Occupy Chattanooga challenges actions by Hamilton County

Occupy Chattanooga challenges actions by Hamilton County

March 22nd, 2012 by Chris Carroll and Ansley Haman in News

Steve Story mows the lawn as Occupy protesters remain on the sidewalk Wednesday at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: Friends of Hixson public forum for those seeking the Hamilton County Board of Education District 3 position recently vacated by Everett Fairchild

When: 6-8 p.m. today

Where: Hixson Middle School, 5681 Old Hixson Pike

POLL: Do you agree with the decision to oust Occupy Chattanooga protestors from the courthouse lawn?

Representatives from Occupy Chattanooga, whose tents were removed from the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn on Monday, appeared before county commissioners Wednesday to challenge the actions of Chairman Larry Henry and Sheriff Jim Hammond.

Beth Foster, the group's spokeswoman, said Occupiers had no notice the eviction was coming and were not given an opportunity to comply with county rules.

"We have done everything possible to comply with everything the sheriff asked us to do," Foster said. "What is left of the First Amendment is ground into the patch of grass on the County Courthouse lawn."

The protest group set up camp on the County Courthouse lawn in early November. More than a month later, the commission designated Henry to make decisions on the commission's behalf about enforcement of rules on county property.

In early January, commissioners approved rules for county-owned property that prohibited tents and other activities Occupy Chattanooga already was engaged in. Shortly thereafter, commissioners sued the group and nine individuals in federal court, seeking a judgment that the county's new rules were enforceable and that Occupiers were violating them.

On Monday afternoon, sheriff's deputies and members of the county's Parks and Recreation Department moved the protester's tents and other supplies to the city-owned sidewalk.

The same day, commissioners also dropped their suit against the group.

Foster said that, when the group was being moved Monday, they "watched as the sheriff cut locks and searched our property."

Hammond said after Wednesday's meeting that his deputies cut one lock on a tent but did not inventory or search it.

"That was simply to photograph what was inside," he said.

Commissioner Fred Skillern said he has been swamped with phone calls from people who supported the removal of Occupy.

"I've had 10 times as many phone calls and emails congratulating me than I ever had in the four months supporting it," Skillern said.

Henry defended his decision to remove the group.

"There's a lot of people glad this is over with and done," he said.

The tents may be gone, but the standoff might not be over.

Occupiers still protest on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk next to the courthouse and David Veazey, the group's attorney, says they are weighing their legal options.

"Right now we are talking about whether we want to pursue some sort of legal action or whether to apply for a permit under the new ordinance," Veazey said. "We're thankful that the federal lawsuit was dismissed."

After Wednesday's commission meeting, the conflict spilled outside the courthouse, where Chattanooga police officers and private security contractors asked six Occupy Chattanooga members to temporarily move their belongings from the sidewalk before county workers mowed the courthouse lawn and sprayed weed killer.

Kenny, an Occupy member who declined to give his last name, said the order reminded him of Occupy's interaction with authorities on Monday.

"Now they want us to move all our stuff away from the lawn so they can come and spray chemicals that are dangerous for our health," he said.

Foster said the authorities gave the protesters "only 10 minutes' notice" to move their signs, tables, chairs and overnight supplies away from the lawn before workers started mowing and spraying.

"But that's more warning than we got last time," she said.

A Walden Security employee who works inside the courthouse confirmed the short notice, but insisted he wasn't trying to impede Occupy's free speech rights. He said he was looking out for "their safety" from weed killer.

"They don't have to move," said the Walden employee, who declined to be identified. "They can stay here and suck up all the spray they want."

Chattanooga police spokesman Officer Nathan Hartwig said the Occupiers eventually moved their belongings without incident.

IN OTHER BUSINESS

Hamilton County commissioners approved a resolution allowing County Mayor Jim Coppinger to sign over the county's interest in a property to a future automobile recycling facility in Alton Park. The land was acquired by the county through a delinquent tax sale.

Commissioner Mitch McClure told the panel he had a report exceeding 400 pages listing those who've been charged with more than one criminal offense in the county. He said he'd give the commissioners a shorter version in the near future.

Commissioners approved the sale of an Enterprise South industrial park tract to American Tire Distributors, which plans to create about 40 new jobs with an average annual wage of $50,000 within three years. The county also agreed to a state FastTrack grant worth up to $350,000 to pay for improvements to the property.

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