Ahead of a planned Saturday rally, protesters calling for an “autonomous zone” camped outside the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on Friday as Gov. Bill Lee issued a warning.
“We encourage Tennesseans to exercise their First Amendment rights and have seen many examples of peaceful protests across our state in recent weeks,” the Republican governor said in a statement.
“As demonstrations continue, we will continue to protect Tennesseans’ right to peaceful assembly, while also reassuring citizens that lawlessness, autonomous zones, and violence will not be tolerated. Further, Tennessee law expressly prohibits camping on state property not expressly designated as a campground area, and that law will be enforced.”
On Friday evening, a group of about 50 people set up camp near the capitol at Legislative Plaza, saying they planned to remain for an undetermined length of time.
Participants dubbed their site the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” according to WKRN-TV. That’s the same name used by a group of protesters in Seattle who set up what they call an autonomous zone Monday.
NOW: Protesters are setting up a “Capitol Hill #AutonomousZone” in #Nashville, they say reclaiming the people’s land. This is where protesters took down the Edward Carmack Statue on March 30th. They’ve now “renamed” Legislative Plaza “Ida B Wells Plaza.” @WKRN pic.twitter.com/d883UCtx1K
— Stassy Olmos (@StassyOlmosWKRN) June 12, 2020
Some participants told WKRN-TV they planned to remain until they had a conversation with Lee.
As of Saturday morning, about 24 people were camped at the site, according to WTVF-TV.
The group demands that Metro Nashville Police Department Chief Steve Anderson be fired, and also wants to “defund” and “demilitarize” the police, as well as force the removal of statues that organizers claim are racist.
“We have an insensitive sick America,” rally organizer Venita Lewis told the Tennessean. “There’s no more hiding all of this hate.”
“I understand your work. It’s hard,” she told the watching troopers. “Don’t put your racism behind that suit. Don’t put your anger behind the suit.”
On Saturday, more than 5,000 people were expected to march in a rally near the capitol, WKRN-TV reported.
In a statement, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said there is a fine line between protests and lawlessness.
“I fully support the rights of all Tennesseans to peacefully assemble. However, there is a difference between peaceful assembly, and lawlessness or unlawful camping, occupying, and autonomous zones on state property. The General Assembly enacted laws after Occupy Nashville making it a Class A misdemeanor to occupy state property,” the Republican said, according to WTVF-TV.
“I agree with Governor Lee’s decision to enforce our current laws, and the House is fully prepared to enhance this type of lawlessness to a felony before the 2020 legislative session concludes next week,” Sexton said.
Businesses in Nashville are being hurt by the continual protests, according to one business owner.
“We are down like 95 percent and all the businesses are, they are down about 95 percent,” Layla Vartanian of Layla’s Honky Tonk told WKRN-TV.
“It’s really disrupting our businesses,” she said. “That’s fine if people want to protest, but they need to keep it on Legislative Plaza, Capitol Hill that’s where the politicians are. You want to voice your opinion to the politicians. Broadway has nothing to do with what they are rallying about we need to get our businesses back in order some kind of normalcy.”
“We are not going to be able to pay our teachers, our fire department our public works. It’s costly to the whole city to bring a huge police force down here to protect everybody.
“Even the protesters need to be protected and it’s just costing business owners a lot of money, people don’t want to come down here because of all the disruption,” she said.
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