The bill to evict Occupy Nashville kept rolling through the legislature today, winning easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee. But first, lawmakers rubbed it in by jacking up the penalty for violations. Now if you’re caught in a tent on the Legislative Plaza or under a bridge or anywhere else on public property where camping isn’t permitted in Tennessee, you could go to jail for 11 months and 29 days and pay a $2,500 fine.
That change in the bill drew a furious round of downcast wiggly fingers from occupiers in the hearing room. Shouting their outrage, a couple of protesters stalked out just ahead of the House sergeant at arms.
“It strikes me as an extraordinary penalty for people putting up a tent,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, the only lawmaker to speak out for Occupy Nashville during the hearing. “What’s the justification for that level of penalty?”
“It sounds like what we’ve got is a specific law designed to criminalize speech by a particular group of people right here in the United States of America. We’re going down the wrong road here. The tradition of free speech is probably the greatest gift that our country has bestowed upon the world. We can say what we want about this bill but the effect of this bill is to take a peaceful protest and make it a criminal act.”
No debate of this issue seems complete without a hissy fit from the bill’s sponsor—the committee’s chairman, Eric Watson, R-Cleveland. As he did last week when the bill sailed out of a subcommittee, Watson tarred the protesters as a gang of stoners and meth heads. He is especially incensed because someone took a leak on the head of a legislator’s secretary as she smoked a cigarette in an alcove below the plaza last year.
“The most sickening part is one of our employees here at the plaza was peed on!” Watson scolded the protesters in the room. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! If you approve of that and you think that’s peaceable assembly, you need to be peed on. See how you like it.”
Let’s go to the video:
Update: You might recall the last time Watson so dazzled the world with his intellectual acuity. During a rancorous 2009 debate over whether the legislature should officially regret slavery, he referenced the Hispaniel, a previously unknown species of human, as well as the then-largely forgotten Yellow Man.
Update II: The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved the bill today. It could come up on the House and Senate floors next week.