Special session bill criminalizes camping on state property and threatens voter rights

Franklin's Angel Stansberry leads a crowd to Cordell Hull Office Building for the special legislative session. (Photo: Alex Kent)
Franklin's Angel Stansberry leads a crowd to Cordell Hull Office Building for the special legislative session. (Photo: Alex Kent)

The Tennessee General Assembly Wednesday passed a bill that makes camping on state property a felony.

House Bill 8005 appears to target Black Lives Matter protesters who have been camping on Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville since mid-June. One portion upgrades the punishment for camping on property not specifically designated for camping from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony with a minimum of 30 days in jail.

Additionally, it adds language to what qualifies as camping, specifying “making or preparing to make a fire, doing any digging or earth breaking, or sleeping or making preparations to sleep.”

Another clause of the bill upgrades damage of public property, including “intentional marring, marking upon, or defacing, in a temporary or permanent manner” from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A one, an apparent reference to protesters’ habit of drawing on pavement with chalk.

Gov. Bill Lee called the special session to take up HB 8005 and a bill to provide protection for private and public businesses from legal liability concerning COVID-19. Almost all members of the House Republican Caucus signed on to HB 8005.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, tweeted Wednesday night, “So, the Tennessee legislature is about to spend over $1 million per year to new penalties for people who camp on state property and disrupt public meetings. For those crimes, there will be a mandatory 12-hour hold. That’s not required for sexual assault, robbery or near anything.”

The Tennessee Lookout reached out the American Civil Liberties Union for comment on HB 8805 but had not heard back at publication.

Photographer Alex Kent has documented the summer’s protests and was outside the Cordell Hull Office Building all three days of the special session, capturing officers of the Tennessee Highway Patrol arresting protestors, tense face-offs between law enforcement and protesters and legislators attempting to leave the office garage while being blocked by crowds.