Tennessee gun control

Hardly an "insurrection": Protesters confront Republican Tennessee Rep. William Lamberth over gun violence as he enters the House chamber on April 3, 2023 in Nashville.

(Photo: Seth Herald/Getty Images)

GOP Cynically Recast Progressive State House Protests as 'Insurrection'

"It's as if they learned a word on January 6th for the first time and never figured out what it meant," quipped one critic.

Progressives are pushing back this week against Republicans' conflation of peaceful protests by Democratic state lawmakers defending their constituents' rights with the deadly insurrection effort on January 6, 2021 by supporters of then-President Donald Trump in service of subverting a presidential election.

After seven protesters were arrested Monday in the Montana legislature following Republican lawmakers' silencing of state Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-100) over her impassioned defense of transgender and nonbinary children, a group of GOP legislators accused her of "encouraging an insurrection."

"Peaceful protest is not insurrection."

Although the demonstration was entirely peaceful, the Republicans—members of the Montana Freedom Caucus—blasted what they falsely called "the violent protesters" and urged "immediate disciplinary action" against Zephyr, who is transgender.

"They want to ring alarm bells and they want to compare this to January 6," Andy Nelson, the Democratic Party chair in Missoula County, Montana—which includes Zephyr's district—told the Associated Press. "There's absolutely no way you can compare what happened on Monday with the January 6 insurrection. Violence occurred that day. No violence occurred in the gallery of the Montana House."

It's not just Montana. Republican state lawmakers in Tennessee called it an "insurrection" and a "riot" when Democratic Reps. Justin Jones (D-52), Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson (D-90) took to the well of the legislative chamber to support thousands of Nashville-area students rallying outside for gun control measures following the March 27 Covenant School massacre. Republicans voted to expel Jones and Pearson from the legislature over the protests, though they were swiftly reinstated by municipal councils.

Republicans "are trying to dismiss the integrity and sincerity of what all these people are calling for," Tennessee Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-55) told the AP. "They're dismissing what it is just to avoid the debate on this issue."

"My colleagues across the aisle have spent so much time trying to silence the minority party that anyone speaking up and amplifying their voice probably strikes them as insurrectionist, even though it doesn't resemble anything like it," he added.

Donald Trump Jr. and other Republicans also described a peaceful February protest at the Oklahoma State Capitol against a ban on gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth as an "insurrection."

"Tennessee. Oklahoma. Montana. The GOP seems to want to redefine the word 'insurrection' to include literally any peaceful protest they don't like," tweeted independent journalist and transgender rights activist Erin Reed, who is also Zephyr's partner. "It's as if they learned a word on January 6th for the first time and never figured out what it meant."

Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), asserted that "peaceful protest is not insurrection," and that such conflation "waters down the seriousness of the real insurrection we saw on Jan. 6, 2021."

Attorney and voting rights activist James Slattery tweeted, "I can't help but compare the recent Republican efforts to silence legislators in various states who are acting in good faith to advocate for their constituents—while at the national level the Republicans have done nothing to expel members of Congress who incited an insurrection."

According to a July 2022 Monmouth University poll, just 13% of Republican voters considered the January 6 attack an "insurrection"—down from 33% a year earlier. More than 6 in 10 respondents described the effort by Trump supporters to stop certification of President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory as an act of "legitimate protest."

Legal experts say "insurrection" has a very specific definition.

"Disrupting things is a far cry from insurrection," University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt told the AP. "It's just a protest, and protesters are not insurrectionists."

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