Nashville, TN – Tennessee lawmakers have put rioters on notice that they will not stand idly by while cities are destroyed and law enforcement officers are assaulted in the name of so-called “peaceful” protests.
The state legislature passed SB8005/HB8005 earlier this month in order to increase penalties for those who violate certain laws during protests and riots.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the measure into law on Aug. 20.
“It is to prevent what has happened in other cities like Portland and Washington, D.C.,” Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally said told The Washington Post. “If people…knowingly thumb their nose at authority and don’t do what authorities have requested they do, they should be charged with a serious crime.”
The newly-enacted state law increases fines for rioters who block emergency vehicles, establishes restitution mandates for those who damage or destroy businesses or government property, and imposes a mandatory 45-day prison sentence for aggravated rioting, among other changes.
The measure also made the aggravated assault of any first responder a Class C felony, which is punishable by a minimum of 90 days in prison.
Protesters will face a potential felony charge if they choose to “camp on state property that is not specifically designated as a camping area,” according to the bill.
Demonstrators must first be issued an “official warning” not to camp on state property.
If they refuse to leave or return to the site within 24 hours to camp again, they are subject to the felony charge.
Those convicted of felony offenses in Tennessee lose their right to vote, FOX News reported.
Lee acknowledged that there were portions of the bill that he “would have done differently,” but said that cracking down on the “lawlessness” was far more important.
“I think what we saw was a courthouse on fire and businesses being broken into and vehicles being damaged,” he told FOX News. “We saw lawlessness that needed to be addressed immediately.”
Protesters argued that they have not been violent.
“This is all about criminalizing peaceful protesting,” event organizer Justin Jones told The Washington Post.
Jones said he has been arrested seven times in the past several months while participating in the ‘round-the-clock sit-in at the War Memorial Plaza near the Capitol building.
Jones and his group have been occupying in the area for more than two months, and he said the law change won’t stop them from continuing to do so.
“Everything we’ve done is the spirit of nonviolence,” Jones told The Washington Post. “This will not deter us from pushing forward in challenging these laws, both in the courts and in the streets. This just confirms that we must continue.”
Lawmakers have been swarmed by members of the crowd at times as they traveled to and from the Capitol, according to The Washington Post.
“What I wish I could convey to people is that it’s really hard to be sympathetic to what someone is saying when they are yelling at you, when they’re trying to shame you, when they’re calling you names and so forth,” Senator Kerry Roberts said of the confrontations, according to the Tennessean.
Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, who argued against the law changes, said that the new law is like “using a bazooka to go after a house fly.”
State Senator Mike Bell acknowledged that making it a felony to camp on state property seemed “a little heavy-handed,” but said that the overall content of the bill was more important, The Washington Post reported.
Meanwhile, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law President Kristen Clarke announced that her organization is considering filing a lawsuit over the new law and various other actions taken by Tennessee Republicans, The Washington Post reported.
“The racial motivation underlying the law is undeniable,” Clarke alleged. “It’s a clear backlash response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to people who are decisively protesting racial injustice and police violence.”
“To criminalize protest activity and disenfranchise voters on top of it defies principles that lie at the heart of our Constitution,” she added. “It’s pouring fuel on the fire when communities are seeking justice, change and reform.”
Tennessee’s new law went into immediate effect on Aug. 20.