By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Occupy Nashville protesters were returning to the Tennessee Legislative Plaza in front of the state capitol on Friday after being rousted from their campsite by state troopers earlier this morning.
Twenty-nine protesters were taken into custody at shortly after three Friday morning. Some were dragged from the campsite they've occupied for about three weeks.
Those arrested were taken to Davidson County Night Court for booking, but were freed by Night Court Commissioner Thomas Nelson.
"You have no lawful basis to arrest and charge those people," Nelson said to state troopers.
"For three weeks they've sat up there and protested under no admonition whatsoever that they were violating state policy regarding camping out on Legislative Plaza or that they were committing a crime."
He said he understood that the state had changed its policy on Thursday, but "they (the protesters) have to be given the opportunity to comply with those rules."
The action -- a line of 75 troopers swept through the camp after giving a 10-minute warning -- came less than a day after the state's Department of General Services said the plaza and other public areas nearby would be subject to a curfew, with no occupation between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Protesters had asked the state on Wednesday for more help with security. There has been some theft from tents as well as reports of marijuana being sold and lewd behavior in the area.
Occupy Nashville protesters blamed those incidents on the homeless population which has joined them on the plaza because of the availability of free blankets and food.
Protesters had vowed they wouldn't leave, but the timing of the raid by state troopers caught them off-guard. After troopers gathered on the plaza at 3:10 a.m., one took a bullhorn and announced "you'll be given 10 minutes (to clear the area). .. Your time starts now."
About two-dozen of the protesters left at that time, according to Dalya Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
But many of the protesters didn't leave and, while they chanted the anti-Vietnam War era slogan "the whole world's watching," they were dragged off and put in buses for the short trip to Night Court.
The demonstrators face charges of criminal trespassing November 18 in General Sessions Court, Qualls said. Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons defended the sweep, saying troopers took the appropriate action.
"The process was handled by state troopers in a professional manner and without incident," he said in a statement to the press.
"It is our responsibility to keep the protesters safe on state property, along with citizens who work, live and enjoy downtown. We all must work together to ensure a safe environment."
He said the early hour for the raid was chosen because it would be least disruptive for those who work, visit and live downtown. Protesters plan a rally Friday evening.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)