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Tennessee lawmakers end session on protests, COVID liability

Under the proposal targeting protests, those who illegally camp on state property would now face a Class E felony.
This Jan. 8, 2020, photo shows the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
This Jan. 8, 2020, photo shows the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)(WVLT)
Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 6:53 AM EDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers finished a special session in pandemic times Wednesday by passing a sweeping proposal that would significantly stiffen penalties against protesters demanding racial justice.

In the narrow scope of the three-day election year session, no steps were taken to provide more relief to Tennessee workers who have lost their jobs due to the global pandemic. Efforts to increase law enforcement oversight were rebuffed by the GOP-dominant Statehouse.

Instead, the General Assembly focused their attention on the ongoing protests that have been led by mostly young activists outside the Capitol, who have been calling for racial justice reforms for the past two months. Republican leaders also advanced a bill awarding businesses protection from lawsuits arising from the new coronavirus.

Under the proposal targeting protests, those who illegally camp on state property would now face a Class E felony rather than a misdemeanor. Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual’s right to vote.

“If you want to overthrow our government through violent revolution, you shouldn’t have the right to vote,” said state Sen. John Stevens, a Republican from Huntingdon.

The protest bill had gone through multiple iterations throughout Wednesday. The Senate had fought to soften the felony punishment for illegal camping, but ultimately caved to the House’s stricter version as the day waned on.

The protest proposal also would impose mandatory minimums for rioting, create an offense against assaulting a first responder and enhance the misdemeanor penalty for damaging state property.

Democrats countered the bill was “ridiculous” and the felony punishment for illegal camping would unfairly hurt minority and homeless communities.

“The legislation we are proposing now, years from now, I will submit to you that we will be on the wrong side of history,” said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Black Democrat from Goodlettsville.

Lawmakers were back at the Capitol for the second time since the outbreak sent them home early in March.

Copyright 2020 WVLT. All rights reserved.

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