Chattanooga Occupy protesters to hold vigil today

Chattanooga Occupy protesters to hold vigil today

January 15th, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

Bridget Huckabay leaves the front lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse on Friday after donating day-old cupcakes from Whipped Cupcakes in Coolidge Park.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

For those camping on the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn, the week began with rain.

Tuesday brought a federal lawsuit.

Then came hail, a downpour and a false report they'd be packing up and moving out.

Finally, when Occupy Chattanooga called a special meeting Thursday night to talk about issues that have cropped up since Sunday, biting winds and bitter cold forced them for the first time to start planning which three members would stay each night and man the site, spokeswoman Beth Foster said.

"There has never been any discussion of an end date," Foster said Friday morning after overnight winds blew over several tents and peeled back tarps on canopies. "We will be there for as long as it takes."

To cap off the week, the group plans to hold a candlelight vigil tonight as a peaceful memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an icon of nonviolent protest, Foster said.

The event is designed to heal the group, which has wrestled with whether to allow comments on its Facebook page and how to make sure inaccurate news releases purporting to be from Occupy don't surface again.

Foster acknowledged that the makeup of Occupy Chattanooga has changed since its first meeting more than two months ago.

"About half of the people who are there now were at that first General Assembly in Miller Park," Foster said. "It's kind of a mix of people who started and people who came in later."

Many Hamilton County commissioners have questioned how many people are staying in the tents scattered along sidewalks on the courthouse lawn.

The county filed suit Tuesday, asking a federal judge to declare that new commission rules for public use of county property are enforceable and that Occupy campers are violating them. The lawsuit names Occupy and nine individuals.

County Commissioner Joe Graham said Friday that he supports the protesters' free speech rights, but he thinks the campers are damaging the property.

"I've been entrusted as a steward to take care of our property," he said. "To be camping out there and having their bonfires, they're killing the lawn. They're killing the landscaping."

Commissioner Greg Beck supports the lawsuit, saying he wants the courthouse lawn protected.

"I think it is a symbol of our county, the seat of county business," he said. "We are in no sense of the word trying to prohibit anybody from protesting, but that's the taxpayers' property."

Though Occupy Chattanooga originally moved its tents regularly to preserve the grass, many have been in the same spots for weeks.

Foster said she didn't begin staying overnight until recently. She crawled out of a tent as early as 4 a.m. several days this week to drive to her job in Cleveland, Tenn.

On Wednesday, she learned she had been named in the lawsuit. She read the filing on her laptop.

That Wednesday afternoon, rain pooled in tarps over the group's food tent, and smoke from the smoldering fire drifted across the lawn.

Peter Resto, who was at the courthouse, ate noodles cooked on a propane stove and said the weather didn't bother him. The Long Island, N.Y., native said he has spent time at several Occupy camps, including in New York City and Miami.

In Miami, he met a friend from Chattanooga and both recently caught a ride from Florida to the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Foster said visitors from at least 10 Occupy protests in other cities have stopped by the courthouse in the last two months.

The group held a meeting Thursday. They met in a parking garage on East Seventh Street to shelter themselves from the stiff wind and freezing rain, Foster said.

At the meeting, the group decided to reopen comments on its Facebook page, which it had stopped after a spate of negative comments.

They talked about the lawsuit. They made plans to attend Wednesday's County Commission meeting. They talked about when to hold tonight's vigil.

They also discussed how to make sure three people stayed each night. For safety reasons, the group mandates that three people stay and at least one remain awake at all times, Foster said.

She chose not to sleep at the site Thursday night, when the low hit the 20s but winds gusting to as much as 38 mph made it seem much colder, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn.

"We had three guys who stayed," she said. "We all gave them our blankets. It was just brutal."