NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Occupy Wall Street protesters and state officials in Tennessee squared off for a third consecutive night Saturday, even though a local judge has consistently refused to jail the demonstrators and said the state lacks the authority to set a curfew on the property.
The protesters, many of whom have been arrested two straight nights, were galvanized by the friction between state officials and the local magistrate. Several new demonstrators showed up at the state-owned plaza near the Capitol for the first time Saturday.
"My heart has been here all along, but the arrests gave me the momentum to come," said Vicki Metzgar, 61, director of a Nashville Public Schools science and math initiative. "This belongs to us, not the politicians."
The Nashville arrests came after a week of police crackdowns around the country on Occupy Wall Street activists, who have been protesting economic inequality and what they call corporate greed.
In Oakland, Calif., an Iraq War veteran was seriously injured during a protest clash with police Tuesday night. In Atlanta, helicopters hovered overhead Wednesday as officers in riot gear arrested more than 50 protesters at a downtown park. In San Diego, police arrested a similar number of people who occupied the Civic Center Plaza and Children's Park for three weeks.
Nashville magistrate Tom Nelson has said there's no legal reason to keep the demonstrators behind bars and he has released them after each arrest. He has refused each night to sign off on arrest warrants for more than two dozen people taken into custody.
Some legal experts agreed with the judge.
The arrests appeared to be a violation of First Amendment rights that allow for people to peacefully assemble, said attorney David Raybin, a former prosecutor. He and others said the nature of the arrests, coupled with the judge's refusal to sign off on the warrants, could become ammunition for lawsuits.
"The government is exposing itself to serious liability here by doing this," Raybin said.
Nelson did not return an email seeking and a phone number for him could not be found.
The curfew at the Legislative Plaza, which state troopers began enforcing Thursday night, runs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Others questioned the timing of the curfew. The protesters had been demonstrating for about three weeks before it took effect, a point that Nelson said he factored into his decision.
"You can't pass a curfew mid-protest because you disagree with this group of protesters," said criminal defense attorney Patrick Frogge, who is representing some of those arrested.
The state Department of Safety is carrying out the arrests. Commissioner Bill Gibbons, who until he joined the Haslam administration was the district attorney in Memphis, said he didn't have a role in developing the curfew but assured Haslam his department could enforce it.
Gibbons developed a reputation as an able and tough prosecutor in Memphis, where gang and drug violence have been problems for years. He ran against Haslam for governor in the GOP primary, touting his law-and-order credential and sharply attacking his multi-million-dollar opponent for refusing to divulge how much income he gets from the family-owned chain of Pilot truck stops.
Cecily Friday, one of the original Occupy Nashville protesters, said the administration's attempt to get rid of the demonstrators has "completely backfired."
"Over 1,000 people have been added to our Facebook page since the arrests," she said.
On Saturday afternoon, about 150 people showed up for an Occupy Nashville meeting. Lisa Keylon, a city planner, was there for the first time. She said she was recently in Atlanta, discussing with friends how unorganized the protests seemed, wondering how long they could last.
Then people were arrested in Atlanta, followed by those in Nashville.
"Now people are fired up because their First Amendment rights are being violated," she said.
Among those arrested Friday night was journalist Jonathan Meador, who told troopers he was a reporter covering the story for the Nashville Scene alternative newspaper. On Saturday, the owner of the newspaper sent a letter to Haslam's staff.
"I expect the governor to publicly apologize to him for this violation of his rights and to assure the people of Tennessee that this administration will not interfere with the right to a free press that has been a fundamental right in this country since our founding," SouthComm CEO Chris Ferrell wrote. "I'm sure you understand that every media outlet in this country will vigorously defend our right to cover government action without fear of arrest or reprisal."
A gala arts event honoring a prominent Republican fundraiser is happening at an adjoining state-owned plaza Saturday night. Near the scene of the Fest De Ville Gala, one enterprising protester stuck new placards beside those announcing the curfew. They were similar in size and color with text from Article 1 of the Tennessee Constitution: "Citizens have a right, in a peaceable manner, to assemble together for their common good."