NASHVILLE, Tenn. » Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted slogans, danced to stay warm and defiantly protested into the early hours Sunday near Tennessee’s Capitol building, squaring off for the third consecutive night against state authorities.
"Whose plaza? Our plaza!" about 50 demonstrators chanted early Sunday in defiance of an official curfew.
Capitol police sporadically made their rounds and a state trooper occasionally walked past the protest in the pre-dawn hours, but authorities signaled no immediate attempt to make arrests as law enforcement agents had done on the two previous nights.
Elizabeth Sharpe, 20, took part Sunday and said she was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement after seeing a 2003 documentary called "The Corporation." She said she felt the need to be an activist in the movement that expresses opposition to perceived greed on Wall Street and across corporate America.
"How can I as an individual change this?" she asked, speaking with an Associated Press reporter. With the Occupy moment’s far-flung reach across American cities, she said she felt there was strength in numbers, adding, ""I got for the first time a glimpse of hope."
Some danced to keep warm on a chilly morning and others shivered in the frosty air, huddling under blankets.
The protesters have been 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 earlier in the day.
As many as 75 people initially remained after the curfew that started at 10 p.m. CDT and runs until 6 a.m. But by early morning only about 50 people remained and police did not make any immediate attempt to disband the protest.
On previous nights, the defiance had triggered arrests. Earlier Nashville arrests came after a week of police crackdowns nationwide on Occupy Wall Street activists. Clashes have occurred in other cities, including Oakland, Calif., Denver and Atlanta.
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. And in Denver on Saturday evening, authorities moved into an encampment of protesters and began arresting demonstrators just hours after a standoff near the steps of the Colorado Capitol turned into a skirmish that ended in police force, including pepper spray and reports of rubber bullets.
Nashville magistrate Tom Nelson has said recently that there’s no legal reason in his city 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.
State troopers had begun enforcing the curfew at the Legislative Plaza on Thursday night.
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 has been 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.