Protestors and Representatives

At the very end of the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which dramatized the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor (the event which brought the United States into WWII), the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto played by actor So Yamamura utters the famous line, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The same words might be said of the 2016 election and the American public, who instead of marching off to a world war against fascism, are now marching, demonstrating, and protesting against its rise at home in unprecedented numbers.

Tennesseans, being America’s Volunteers, have not stayed home, but have joined this movement taking place all across the country by marching, protesting, engaging at Congressional town hall meetings, gathering and protesting at the legislature, and even demanding to be heard in local Council meetings. These protests have received a wide range of reactions from public officials. Elected representatives such as Senator Jeff Yarbro have often been encouraging of these citizens becoming more active in their local government, whereas representatives such as Senator Mae Beavers have been notably hostile.

Senator Beavers has gone so far as to cite Article II, Section 14 of the Tennessee Constitution which states, “Each House may punish, by imprisonment, during its session, any person not a member, who shall be guilty of disrespect to the House, by any disorderly or any contemptuous behavior in its presence.” Of course when this Section was penned by my ancestor in the winter of 1796, the 1st General Assembly planned to meet in the relatively untamed frontier town at Knoxville where the only form of security was a man to keep the door. As much as Senator Beavers may like to throw protestors at the legislature into solitary confinement and lose the key, this Section of our State Constitution does not, in fact, give her – or any of our other elected representatives – the right to do so. The legal basis for this conclusion is delivered quite well in Kovach v. Maddux, 238 F. Supp. 835 (M.D.Tenn. 1965), a landmark case on press freedom that has some applicability to how much the Tennessee Senate can reasonably limit its business before the public. Not least among the arguments the Court cites are the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution, which is supreme, and which is also reiterated in Article I, Section 19 of our state constitution, as well as Section 23, which states, “That the citizens have a right, in a peaceable manner, to assemble together for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances, or other proper purposes, by address of remonstrance.”

Beyond her clear ignorance of Tennessee constitutional law as it relates to her role in the Senate, Senator Beavers’ refusal to meet with protestors because “they are not her constituents” is as wrong-headed as it is troubling. If Senator Beavers limited herself to merely voting on legislation in her proper role as the Senate representative of her constituents, or only filed legislation which affected the lives of people within her own District, she would be correct in assuming that she is not duty-bound to receive instructions from any other Tennessee citizens. Unfortunately, Senator Beavers does not limit her legislative activities in either of these two ways, and she must therefore keep her door open (as would be implied by Article II, Section 22) to receive instruction from whomsoever her proposed legislation may affect.

Contrasted with these threats of imprisonment, is the response by the Nashville Metropolitan Council last night to a noisy protest at the start of its proceedings over the shooting death of Jocques Clemmons by Metro Nashville Police Department officer Joshua Lippert during a traffic stop near his home. A TBI investigation of the shooting is ongoing, in addition to related hearings on a report of the dangers of “Driving While Black” in Nashville. Vice Mayor David Briley typically enforces strict adherence to proper parliamentary procedure in Council meetings, and does not tolerate interruptions that are out of order. However, the protestors stood their ground, and ultimately their cause was one with which the Council sympathized, so a compromise was made that the protestors would allow the Council business to proceed uninterrupted in exchange for a twenty minute comment period at the end of the meeting. Personally, I was surprised that such a hearing was not scheduled by the Council in advance given the obvious public interest, but better late than never.

It should be noted that a photo surfaced of a considerable number of Metro police officers waiting in the hallway outside the Council chamber with zip ties ready to “clear the chamber.” The protestors were informed they would not be arrested, but they would be removed, before the Council and the protestors reached an agreement to extend the meeting for comments instead. Many of those watching these proceedings were extraordinarily relieved to not see that happen. David Plazas at the Tennessean recently claimed that Nashville has a history of resolving its racial issues peacefully, which became the object of appropriate scorn for its lack of understanding of Nashville history and in particular its Civil Rights protests. Perhaps we have a little less reason to scoff at this mythos of a peaceful, diverse Nashville after last night, when the Council came very close to writing another ugly chapter in our story but instead chose to turn it into a step toward healing.

One of the demands of the protestors which was reiterated time and time again during the comments was for the creation of a MNPD civilian review board. This is an entity which exists in a variety of forms in many jurisdictions across the country, and is designed to give citizens a place to submit complaints about police conduct and feel reasonably certain that those complaints will be properly handled. Considering how often police interact with the public, and how it is often under heightened circumstances which could result in bad situations and very hard feelings, it seems reasonable that local governments would create a means for citizens to give feedback and receive satisfaction when those interactions go extraordinarily sour. Creating a peaceful dialogue between the community and the police often helps serve to improve the police relationship with that community, which not only makes them safer in their police work but also more effective.

When I have a dispute about my taxes, or my water or garbage service, or really any other service provided by Metro, there is usually a place where I may complain and resolve my issue. This isn’t true of my interactions with the police, who also happen to have an above-average ability to cause trouble for people who complain about their actions directly to the police department. It makes sense that Metro would want to create a forum wherein aggrieved citizens may voice their concerns about police conduct, since at the very least it would eliminate some of the necessity of noisily interrupting Council meetings with a protest just to feel heard by the city’s elected representatives. The Tennessean may claim that Nashville prefers to resolve these issues peacefully, and the Council may wish to observe proper procedure during its meetings, but until we create a forum for citizens to bring their legitimate grievances against the police, we are not really listening to them nor serving the people from whom all just power is derived.