Tennessee’s governor refused to meet with peaceful protesters and the state’s lieutenant governor re-tweeted a post that appeared to support violence against Black Lives Matter protesters and Antifa, an ultra-liberal group known for civil disobedience actions.
As a result, Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov./Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) were blasted in a Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators (TBCSL) virtual meeting on Zoom Aug. 26.
Controversy between the two factions spilled over into this week as a clear breakdown in communication became evident.
It started weeks ago when Lee refused to meet with protesters or the caucus, according to TBCSL Chairman G. A. Hardaway (D-Memphis).
“Those kids were peacefully protesting and they asked for an opportunity to speak with the governor,” Hardaway said. “They stayed there faithfully (for) 62 days, asking to speak with him, and he wouldn’t do it.”
Hardaway said Lee’s “refusal to speak with those young people” sparked anger among caucus members, who then asked for a meeting with Lee in a letter.
The governor called Hardaway last week, according to the TBCSL chairman.
“Instead of just hearing them out, Lee called a special session so the Republican Senate could push through a bill making capitol protest a felony,” Hardaway said.
“Then he calls to meet with the caucus. I told him, ‘I have to see if the caucus wants to meet with you, sir.’ It took him so long to respond to us.”
Lee’s administration countered Hardaway’s account that the governor has skirted TBCSL’s attempt to meet with him.
“Our office has reached out to the Black Caucus to schedule a meeting for the near future,” said Gillum Ferguson, Lee’s press secretary. “The governor has met with the Black Caucus on numerous occasions during his tenure, in addition to many one-on-one conversations with individual members.”
TSCBL members had mixed feelings about the governor’s response to their meeting request.
State Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D- Nashville), who also co-chairs the caucus, said she was pleased that the governor “finally decided to meet with the caucus,” but felt sorry it was so late.
“I’m sorry it took him so long, and it was very hurtful to learn that Gov. Lee feels that meeting with the caucus would be unproductive,” Gilmore said. “That was very painful, very hurtful.”
Hardaway acknowledged that Lee did tentatively schedule to meet with the legislators this week, but that meeting subsequently was canceled and has not been re-scheduled.
“He reneged on meeting with the group, and we don’t know if we can trust him now. Instead of meeting with all of us, he has now proposed to meet us individually,” said Hardaway.
“Now, he can play phone-a-friend, and he can play tele-buddy with individual lawmakers. That’s fine. We will be his friend, but we operate as a caucus, and we need to meet with him together.
“We are about doing the people’s business. We have to address the disparities that are devastating our community in the midst of this pandemic.”
State Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) said Lee should feel compelled to meet with the caucus.
“African-American legislators should be able to discuss with the governor those things which are near and dear to our community,” Lamar said. “We look for the governor to lead the way with inclusiveness …We will keep applying pressure.”
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) shared her position.
“We urgently need healing and solutions to eliminate the injustices and inequities built into our criminal justice system and policing, in school funding and healthcare and our economy,” Akbari said. “No matter where we live or what we look like, we want our families to be vibrant, but we can’t solve these problems with more division.”
Akbari said elected leaders must hold the governor accountable “when he’s not moving fast enough, and urged her colleagues to be “just as committed to collaborating on policies that make our communities safe for everyone.”
Akbari said families are “desperate for action, and discussions must translate into reforms that make Tennessee communities whole.
“We have to work together and, in Tennessee, our political reality is that we cannot solve these problems without the governor.”
Caucus members also denounced McNally for re-tweeting a poster that shows a Black man sitting down, with the heading “Warning to BLM and Antifa.”
The text at the bottom read: “Once you’ve managed to defund and eliminate the police, there’s nobody protecting you from us. Remember that.”
McNally has since deleted the post.
“He and the Republicans pushed that bill through and made criminals out of peaceful protesters,” Hardaway said. “The governor and the Legislature are running ‘Jim Crow 2.0 up in Nashville.’”
Ferguson rejected the characterization that Lee and his administration has been discriminatory against “peaceful protesters.”
“Over the past few months, the governor has met with African-American faith, community and business leaders throughout the state to discuss access to capital, police reform and racial reconciliation efforts, among other topics,” Ferguson said.
“And, he will continue to do so. This should not be conflated with the governor’s refusal to legitimize calls for an autonomous zone and defunding law enforcement, or meeting with those who routinely defaced state property.”
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) feels “optimistic and always hopeful” that communication between Lee and the caucus can be improved.
“I believe things are going to be alright,” said Parkinson. “We are credible messengers who listen to those in our community. We were elected to represent our community, so our issues must be heard. I think our people will get what they need, and life will be good – not just good – but great again.”
Hardaway also sees room for growth and reconciliation.
“I still believe that the governor is a good man, a principled man,” said Hardaway. “But there are extremely partisan members of the Legislature. Any concessions he makes to us and to our community, he has to answer for to them.
“I can understand that. In the end, I feel his faith compels him to do the right thing. We are still hopeful.”