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Tenn. lawmakers give Gov. Bill Lee harsh new penalties to confront Capitol protesters


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Mike Osborne)  --  Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday passed harsh new penalties targeting the police reform protesters who have been a constant presence at the Capitol for months.

If signed by Gov. Bill Lee, the legislation will increase penalties for vandalism, trespass, assault, rioting and camping on state property. It also introduces new minimum sentences and mandatory holds in jail following arrest.


As introduced, the bill would have empowered the Tennessee Attorney General to investigate and prosecute incidents involving protesters on state property. That provision was reportedly stripped from the bill after some District Attorneys complained it was an intrusion into their areas of authority.


During debate, GOP lawmakers made angry references to being harassed and embarrassed by protesters as they moved about the Capitol grounds and buildings.


Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Mike Bill on Tuesday recalled a recent incident during which a fellow lawmaker had his car surrounded by protesters as he drove near the Capitol. Bell said the demonstrators kept the unnamed lawmaker from driving away for several minutes.


However, during final debate on the measure, Nashville Senator Jeff Yarbro told colleagues protesters are under no obligation to be polite while exercising their First Amendment Rights. He concluded by saying the legislation was overly harsh, using “a bazooka to go after a house fly.”


Protesters have been demonstrating on or near the Capitol grounds since shortly after the death of Minnesota resident George Floyd in late May. Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis Police. His death has sparked police reform and minority rights protests world-wide. 


Nashville demostrators are asking for immideate police reforms and for a meeting with Gov. Bill Lee to express their concerns. Gov. Lee has met with Black community leaders to discuss reforms, but has steadfastly refused to meet with protesters at the Capitol.


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