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Occupy protesters seek apology from bill sponsor

By Lucas L. Johnson Ii

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 13 2012 4:50 p.m. MST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Occupy Nashville protesters are demanding an apology from the sponsor of legislation aimed at stopping them from staying overnight on the Capitol complex.

The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Eric Watson of Cleveland could be up for floor votes in both chambers this week.

The legislation would make it a misdemeanor to lay down "bedding for the purpose of sleeping."

The proposal refers to items associated with camping, "including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."

The protesters have camped at the plaza since early October. There are about 60 or so tents on the plaza and at least two portable toilets nearby.

Watson said in the House Judiciary Committee last week that the proposal is necessary because of criminal activity and lewd behavior where the protesters are encamped.

He said someone believed to be associated with Occupy Nashville urinated on a state employee. Watson said those sorts of things tarnish the protesters' efforts to have a "peaceable assembly."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," said Watson in the committee, where he is chairman. "And if you think that's peaceable assembly, you need to be peed on, and see how you like it."

The protesters circulated a petition on Monday with more than 100 signatures calling for Watson to apologize for alleging that the urination act was associated with Occupy Nashville.

"The person or animal responsible for this act has never been identified," said the petition, which also calls for his remarks to be "stricken from the record."

"And no one has shown a connection of any sort with Occupy Nashville."

Watson has said since Oct. 7, 131 people have been arrested by Nashville police, and there have been more than 1,000 reports of other misconduct on the block.

Law enforcement officials acknowledge there has been an increase in crime, but not quite as much as Watson's numbers indicate.

"There have been certain investigations and arrests that were related to the presence of Occupy Nashville protesters," said city police spokesman Don Aaron. "But there has not been a tremendous spike in what we would see ordinarily."

Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott agreed.

"There have probably been about 130 incident reports around the capitol plaza area," he said. "That's not to say all those involved are people from the Occupy movement. A lot of them were homeless people; a lot of them were people who were in downtown and around the Capitol."

Watson told The Associated Press he had no comment about the petition.

Under his proposal, violators would be fined as much as $2,500 and face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.

The legislation comes several months after Gov. Bill Haslam's administration lost a legal battle over a curfew that was used to temporarily dislodge the encampment. The administration is following a judge's orders and promulgating rules for use of the plaza.

On Sunday, The Tennessean reported that the protesters are considering temporarily withdrawing from their encampment. The idea was among four discussed Saturday during a meeting about the group's future.

D.J. Hudson, who was arrested in October when the state first tried to oust the group, told the newspaper she thinks protesters should return to their homes for the winter and regroup in the spring.

"I think being out here during the winter months is risking people's health," Hudson said. "I think we should plan for the spring, keep ourselves rested and return later stronger than when we left."

Online:

Read HB2638 at http://capitol.tn.gov.

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