Tennessee lawmakers approved a bill on Wednesday that would make it a felony to camp outside the State Capitol, including the Capitol grounds.
Under the recently passed law, protesters would first be issued a warning. If they refuse to leave the grounds, they would be charged with a Class E felony, a penalty that could carry a six-year prison term and the loss of the right to vote, the Nashville Tennessean reported.
The bill’s backers say that as a tool to quell violent protests, the legislation also stiffens penalties for protesters who disrupt meetings, spit on law enforcement officers, and block streets.
“It is to prevent what has happened in other cities like Portland and Washington, D.C.,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, a Republican, said Wednesday after the measure passed. “If people … knowingly thumb their nose at authority and don’t do what authorities have requested they do, they should be charged with a serious crime.”
The Tennessee bill is the first of its kind tailored to curb the mass demonstrations on police brutality that have been taking place across the country since May.
The Nashville protest began on June 12, inspired by the large demonstrations occurring across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Their protest has gone on for 61 consecutive days, demonstrators demanding to have a meeting with Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, to discuss racial inequality and police brutality.
The GOP-dominated legislature responded to the protesters with a bill to make camping illegal. State troopers have repeatedly tried to seize the campers’ belongings and arrest those involved, but their efforts have been futile.
Democrats and some Republicans say the felony punishment is too harsh.
“We are using a bazooka to go after a house fly here,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) said on the Senate floor, according to the Tennessean. “Are we really saying that a citizen of this state can … have a felony record because they camped on public property? That should be a bridge too far.”
Although the Senate passed a bill on a 26-5 vote, which would have made the offense a misdemeanor, the House bill passed with a 71-20 vote and included the felony portion in the bill.