New Tennessee Law Will Disenfranchise Protesters Who Camp on State Property

Tennessee protesters will face harsh penalties, including losing the right to vote, as punishment for participating in protests under a law enacted by the Tennessee GOP-dominant General Assembly. Right-wing Governor Bill Lee quietly signed off on the bill Thursday, AP reports.

Under the new law, demonstrators who camp on state property can now be charged with a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, rather than a misdemeanor it was previously.

Since George Floyd’s killing earlier this year, protesters have camped outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, demanding a meeting with the governor to discuss racial inequality and police brutality. The protesters set up camp in War Memorial Plaza near the Capitol, naming it the “People’s Plaza” and “Ida B. Wells Plaza,” after the civil rights leader. They stayed there 24 hours a day for more than two months.

Tennessee is one of 21 states that punish people charged with felonies by taking away their right to vote, and Gov. Lee made it clear that this threat is meant as a warning to the Black Lives Matter protestors who have called for racial justice in the state.

“The racial motivation underlying this law is undeniable. This is a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to those who are resolutely opposed to racial injustice and police violence,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “To criminalize protest activity and disenfranchise voters on top of it defies principles that lie at the heart of our democracy. This is abuse of state power intended to silence voices of dissent from the streets to the ballot box.”

“We are very disappointed in Governor Lee’s decision to sign this bill, which 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,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.”

Protest organizer Justin Jones, 24, told The Washington Post: “There was no violent behavior by the protesters, but there was violence by the state troopers who dragged us down the Capitol stairs. This is all about criminalizing peaceful protesting. Everything we’ve done is the spirit of nonviolence. This will not deter us from pushing forward in challenging these laws, both in the courts and in the streets,” Jones said. “This just confirms that we must continue.”