Tennessee Student Solidarity Network carries non-violent message of activism
Young Tennesseans advocate for gun-reform laws, affordable housing
A group of young protesters outside the Tennessee House of Representatives during expulsion hearings for three Democratic lawmakers on April 6, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
School walkouts and student protests at the Tennessee Capitol following The Covenant School shooting in March and expulsion of two young lawmakers highlighted political organization efforts by Tennessee high school and college students.
Members of the Tennessee Student Solidarity Network say there’s no shortage of issues around which to organize. As the group grows beyond its start on Vanderbilt University’s campus, so does its to-do list. Students are protesting gun violence, anti-LGBTQ bills, affordable housing, racism, corruption and more.
The work doesn’t come without risks, according to the activists, who were featured in viral VICE News footage in April. The video shows students as young as 13 drilling outside the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park, learning to respond to tear gas, beatings and pepper spray. As students lock arms in one of the clips, an instructor tells them to let go if a police officer swings a baton under their woven arms to avoid dislocating a shoulder.
For Vanderbilt alum and network organizer Jackson Davis, who is one of a handful of TSSN’s founding organizers, the training was a new experience and expanded on the group’s original mission. Davis said their first protests were held because of construction worker deaths on Vanderbilt’s campus. The Vanderbilt Hustler, a student publication, covered the university’s acknowledgement of a second death in February. The publication said the university had publicly acknowledged the first on-campus worker death in 2022, and finally sent a statement to the paper acknowledging the second.
We have a finite amount of time here on this planet, and there’s only so much you can do as an individual to make the world bend towards freedom and justice.
– Jackson Davis, Tennessee Student Solidarity Network
Following a deadly shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville on March 27, the group — previously called the Dores Workers Solidarity Network — rebranded to become the Tennessee Student Solidarity Network in order to address more than just conditions for workers on campus.
Students joined thousands of others, including members of the anti-gun violence group March For Our Lives, in protests at the state capitol. Students from other Nashville schools — mostly area high schools — are also involved with TSSN and joined the protests. Group members continued to protest after Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville were expelled for taking to the House floor during the post-Covenant actions.
A TSSN organizer said the group is reaching out to yet more college and high school students around the state by passing out pamphlets and flyers. The group is also active on social media, and a student-led Justice School curriculum is expected to be announced later this year.
Davis said the group’s mission is crucial to creating a safer, better community for everyone.
“We have a finite amount of time here on this planet, and there’s only so much you can do as an individual to make the world bend towards freedom and justice,” Davis said of the group’s new direction. “Trying to do what you can to organize or support justice-related endeavors is a way of showing that you appreciate the people around you and your community.”
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a musician and theologian, traveled to Nashville to lead trainings and said Pearson was supportive of the students’ efforts. Sekou already had ties to Nashville; he counts Rev. James Lawson — who trained and mentored the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis — and other student civil rights leaders in the 1960s among his mentors.
The student network continues to draw upon some of the same principles that Lawson and Lewis espoused, centering what Sekou calls militant nonviolent civil disobedience.
“We need to train as many young people as we can in the tradition that broke the back of American apartheid,” Sekou said of the drills and the philosophy behind them.
Davis echoed those sentiments, saying that nonviolent action is often visually powerful because it literally illustrates a peaceful approach in opposition to often violent action from oppressive powers. Fellow TSSN organizer Connor Warmuth also pointed out that the network does more than drill, however.
“We are not just organizing protests,” Warmuth said in an email statement. “Our goal is to ensure that students have the capacity, ability, and confidence to organize for the long term. We are also seeking to build enough social power — meaning that we are seeking to build a network of organizers at every school in Tennessee — to be able to control the things that impact our lives the most — such as wages, health care coverage, ability to access housing, etc. Protests alone are not going to get us to a point where we challenge corporate power.”
Sekou said combatting the assault on democracy requires building a powerful, opposing coalition that welcomes individuals with varying opinions and talking points. While some may want to increase police body cam usage, others may want to ban assault weapons. Others may want to focus on anti-trans bills or other areas of electoral politics, and it’s important to remember that though opinions may differ, everyone is on the same side — that of democracy and equality. Sekou said communities need a major shift in how they view students: instead of thinking of young people as somebody else’s problem, our youth should be a collective responsibility everyone cares for.
“(Young people) may not always make sense to us, but comprehension is not the prerequisite for compassion,” Sekou said. “They’re our children. We extend grace and kindness to them because they belong to us.”
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