NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As protests continue to pop up across the nation over George Floyd’s death, Tennessee’s House is seeking to significantly increase penalties against demonstrators who violate certain state laws.
The legislation is backed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a top Republican in the GOP-dominant Statehouse.
Sexton promised to bring the bill after a handful of protesters announced they would gather outside the state Capitol over the weekend and claim the area as an “autonomous zone.” The group echoed similar sentiments of a much bigger action in a Seattle neighborhood that’s become a protest center against police brutality and racial injustice.
As of Monday, none of the Tennessee protesters that have remained peacefully outside the Capitol since Friday have been arrested. Later that day, a larger group protesters were blocked from entering the Capitol right before the House’s scheduled floor session.
State troopers initially told the crowd that the building was closed due to COVID-19 — even though the public had been attending House chamber meetings in a limited capacity for the past two weeks.
GOP leadership later clarified that five protesters could enter, but the group declined, arguing that all the protesters should be able to access the public building.
Under the legislation introduced Monday, individuals would face a class E felony and mandatory 30-day jail sentence for intentionally damaging or defacing state property, this would include the use of graffiti or chalk.
“You’re spraying paint on government property, we’re making that a felony at this point?” asked Democratic Rep. Larry Miller from Memphis.
“Yes sir, if someone were to vandalize property belonging to the people in the great state of Tennessee if would make it an E-level felony….and I would argue they should,” said House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Republican from Portland.
The bill would also make it a class E felony to camp on state-owned land that is not specifically designated for that purpose — currently doing so is a misdemeanor.
Finally, anyone arrested for rioting would not be released within 12 hours of the time of arrest.
“Quite frankly I think there are folks from outside our state, and even a very few from inside this state, that are purposefully inserting them into those protests in order to try to steal the message from those protesters,” Lamberth said. “That’s the folks we’re going after with this.”
The bill was presented in a House finance committee Monday and deferred to be furthered discussed after budget is set. It’s unclear how far it will advance as lawmakers are expected to adjourn over the next few days.
The companion bill in the Senate is currently at a standstill and has not been requested to be considered.
Floyd, a 46-year-old out-of-work bouncer, died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped responding. His death has inspired international protests and drawn new attention to the treatment of African Americans by police and the criminal justice system.
In Tennessee, demonstrations have remained largely peaceful. However, a handful of officers have clashed with participants.
That includes a May 31 protest that turned violent in Nashville, where fires were lit inside and outside the city’s historic courthouse, and a statue of a former state lawmaker and newspaper publisher who espoused racist views was toppled.
In Memphis, police said, a man has been charged with reckless driving and reckless endangerment after he drove his pickup truck into a group of protesters last weekend on a Memphis street. A police affidavit said one man reported being hit Saturday, but he was not seriously injured.
William Day, 56, becomes the third man to be charged with illegally driving through a street demonstration in Memphis since police brutality protests began after Floyd’s death. Day’s lawyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment about the charge.
Adrian Sainz contributed to this report from Memphis, Tennessee.