CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:43 p.m. on Friday, June 26, 2020, to state that a member of Wallace's crew - not Wallace himself - found the rope.
NASHVILLE — State Rep. Robin Smith is drawing fire on Twitter after the Hixson Republican retweeted and commented on a photo from a conservative internet activist's Twitter account that shows looped hand straps on a bus, an allusion to the controversy over a noose-like pull rope found in the garage of NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace.
In his original tweet on Wednesday, Wojciech Pawelczyk, whose bio says he is a video editor for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's "War Room 2020," sarcastically described the photo of the transit hand straps as "Proof of systemic racism."
Smith in her retweet that same day stated, "How many FBI agents will be investigating....."
It was a reference to an FBI investigation into the incident involving Wallace, the only Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, amid ongoing concerns over his safety as he advocated for NASCAR to ban Confederate flags. Federal agents determined a noose-like rope was hung on Wallace's assigned garage at the Talledega Superspeedway in Alabama months before his arrival, as a way to help close the door.
Smith's initial tweet on Wednesday and subsequent ones on Thursday ignited a Twitter storm with dozens of attacks on Smith. It also drew criticisms or concerns from a number of Tennessee Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, who is the lone Black member of the Hamilton County delegation.
Smith didn't back away away from any of her tweets in an interview on Thursday. Calling attention to her barrage of tweets that began Wednesday, Smith, a business consultant, said they arose out of a Tuesday video discussion with clients and others, including one she described as a liberal.
"Someone said there's no such thing as 'cancel culture' and I begged to differ," said Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman who writes for the conservative Patriot Post website. "I said absolutely, it's alive and well. You'll see that the 'Twitterverse' drives so much of the news cycle, but it only represents, maybe, 2% of the population if that.
"I said, 'Do you want me to prove a point? ... I will go to a conservative website that I know has quit a few memes and just watch the responses I get."
Smith added she also bet the woman a restaurant meal that she would be "swarmed" by critics on social media.
"It so happened to be within the time frame that Bubba Wallace thing was proven to be a hoax," Smith said. "That wasn't the only thing, I pulled 10 or 15 memes off a conservative blog post, kind of poking fun at the political left. And indeed, that is what happened."
As predicated, Smith's tweets triggered an avalanche of intense responses, mostly negative and some calling for Smith to step down from her legislative seat.
"#resign," wrote @Jamez_OvEL. "You should be ashamed of you racist truffle."
Smith's tweet also fell with a thud among some of her Tennessee Democratic House colleagues. It followed an intense legislative session where protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man while in Minneapolis police custody, brought new urgency for Democrats on issues.
That included the perennial battle over a state Capitol bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave owner and early member of the Ku Klux Klan, and failed social and economic bills pressed by Democrats amid a resurging Black Lives Matter movement.
Hakeem said in an interview of Smith's original retweet about NASCAR driver Wallace, "I don't see anything amusing about it.
"Quite frankly, it's hurtful, and you know, when everything the legislature have gone through in the last two or three weeks, trying to have some understanding amongst us and attention, it seems so out of place," Hakeem said. "It says to me there are some unresolved issues — if this was intended to be amusing, it's not."
Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white Knoxville Democrat, condemned Smith's comments as "vile" while while House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, a white Democrat from Nashville, chastised the Hixson lawmaker in a tweet and told her "you are an elected official — you are making fun of people being murdered. You need to retract this immediately and apologize to the public."
Other Black Democrats weighed in as well with Rep. Harold Love, a Nashville minister, tweeted, "@robints how does this tweet help us get to any racial reconciliation in the #TNleg."
Smith fired back at her twitter critics, among other things stating in a Thursday tweet that the "Marxist Left demands free speech but when confronted w hysterical hypocrisy silence is expected, especially when coming from a conservative Christian Woman. Again, proof on display."
In a later tweet, Smith stated "I will now enjoy an expensive dinner for winning a serious bet. #CancelCulture on the Marxist Left is the standard, not exception... any dining recommendations?"
Some who tweeted backed Smith with one, identifying himself as Matt Walsh, stating "Never apologize to the mob. Never. I don't care what you did or said. Never apologize. Things will not get better, they will only get worse, until people start adopting this approach."
A member of Wallace's crew found the rope, fashioned as a noose, on a door in the garage he recently was assigned. Federal agents announced Tuesday they had determined Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime since the rope had been placed on the garage door as a pull rope since at least October 2019, well before Wallace was assigned the space.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps issued a statement Thursday saying that "as you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba." He said after it was discovered in the garage stall Sunday, officials asked officials at every race track to check their stalls.
Out of the 1,684 garage stalls at 29 tracks, 11 had a pull-down rope tied in a knot. Only one was fashioned in a noose, and that was the one discovered Sunday, Phelps said.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
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