Our nation was founded and has thrived on the value of free speech and the right to oppose injustice. Throughout our history, American heroes have exercised their rights to call out the worst parts of our country and push for change. The process of making change has not always been comfortable to those in power, and unfortunately, our history is also replete with examples of government repression against those pushing to make this country more equitable for people of color, immigrants, the poor, and others shoved to the margins by powerful government interests.
The Tennessee Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Bill Lee are complicit in creating one of the most hostile environments for free speech in the country through the emergency passage of a law that makes it a felony to “illegally camp” on state property and criminalizes a wide range of protest tactics. Tennesseans engaging in nonviolent protest now risk a felony record, many years in prison, and loss of the right to vote for protest activities that date back to the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Sadly, Tennessee’s government was presented with an opportunity to either stand up for freedom and the independent values that Tennesseans have long cherished or succumb to the oppressive tactics of Southern governments in the 1960s and 70s in attempting to squash protest and maintain segregation.
Just as those segregationist governors are judged harshly today for their iron-fisted and knee-jerk reactions to organic calls for change, Governor Bill Lee, the aristocrats he represents, and the proponents of the 2020 anti-protest law, passed in a specially called legislative session in Tennessee, will be judged by history for their overreaction to people of color and allies crying out for systemic changes. Tennessee’s new wide ranging anti-protest laws are overbroad, embarrassing, and threatening to the core values of freedom of expression that America has long cherished.
Despite Governor Bill Lee’s efforts to cling to the old status quo that keeps rich white men like himself in power, popular outrage over racial injustice will not end with the stroke of his pen criminalizing protest. The Tennessee legislature’s decision to copy past Southern governments’ desperate efforts to suppress civil rights protests will be as utterly unsuccessful as they were 50 years ago.
Tennessee has long had laws on the books criminalizing riots, blocking streets, and even illegal camping on state property. The Tennessee legislature’s escalation of suppression of protest is nothing more than an attempt to resist the change and racial justice that so many Tennesseans are calling for by using the criminal legal system and our state prisons to silence those voices for change.
The Unity Group of Chattanooga - Eric Atkins
The Appalachian Peace Education Center
The Catholic Committee of Appalachia – Tennessee Chapter
The Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace
The Knoxville Democratic Socialists of America
Shades of Grace
Kitchen of Hope