Tennessee’s anti-protest law is a step in the direction of authoritarianism | Opinion

Source: Tennessean / https://eu.tennessean.com / By Joe Hayden /

Oh, the radical terrorism of tents. Apparently, a dire threat to the state of Tennessee is now …camping?

A Republican-backed bill, now signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, passed in the General Assembly in August, which makes setting up an overnight tent outside the Capitol a felony worth up to six years in prison.

Andrew Nelles
Protesters stand next to state troopers on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, July 4, 2020. Photo: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean

It had been a misdemeanor, passed nearly a decade ago, in the days following the Occupy Nashville protests.

But a felony for camping? What’s next? The gallows for loitering?
In George Orwell’s novel “1984” the state transforms all manner of innocuous activities into the most serious crimes. That’s because in totalitarian societies, any deviation from even the smallest part of the system is perceived as a threat to the system as a whole. We don’t live in a totalitarian society, not at the moment anyway, but the signs of authoritarian overreach are everywhere.

And it gets worse. Governor Lee, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon all have the nerve to call this shocking measure “criminal justice reform,” even though it patently does the opposite — doubles down on mass incarceration by politicizing policing and criminalizing dissent.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who challenged authoritarianism in his own country and went to prison for it, recognized this hypocrisy: “[G]overnment by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code….”

Up is down. Night is day. Or, you know, sabotaging the U.S. Post Office and calling it “reform.”

Havel refused to “live within a lie.” But evidently some Tennessee politicians are comfortable with this sort of doublethink.

As Orwell’s character Winston Smith noted in 1984, “The heresy of heresies was common sense.” This law isn’t common sense; it’s lunacy.

It makes a mockery of the First Amendment, which says that “Congress shall make no law abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Honest citizens can debate what constitutes peaceful protest, but can we all agree that camping should not send you to prison, should not rescind your voting rights, should not subject you to the kind of disenfranchisement and marginalization that a felony ultimately entails?

One wonders if the same bill would have passed if these lawmakers weren’t so used to monopolizing the legislature, if they had to contemplate the possibility of stiff political competition or even the prospect of the other party in control.

In short, it’s the product of a lazy and arrogant complacency that finds suppression so much easier than the messy work of democracy.

But it’s also an act of cowardice as well as dishonesty — delicate lawmakers trembling at the sight of canvas canopies. How do snowflake lawmakers withstand such scary scenes? Who knows? But, in any case, get out the smelling salts; some divas are about to faint.

Joe Hayden, a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, is writing a recent history of fake news in America.