Two protesters arrested at Tennessee Capitol after urging removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest bust [video]

Two protesters arrested at Tennessee Capitol after urging removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest bust [video]

February 28th, 2019 by Andy Sher in Breaking News

Updated at 9:03 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, with more information.

NASHVILLE — State troopers arrested two black demonstrators at Tennessee's Capitol Thursday in the latest of a series of escalating protests, this one over continued efforts to get lawmakers to remove a bust honoring controversial Confederate cavalry general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Department of Safety officials said Justin Bautista-Jones and Jeneisha Harris were arrested, with Bautista-Jones charged with two counts of simple assault and disorderly conduct.

Signs stand in front of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest and a sweatshirt covers its face during a protest Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Protesters called for the removal of the bust, which is displayed in the hallway outside the House and Senate chambers. Violence in Virginia this weekend has given rise to a new wave of efforts to remove or relocate Confederate monuments. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Signs stand in front of a bust of...

Photo by Mark Humphrey

They allege Bautista-Jones threw a paper cup believed to be filled with coffee into an elevator, striking Republican House Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin and Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, with the fluid.

This image shows Justin Bautista-Jones, one of two protesters at the Tennessee Capitol, shortly before an alleged coffee tossing incident leading to his arrest on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. / Photo provided by Andy Sher

This image shows Justin Bautista-Jones, one of two...

Harris was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after, troopers say, she went underneath a rope intended to keep the public from getting close to the bust located near the House and Senate chambers.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the coffee was still hot when it was thrown into the elevator. Casada could be seen inside the elevator flinching when the fluid struck the upper portion of his suit.

Republicans quickly sought to link the elevator confrontation to unrelated protests Tuesday involving Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, a retired educator appointed by Casada earlier this year as Education Administration Subcommittee chairman.

That was despite Byrd's being accused in 2018 by three former students of sexual misconduct decades ago when he was their basketball coach. Byrd has never specifically denied the accusations. He was recorded apologizing to one of his accusers but Byrd never specifically stated what he was saying he was sorry for.

In Tuesday's episode, a group of eight demonstrators, six of them women, were eventually escorted out of Byrd's committee room. They initially held signs condemning Byrd, who called a brief recess and then quickly exited the room. The small signs included statements such as "Enough is Enough," "Survivors Against Byrd" and "Resign Byrd."

The demonstrators sought to engage several remaining subcommittee members about Byrd. Troopers, acting on Casada's office directives, ordered them to leave and escorted them out. There were no arrests.

During Thursday morning's House floor session, Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, sought to raise concerns about the women's treatment. Casada called him out of order and turned off his mic.

This image shows the arrest of Justin Bautista-Jones, one of two protesters at the Tennessee Capitol, on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. / Photo provided by Andy Sher

This image shows the arrest of Justin Bautista-Jones,...

Citing the elevator confrontation, Caucus Chairman Sexton later said "we've asked Bo Mitchell, since he was complaining about the [Byrd] committee room, if he would denounce this kind of behavior today by what we consider violent protesters."

Mitchell later issued a statement saying "I never condone the inappropriate or illegal actions of someone meaning to harm another person.

"But," Mitchell added, "what is even more shocking is the deafening silence exhibited by Cameron Sexton and others not denouncing the illegal actions of Speaker Casada when he removed law-abiding Tennessee citizens coming to peacefully and lawfully express their First Amendment rights earlier in the week."

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said in a statement that "while we respect the right of citizens to protest for or against causes that we believe in, we have not and will never condone violence. Violence should never be a part of any protest and should never take place within the hallowed halls of our legislature."

Thursday's incident "was not coordinated in any way by the Democratic Leadership of the Tennessee House of Representatives," Camper added.

Prior to Thursday's elevator confrontation, Casada told reporters on the House floor he agreed with fellow Republicans Gov. Bill Lee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, that Forrest's bust should be accompanied by information placing his life within a historical context.

"I think that, most definitely, historical context is a good thing," Casada said.

As reporters continued asking questions about the Tuesday incident, Byrd's appointment and specific House policies regarding demonstrations, GOP leaders suggested they might end the news conference early. But that didn't happen.

 

The elevator confrontation

As Casada and other GOP leaders exited the House chamber after speaking with reporters, the protest over the Forrest bust was in full swing.

Bautista-Jones, a Vanderbilt Divinity School student and veteran Capitol protester, approached Caucus Chairman Sexton, shouting "do you support the KKK? You support a white supremacist statue here. You deny living wage, you deny voting rights, you attack black communities and expect us to be respectful to you. Enter the elevator, the whites only elevator."

Then spotting Casada, Bautista-Jones quickly moved toward him as the speaker sought to enter the elevator while troopers moved in to keep them separated.

As Bautista-Jones lunged and appeared to throw a cup into the elevator, Bautista-Jones said, "I'm sick of you Casada, you old racist."

At that point, troopers moved in to arrest Bautista-Jones and then Harris as she sought to get over the rope line. Both were led away in handcuffs.

A Tennessean, Forrest is still studied as a military tactician. Critics, however, point to his pre-Civil War career as a slave trader, an 1864 massacre of black federal troops at Fort Pillow by Confederate forces who were under his command and Forrest's role in founding the KKK. He later disavowed the Klan.

Earlier, House Deputy Speaker Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and other leaders defended the removal of the Byrd protesters to reporters after being asked about First Amendment protections.

"We have rules for decorum, we have rules that every House member has agreed to abide by. And as it relates to visitors, visitors are always welcome to come," Hill said.

But the deputy speaker said "participating in the process does not involve yelling, screaming, does not involve disrupting and breaking the decorum of the meeting. Once they start to disrupt the process, that's when it becomes a real challenge and then there are possible safety concerns for everyone in the room."

Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, who had engaged in a back and forth with the Byrd protesters during the recess, told reporters Thursday "that every opportunity was given for them to be civil and to act in a nondisruptive way.

"The sergeant at arms asked them to put the signs down and they would not comply with any requests," Sexton added. "That's the reason the troopers had to be called in. The troopers asked them very respectfully, 'Don't disrupt this meeting.' They were there to disrupt."

While discussions between Rep. Jerry Sexton and the women as well as two men on Tuesday were sometimes spirited, there appeared to be no yelling or screaming.

 

Casada: 'There must be order. We won't stand for that."

Casada told reporters earlier he stood by his decision Tuesday to have the Byrd demonstrators removed.

"I stand by it, yes I do. There must be order. The people's business must be done. And there's individuals who want to disrupt that to bring attention to themselves. We won't stand for that. There must be order and respect at all times."

Asked whether the protests stem from his decision to name Byrd as chairman of an education subcommittee, Casada said "protest is good, but you must do it in an orderly manner. Your First Amendment rights end at your nose. They wanted to disrupt the process."

Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton said Byrd easily won re-election last year with more than 70 percent support in his district despite widespread coverage of the scandal.

He said the speaker "had the right" to appoint Byrd.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.