Gov. Bill Lee and the Muzzling of Democracy

By Briana Brady, Opinion Editor–

Recently, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a new bill into law, which makes it a Class E felony to camp on state grounds. This law serves as an all-but-explicit attack on protesters exercising their First Amendment rights at the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tennessee, deemed the “People’s Plaza” by those protesting. Beginning on June 12, protesters took to grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol building to demand a meeting with Gov. Lee over racial injustice as well as the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. To Gov. Lee’s credit, he supported the removal of Forrest’s bust, but so far, he has been unwilling to meet with racial justice advocates. Now, he has signed a bill into law that attempts to silence and discredit their voices for change. 

When looking at the images captured by local photojournalists documenting the interactions between peaceful protesters and state troopers this summer, the visuals are incredibly telling in themselves. Firstly, the state trooper units visible in the photos are almost entirely comprised of white men, and secondly, they exceedingly outnumber in both bodies and force the protestors they are patrolling and/or arresting. The ways in which they were documented detaining protesters was dehumanizing. 

These images and laws such as this one make me wonder: Why is it that when mostly white, right-wing, AR-15-toting civilians protest in the face of law enforcement, they are largely left alone, but when mostly Black protestors carry signs, conduct sit-ins, and chant through the streets peacefully, they are still met with swaths of law enforcement decked out in riot gear, throwing teargas, and violently arresting citizens in the name of self-defense? Perhaps it’s because the latter group poses a threat to the social, economic, and/or political power of those making the rules and benefitting from them. Further, perhaps the latter also brings awareness to the problematic racial makeup of the enforced in contrast to that of the enforcers–a direct correlation with the racial power structures established during the policing of slaves. 

At the time of the law’s implementation, protesters had been camping out at the Capitol for over two months straight, beginning on June 12 following the death of George Floyd, and remaining undeterred despite attempts on the part of law enforcement to make late-night arrests and seize belongings of those participating. Despite all the arrests, when lawmakers were asked on the Tennessee House floor if anyone could recall an instance of injury or instigated violence on the part of the protesters, no one could think of one. Still, the bill was passed in both the House and Senate, largely along party lines, and then signed into law by Gov. Lee in mid-August. 

To reiterate, the newly-enacted protest law makes camping on state grounds a Class E felony. For those violating this law or other protest-related laws, there is a default 12-hour mandatory minimum jail time without bond. Not only does a felony charge carry with it anywhere from one to six years in prison, but let’s be clear: by cause of someone simply having a felony on their record, opportunities both socioeconomically as well as politically will be restricted, or at best, made significantly more difficult to obtain.

Felony charges mean that the process of finding and holding a job becomes significantly more challenging, and any hopes of financial aid or student loan assistance in furthering one’s education are no longer viable possibilities. Additionally, felony charges have a direct impact on the potential for someone to have a political voice in this country: they lose their right to vote. It is for this reason, perhaps more than any other in this context specifically, that I feel Gov. Lee has permanently positioned himself on the wrong side of history. He has used his power and his privilege to muzzle the political voices of those dissenting.

When former Congressman and Civil Rights Icon John Lewis passed away, who by cause of his fight against segregation and racial inequality in the Jim Crow south knew Nashville well, Gov. Lee took to Twitter to announce the lowering of the State Capitol flags in his honor. The pinnacle of the irony here is absolutely baffling to me. In my opinion, the on-the-ground, dangerous, “good trouble” kind of work that protestors like those in Nashville’s People’s Plaza are doing in 2020 is a direct, natural, and causal continuation of the work John Lewis and his counterparts did throughout their lifetimes. By honoring former Congressman Lewis while in the same breath criminalizing those peacefully fighting for connected causes on his own State Capitol grounds, Gov. Lee is actively working against the progress Congressman Lewis fought for. 

Furthermore, taking away the right to vote from Black people, who are systematically disenfranchised socially, economically, and politically through the sustainment of racist structures of our country, is yet another way to stifle the positive movements they’re leading to carry our nation forward. Economically, this law funnels more money into prisons, too; the Tennessean writes that, “According to an estimate from the legislature’s fiscal review office, the bill is expected to cost the state an additional $504,200 annually for incarcerations, and local governments $894,300 each year after 2021.”

Here’s the bottom line: Right before the most important election of our lifetimes, the Governor of Tennessee has sided with lawmakers aiming to be rid of what they apparently can’t bear to see or hear: Black people and others using their First Amendment rights to speak up for a meeting with their own elected official to see to changes that are long overdue in this state. Taking away their voice in our democracy by charging them with a crime that takes away their vote is blatantly wrong and anti-democratic. John Lewis said in 2019 that “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” But he also said that “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.”

Indeed, change will come. Change must come. See you at the polls.

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