As you may be aware, a group known as Occupy Nashville has essentially taken up residence on War Memorial Plaza across the street from the Capitol. While describing themselves as protesters, they are actually something quite different.
Average protesters, usually on some defined day centered around a specific issue, march or congregate en mass to demand redress of a specific grievance. Normal protests can get loud and they can get rowdy. Frequently, they can last long into the night. On rare occasions, they can last a few days.
Occupy Nashville is quite a different animal. This protest is not really a protest at all. It is, as the name implies, an occupation. I value our constitutional rights — the freedom of speech most of all. Without the freedom to directly confront our leaders, our constitution isn’t worth the parchment on which it’s printed.
Whether from the left or the right, I appreciate people engaging their government.
However, to continue to ignore the reality of Occupy Nashville would be to shirk my duties as a public servant. I have to tell the truth and the truth is this: your War Memorial Plaza – a place dedicated to Tennesseans who paid the ultimate price in service to their nation and fellow citizens – is no longer a place for visitors. It is unsightly, it is unclean and, depending on the time of day, it is downright dangerous.
While the initial “Occupiers” may have started out with good intentions, their movement has been infiltrated and co-opted by the homeless in Nashville. Unsurprisingly, amongst the homeless population there is a distinct criminal element. In Occupy Nashville, this criminal element has found safe haven and justification for their lifestyle.
While the crimes committed in and around the Plaza run the gamut, several of the incident reports I have reviewed have alarmed me. From public sexual behavior to narcotics trafficking to assault, the criminal element surrounding Occupy Nashville has made a visit to our State Capitol more than unpleasant.
For example, a legislative employee standing in a bottom floor courtyard was recently urinated on by someone connected to the occupation.
This is disgraceful.
The Occupiers are not merely a nuisance with a blatant disregard for societal norms — they have become dangerous. I have reviewed paperwork from both Metro Police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol and seen reports that include threats of bodily harm by people with knives and other weapons.
One report I read particularly disturbed me because it affected young students here to learn about their Capitol: a homeless member of Occupy Nashville exposed himself in full view of students on a field trip.
A cursory glance at media coverage paints a very unsavory picture: a public brawl occurred on the Plaza on Christmas Day followed by a brazen act of arson in time for the New Year.
In essence, open acts of sex, drug use and violence you wouldn’t expect in an “R” rated movie are at times on full display on your War Memorial Plaza.
It saddens me because every year students from Tennessee schools visit our state capitol to learn about their government and see a very moving War Memorial dedicated to Tennesseans who died for their countrymen over the last 100 years. This year my advice to teachers looking to bring students here would be simple: stay home. I cannot in good conscience recommend the Capitol as a class trip destination at this time. I’m embarrassed to say it but it is the truth.
I hope and pray this situation will be resolved sooner rather then later and I can once again wholeheartedly recommend that visitors and students come to Nashville to learn how our government works.
Again, I support our constitution and embrace with open arms our rights of free speech and assembly. Liberal judges here in Nashville and on the federal bench can try and twist the law however they want but the reality is clear: this occupation has gone beyond speech and assembly and become an embarrassment — both to causes Occupy purports to support and the state of Tennessee at large.
Ronald L. Ramsey
Speaker of the Senate