and Steen said he and other protesters planned to stay overnight and risk arrest.
“We do have a number of people who plan on being arrested tonight,” Steen said.
Violators can face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both. The main provision of the legislation would make it a misdemeanor to lay down “bedding for the purpose of sleeping” on government-owned land at the Capitol.
It refers to items associated with camping, “including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, stakes, ropes, blankets, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators.”
Christopher Humphrey, another protester who planned to stay and face possible arrest, said he felt like the government was letting him down.
“This bill that has been written that criminalizes homelessness and also takes away your rights to speak out against it makes me mad, almost angry,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Tripp Hunt, an attorney representing the Occupy Nashville group, said the law was vague and could include people who weren’t sleeping on state property, but may be participating in the protests.
“The law says that anyone near the tent could be presumed to be camping even if they are not camping,” he said.
But the group’s members laughed at the idea that the law could end of the Occupy Nashville movement. Like many of the Occupy Wall Street groups, the protesters in Nashville have used the Legislative Plaza where lawmakers work to emphasis corporate influence in government and inequality for low income people.
“The law doesn’t say you can’t protest,” said Michael Custer, another member of Occupy Nashville. “What the law says is you can’t camp. There will be people protesting here all the time. We are not going to go away.”
State troopers raided the encampment in late October and made 55 arrests, but Gov. Bill Haslam ordered the charges dropped when Nashville courts refused to jail the protesters. The state backed down and decided not to fight a federal court order that found the raids had violated the First Amendment rights of the protesters.
Lindsey Krinks, a protester who also works with the homeless, said these kinds of laws are used to hide the problem of the homelessness in America.
“This law gives public officials more teeth to criminalize the homeless on state property,” she said.