NASHVILLE — Racial frustrations in the Republican-controlled Tennessee House boiled over for a second straight day Wednesday during floor debate on the state's budget as black Democrats charged that they had no influence on the document and their constituents' concerns are being ignored by the majority.
The triggering factor was a series of unsuccessful efforts by Democrats to amend the budget, which is being revised amid a collapse of state revenues created by the coronavirus.
One unsuccessful budget amendment sought to provide $3,500 to move the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a pre-Civil War slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, from the Capitol's second floor to the state museum.
"How many people of color — or black people to be succinct — had input that made it into the budget?" Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a black Democrat from Memphis, asked of GOP leaders. "I'm coming from a place of fighting for inclusion so that people who look like me can be included in this. Every single one that offered amendments was shot down."
Calling the annual spending plan a "moral document" with expenditures reflecting values, Parkinson said "we're all taxpayers and based on this budget we are being forced to fund and promote racism and slavery."
Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Crossville, disputed lack-of-input assertions, saying that several black lawmakers are members of the Finance Committee and its subcommittee. "Everybody has the ability to have input on the budget if you choose to make the effort," Hill told Parkinson, but then added, "You can never have inclusion when all you want to do is make speeches in front of the media."
As a few protesters in the House gallery shouted in supported of Parkinson, Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, ordered their removal. He then called Parker out of order, adding, "we're not going down that road. You need to step it back."
Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, later pushed back, saying, "There is nothing with my caucus and with this budget that remotely resembles racism. I will say, there have been some amendments brought to undo what the Democrat Party in Tennessee has done."
He noted that Democrats who previously controlled the General Assembly for decades were the "ones who brought us some of the mess that we're in" by bringing in the Forrest bust and other controversial figures. "I've not heard that said. That was racist. My party hasn't done that."
Citing the case of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis who died last month when a white police officer placed his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville unsuccessfully sought to push a $5 million amendment providing one-time funding for mental health organizations. He said it was intended to help "empower people to de-escalate situations before they begin where folks can feel safe regardless of where they come from."
That too was tabled.
Rep. Rick Staples, a black Democrat from Knoxville, later told the chamber that "we are literally at each other's throats right now. We cannot end session like this. We are acting like we hate each other right now."
Floyd's death, caught on video, has triggered both civil unrest and peaceful protests across the country, including Chattanooga and elsewhere in Tennessee.
Sexton directed both Stewart and Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, to come to his office later to discuss the situation.
On Tuesday, a resolution honoring 17-year-old Ashanti Posey, a black girl shot and killed in Nashville, failed after many Republicans refused to support it. That came after Lamberth, a former prosecutor, told colleagues on the House floor that he conducted "research" on "what exactly led to this young lady's untimely demise."
Nashville newspaper and television news accounts had cited police reports that Posey and another girl had allegedly been involved in the sale of a small amount of marijuana before someone shot into their car. According to the resolution, she was soon to to graduate from a local high school and attend Western Kentucky University in the fall and worked two jobs.
"I do feel in my heart that I wish I could support this resolution, but I simply cannot, given the activity she was involved with that led to her demise," Lamberth told colleagues. "To applaud that individual on the House floor, I simply cannot support this."
The measure received 45 yes votes, but required 50 for passage in the 99-member chamber. Thirty-nine of the chamber's 73 Republicans voted "present." Dozens of other Republicans, including Sexton, voted for it. The Republican-led Senate earlier easily approved it on a 31-0 vote.
Parkinson shouted several expletives and was chided by Sexton. And Sexton called on state troopers to eject several demonstrators who were later charged.
Wednesday's session began calmly until Democrats saw their various amendments rejected.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.