by Jeff Woods
Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons says it was his decision to arrest Occupy Nashville protesters before dawn today and insisted he gave them “adequate time to adhere” to a curfew imposed 14 hours earlier.
At a just-completed press conference in which he faced tough questioning, he said the state decided to evict the protesters because of worries about public safety and sanitary conditions at the Plaza. He said Gov. Bill Haslam, a one-percenter if ever there was one, approved the operation.
“We don’t have the resources to go out and, in effect, babysit protesters 24/7,” Gibbons said.
Troopers went into action at 3 a.m., not to avoid media coverage, but because "we wanted to choose a time that was of minimal disruption to the public at large," he said.
Asked why a state spokeswoman misled the media yesterday by saying the protesters didn’t risk arrest until today, Gibbons claimed reporters misunderstood the communications officer.
“She said they would not have to have a permit yesterday, that they would have to have a permit today,” Gibbons said. “She was not referring to enforcement of the curfew last night.”
He said the state would only selectively enforce the new curfew, presumably allowing well-dressed TPAC patrons to stroll freely across the Plaza after 10 o'clock at night but not long-haired hippie types.
Here are excerpts from the press conference by Gibbons and Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott.
Gibbons: I think as all of you know, yesterday the Department of General Services issued a new policy regarding use of the Legislative Plaza and the Capitol grounds. Yesterday afternoon, officials with the Department of General Services made a lawyer who represents protesters aware of the new policy. Also, the protesters themselves were made aware of the policy mid-afternoon yesterday. And then the Department of General Services also posted, I believe, 18 signs down in the Plaza area summarizing the new policy. So the protesters were very aware as of mid-afternoon yesterday that there was a new policy in effect that in effect established a curfew in the Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It is our job to enforce that policy, and that’s what we did last night.
Approximately 75 troopers arrived at the Plaza around 3 a.m. for the purpose of enforcing that policy. At that time, the policy was once again told to the protesters. I believe the entire policy was read at that time. The protesters were given an opportunity to leave at that point. Approximately 25 protesters did leave at that time. Twenty-nine protesters made the choice, made the decision not to leave with the understanding that they were in clear violation of the new policy, which basically puts reasonable restrictions on use of the Plaza. They made the choice to stay. Those 29 protesters have been charged with criminal trespass. That’s a Class C misdemeanor, a $50 fine if they are found guilty. And again, it was our response to simply enforce the policy that the Department of General Services had issued.
We respect and support the right to peacefully protest. We’re simply urging those who want to engage in peaceful protest to adhere to the reasonable policies that have been issued by the Department of General Services. If they choose not to, then it’s our responsibility to take the appropriate enforcement action and we will do so. I want to commend our state troopers. I think last night, they were really a model of how this kind of situation should be handled. You all know it was a pretty sensitive situation. A lot of people were watching, and I think the state troopers did a great job in handling the situation.
Q: Who made the decision to remove the protesters at 3 a.m.?
Gibbons: I did. There were two reasons for that. We wanted to give all the protesters adequate time to adhere to the policy. We wanted to make sure they had adequate time to pack up their belongings and leave. Many did, but some chose to stay. Second, we wanted to choose a time that was of minimal disruption to the public at large. We felt that doing it in the early-morning hours would be the most appropriate time to avoid that disruption.
Q: A state spokeswoman said yesterday after the policy was released that it would be unreasonable and unfair to do what you did. She said you were going to give them until today to apply for a permit. Was she misinformed or deliberately misleading us?
Gibbons: That is correct. No, I think you are misconstruing what she said. She said they would not have to have a permit yesterday, that they would have to have a permit today. She was not referring to enforcement of the curfew last night. Again, the protesters clearly understood that the curfew was in effect.
Q: The statements made by the administration were unclear. Why not announce it three hours or six hours beforehand? Why 10 minutes?
Gibbons: Well, they knew 12 to 14 hours beforehand that the curfew was in effect. They understood that.
Q: The night judge disagreed with you.
Gibbons: Well, obviously the judicial magistrate is entitled to his opinion. His opinion was that 12 to 14 hours was not adequate notice. I think it was adequate notice. We have a disagreement, which is fine. We ended up issuing misdemeanor citations.
Q: Why did were they held so long after the judge advised you to release them?
Gibbons: Frankly, it just took a little while to do the paperwork on 29 individuals and do all the paperwork on 29 citations.
Trott: One of the problems was the judicial commissioner took a one-hour lunch break while we were attempting to get the warrants signed and left us there waiting for his decision whether he would sign the warrants or not. That was part of the delay.
Q: What led to the policy?
Gibbons: Well, really that’s something you need to ask General Services. I’m aware generally of the reasons and that was public safety and health conditions on the Plaza. And I am aware of the fact that representatives of the protesters themselves approached the state earlier this week asking for some assistance addressing the problems they were facing. They were concerned about public safety. They were concerned about health concerns. The policy that’s in place I think is a very reasonable policy that will allow the protesters to continue to peacefully assemble under the right circumstances. What the Department of General Services was trying to do was strike a balance to ensure they had the right to peacefully protest but at the same time address the concerns they had as well as others over public safety and health concerns.
Q: They weren’t asking to be evicted. They were asking for help and you didn’t provide it.
Gibbons: Well, I think they probably don’t see it this way, but we have set up a situation where they can peacefully protest under safe circumstances. We don’t have the resources to go out and, in effect, babysit protesters 24/7.
Q: Do you expect to enforce the policy each night?
Gibbons: It’s out job to enforce the policy and we intend to do that.
Q: Commissioner, if you follow the letter of the policy, it says the Plaza is closed at 10 o’clock. Does that mean people who attend an event at TPAC can’t walk across the Plaza afterward?
Gibbons: Well, there’s also somewhere in here it says without specific authorization. I cannot speak for the Department of General Services on that but obviously they going to take the approach where if there is an event where they want to make an exception and authorize people to be there at 10:30 or 11, well I’m sure the Department of General Service will work with folks on that.
Q: What if you just happen to be walking across the Plaza?
Gibbons: Well, that’s a very good question. We’re going to take a reasonable approach on that. Was the person knowingly and intentionally violating the curfew or was that person just unaware of it? That’s a case by case situation that we’ll have to look at.