It would be easy to say our Tennessee state lawmakers are behind the times. But more to the point, they are simply far behind in hearing and acting on the interests of their constituents.
* There was the dropped public school teachers' raises — while they voted to keep token education voucher funding. Never mind that a year ago, when legislators approved vouchers in the first place, 60% of Tennesseans told the Spring 2019 Vanderbilt University poll they did not favor vouchers.
* Likewise Tennessee lawmakers passed a wide-ranging abortion ban bill so strict it's almost total, though even in 2018 (the latest we can find) only 21% of Tennesseans said abortion should be illegal in all cases.
But the proof in the pudding that our lawmakers are deaf is in the topical issues of the day — racial equality and police reform.
As Times Free Press staffer Andy Sher reported Tuesday after Friday's curtain fell on the final act of 2020's Tennessee legislative action, "not much in the way of policy or law had changed" in areas ranging from police training to the removal of Confederate general, slave trader and early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest's bust from the state Capitol.
Such grand inaction was not what Tennessee Black Democratic legislators had hoped would happen. Nor was it in keeping with the mood of Tennesseans and Americans.
Take the Confederate statue, for example. A Fall 2019 Vanderbilt University poll of Tennesseans asked voters about the Forrest bust after bills to remove it had failed several times. A whopping 76% — with majorities from both parties — said the bust should be removed. And please note — that polling response came more than six months before the George Floyd death in Minnesota reignited a push to remove Confederate statues from public spaces.
We couldn't find a recent Tennessee-specific poll on police reform (at least not one that specifically addresses the training and behavior of officers), but a new national poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that Americans overwhelmingly want clear standards on when police may use force, and we want consequences for officers who do so excessively.
In fact, that poll finds that only 5% of us said we believe "no changes" are necessary. The poll found 29% think the criminal justice system needs "a complete overhaul," 40% say it needs "major changes" and 25% say it needs "minor changes."
The poll was taken after weeks of mass demonstrations against police violence and calls from some politicians and activists to "defund" departments in response to the death of Floyd, a Black man who died in custody after a white Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for about eight minutes.
But you wouldn't know any of that by watching state lawmakers in Nashville.
Our lawmakers did unanimously approve a resolution declaring House and Senate members were "greatly appalled and grievously saddened at the repugnant and senseless killing" of Floyd.
"Greatly appalled and grievously saddened:" Is that the newest installment of "thoughts and prayers?"
And at Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee's request, GOP lawmakers did away with a provision in a 1968 law that requires every governor to sign a July 13 proclamation declaring the date as "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day." Yet efforts failed to do away with the official commemorative day for Forrest, who also led the troops who were involved in a massacre of Black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Into this tone-deaf legislative climate, Ooltewah Rep. Mike Carter thoughtlessly joked aloud that a Black colleague from Memphis whom he'd called on without a reply must of been busy "getting the secret formula to Kentucky Fried Chicken." To his credit, Carter publicly, even tearfully, apologized.
Lawmakers also opted not to approve a measure proclaiming June 19 as "Juneteenth" to "honor and recognize" the 1865 date on which enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were informed by a Union major general that they had been freed two and half years before through President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Gov. Lee later issued a proclamation declaring June 19th as "Juneteenth." But neither document made the day a state holiday. The Senate approved a stand-alone resolution commemorating the day. The House took no official action.
As for police reform, well that pretty much washed out even before this session was split by a coronavirus recess from March 19 until June 1. The year before, Democratic Rep. Yusuf Hakeem's 2019 bill for police diversity training stalled, and this year the governor's bill for criminal justice reform, more court-focused than police-focused, was abandoned amid the budget shortfalls brought on by COVID-19.
That didn't stop a new House GOP effort to target protesters who showed up outside the Capitol. When demonstrators wanted to establish an "autonomous zone" similar to one in Seattle, House GOP lawmakers whipped up a bill that among other things made camping on state property a felony. The Republican Senate ignored it and the measure did not pass.
Should we thank our stars for small favors? Nah. It will probably come back next year.