After two months of protests across from the State Capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee lawmakers voted for a tidy way to disperse their new neighbors: making it illegal to camp there.
The law, which also targets protests on public property, makes convictions punishable by up to six years in prison—and even loss of voting rights.
The Tennessee bill, passed by the state legislature last week, was the latest legislation targeting dissent in a year marked by nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. It follows a Michigan bill that would classify rioting as terrorism, and a slew of recent legislation—begun before George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in late May—imposing harsh punishments on anti-pipeline protesters.
The measures have real potential to chill protest movements, their critics say.
Tennessee’s SB 8005/HB 8005, which passed the state legislature on Wednesday, would rewrite state criminal code to make it a Class E felony to camp on state property between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. That’s bad news for the People’s Plaza, a movement of racial justice protesters who have led a nonstop demonstration near the State Capitol since June 12.
The group says it will gladly vacate the state-owned plaza—as soon as Gov. Bill Lee meets with them, or the state legislature removes a bust of Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol building. So far, neither has happened.
“There are aspects of the law that I might have done differently, that were different from my original proposal,” Lee said last week, indicating he nonetheless intended to sign it so as to ensure "lawlessness doesn’t occur in the midst of protest."
Protesters and civil liberties experts cried foul.
“They can say this bill is about protecting law enforcement,” ACLU of Tennessee Policy Director Brandon Tucker told The Daily Beast. “It’s not. Law enforcement is already protected. This bill came about when people took to the street demanding racial justice, an end to police violence, and to say that Black lives matter.”
Anjanette Edwards, an activist who demonstrates at the People’s Plaza, said she thought it was quite clear that the bill targeted protesters like her.
“I believe a lot of the revisions that were made to this bill were trying to capitalize on actions that occurred when the People’s Plaza was occupying that space,” she told The Daily Beast.
The bill also comes with other anti-protest provisions, like making it easier to charge protesters with theft for markings on state buildings—including those made with chalk (punishable with a mandatory $5,000 fine on the second offense). Even before their cases go to court, people arrested for allegedly camping on state property, damaging state property, or conducting other protests like interrupting meetings would face a mandatory 12-hours detention in jail. It’s an unusual measure, The Tennessean noted, and an unpleasant prospect, especially while COVID-19 rages in jails and prisons across the country.
The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Republican-led legislature, with most Democrats voting against it.
“We are using a bazooka to go after a house fly here,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro argued on the statehouse floor, according to The Tennessean. “Are we really saying that a citizen of this state can be punished with a year in prison and have a felony record because they camped on public property? That should be a bridge too far.”
Elsewhere in the country, lawmakers are trying to go even further.
In response to recent protests in Michigan, a state lawmaker proposed new legislation that would amend the state’s terrorism laws to make “acts of social and domestic anarchy” punishable by up to 20 years in prison or a fine of $250,000. (The bill defines acts of anarchy as riot-related offenses, although anarchy is, broadly, a perfectly legal political philosophy opposed to organized government.)
The bill’s author, Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, claimed the current riot sentencing laws were too light, and in an interview with a local ABC affiliate, appeared to suggest protesters came from out of town—part of a mostly unfounded narrative about “outside agitators” traveling to stir up trouble. “A 10-year felony, for many, is going to be a slap on the wrist,’’ Afendoulis said. “Especially when they come here with the intent of hurting people and hurting property and again, terrorizing a community.’’
A series of anti-protest bills introduced before George Floyd’s death have also sped toward law this year, in the form of legislation that would affect anti-pipeline protesters.
In March, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed into law legislation that will boost the state’s penalties for rioting and inciting a riot, two charges sometimes controversially levied on protesters. The law faced stiff opposition from environmentalists and Native Americans in the state for its potential to crack down on protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, which threatens water and environmental conditions on indigenous land. A previous version of the law had been found unconstitutional because it directly targeted those protesters.
Meanwhile, anti-pipeline protesters in Louisiana are currently contending with a bill that would mean up to 15 years in prison for protests on “critical infrastructure” near pipelines. As West Virginia went into COVID-19 lockdown this spring, its governor quietly approved the state’s own law against such protest, the Intercept reported. Mississippi passed its own law in June increasing penalties for trespassing on or damaging pipeline property, and a similar bill is in the works in Alabama.
In Tennessee, activists and civil rights groups were still hoping to talk their governor into a veto of the anti-protest bill.
“This will only serve to exacerbate our overly high incarceration rates with unnecessarily enhanced penalties and mandatory minimums,” Tucker said, adding that his organization was urging Gov. Lee to veto the bill in part by citing the criminal justice platform on which Lee campaigned.
“This bill absolutely chills free speech,” Tucker said. “It undermines any claim that our elected leaders want to reform the criminal legal system, and it shows that our leaders here have heard the calls for racial justice and completely chosen to ignore them.”