Category Archives: protests

Gorilla mask regrets

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) — An East Tennessee State University student who disrupted an on-campus Black Lives Matter rally while wearing a gorilla mask and carrying around a rope and bananas regrets his actions and was not trying to intimidate anyone, his attorney said.

Freshman Tristan Rettke, 18, appeared in court for the first time Thursday after being charged with one felony count of civil rights intimidation, news outlets reported. A conviction on that charge carries two to four years in prison.

Attorney Patrick Denton said in a statement Thursday that Rettke was exercising his freedom of speech and did not intimidate anyone.

“Mr. Rettke deeply regrets the unfortunate events leading up to his arrest yesterday and understands the negative perception of his speech and actions,” Denton said. “He respects the rights of those in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to peacefully demonstrate in furtherance of their message in the spirit of the First Amendment.”

Rettke told investigators that he heard about Wednesday’s rally on social media and then purchased the attire and items in order to provoke the activists, police said.

The freshman arrived at the event masked, barefoot, wearing overalls and toting bananas and rope. He also carried a burlap sack that had a Confederate battle flag and marijuana leaf on it. He was taken away by university public safety officers.

Rettke is free on a $10,000 bond while his case is pending. University officials have condemned his actions and placed him on interim suspension.

ETSU student in gorilla mask disrupts Black Lives Matter protest

A barefoot man wearing overalls and a gorilla mask, trying to hand out noose-wrapped bananas to Black Lives Matter demonstrators, was taken into custody by East Tennessee State University public safety officers Wednesday, reports the Johnson City Press.

According to a news release from the public safety office, freshman Tristan Rettke was charged with civil rights intimidation. Saying Rettke’s actions “go against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect,” the university said the student has been placed on interim suspension. Criminal charges were pending before the local district attorney, and an internal student-conduct investigation was underway.

ETSU President Brian Noland held a press conference in the afternoon to speak out against what he saw Wednesday. And Noland did watch, almost in real time as it happened, via a video on a student’s Facebook page.

“I was offended, but I was also saddened,” Noland said about his personal response to Rettke’s behavior. “The nation is not only raw, but it’s healing.”

Noland praised the Black Lives Matter demonstrators for their peaceful rally and handling of the disruption.

…Rettke also carried with him a burlap sack that had a Confederate battle flag and marijuana leaf on it. He told officers he bought the attire and items to provoke the Black Lives Matter protesters after having learned about it on social media site Yik Yak.

Ministers stage prayerful Nashville protest

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A group of ministers from across Tennessee knelt in the middle of an intersection in Nashville’s tourist district Monday, blocking the street as they prayed for equality and justice.

The protest was one of many across the country challenging the right of religious conservatives to define morality.

It began with a rally on the steps of the state Capitol that happened to coincide with the first day of a specially called three-day legislative session. About 150 people gathered, including home health workers, fast food workers and custodians demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage as lawmakers filed past.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, addressed the crowd saying lawmakers had been warned to look out for protesters.

“This is the people’s house, and it’s time for it to do the people’s business,” he told the crowd.

Thelma Rimmer said she has worked as a custodian at the University of Memphis for 10 years and makes $10.30 an hour.

“Sometimes I have to decide whether to pay the light bill or to buy food, sometimes even rent,” she said. “I want to make a wage where I am able to send my children to college, too.”

The Rev. Andre E. Johnson, with Gift of Life Ministries in Memphis, was one of several ministers at the rally who delivered a petition to Gov. Bill Haslam’s office demanding solutions to issues like persistent poverty and inequality.

“It’s not only unjust; it’s a sin,” he said.

Johnson said many lawmakers feel God called them to serve. “We just want to make sure they’re hearing from the right God,” he said.

After the rally, the group marched to Broadway where they blocked an intersection. The ministers kneeled in the middle of the road while other demonstrators joined hands in a circle around them. They prayed as tourists looked on from nearby honky-tonks, country music blaring into the street.

Legislators see racial profiling at Graceland

Two state legislators say it appears racial profiling was involved when police decided who could – and who could not – walk down Elvis Presley Boulevard, a public street, during a “Candle Light Vigil” that drew some protesters.

From the Commercial Appeal:

Several of the protesters who were nominally affiliated with local Black Lives Matter causes attempted to walk toward Graceland on the closed-off but still-public street, but were prevented from doing so by police officers manning the barricades. Three were arrested.

While the permit issued shows that Elvis Presley Enterprises was granted permission to close a portion of the street that runs in front of Graceland, it says nothing about preventing access to the public.

City Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen first said that Graceland’s permit didn’t give it the authority to close any public spaces to the public, unlike the permit Memphis in May has to close Tom Lee Park.

Later, though, McMullen clarified his opinion to say that the permit-holder “can ask the police to remove anyone from the permitted area.” He did not specify where that opinion originated.

…At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway and state Sen. Lee Harris asked city officials to address what they said sounds like racial profiling.

“If that street is blocked off and a crowd is allowed to enter — an Elvis Presley crowd that may be humming Elvis Presley tunes — then another crowd that is chanting “black lives matter” must also enter. Doesn’t matter what their race is,” Harris said at the press conference. “We can’t have members of the public thinking that chanting ‘black lives matter’ is different or more heavily regulated than singing an Elvis hymn. It is not.”

To illustrate their point, the legislators introduced two women who attended the protest: Elaine Blanchard, who is white, and Pearl Walker, who is black.

“These two ladies, here for the same reason, but they were treated differently because of race,” Hardaway said.

Cohen denounces pro-gun ‘nuts’ as windup to House sit-in

As House Democrats suspended their sit-in over gun violence Thursday, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen called the 25-hour protest “a great day for America” and denounced “crazy, looney tweets” from pro-gun “nuts,” reports Michael Collins.

“What a great opportunity for Democrats to come together and show unity on an issue of such importance as saving lives,” the Memphis Democrat said in a fiery speech from the House floor, about 30 minutes before the sit-in ended. Democrats have vowed to restart it when the House returns from its July 4 recess.

Cohen said the gun-control measures Democrats are seeking — to expand background checks and prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns — are “low-hanging fruit,” and Congress should be working to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

Yet, he said, a lot of gun owners have taken to social media to argue they need assault weapons “to defend themselves from their country.”

“They’re nuts,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat who also participated in the sit-in, said House members should be allowed to vote on issues of concern to the public.

“Making sure that terrorists can’t easily get their hands on guns is a no-brainer, and we should vote on it,” Cooper said. “We should not shirk our responsibilities to the country on any of the important issues of the day.”

…Cooper said that while the “no-fly” list is not perfect, “it has been good enough to keep airplanes from exploding over the U.S. since 9/11.”

“I am exploring ways to get a better list, and I am open to all good ideas,” he said. “But the legitimate problems with today’s no-fly list are solvable, such as by adding due process protections. The key point is that Congress should be working on these issues, not ducking them. We should be solving the problem of identifying terrorists, not giving up.”

DNC chair’s Knoxville visit draws protesters

Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign protested an appearance by Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a private fundraiser in Knoxville Thursday, reports the News Sentinel. Sanders has said the DNC chair favors Hillary Clinton as party nominee and suggested she should resign.

Wasserman Schultz was originally scheduled to appear at a public rally of Knox County Democrats, but canceled in favor of the high-dollar event.

“Today is really about the broken nature of our campaign finance system — it costs so much to get elected,” said Barbara Bridges, one of a dozen members of the “Knoxville for Bernie” movement who turned out in protest.

“We felt it’s important to make a showing. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s and corruption and our party being captured by a very small number of elite power brokers that are extremely wealthy. Their wealth insulates them from issues most of us face.”

The fundraising dinner was at the home of Leanne and Rusty Comer that sits in a gated community in the Deane Hill area.

Attendees paid between $50 and $250 a plate to attend.

Those entering the gated community were greeted with protesters waving signs that read “Democrats Demand Debbie to Drop out Now” and “The DNC Deck is Stacked.” Some motorists laughed, honked or gave a thumbs-up. Other looked on in disgust or ignored the protesters.

Outsourcing opponents deliver letter to governor

About 15 state university employees and United Campus Workers union members delivered a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing team Tuesday expressing concerns about the process and asking officials to accept public comment on the plan to privatize the operation and maintenance of state-owned property, according to Richard Locker.

About two-thirds of the group was blocked at the security checkpoint in the Tennessee Tower state office building but five representatives were allowed to deliver the letter to the 16th floor offices of state officials and consultants in charge of the controversial outsourcing initiative.

Michelle Martin, the project’s communications manager, spoke with the workers and minutes later, project director Terry Cowles returned to his office from a meeting and also responded to the workers’ questions and comments.

The surprise visit was organized by UCW, a division of the Communications Workers of America, and billed as a protest to demand transparency in the outsourcing project with employees and the public. Participants were civil with each other, although Mike Ledyard, a consultant on the outsourcing team, interrupted to ask Martin, “Are you aware that they are recording you?” after he spotted a worker recording the meeting with a cellphone.

“Yes. That’s fine that they’re recording,” she said.

Scott Martindale, a facilities services employee at Middle Tennessee State University, said the project’s state website has little contact information and no mechanism for public comments, and that telephone calls and messages with have gone unanswered. The website has short biographies of the project’s officers but the only contact information listed is Martin’s.

Cowles said he would consider add some form of public comment mechanism.

“We’ll take that under advisement but I think that’s a reasonable request,” he said.

Undocumented TN students rally for lower tuition

Undocumented students from across Tennessee came to Legislative Plaza Tuesday to try to convince lawmakers to give new life to a bill that would slash their tuition at public colleges, reports The Tennessean.

Wearing placards that described their career aspirations — some said they were future educators or entrepreneurs — more than 100 students chanted their demand for tuition equality on the steps of War Memorial Auditorium. Without it, some of them said, the prohibitive cost of higher education would keep them from pursuing their dreams.

Under state law, undocumented immigrants who want to go to public colleges must pay out-of-state rates that are often two or three times higher than those offered to Tennessee citizens.

A bill that would have given some undocumented students in-state tuition last year won support from Gov. Bill Haslam and dozens of lawmakers, including some conservative Republicans who had been vocal opponents in the past. The bill (SB612) ultimately failed by one vote in the House of Representatives, where critics said such a change would give undocumented students an unfair advantage over U.S. citizens.

But the students gathered Tuesday, who had been recruited and trained to share their stories by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, hoped lawmakers would bring the bill back to the floor before the session ends later this month. They held about 50 meetings with lawmakers in hopes of winning over opponents and resuscitating the bill’s chances.

“Students’ stories have been what have moved legislators, or moved the community,” said Eben Cathey, the spokesman for the coalition. “When you hear their stories you understand we’re talking about the hopes and dreams of the next generation of leaders.”

Rep. Mark White, the Memphis Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, acknowledged that election year politics might make passing the bill a challenge. But he said he remained optimistic about its chances to come back to the floor with the votes necessary to become law.

Protesters block Memphis Zoo parking; Cohen gets involved

A congressman Cohen and Memphis Police successfully negotiated an end to a sit-in of sorts by protesters who oppose parking by visitors to the Memphis zoo on a grassy area of Overton Park, reports the Commercial Appeal.

No arrests or injuries occurred by midday after Memphis police and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, whose home borders the park, negotiated a middle-ground solution — just for Saturday — that allowed vehicles to park on about a third of the large lawn bordered by the Memphis Zoo, Memphis College of Art and Rainbow Lake.

Since receiving the backing earlier this month from the Memphis City Council, zoo officials had expanded zoo parking to cover most of the greensward on high-visitation days.

Several witnesses said the civil disobedience started midmorning when a woman in her 20s lay down in the dirt drive to block cars from entering the greensward.

Others quickly joined her, including musicians playing a mandolin, guitar, accordion and conga drum.

Police swooped in, but instead of making arrests and clearing a path, Memphis Police Maj. Dana Sampietro talked with Cohen and some protest leaders, including insurance agent Bill Stegall who lives in the adjoining Evergreen Historic Disitrict.

Facing a crowd of perhaps 200 protesters, Stegall used a squad car’s microphone to announce the compromise and encourage the protesters to accept it.

“First I want to say something about the Memphis police force,” Stegall told the protesters. “They have just been as nice…” The crowd roared its approval.

Anti-outsourcing, pro-diversity rally draws 300 at UTK

Around 300 people attended a rally Friday in support of the University of Tennessee, which organizers say is “under attack” from a governor who wants more privatization and a legislature that opposes diversity efforts, reports the News Sentinel.

“Our governor and our legislators show little respect for our public institutions, for the people of Tennessee and for the democracy that our state and our country promises us,” said Melanie Barron, a graduate assistant in geography and member of the UT Diversity Matters coalition. “In the coming months, as these attacks on our university intensify, let us stand together.”

The coalition co-sponsored the rally, along with United Campus Workers, UT’s Faculty Senate and the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Attendees’ posters bore messages on privatization (“Tennessee is not for sale!” “Make us a Tennessee Promise: Keep Our Jobs Here”), living wages and racial and gender diversity (“Diversity Cuts Hurt Us All,” “Martin’s Dream is Forever”).

But their chants, led by UCW representative Cassie Waters, were in unison: “When our university is under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

Volunteers in a “phone zone” held up signs bearing contact information for legislators who have recently filed bills urging cuts to diversity and sustainability programs and funding at UT.

Waters urged attendees to call the legislators and Gov. Bill Haslam, who has proposed to outsource maintenance and management of state-owned buildings, including at the university, that’s now done by state employees. The plan would cost those workers their jobs and benefits, Waters said.