Nashville Cops Bust Occupy Protesters, Judge Keeps Letting Them Go

Judge releases dozens of protesters, says troopers were wrong for holding them.

ByABC News
October 30, 2011, 2:00 PM

Oct. 15, 2011— -- As fast as Nashville, Tenn., police arrested Occupy Nashville protesters this weekend for refusing to leave a public park after curfew, they were freed by a judge who said the state was wrong for holding them at all.

For two nights in a row, protesters camped out at the state capitol in downtown Nashville without permits for their occupation. On Friday night, state troopers entered the park around 3 a.m. and told protesters they had 10 minutes to vacate the grounds. About two dozen protesters left the park without incident.

A smaller group decided to remain in the park, arguing they had a right to stay on the so-called People's Plaza. Troopers took 29 demonstrators into custody, issuing citations for misdemeanor criminal trespassing. The arrests were carried out by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Similar scenes have played out across the country in the past few weeks. Hundreds of people have been arrested since the Occupy movement began, occasionally after violent clashes with police, such as in Denver, Oakland, Calif., and New York City.

However, in Nashville, a few hours after the protesters were taken into custody Thursday night, Night Court Magistrate Thomas Nelson let them all go.

He did the same thing the next night when troopers brought in another group of protesters, telling the officers "your warrant is denied."

Nelson released the demonstrators and refused to sign the arrest warrants, arguing that authorities had no legal basis for the arrests.

The arrests began less than 24 hours after Gov. Bill Haslam's administration announced it was going to impose a curfew in the park due to safety concerns. Nelson said that wasn't enough time for protesters to get the necessary permits and he told troopers he will not approve any warrants for arrest under the new curfew.

"For three weeks they've sat up there and protested, under no admonition whatsoever that they are violating state policy with regard to camping out…or that they are committing a crime," Nelson told a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer, according to ABC News affiliate WKRN-TV in Nashville.

"When the state issued its memorandum imposing a curfew and changing the rules, right in the middle of a protest, they can do that, but they have to give them adequate time to comply with those rules," he said.

Nelson did not respond to a request from for comment.

A court date for the protesters has been set for Nov. 18.

Department of Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons told WKRN that troopers "took the appropriate action to support the state's revised policy that the Legislative Plaza is not to be used at night without specific authorization." The policy requires special use permits for certain hours, with no permits granted for any time after 10 p.m.

Since the beginning of the Occupy movement in New York City, the protests have been very loosely organized. When they first started, demonstrators decided not to get any permits, but groups in some cities decided, when starting up their own Occupy rallies, to apply for required permits.

Occupy Wall Street has material on its website explaining laws regarding blocking streets, sidewalks and parks. Encampments have sprung up in public plazas, parks and squares across the country, often complete with tents, eating spaces and meeting areas.

Demonstrations are continuing in Nashville, and The Associated Press reports about 50 protesters remained through the night, defying the curfew. While there was still a police presence during the night, organizers told the AP authorities made no arrests.