So-called “Occupy Nashville” protesters, who have been attempting to have their way with Capitol Hill and the Legislative Plaza for some three weeks, have reportedly been given until 8pm tonight to evacuate the Hill. There is no report on just what might happen if they do not.
Let us be clear about one thing-this writer supports the constitutional right of these protesters to peacefully assemble and to stage their event/sit-in/occupation/protest in a manner that is dignified and executed according to the law. However, as with all rights (which are not the grant of any human government, but the gift of God), the rights of the protesters on Legislative Plaza end when the rights of their neighbors are infringed upon. The Capitol and Legislative Plaza constitute a State Park under Tennessee law, and that means that keeping the peace and order on the Hill is the responsibility of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The Patrol say that the “Occupiers” are presenting a threat to public order, peace, and safety at the Plaza.
According to police accounts, there has been a problem with homeless folks stealing from protesters, and protesters have admitted that theft of valuables is now a major problem for them. Some homeless activists-and doubtless some homeless people-have joined the protest in a legitimate fashion, but many others are going into the “occupied” encampment for the purposes of criminal activity. Nashville Metro police have responded to calls about aggressive panhandling and the sale of illicit drugs. Meanwhile, some of the sitters-in have complained that the Highway Patrol and the police are purposefully denying them the security that they think they need. However, such an accusation is a thoroughly unfair one when it is considered that it is the “Occupy Nashville” group, not the Highway Patrol or the Nashville Metro Police, who have chosen to stage a long-term sit-in at the Capitol. As a result, the police owe the protesters no more or no less security than might normally be found at the Capitol on any other day. If the peace and safety of everyone is being threatened because public security forces do not have the resources to look after a bunch of campers on the Plaza, it is a legitimate reason for the sitters-in to leave.
Since the Constitution guarantees the right of protesters to peacefully assemble and “petition the government for a redress of grievances,” it is fair to ask: If the Occupy Nashville protesters continue to be camped out at Legislative Plaza, what are they asking the Tennessee General Assembly specifically to do? Have they presented a list of their collective demands to Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, or House Speaker Beth Harwell? Are the demands of the protesters things that a State legislative body has the constitutional authority or ability to act upon? Perhaps most importantly, are many of these protesters even aware of the fact that the Tennessee General Assembly is a part-time legislature, that most of its members have a life outside of the Capitol and that, by the way, they aren’t in session in October? It would appear that the answer to all of these questions is no. “Occupy Nashville” might see an occasional legislator duck in and out of a committee meeting from time to time, but if they are looking to wield influence, camping out at the Capitol in the middle of October isn’t the way you do that in Tennessee-the General Assembly isn’t there.
That reality can only lead the informed observe to deduce that these so-called protesters have no real demands and are not petitioning for redress, but are at the Capitol for one reason only-because they can be there. Sitting on the Legislative Plaza for no other legitimate reason but to prove that you can makes your presence a threat to other visitors and to the wider public. The right of the protesters to assemble on the Hill does not cancel the right of anyone else to visit there in relative safety, without being molested or harassed. If the sit-in is causing a threat to the rights of other visitors, the State authorities have an obligation to ask that it be brought to an end as peacefully as it began, and to remove stragglers if it does not.