Lawmakers traded claims of racism as tension boiled in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

by Jonathan Mattise and Kimberlee Kruesi  — 

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee House continued to simmer Wednesday after Republicans spiked a resolution the night before for a young black woman shot and killed this year. Speaker Cameron Sexton even kicked off the morning session by telling leaders of both parties to meet with him afterward.

“What’s happening is going to end today,” the Republican said.

Before the meeting even happened, tensions boiled over again.

Lawmakers traded claims of racism. Protesters interrupted proceedings again and were kicked out. Democrats worked calls to remove the Capitol’s bust of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest into budget talks, a push with heightened attention in the age of unrest spurred by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

“I see people that look like me unarmed and getting killed in these streets, and our budget doesn’t address it,” said Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson, an African American lawmaker from Memphis.

Republicans didn’t take claims of racial disparity in the budget lightly. Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough said the budget benefits all Tennesseans, telling Parkinson, “You can never have inclusion when all you want to do is make speeches in front of the media.”

Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby told Democrats that Tennesseans “have not bought what you’re selling.”

“Do not accuse my body, my caucus, of something in this moral document of even remotely being racist,” said Faison of House Republicans, who are almost all white. “That comes from a heart of racism to say that. We are inclusive of everybody in this state and we want everybody to benefit.”

The House passed the budget, to which it added $1,000 bonuses for most teachers and expanded sales tax-free events to the tune of $100 million. The move sets up a standoff with the Senate over differing spending plans during the COVID-19 budget crunch.

On Tuesday evening, Democratic members had sought to acknowledge Ashanti Nikole Posey, a 17-year-old girl who was killed in April at an intersection in Nashville.

Police officers had said Posey was killed after she and a friend made a “small marijuana sale.”

The sale has never been proven. However, Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth helped block the resolution from advancing after he told the chamber he could not support the legislation due to the circumstance surrounding Posey’s death.

Lamberth’s remarks resulted in 49 Republicans declining to vote on the measure, so it failed.

The Senate, also run by Republicans, had unanimously approved the resolution just the week before. On the floor Wednesday, Senate Speaker Randy McNally said it was a tragedy that a young life was lost, and he held a moment of silence for Posey in the Senate.

Outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Posey’s mother stood before a small crowd of supporters and community activists while holding up a poster board with a photo of her daughter.

Black letters read, “Speak her truth. Not her narrative.”

“You don’t know the story behind my baby,” Amber Posey said at the bottom of gated off Capitol steps guarded by state troopers. “Stop believing everything in the narrative of the police report. This is my daughter. This is a human being, not a drug dealer. She never sold drugs.”

Outraged by how lawmakers had characterized the 17-year-old teenager, Amber Posey highlighted that Ashanti held two jobs, created a support group for LGBTQ youth and was a talented basketball player.

“I am now the author of my daughter’s story and I will be the only one who tells it,” Amber Posey said.

Democratic Rep. Rick Staples, an African American lawmaker from Knoxville, said, “We are literally at each other’s throats right now, and this is not who we are. …

“There is some tension that has built up based on what’s going on in our state and around this country. And Mr. Speaker, with respect, we have had opportunities to address those issues, and they’ve gone unnoticed or unaddressed.”

Later Wednesday, House lawmakers remained tight-lipped on what exactly had been discussed between Sexton, GOP and Democratic leaders. However, Parkinson stood before the chamber and described the meeting as having an “uncut, truthful conversation” and apologized for swearing on the House floor the night before.

Several House members stood silently while he spoke.

“We’re hearing each other but we’re not listening to each other,” he said.