NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Demonstrators set up camp on Capitol Hill Friday evening for a "Free Capitol Hill" rally. A tent has been set up along with tables of food and water for the activists. Demonstrators stayed at Capitol Hill overnight into Saturday morning.
As of 8 a.m. Saturday, members of the group were still at the site peacefully protesting. About two dozen demonstrators have been at the site for over 12 hours.
Members of the group were chanting and singing Saturday morning. Some wrote messages on the walls. To ensure permanent damage not be done, the messages were written in chalk.
They initially gathered at Legislative Plaza, and walked over to the Capitol. Several speakers addressed the crowd, and many carried signs explaining their demands. They are asking local and state lawmakers to defund police, demilitarize police, fire Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson, and remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from inside the Capitol.
The group renamed the area where the Edward Carmack statue once stood as Ida B. Wells Plaza, in honor of the former civil rights leader. They put up a tent where they vowed to stay until they received a response from Governor Bill Lee.
“We’re tired. We want to be heard,” said Derrius Brown, one of the demonstrators. “We are ready for that change to happen, and this is the time for us to get that change.”
However, ahead of the protest Friday evening, Governor Lee had a message to demonstrators: keep it peaceful and do not try to create an "autonomous zone."
The statement was released hours before the demonstration. In a graphic shared online for the event, the location for the protest is listed as the "Capitol Hill autonomous zone," which is then labeled "formerly Legislative Plaza."
It also asked for demonstrators to come with tents, chairs, noisemakers, pots & pans, and "any other way to express yourself," before stating "reclaim the plaza for the people of Tennessee."
Camping on state-owned property, unless specifically designated, is illegal in Tennessee. The law was enacted after the "Occupy" movement in 2012.
"We encourage Tennesseans to exercise their First Amendment rights and have seen many examples of peaceful protests across our state in recent weeks," Lee's statement read. "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."
Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton released the following statement:
“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. 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.”
Four issues are specifically listed on the flier: Fire Metro Police Chief Anderson, defund the police, demilitarize the police, and remove racist statues.
The idea of an "autonomous zone" has been highly publicized recently in Seattle, where a group of demonstrators "cornered off several city blocks and established the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," according to USA Today. The area has been described as a place for protests that is largely free of police.