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Tennessee Legislature Takes Aim at Occupy Nashville

On Wednesday, occupiers prepared to haul off parts of their camp.
Daniel Potter
On Wednesday, occupiers prepared to haul off parts of their camp.

Around the country, Occupy Wall Street encampments are folding.  In Nashville, lawmakers are trying to make it illegal to camp on public property.  Today, the bill jumped the hurdle in the House and passed mostly along party lines.  The state Senate is set to debate the bill next week.

One freezing evening last week a few dozen protesters met on the cold stone steps of the state plaza.  The crowd was small enough that occupiers like Matt Hamill didn’t need the movement’s signature ‘human microphone’ to echo his remarks.

“Our morale has taken a hit throughout these cold winter months,” Hamill says, “But we have something to be very, very proud of.”

Of Occupy groups still intact since fall, Hamill says, Nashville is among the biggest.  But the group was wrestling aloud about its image.  Some campers weren’t so much protesting as just homeless.  And lawmakers complained of crime and squalor in the area.  A former sheriff’s deputy railed in committee about someone “peeing” on a state worker.

“I said, ‘Would you mind not letting your dog urinate on the things that we’re trying to move?’” Occupier Ben Grady asked?

Grady says trying to keep the plaza tidy has been no picnic.  While sweeping up yesterday it was his turn to bust a lawmaker, instead of the other way around.  Grady admonished State Senator Mike Faulk, who was walking his dog.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful or anything; we’re just trying to move this stuff,” Grady said.  “And when it’s got dog-urine on it, it’s just a little bit less pleasant.”

Senator Faulk responded laughing “He... occupied the plaza long before you guys did.”

Grady has kept a tent on the plaza, but sometimes let homeless friends sleep there while he went home to a bed.  He was working on a Ph.D. in genetics at Vanderbilt before he dropped out to pursue a religious calling.  Still, he says Occupy Nashville didn’t set out to provide amenities for everyone.

“Keeping tents up on this plaza has become the central focus,” Grady said.  “And that isn’t what it’s about.”

Grady’s not holding out much hope for a big change in government.  He wants to shift gears to changing minds one at a time.  Occupy Nashville’s goals last fall were to get rid of laws that give corporations the same legal rights as people, and to drive financial influence out of elections.  They haven’t exactly won over lawmakers like Eric Watson.

“I really don’t know what they’re talking about when they talk about money in politics.  I’ve never had no one offer me a bribe or anything,” Representative Watson said.

Watson is sponsoring the bill to kick out Occupy Nashville, with support from plenty of his colleagues.  But Governor Haslam already tried to evict the camp once last fall, and wound up on the losing end of a federal injunction.  Haslam says if the state has to go back to court, he’s not certain the lawmakers’ approach will hold up.

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