By Blair McDonald, Civic Engagement Intern | April 2021
The summer of 2020 marked an important moment in American history. Beginning in March, people found themselves stuck at home with little more to do than consume mass amounts of information from local and national news sources as we all adjusted to life during a pandemic. Nevertheless, one aspect of American life remained painfully constant: racism.
In the span of a few short months, news outlets reported the murder of Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, who tragically lost their lives because of officers who ironically swore an oath to “protect and serve.”
In response to these horrific acts of police brutality, cities across the country erupted in protest with rallying cries for action, justice, and change. I remember marching through the streets in Nashville last summer, chanting “I can’t breathe” with thousands of other people. The experience was incredibly empowering.
Acts of Legislative Revenge
State legislatures across the country have since responded by drafting new bills that infringe on protestors’ First Amendment rights in order to target and suppress this reawakened movement for equality. In fact, a newly proposed bill in Tennessee—aptly referred to as an anti-protest bill— seeks to criminalize protesting while protecting people who unintentionally injure or kill protestors, or in other words, murder.
In February of this year, the Tennessee General Assembly introduced House Bill 0513 aka HB513. House Bills are proposals that members of the House of Representatives and the Senate submit to become law in order to expand existing legislation in the state.
This is what the law says now:
- It is illegal to obstruct a “highway, street, sidewalk, railway, waterway, elevator, aisle, or hallway” and doing so results in a Class A misdemeanor.
But here’s what the bill will do:
- The current misdemeanor will become a Class E felony, punishing people with up to six years in prison and a mandatory fine of up to $3,000.
- It will make throwing an object at an individual to harm the person, or “intentionally intimidating or harassing” someone who is not participating in the “riot” a Class A misdemeanor. If the thrown object causes injury, the act would then be classified as a Class E felony under the bill.
This is absolutely ridiculous. If signed into law, it would strip an individual’s right to vote because of the felony charges.
Simultaneously, the bill gives legal immunity—a particular status where an individual or group cannot be punished for violating a law—to anyone in a vehicle who “unintentionally causes injury or death to another person” while they’re blocking a pathway. Yes, it legalizes murder.
Finally, HB513 includes extremely vague language to punish protestors who cause “emotional distress” or “frighten another person”. Yes, you read that right. I don’t know about you, but something doesn’t sound right when the police will now be arresting protestors who cause “emotional distress” when police officers have a long, violent history of frightening and intimidating Blacks and other people of color, but they get to do it because they wear a badge. The hypocrisy is borderline comical.
The Silencing of Free Speech
The reality of this bill is quite clear: HB513 poses a threat to protestors by targeting the people’s right to peacefully assemble. Here’s a throwback to your high school government class…
- The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
- Freedom of Assembly grants the right to peacefully protest and walking, marching, and kneeling in streets or other pathways are often forms of nonviolent protest that most effectively publicize and amplify the messages of the movement.
If nothing else from this entire post, please remember that HB513 is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has ruled on a number of different cases—Hague v. CIO (1939); Ward v. Rock Against Racism (1989); and McCullen v. Coakley (2014), for example— that have upheld every American citizens’ right to freely express their political opinions in public spaces such as parks, streets, etc.
In a country where the powers that be insist on invalidating Black pain, Black struggles, and Black experiences, HB513 is now attempting to take away our avenues for protest, for assembly, and for political grievance. As a result, HB513 encodes racist motivations in strategically vague language to deny one of the last platforms we have to freely and publicly advocate for change.
I first heard about this proposed legislation two weeks ago, and I was shocked to learn that our elected representatives are in the process of passing a bill that would result in so much pain and damage. I was angry at first, and you should be too. Then, sadly, I was unsurprised. I had to remind myself that the Tennessee legislature caters to a certain group of people, and those people don’t look like me or you. Once again, Black and Latinx people are specifically targeted simply for the color of our skin and the power we possess.
Ultimately, we elect representatives to make policies on our behalf that fulfill the interests of all people, not some people. While politicians are meant to hear us, HB513 seeks to silence and disenfranchise.