As the Associated Press reports, the bill does a number of things including:
Institutes a mandatory 45 day sentence for “rioting”
Increases fines for blocking highways
requires that protesters pay for any damage to state property
makes assaulting a “first responder” a Class C felony with a 90 day mandatory sentence
Most of these changes seem to be addressing events that supposedly occurred in other states, and which have been at the center a “cities in chaos” theme pushed by Donald Trump and Fox News. But the biggest change in the bill is that makes “illegally camping” on state property a Class E felony.
What constitutes “illegal camping?” That’s left up to “the discretion of judges.” This charge was formerly a misdemeanor, generally resulting in a small fine. But under the new law, any protesters staying in the area around the capitol in Nashville could face up to six years in jail. More than that, Tennessee is one of the few states where committing a felony removes the right to vote. So anyone who pitches a tent on state land without permission, or who stays in an area past a curfew, or fails to leave promptly when ordered, could find themselves permanently locked out of democracy.
This last part isn’t theoretical. It’s aimed directly at mostly young, mostly Black protesters who have regularly appeared outside the state capitol in Nashville in the weeks following the police murder of George Floyd. This bill is intended to remove those protesters from the sight of Tennessee legislators. Lee defended the bill as being necessary because of a damage at a state court house back in May, even though no such event has happened in the three months of protests that have followed.
How this new law will be enforced is unclear, but it appears to offer numerous opportunities for abuse that would result in protesters facing mandatory sentences, long jail terms, and loss of voting rights even if being completely peaceful.
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