Photo courtesy of Nashville Scene

November 9, 2011

Web Exclusive: Can I go home now?

Former LEO Weekly reporter arrested while covering Occupy Nashville for sister publication

The night I got arrested on the job was a cold one.

I was downtown at Nashville’s Legislative Plaza, on duty for the Nashville Scene to cover the heretofore uneventful and ongoing Occupy Nashville protests, which had been the site of a surprise early morning police raid ordered by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam less than 24 hours before.

On that dreary, drizzly Thursday afternoon, about half of the roughly two dozen tents that had sprung up on the plaza had disappeared, leaving behind the shelters of those most dedicated to the movement. According to Dorsey Malina, one of Occupy Nashville’s media ambassadors, those who split were drifters who had latched onto to the camp’s free-food policy, and were generally uncooperative or unconcerned about the group’s messages of reducing income inequality and corporate power over the political process.

The reason for that exodus, she said, was the new 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed on the plaza by the state’s General Services department — adopted in haste just hours earlier that day, sending a wave of paranoia through the camp. Further, protesters were to fork over $65 per day in order to exercise their constitutional right to assemble on public grounds, and required to purchase $1 million in liability insurance to obtain said permit.

Days before, there had been reports of fighting, theft and acts of public indecency at the Occupy camp. These provided Haslam, Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons and General Services Commissioner Steven Cates with the impetus — or to Occupy supporters, an excuse — to crack down on the group of 20 to 30 stubborn protesters, all from different income brackets, cultural backgrounds and political ideologies.

During the times I’d visited the site over the previous two weeks, conditions appeared far from unsanitary. Occupiers patrolled the grounds for trash. Others attempted to keep the peace with (and among) members of the plaza’s indigenous homeless population, who long predated the protesters.

But tension was growing on the plaza, and with it a burgeoning sense of paranoia. According to protesters, this heightened after a pair of impromptu backroom meetings Oct. 26 and 27 at the Tennessee Tower. High-ranking members of General Services, Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and other governmental entities faced off against select members of Occupy Nashville, including one of its attorneys, Tripp Hunt, and Malina.

“At that meeting we were informed that we were going to be closed down, moved out,” Malina said. “They said that we were no longer ‘manageable.’ They had grouped us in with a group of homeless people — not that we’re against the homeless people; we have many in our movement who are homeless but follow our rules — and said they have reports that we were having sex and defecating in the bushes. Every time they mentioned that, I said, ‘That is not Occupy Nashville! We have a code of conduct and wristbands that we make everyone sign and wear.’”

But those and other protestations were ignored. The warning to vacate stood.

Many occupiers, Malina included, told the Scene that state troopers seemingly vanished from the plaza after the first week of occupation, and that 911 calls made by occupiers to report various disturbances were ignored. Malina and another occupier, Eva Watler, a massage therapist who donates her time (and skills) to Occupy Nashville whenever she can, said she personally observed multiple instances when 911 calls were not returned.

“We call and we call, and nobody shows up,” Watler said.

When asked if the THP had intentionally reduced its presence to create an “anarchy zone,” as one occupier put it, or if it had failed to adequately protect the occupiers from the disorderly members of the homeless community, THP spokeswoman Dalya Qualls provided the following statement: “The THP’s focus has always been, and remains to be for the safety and security for everyone on the plaza.” An open records request filed by the Scene to corroborate these claims was pending as of press time. Later Thursday night, as the temperature began to drop into the 30s, many supporters and members of Occupy Nashville flooded the plaza, wondering when the new curfew would be martially enforced. One of those was an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who declined to be identified or photographed by the Scene due to his active-duty status.

“I figured that I would bypass the media images that we see of what’s going on here and see for myself exactly what it’s all about and what kind of people are here,” he said. “I’ve only been here a few minutes and so far I can see it’s everybody, people from all walks of life. I don’t see political parties here … I just see Americans.”

The serviceman added that he was moved to support Occupy Nashville after Marine veteran Scott Olsen was critically injured in a raid on an Occupy encampment in Oakland, Calif. — part of the scandalous “Brutal Tuesday” of police thuggery that made headlines nationwide. He expressed irritation at the new curfew that had been posted at the plaza’s entrances.

“I don’t believe the Constitution should be limited,” he said, his voice rising with each word. “It doesn’t say you can only express your opinions, petition for redress of grievances or peacefully assemble during daylight hours from 9 to 5 or only at certain locations. You can’t limit that. And the moment people start accepting those limitations is the moment we lose more of our freedoms.”

Like others in the camp, the serviceman feared that Nashville would follow in the footsteps of Oakland and other cities — it was just a matter of time. That time, as it turns out, was 3:10 a.m. A platoon of 75 THP troopers stormed the plaza with the aid of SUVs and, reportedly, a handful of equestrian units, rounding up 29 protesters. Among those arrested were Watler, eighth-grade schoolteacher Adam Knight, and activist Bill Howell of the group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation.

“I think what the governor has done clearly shows that he is willing to sacrifice the rights of real persons to benefit artificial, corporate non-persons,” Howell said. Haslam, meanwhile, maintained that he was merely maintaining order and proper hygiene via the curfew.

“Literally, the situation continued to deteriorate here,” the governor said at an Oct. 28 meeting with the University of Tennessee’s board of trustees. “It’s a question of the conditions were getting worse. I keep using the word deteriorate. That was literally what was happening in this case. We don’t really have the ability to say, ‘Well, these are Occupy Nashville folks, and these are folks who have been homeless in Nashville.’ We had an issue on Legislative Plaza that really did create an unsafe and unsanitary … condition.”

 

If the first wave of arrests was meant to shut down Occupy Nashville, it failed. The presiding Metro Night Court magistrate, Tom Nelson, refused the warrants and told the arresting troopers that not enough time had elapsed to enforce the new curfew. But protesters clearly got the message of intimidation, especially after troopers detained them for five hours while issuing citations. By Friday night, Oct. 28, the fear had metastasized, leaving many occupiers to wonder what would happen when the curfew expired.

“I’m very scared,” said Kathy Hogley, 18, who suffered an epileptic seizure during the first raid as state troopers ignored her writhing body. A product of the foster care system and currently homeless, Hogley said she was determined to stick around despite the threat of further police action because, as a kid, she “dreamed that we all would never be homeless and cold.”

“I always dreamed that every one of us would have a warm place to stay, and that’s not the case,” she said. “Some people have four or five homes, and others don’t have any.” After a few hours of waiting around in the cold — interrupted by a brief dinner — I was milling about the plaza with a handful of colleagues and an unlikely new friend: Bill Hobbs, former Republican Party of Tennessee spokesman turned freelance photographer. Around midnight, people started screaming, “They’re coming! They’re coming!”

I rushed up the steps to witness the gathering force of 72 state troopers. I activated my Flip video camera and began to film them. As they readied to march, some two dozen protesters locked arms in a daisy chain of civil disobedience, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Within minutes, the troopers advanced in a phalanx. I backed away, filming. While I was trying to back off the plaza, Flip cam in hand and rolling, I heard a voice say, “You’re under arrest.”

They must be talking to someone else, I thought — maybe to one of the protesters to my right, but surely not me. But in my hasty backwards exit I bumped into even more troopers who had snuck up behind me.

“I’m getting off,” I told them. I was grabbed from behind.

“Whoa!” I said. “I’m a member of the media.”

“Your time is up,” a trooper said.

“Hey!” This time I shouted. “I’m a member of the media!”

None of the officers seemed to listen to me. No one offered to look at my credentials, no one gave me an opportunity to put them in contact with my editor. Nor did they listen to a colleague, who kept shouting I was a member of the press. He later said a trooper told him, “You want to be next?”

The combined weight of heavily equipped Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers was too much. My knees buckled, and I was slowly, firmly introduced face-first to the freezing marble of the plaza. They dug their knees into my back and tightly affixed a pair of zip-tie handcuffs, the plastic gouging my wrists. From all directions, I could hear screaming.

“Remember to charge this one with resisting arrest,” said a trooper.

“Yessir,” said another.

“Go ahead and take him, Mo,” said one of the officers as I was pulled to my feet and marched forward in plastic handcuffs.

Ahead stood a line of detainees gathering before a massive Tennessee Department of Correction bus. While waiting in line, I asked the trooper his name, hoping friendliness would make things easier. I even added an unironic “sir.” His only reply was, “I can’t tell you that.”

“Is your name ‘Mo,’ by any chance? I overheard one of the troopers calling you by that name.”

No response. There were no badges visible on the trooper, nor even the name tag they’re required to wear. He only looked ahead.

While waiting in line to be processed onto the idling Department of Correction bus along with the others who’d been snatched up, I started to burp up my meal from earlier in the evening — an overpriced hamburger with fries and Jack and Coke. The trooper shot me a smirk.

“Smells like you been drinkin’ tonight,” he said. A few moments later, he informed one of his comrades to cite me for public intoxication.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said. At that moment I happened to notice my colleagues standing near the bus, in various stages of what I can only describe as freaking the hell out. I yelled out to them to call my editor.

My fingers started tingling as they lost circulation. I told Mo that I needed a new set of zip-ties.

“Hold on,” he said. “Lemme see if we got a pair o’ cutters.”

Eventually, a trooper appeared with a pair of cutters. For a moment I was cuffless, and blood flowed back into my hands. That’s when another pair of zip-cuffs was affixed to my wrists with a wider berth.

“Please look into the camera,” commanded a trooper wielding a digital camera.

Mo then handed my driver’s license to another trooper, who pinned it under the clamp of a clipboard, copied down my pertinent information, then returned it to Mo. We moved closer to the entrance of the bus.

A student from MTSU was complaining loudly about her treatment. As I would later learn, her name was Malina, and she was asking emphatically why such force was applied to a college journalist, who was roughed up for trying to protect her camera equipment after being pinned to the ground by multiple troopers. She was refusing to comply with the entire process, which held up the line. I instantly regretted all the YouTube videos I’d watched of people getting Tasered to Benny Hill music.

 

Loaded onto the cramped, dark bus, I had to walk sideways in order to squeeze past the steel cages lining the interior’s front half. At the back of the bus I caught the first glimpse of the 24 people who actually wanted to go through with this tonight. For the most part, they were young and smiling and — holy Christ! — singing songs. These people were actually singing songs and cracking jokes.

For the most part, my fellow offenders were white and young, with the exception of a few people who appeared to be middle-aged. I was seated next to a young woman named Lizzie, a former pizzeria employee who introduced herself almost immediately and tried to cheer me up. But I felt only confused and scared, and it didn’t help that those around me were engaged in a protest variation on the nursery rhyme “Wheels on the Bus”:

The officers on the bus go what’s that noise? What’s that noise? What’s that noise?
 The officers on the bus go what’s that noise, all the way to jail.

The attending corrections officers — dressed creepily in jet-black fatigues with wraparound microphone headsets — didn’t laugh.

In the front of the bus, Malina had been put in her own separate cage, apparently as punishment. As I would learn later, her defiance earned her no small amount of pain. A nurse would have to surgically remove the zip-ties affixed to her wrists. Days later, according to the civil suit backed by the ACLU on Occupy Nashville’s behalf, the feeling had not fully returned to her hands.

After a few minutes, the bus rolled to a stop inside a hanger-sized garage in Metro Jail. Walking off the bus, the protesters politely thanked the driver for a smooth ride. We were processed down a ramp and into a room where a trooper in what looked like riot gear cut the zip-ties from my wrists. Then he directed me into a sparse room, which I would share with the 15 other men in the group for the next three and a half hours. The women were directed to a cell across the hall. Judging by the sounds of their laughter, they were having a much better time.

The cell was about 20 by 10 feet, with an L-shaped slab of concrete as the only reclining area and a strange combined toilet-water fountain. I sat down, rubbing my wrists. A fellow arrestee, Scott, was kind enough to give me some privacy while I made a frantic, apologetic call to my fiancée, who still thought I’d be home from work any minute.

My cellmates were jovial and friendly, asking me about my job and what had happened to me, while a couple of them tried to pass out in the corners to catch some rest. One by one, we received written citations from the troopers. By the time it was my turn, my charge of “resisting arrest” was nowhere in evidence. Instead, the charge was now “criminal trespass” — and I was angry to see the “public intoxication” charge added to it.

The harsh institutional lighting and the mix of boredom and unease made it impossible to sleep. The best I could do was slouch against the wall as my fellow inmates conversed on a multitude of topics. They were talking about the police brutality in Oakland, which they discussed as if warding off something evil by voicing it aloud. They were talking about the CIA’s unlawful infiltration of the New York City Police Department for domestic spying, as if wondering whether their own ranks had been compromised.

Normally, such talk strikes me as the fringe ramblings of stereotypical anarchists or right-wing conspiracists. But after what happened tonight, I felt only a chill.

On and on it went, while all I could think of was getting home to bed. Abruptly, we heard cheers erupt from the women’s cell. One of them had been checking her Twitter account. She learned that the sitting magistrate — again, Tom Nelson — threw out the charges against us and demanded that we be released immediately.

Since the troopers hadn’t confiscated any of my equipment, I pulled out my phone and began clandestinely tweeting in the cell. Indeed, multiple sources were reporting that Nelson declared our detainment unconstitutional. “Can I go home now?” I tweeted. To celebrate, I gathered the men into a line and proceeded to take their picture with my smart phone.

“All right,” I said. “Say, ‘Bill Haslam!’ ”

It was a stupid act of bravado, though. When I attempted to upload the picture to the Internet, one of the guards caught me. “Hey!” he shouted. “You can’t be playin’ with that in here!”

He attempted to take it from me and I pulled it back. That was a bad idea. The guard smacked the phone out of my hand, and it ricocheted off the concrete cell wall. “You know I could charge you with a felony for that?” he screamed. “That’s contraband! You’re not supposed to have that in here! That’s a felony!”

Everyone was quiet. I didn’t feel so brave now. I said I hadn’t been searched. I said nothing of mine had been confiscated. I even pointed out no one had told me the items were illegal.

“I know your little buddy, this guy, he was here last night,” he said, pointing to one of the men who’d been arrested in the previous night’s raid. “He knows better. He shoulda told you. I know he knows better.”

“Nobody said anything,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

For a moment the guard stood there. He turned around and picked up my phone, which, surprisingly, was intact. He handed it back to me.

“Since these are … special circumstances,” he shouted, “I’m going to give this back to you. But don’t play with it again!”

I thanked him. I slid the phone into my laptop bag. My cellmates started laughing when he left the room.

“You can tell these guys are pissed,” Scott said. “They don’t want to be here for no reason, and that’s exactly what’s happening every time the judge lets us go.”

I was exhausted. You hear stories about brave activists who stand there with their chests out, arms extended for cuffs, and war correspondents who stare down the barrels of guns. All I wanted to do was see my fiancée, curl up in bed, turn off my brain, and wake up in a country where this would never happen again.

As we were released, I rushed down the loading ramp in the jail’s garage, through a door and out into the frigid night. My colleagues and my editor greeted me with a heartiness I just couldn’t feel. Meanwhile, a crowd of occupiers — including those just released from prison — started marching right back to Legislative Plaza.

They asked me to join them, but I wasn’t a protester. I had been doing my job, and now I wanted to go home from it. They understood.

The next several days would be crazy. The intoxication charge would be made public, and a state official I’d never met would tell my boss I was drunk, unable to care for myself, and participating in the protests. I would then think to check the Flip camera I’d been carrying, and found it had caught everything on tape — the vanishing “resisting arrest” charge, the footage of me trying to comply with requests to leave the plaza, my repeated attempts to identify myself as media. A lot of good people I’ve never laid eyes on would come to my defense, and turn around one of the saddest weeks of my life.

But that would come later. Right now it was 4 a.m. outside Metro Night Court. I got into my editor’s car, and he drove me home in the thickest fog I’d ever seen.

“You picked a helluva night to get arrested,” he told me, navigating the pea soup. In some ways, I’m still waiting for the fog to lift.