published Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Governor Bill Haslam signs bill to halt camping by Occupy Nashville

Occupy Nashville protesters Frank Williams, right, and Tom Sweet, left, set a tent back up that was blown over by the wind on Friday. Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill Friday aimed at evicting Occupy Nashville protesters. Officials said the eviction will be enforced after seven days.
Occupy Nashville protesters Frank Williams, right, and Tom Sweet, left, set a tent back up that was blown over by the wind on Friday. Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill Friday aimed at evicting Occupy Nashville protesters. Officials said the eviction will be enforced after seven days.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Occupy Chattanooga protestors have camped at the Hamilton County Courthouse since November. The county filed a federal lawsuit to evict Occupy members from the courthouse lawn, then the protestors filed a motion to dismiss. The matter is before the Eastern District of Tennessee court.

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NASHVILLE -- Occupy Nashville was given a seven-day warning on Friday to take down its encampment on the War Memorial Plaza next to the state Capitol.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law the measure that makes it illegal for anyone to camp on state-owned land that is not specifically designated for that purpose.

Bill sponsors say the law is aimed at evicting Occupy Nashville protesters. But homeless advocates worry that it will lead to the arrest of homeless people camped far from the Capitol.

Violators can face nearly a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500 or both.

"The punishment is unbelievably extreme," said protester Jane Hussain. "The worst part about this bill is that it criminalizes the homeless."

The Department of General Services said on Friday that notices are being posted statewide about the new law. The government will begin enforcing it after a seven-day notification period.

"Although the legislation calls for an immediate prohibition of unauthorized camping on state property, we believe a seven day notification period, beginning today, is an appropriate time frame to make sure the word gets out," said Department of General Services Commissioner Steve Cates.

Protesters have camped at the plaza since early October. At one time there were as many as 60 tents, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 20.

The bill comes at the same time Haslam's administration is establishing rules for the use of the War Memorial Plaza. A draft of those rules was released last week and a public hearing is scheduled for April 16.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said Friday that the administration will continue with the rulemaking process because the rules deal specifically with the War Memorial Plaza, while the new law "concerns ... property across the state."

The measure is a step back from an original policy that sought to establish an outright nighttime curfew on the plaza and elsewhere.

Under the current law, protesters can be on the plaza all the time as long as they don't show any signs of camping, such as "laying down bedding, storing personal belongings, making any fire, doing any digging or earth breaking or carrying on cooking activities."

"We've been assured that we can continue protesting here 24 hours a day, just not camping here," Hussain said. "And we intend to do that."

She said she doesn't plan to spend the night, but she can't speak for other protesters who plan to defy the law.

Protester Christopher Humphrey is one of those who said he will continue staying overnight on the plaza. During an interview with a reporter, he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket that contained the number of an attorney to call in case he's arrested.

"I'm ready," said the 24-year-old Humphrey. "We will continue to make a statement."

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