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Protesters are seen marching upon the Tennessee State Capitol building on June 04, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Protesters are seen marching upon the Tennessee State Capitol building on June 04, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Tennessee GOP Targets Racial Justice Movement by Turning Encampment Protests Into Felonies Punishable by Prison Term

"Bonus penalty for exercising your protest rights in an unapproved manner: you lose your voting rights."

Andrea Germanos

Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee voiced outrage Wednesday in response to a bill passed by the General Assembly and headed to Republican Gov. Bill Lee that cracks down on racial justice protesters by making it a felony to camp overnight on state property.

State Senator Brenda Gilmore, a Democrat, suggested that history would not judge the legislative body kindly for the measure. In the years to come, "we will be reminded that we were wrong in terms of staying in the way of these young people protesting, and just speaking, and having a right to share how they feel," said Gilmore, referencing the demonstrators who've been outside the Tennessee State Capitol for two months.

As Nashville Public Radio reported:

Camping on state property without authorization has been made a crime since the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly a decade ago. The Tennessee Senate favored simply adding a requirement to pay restitution and clean up any mess that was made. But House lawmakers insisted on making camping on public property a Class E felony, with up to six years in prison.

The impacts of the bill are expected to come soon. From The Tennessean:

The Senate passed the bill 26-5 on a party-line vote, with a single GOP member, Nashville Sen. Steve Dickerson, opposing it. The House approved the legislation 71-20.

Despite earlier versions establishing an effective date in September and October, the bill will now take effect upon becoming law, which means after Lee signs it or allows it to become law without his signature.

Another Democratic state senator, Jeff Yarbro, tore into the bill on Twitter and pointed out that those convicted under the soon-to-be law stand to lose their voting rights.

While the legislature's special three-day session took time to further criminalize protest, the lawmakers failed "to provide more relief to Tennessee workers who have lost their jobs due to the global pandemic," the Associated Press reported.

"Republican leaders also advanced a bill awarding businesses protection from lawsuits arising from the new coronavirus," AP added.

Yarbro said those priorities were evidence of "the complete absence of leadership coming from Tennessee governor."

"In worst economy since the Depression probably, [the] state decided to spend $1 million to incarcerate protesters," Yarbro tweeted. "With 200,000 people out of work [the] state extended liability protection to worst actors."

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