The Tennessee Three: Did Protests Go too Far? (From the Left)



By Lance Simmens

The whole world is watching! I am old enough to remember these fateful words as protesters risked their lives in opposition to the Vietnam War in Grant Park in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Many, and most, of those gathered were students who seriously questioned whether the world that older generations were fashioning and leaving for them was misguided, corrupted, dangerous, and simply unacceptable. A new generation had spoken.

As a Baby Boomer who turned 15 that week, I was there in spirit and soul. Disenchantment was reflected in our music, our social mores, religious views or lack thereof, and a large-scale rejection of what our parents believed and tried to teach us as acceptable. The decade of the ’60s brought with it an awakening to the deep divisions of racism in what Michael Harrington described in his book “The Other America” and the Kerner Commission described as “Two Americas: one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”

Today we are witnessing a rejection of democracy, not from students, but from their parents. What has transpired in Tennessee is a repudiation of the most basic ideas and ideals that the founding fathers incorporated in a nation borne to advance freedom of expression and justice and liberty for all. When disagreement over the need to protect our innocents from dangers that arise from merely attending school, the answer is not to expel legitimately elected representatives of the people but rather to open dialogue and seek compromise.

While incremental progress, the kind of progress essential to a democratic society, has been made on race relations, change has been slow but steady. That is the nature of a democratic government.

In the real world of the 21st century, however, we find ourselves flailing in the backwash of a turbulent division that threatens to revert to a darker past. We are experiencing a conflict of ideologies that threatens to forsake our commitment to democratic rule, one based upon compromise, reason, the rule of law, and devotion to the foundations of the Constitution, versus autocratic governance. 

And while this is occurring in other democracies, the beacon of democracy that is and has for the past 250 years been the United States is fraying before our very eyes. The most recent coup du jour can be found in Nashville, Tennessee, where the State House of Representatives has exercised its partisan Republican muscles to expel three Democratic lawmakers for participating in a peaceful protest demanding action to strengthen anti-gun legislation in the wake of the most recent school shooting that left three 9-year old children and three adults dead.

Of the three representatives literally under the legislative gun, two are young Black males, the other a white female. When the final votes were taken the two Black men were actually expelled. No lawmaker has ever been expelled for breaching decorum rules according to the Nashville Tennessean. What a despicable and shameful spectacle!

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Greg Sargent offers “Republican State legislatures have become particularly aggressive in pushing ‘preemption’ laws restricting cities and counties from making their own rules or policy choices. In some cases, these could functionally block those localities from governing themselves democratically in more socially liberal ways on all kinds of issues.” America is caught in the throes of a culture war!

What is particularly scary about the audacious efforts by the Tennessee legislature to essentially revoke the will of the people who elected these three representatives is the degree to which gerrymandered districts have illegitimately set the stage for partisan control to a degree which is basically un-democratic. 

Our two-party system has evolved to a point where compromise is required in order to move the country forward. Over the past half-century there has been greater and greater division amongst the population and greater rancor amongst our elected leaders. A widening chasm between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and dare I say autocratic- and democratic-leaning proponents exacerbates the inability to solve problems. None is more critical than the ability to protect our children and future generations.

Progress is defined as forward movement. Today, the lack of confidence in the nation with respect to our leaders and institutions is the greatest enemy to progress. Our democratic system is designed to funnel the wishes of the people through elected representatives. Failure to make progress, or even worse to slip backwards on important issues that the populace supports, will lead to a collapse of our democratic system. The actions of the Tennessee legislature, as well as the actions of other red states, is a threat to the popular will and to foreclose upon democracy is the greatest injustice and most heinous legacy we can leave to our children and future generations.