In response to the Occupy Nashville movement, state officials announced a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on Legislative Plaza and the surrounding state grounds. Additionally, a permit will be required for the protesters to remain during the day.
The move by the Department of General Services effectively serves as the first step toward an eviction of Occupy Nashville protesters from Legislative Plaza, which they have occupied since Oct. 8.
State spokeswoman Lola Potter told The City Paper the permit policy wouldn’t be enforced Thursday. It was unclear whether the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security would enforce the curfew on Thursday evening.
"We just issued this policy this afternoon, so we don't expect people to abide by it today," Potter said. "We are going to expect folks to get a permit for an event on the plaza tomorrow."
According to Thursday's statement, “Criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions over the past several days on Legislative Plaza have created an environment that is unsafe for the protesters, state employees and everyone who works, lives and enjoys downtown.
“As a result, the Department of General Services is adding to its policy for permitting use of Legislative Plaza, the War Memorial Building and the Capitol Grounds. Permits will be granted on a daily basis from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.”
Technically, the requirement to have a permit, which costs $65, has always been on the books — state officials just haven't enforced it. While the curfew is new, Thursday's decision effectively serves as an announcement that, now, the state is going to take the policy seriously.
"Before, if anyone held an event without a permit, we didn't do anything," Potter said. "We just held our breath and hoped they didn't leave too much trash."
Potter cited the state's respect for the fact that the plaza is a public place as a reason for the lax enforcement of the policy, but said that starting Friday, officials will be "a little more stern about requiring a permit."
The revised policy mandates “all assemblies and gatherings of persons” on the grounds will require such a permit from General Services and approval of the Tennessee Capitol Commission. The policy also states that “special use” permits, for times outside 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., may be approved on a case-by-case basis.
Earlier this week Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman for the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said troopers with the Tennessee Highway Patrol were dispatched to the area after reports of public urination and a “sex act” being committed in the area. No arrests were made.
If a forced eviction were to occur — as has happened in cities across the country — the duty of carrying it out would presumably fall to the troopers, who are assigned to Capitol security.
Thursday afternoon, Donnals declined to offer specifics on the THP's plans for enforcing the new policy, should protesters decide to ignore it.
"We will provide security and safety to support General Services' new policy," she said. "Our main priority is to provide security for the protesters as well as the other citizens who use Legislative Plaza."
Members of Occupy Nashville said in a statement Thursday that "there has been a failure by the authorities to respond" to incidents in the plaza.
When asked about security concerns expressed by the protesters, Donnals offered a different view. "We're there to provide security for the protesters as well, and we have been for three weeks,” she said.
In Twitter and Facebook posts Wednesday night, Occupy Nashville members stated that they had “been given 24 hours to disband or be evicted by the police” and urged supporters to contact city and state officials in protest. Thursday afternoon, a petition appeared on the website change.org, urging Gov. Bill Haslam not to call off any plans to remove the demonstrators. As of Thursday afternoon, 374 people had signed the petition.
A final decision as to how protesters plan to respond to the curfew will likely come at the nightly General Assembly meeting, where decisions are made by consensus. However, all indications are that the group will be staying put.
"The First Amendment does not say that free speech is only permitted between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.," said Elli Whiteway, in an email to The City Paper Thursday afternoon. "First Amendment rights do not fall within the boundaries of convenience. In that respect, a curfew doesn't mean much to us. We want to be very respectful and be examples of good citizens, but we are not planning to give up our constitutional rights."
Whiteway added that a group of protesters is looking into other options, which could include a move to a new location, but that no consensus has been reached on how the group as a whole will respond if they are forcibly removed from the plaza.