In a Wednesday press conference, members of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators sharply criticized the state’s top two elected officials’ handling of racial issues.
Specifically, caucus members denounced Gov. Bill Lee for ignoring an Aug. 2 caucus letter asking him for an emergency meeting to discuss treatment of protesters at the Tennessee Capitol and for refusing to meet with protesters.
“If he had taken advantage of (an offer to mediate with protesters) the problems that happened on the plaza could have been avoided,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, caucus chair. “Those young people wanted to be heard and for some reason, the governor turned a deaf ear.”
Hardaway referred to the group that spent 62 days camped on the Legislative Plaza in an effort to talk with Lee about a platform that included cutting funds to police and removing the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the capitol.
Lee said at an Aug. 20 press conference he declined to meet with protesters or caucus members because he didn’t think it would be productive.
The second issue driving the press conference was the posting of a meme on Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s personal Facebook page over the weekend that portrayed a stock photo of a young man cradling a rifle with a warning to “BLM & Antifa” superimposed over it.
“I’m still having trouble believing he would do something that would incite violence,” said Hardaway. .“We don’t have to guess if it would incite violence. I read the comments on the reposts and the original posts. People are looking for approval to commit vigilante justice and were endorsed by the second highest official in the state.”
Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Lt. Gov. McNally, responded with a written statement.
“Anyone who knows Lt. Governor McNally understands he has no hate in his heart and would never threaten violence against anyone. Lt. Governor McNally opposes the anti-police ideology inherent in the BLM and Antifa movements. On Saturday, a meme was shared on his personal page in a private post that pointed out the logical fallacy at the heart of the “Defund the Police” movement. When it was pointed out the meme could be interpreted as an implicit threat, it was taken down.”
The press conference comes less than a week after Lee signed into a law a bill that makes camping on state property not explicitly marked for camping a felony and classifies the use of sidewalk chalk on state property a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.
Sen. Brenda Gilmore characterized the new law as an “off the Richter scale” response to the protests.
Wednesday afternoon, Lee announced he will meet with members of the Black caucus.