By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Occupy Nashville protesters are tempting police to arrest them as they challenge a new law meant to evict them from their camp near the state Capitol, said the House sponsor of the legislation signed by the governor.
The law prohibits camping on state property that is not specifically designated for it.
On Wednesday, two protesters wore camping tents as costumes and walked around the War Memorial Plaza saying the law criminalizes homelessness and its penalties are excessive.
The main provision of the law makes 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.”
Violators can face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.
One of the protesters is Christopher Humphrey. State troopers passed up an opportunity to arrest the 24-year-old early Monday morning. Humphrey had spent several nights in a tent on the plaza after the deadline to remove the encampment.
Rep. Eric Watson said he asked Gov. Bill Haslam to have authorities give a warning to any protesters violating the law after the deadline because he wants to avoid arrests.
But the Cleveland Republican said the actions of the two protesters is blatant
“These people are pushing it,” Watson told The Associated Press. “They are tempting the police just to get arrested.”
As for the allegation of criminalizing homelessness, Watson said that’s not the intention of the law and he’s asked state officials to be careful about arresting homeless people.
“The Highway Patrol is not going to arrest a homeless person out there on that plaza if they’re legit, and if it’s their first time out there,” Watson said.
Haslam told reporters earlier this week that he doesn’t want to put anyone in jail unless “somebody is just flagrantly disobeying the law.”
Humphrey said Wednesday that he doesn’t plan to acquiesce.
“I’ll be here,” he said.
State troopers raided the encampment in late October and made 55 arrests, but 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.