Occupy Chattanooga moved to sidewalkOccupy Chattanooga protestors' tents and belongings were moved to the Georgia Avenue sidewalk in front of the Hamilton County Courthouse on Monday. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the protestors' belongings were removed to reseed the courthouse lawn for the upcoming centennial celebration.
Over the 45 minutes it took for county workers to haul protesters' belongings from the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn to the city sidewalk, members of the Occupy Chattanooga movement questioned the sheriff and video-recorded the removal of their 133-day encampment.
"This is out of nowhere; we had no notice whatsoever," said James Parks, 27, an Occupy protester who came to Chattanooga a month ago.
When reached by phone late Monday afternoon, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he didn't see any reason to give the protesters advance notice.
"I think we've been very lenient here in Hamilton County. They've been on our county property for five months," Henry said. "I don't see that giving them any notice, that they would have heeded it."
Occupy's 14 tents and other belongings were moved onto the Georgia Avenue sidewalk alongside the courthouse. Sheriff Jim Hammond said the lawn was being closed for beautification ahead of the building's centennial celebration in September.
During Monday's removal, Baris Gursakal, 19, questioned Hammond on the legal justification for removing the protesters.
Hammond deferred all questions to Henry.
Occupy Chattanooga has been one of the longest on site of the movement in the nation, with most other Occupy groups being forced off public property in the last several months.
At 5:30 p.m. Monday, Lance Lawson, who said he has made it a point to be on the Occupy Chattanooga site at least once a day since it started, ran a meeting with fellow protesters to discuss future plans. Chattanooga police officers were there.
The protesters will continue to have a 24-hour presence on the city sidewalk, Lawson said. In addition, protesters will clean up materials on the sidewalk they're not using, and they vowed to do more outreach and community service, he said.
Police officers will not stop any peaceful protesters standing or sitting on sidewalks, Chattanooga police spokesman Officer Nathan Hartwig said. However, city code states that no one can obstruct the sidewalks and that no structures, tents, camps or fire are allowed on city property.
"We can't obstruct it for other Chattanoogans, and that's totally fair," Lawson said. "It's their sidewalk, too."
There have not been any issues with the Occupy Chattanooga protesters to trigger Monday's removal, Hartwig said.
On Monday, Henry dropped a federal lawsuit filed in January against some of the Occupy protesters, a suit that sought a judgment addressing damage to county property by the group.
Hamilton County Sheriffs and Chattanooga Parks & Recreation employees relocate Occupy Chattanooga tents from the Chattanooga Courthouse grounds to the sidewalk Monday afternoon. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said that they were doing this so that the Parks and Recreation department can reseed the lawn.Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
One of the protesters' attorneys didn't receive any advance notice of the removal but said the action didn't surprise him.
"The county just thinks it can do whatever it wants," said local attorney David Veazy. "We're looking at options to challenge this in federal and state court."
The commission passed a resolution to ban camping on the courthouse property two months ago. When asked Monday why the protesters were not removed at that time, Henry did not answer.
Protesters were not the only ones without prior notice of the removal.
Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he heard about the plan late in the afternoon and sent officers to talk with protesters and explain city guidelines.
"I'm not going to have a knee-jerk reaction to something the county decided to do," Dodd said.
In their new location, the protesters may walk or sit on city sidewalks but cannot camp, sleep, cook or obstruct the sidewalks for pedestrians, Dodd said.
On Monday, six protesters held signs with messages such as "Sign the Petition" and "People Over Profit" in the hours before deputies closed off the lawn so workers could carry the tents, water bottles, bedding, canned food, a bicycle-powered generator and car battery to the sidewalk.
At 2 p.m. Monday, Hammond led a dozen deputies and two dozen county parks and recreation workers to the courthouse lawn. Standing at the base of the courthouse steps overlooking the encampment, Hammond said the protesters would be allowed on the concrete sidewalk that runs through the lawn but not on the grass or flower beds.
Occupy Chattanooga protesters inhabited a plot of grass at the entrance to the Chattanooga City Council Building for eight days in November before moving to the courthouse Nov. 8, 2011.
Staff writer Adam Poulisse contributed to this report.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...