Tennesseans have been protesting against systemic racism and police brutality since June, joining other states in demanding justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two Black Americans killed by police officers earlier this year. The murders of Floyd and Taylor exacerbated pre-existing racial tensions in the United States, resulting in over 7,000 peaceful Black Lives Matter protests from March to August. Peaceful protests have been met with militarized police, the national guard, and heavily armed extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, a white supremacist group known for instigating political violence. Sadly, as the demonstrations continue to take place in cities all over the United States, both physical and legal responses from the opposition have become increasingly disconcerting, especially in Tennessee.
Tennessee has a dark past in regards to racial inequality and white supremacy. Pulaski, Tennessee is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and it has taken government officials nearly half a century to vote to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford, the “KKK’s first grand wizard,” from the capitol building. The motion was only recently passed in July, giving Tennesseans hope that the state was finally ready to distance itself from its racist past and embrace positive change. However, state officials quickly squandered that hope after they introduced a new bill that criminalizes different forms of protests, ultimately targeting the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The bill, formally known as HB 8005, was originally supposed to go into effect on October 1st of this year, but Governor Bill Lee implemented it earlier; HB 8005 officially went into effect on September 15th. After translating the bill’s legalese into plain text, one can see that it clearly violates an American citizen’s freedom of speech, right to assemble, and right to protest. The law prohibits both violent and nonviolent forms of protest; both rioting and assaulting first responders are illegal, as well as camping on state property and blocking traffic. Depending on the severity of their actions, violators can face anywhere from 30-90 days in prison or fines between $200 and $15,000. Most importantly, detainees will be classified as felons, meaning that they will be stripped of their voting rights.
The Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately condemned the new bill, claiming that it “chills free speech, undermines criminal justice reform and fails to address the very issues of racial justice and police violence raised by the protesters who are being targeted.” The opposition, on the other hand, has supported the bill in its entirety. According to Republican legislatures, bills such as HB8005 are absolutely necessary to preserve the safety of the city. Republican lawmakers also believe that this bill will prevent looting and property damage. However, that is not the case. Passing a bill that strips Americans of their First Amendment rights will only lead to more civil unrest and demonstrations. Passing HB8005 has only added fuel to the fire that rages within the hearts of protesters.
It is no coincidence that this bill was implemented mere months after the protests began and mere months before the Presidential Election. 2020 has seen a massive spike in voter registration, as the current Presidential administration poses a threat to American democracy as we know it. Countless renowned political scientists (e.g. Joseph Schumpeter, Robert A. Dahl, and Samuel P. Huntington) have inserted the claim that free and fair elections are a trademark of democracy. Not only has President Trump undermined the legitimacy of the upcoming election by spreading misinformation about mail-in ballot fraud, but he has also introduced Americans to a new wave of nationalism. Even worse, he has stated that he is unsure if he will accept the results of the upcoming election. On top of that, he has repeatedly defended the behaviors of white supremacists over his past four years in office. In fact, during the first Presidential debate, when asked to denounce white supremacy he simply asked the previously mentioned group, the Proud Boys, to “stand by,” implying that they should wait for a call to action.
This election has the chance to save the United States from both fascist and authoritarian tenets, so the fact that HB8005 was passed and implemented earlier than it was intended to be should not only raise concerns for Tennesseans but also for Americans everywhere, as people are losing their right to vote. New forms of democratic backsliding have become subtler in recent years, too. Rights are slowly, but surely, being taken away one bill at a time as leaders instill fear into followers by blaming ethnic, religious, or racial minorities for the country’s problems. A general distrust of the media continues to grow under a President whose tenure has been littered with lies. All three of these things are currently happening in Tennessee under the leadership of Governor Bill Lee and across America under President Donald Trump. These subtle, yet completely legal, infringements of civil liberties perfectly exemplify modern democratic erosion.
As a native Tennessean, I am appalled by Governor Lee’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the passing of HB8005. The bill infringes upon our First Amendment rights. If this were to happen in another country, the United States would critique that government for suppressing the power of the people; we have already done so to China and its response to the Hong Kong protests.
If Governor Lee wants to see fewer people in the streets armed with cardboard signs, megaphones, and raised fists, he needs to address the problem at hand – police brutality and systemic racism. Signing this bill into law will have the opposite effect of what he wants. Attendance at protests will not waver; people will not back down. More citizens, especially the younger population, will only become more passionate about the matter at hand and will continue to take to the streets.
Come November, they will take to the polls.
*Photo by Andrew Winkler, “Black Lives Matter, Nashville, June 4, 2020,” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero License.