Commentary: The spirit of Bull Conner is alive and well in Tennessee

I'm editor of an online publication focusing on Tennessee politics and policy called the Tennessee Lookout. I'm working on a story about Sen. Harris' selection as Joe Biden's running mate and reaching out to Black women and women of color in public office to get your reactions. Would you be willing to respond with a statement on what this means to Black women in public office, young Black women interested in running or office, or your personal thoughts? I'd appreciate a response by 4 p.m. EDT today, if possible.
A Tennessee state trooper chases a protester holding a sign on 5th Avenue, N. in Nashville, across from the Cordell Hull Office Building. (Photo: Ray DiPietro)

If you wonder why many Americans, white as well as Black, distrust law enforcement, you need only visit the Tennessee State Capitol and the Cordell Hull Office Building to get an answer.

Over the last couple of years, Tennessee Highway Patrol officers tasked with keeping law and order for the General Assembly, have devolved to a state reminiscent of the 1960s heyday of Bull Conner and Jim Clark

The name Eugene “Bull” Conner is synonymous with the worst outrages of the Civil Rights Era by law enforcement officials.  As commissioner of public safety for Birmingham for two decades, Conner permitted violence against civil rights activists. Among the most notable assaults on his watch was the May 1961 incident, in which a Trailways bus carrying Freedom Riders was met by a crowd of Ku Klux Klansmen in Birmingham. Conner kept police from the scene for 15 minutes during which Klansmen beat riders and reporters with metal pipes, bats and bricks. 

State Trooper with zip ties for subduing protesters. (Photo: Alex Kent)

Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Clark is widely remembered for his role in “Bloody Sunday,” when his officers joined those of the Alabama Highway Patrol to beat civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis was one of the young people beat that day, sustaining a fractured skull.So it might seem harsh to compare the behavior of our own state troopers to these icons of brutishness, but I think not. 

For my first exhibit, I give you Officer Harvey Briggs. In a video that’s gone viral, the state trooper storms over to Andrew Golden, the latter of whom is taping on his phone an incident between another state trooper and a driver outside the Tennessee State Capitol. 

Briggs repeatedly demanded Golden stop “impeding” the work of the other trooper, although Golden is filming from what appears to be at least a 20-foot distance. Briggs, who is not wearing a mask, places his face inches from Golden’s before ripping Golden’s mask off and throwing it to the ground. 

Briggs has been terminated, but what of the officers shown in a June 24 video at the Legislative Plaza taken during a protest? Sunni Swank, a former Army combat medic, is pushed from a wall approximately five feet off the ground by a trooper, before being dragged back up over the barrier by two state troopers. She was then placed in a choke hold and arrested.

On August 11, 20-year-old Caleb King was  filming protests on his phone outside the Cordell Hull Building during the special legislative session, before being  slammed onto the hood of a patrol car by two troopers and arrested.

20-year old Caleb King of Clarksville is handcuffed by Tennessee Highway Patrol Officers. (Photo: Alex Kent)
20-year old Caleb King of Clarksville is handcuffed by Tennessee Highway Patrol Officers. (Photo: Alex Kent)

The summer’s protests at Legislative Plaza have drawn most of the THP’s ire, but what of the group of troopers who blocked Democratic legislators from leaving the Tennessee House of Representatives Chamber in May 2019, grabbing Memphis Rep. G.A. Hardaway by the neck?

Troopers don’t act of their own accord, of course. In the same way Alabama state troopers answered to the will of Governors John Malcolm Patterson and George Wallace, so does the Tennessee Highway Patrol follow a chain of command.

It’s housed under Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the commissioner of which reports directly to Gov. Bill Lee. Lee can’t continue to play Mr. Nice Guy and pretend to be innocent of the behavior of state troopers on his watch. As the late President Harry Truman said of being chief executive, “the buck stops here.”