Protests

Tennessee's Lawmakers Respond to Police Reform Protests by Threatening Voting Rights and Gun Rights

The new law features harsher penalties, 12-hour detentions, and other invitations to abuse government power

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Tennessee's legislature and governor have heard the protests of people camped outside the Capitol for two months demanding policing reforms. They have responded by making existing laws harsher in a way that threatens the protesters' voting rights and gun rights.

Last Thursday, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed into law H.B. 8005. The highest-profile part of the bill turns the crime of illegal camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a Class E felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days in jail. Tennessee strips all felons of the right to vote and the right to own a gun, and the state makes it particularly difficult to get those rights restored. This part of the law is completely indifferent as to whether the camper is engaging in anything destructive or violent: Simply camping is enough. The law also grants qualified immunity for any state employees who seize property from those found illegally camping.

The legislation also prohibits the release of anybody arrested for a bunch of protest-related offenses (including the aforementioned illegal camping) for 12 hours after they're arrested. The Tennessean notes that such holds aren't mandated by state law for most other crimes, including some that are much more serious than protest misconduct. This new authority makes it easy to shut down protests by broadly accusing protesters of crimes and then detaining them for 12 hours before dropping charges.

H.B. 8005 also adds mandatory minimums of 30- to 45-day jail sentences to some protest-related offenses, and it recategorizes some misdemeanors—such as disrupting a government meeting, obstructing a highway, and painting graffiti on a government building—so that they're considered more serious misdemeanors and therefore have harsher penalties.

The harsher penalties were hammered out and passed in mid-August over the objection of Democratic lawmakers, and the Tennessean reports that even some Republican legislators were concerned about repercussions of the broad bill. One Republican senator even filed an amendment to keep the camping offense a misdemeanor, but that didn't make it into the final bill.

The two groups of protesters who have been protesting at the Capitol—Teens4Equality and the People's Plaza—aren't giving up on pushing for criminal justice reforms.

"What's happening is an attempt to try to make us afraid to protest and so what we're going to do is make sure that doesn't happen," Justin Jones of the People's Plaza told News 4 Nashville. He said his organization will try to get the bill struck down as unconstitutional.

Hedy Weinburg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Tennessee chapter, put out a statement criticizing Lee:

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. While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent. This law also robs individuals of their right to vote if they are convicted of these new felony charges. In a critical moment of reckoning that has led to policing reforms nationwide, Tennessee has chosen to turn a blind eye to the reasons the protests are happening and is instead choosing to shut down the right of the people to protest. We will be closely monitoring enforcement of this law and are urging Tennesseans to get out and vote like their rights depend on it.

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