05/09/19: Faces of Local Activism

Updated: Apr 9, 2020


This year’s legislative session was marked by activism. Here are some of the people involved.


MAY 9, 2019 5 AM

n the morning of April 17, Aftyn Behn and a few other women had been camped out in front of Gov. Bill Lee’s office at the state Capitol for more than 30 hours. Behn is a regional organizer for Indivisible, a group born out of resistance to the Trump presidency, and the other women were part of Enough Is Enough, a group dedicated to fighting people and policies that hurt women. They wanted an audience with the governor.

Before this year’s legislative session convened, Behn started a campaign to remove Waynesboro Republican David Byrd from his state House of Representatives seat, which he won in the fall despite allegations he sexually abused his underage students decades ago. Even though the allegations against Byrd became more widely known during the most recent election cycle, he secured an even greater percentage of the vote than he did in previous elections. Behn and others knew they’d spend at least part of this legislative session trying to oust Byrd.

That goal became even more pressing when Speaker of the House Glen Casada appointed Byrd to chair the House Education Administration Subcommittee. 

But on that April morning, Gov. Lee never met with Behn or any of her fellow activists or issued a statement. Instead they would be met with arrest.

From left: Kate Briefs, Emily Tseffos, Aftyn Behn, Ashley Massey, Jennifer WatsonPHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS

The Fight to Remove Byrd

According to Behn, Byrd’s appointment as chair of the subcommittee was a slap in the face to survivors of sexual assault. Members of Enough Is Enough vowed to show up every time the subcommittee met, to protest Byrd’s appointment. 

Some of the members of Enough Is Enough are rural Tennesseans who had never been involved in activism until recently. They knew they might draw some attention, but they didn’t anticipate being kicked out of a committee meeting  — as they were after questioning committee members during a recess. Jennifer Watson was at the Capitol on Feb. 26 for an event called Women’s Day on the Hill, which is hosted by various women’s groups in the state, when she saw a tweet from Enough Is Enough asking people to show up to Byrd’s subcommittee. She had heard about Byrd, and wanted to see him in person.

“I went, and we sat there with with our signs and, and I mean, [Byrd] was clearly uncomfortable,” Watson says. “We weren’t saying anything, and then they call a recess, and then we’re kicked out. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. That’s when I decided I would start coming whenever I could.”

Ashley Massey is from Lawrenceburg, near Byrd’s district. She became involved because she grew up in a rural area, where she says it can be especially difficult for women to speak out against their abusers.

“I mean, in these areas, sometimes we’re talking decades of incest, rape and abuse,” Massey says. “They’re not talking about these things. The power dynamic is just totally neglected and not talked about. In the Byrd situation, you try to tell people, ‘Well, you know, he was her coach, he was her basketball coach,’ and people will still try to blame it on the women.”

Massey grew more and more frustrated throughout the session, because she felt removing Byrd, at very least from the subcommittee chairmanship, should have been a “no-brainer.” 

“It was really stunning to watch someone like that get more votes after people had heard about the allegations against him,” Massey says. “And then to watch all these other men at the Capitol defend him at every chance they could.”

As the session moved forward, Enough Is Enough attempted to meet with Speaker Casada. They tried to get meetings with Lee. While the governor did meet with Christi Rice, one of Byrd’s accusers, he didn’t make a statement about whether Byrd should remain at the Capitol. That led Enough Is Enough to camp out in front of Lee’s office, after the Capitol closed for the evening on April 16. They first asked the governor to make a statement, thinking they might wait 45 minutes in front of his office for a response.

“And then that time passes, and we’re kind of thinking, ‘Oh, well, this seems like a bad PR move for him to just say nothing,’ ” Behn says. “Those minutes turn into hours, turn into a day. We did not expect to be inside the Capitol at night with the guy waxing the floors, just buffing right around around us like we were furniture.”

Typically, legislative leadership meets with Lee first thing each morning. When legislators started arriving April 17, the women were still there. They decided to take things a step further, walking into Lee’s office and demanding a meeting. Behn says in the back of her mind, she was waiting for a state trooper to ask her to leave the office. Instead, she felt someone scoop her up from behind.

“All of a sudden I just felt this arm around my body, and it just like crunched me and then lifted me,” Behn says of the trooper’s actions. “All I could do was cry.”

She and four other women were arrested that morning, but they weren’t the first to be forcibly removed and arrested at the Capitol this session.

Justin Jones and Jeneisha HarrisPHOTOS: DANIEL MEIGS

The Fight to Remove the Bust

Efforts to remove a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the halls of the Capitol began long before this legislative session, but the issue came to a head in late February. 

Justin Jones is a 23-year-old Vanderbilt divinity student who’s been part of various actions at the Capitol for the past six years. He and Jeneisha Harris, a 22-year-old student at Tennessee State University, were arrested and then banned from the Capitol while protesting the bust. 

“People ask me all the time why we focus on this bust, and this is the way we see it,” Jones says. “If we can’t get this clear, blatant symbol of racism — a statue that the KKK themselves have had a press conference in front of and see as a piece of their personal identity — then we have no hope in removing the more sophisticated subtle racism of voter suppression, denial of health care and attacks on public education. Those are all racist and pervasive, and they’re things that are working against the people of Tennessee, not for them.”

The day Jones and Harris were arrested, Feb. 28, there had been a contentious back-and-forth between Casada and Democratic legislators about the Byrd protesters being kicked out of the subcommittee meeting the day before. After that meeting, Casada walked out into a storm of protesters demanding signatures from legislators — the protesters wanted each person in power at the Capitol to acknowledge whether they supported removing the bust.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said in a statement that Jones tried to push past state troopers and enter the elevator where Casada was. According to the statement, when Jones was denied entry to the elevator, “he began yelling at Speaker Casada, calling him a racist.” The THP also says Jones threw a paper coffee cup at Casada. Jones was charged with disorderly conduct and two counts of simple assault. 

According to the THP, Harris was charged with disorderly conduct “for attempting to push [past] troopers, yelling, and threatening.” 

Jones and Harris were forcibly removed — and both say they were cuffed on their hands and feet and taken to an off-site facility to be booked. When the Byrd protesters were arrested two months later, it took much longer for the group of women, who were all white, to face arrest than it had the two young black students. And when they were arrested, the women were essentially walked down to be booked.

“I’d protested before,” says Harris. “I was arrested at a Marsha Blackburn event in the fall. But to be banned after getting arrested at the Capitol — it was just crazy the way we were treated, like we weren’t supposed to be there at all. It’s not the [Byrd] women’s fault that they weren’t arrested right away, but it does show how this system is willing to immediately toss people of color from these spaces while giving at least some room to white citizens.”

Jones says former Speaker Beth Harwell was willing to meet with him and other activists, and that despite their vast differences on many issues, she still treated people with dignity.

“She was willing to bring us to the table,” Jones says. “This new speaker refused to meet with us as African American students, and has refused to meet with so many groups that we know. I think just in general what we’ve noticed this session was that it was a much more extreme session, this new leadership group is much more extreme, much more aggressive than what we’ve seen toward people just exercising their First Amendment rights.” 

Jones says each day in this legislative session, even after he was banned, felt like an escalation. First women were kicked out for holding signs. Then he and Harris were removed and not allowed back. Then more women were arrested. Reporters faced difficulties with leadership not being transparent about the location of budget meetings. Casada cut off debate and deliberation frequently. Democratic legislators were left out of committees in which they’ve traditionally been given at least one seat at the table.

“What we see following the election of this president in 2016 is people saying they want to take this nation back to dangerous times,” Jones says. “And at the legislature, they’re running with that and taking us back to places that we don’t want to go — in terms of racism, in terms of sexism, in terms of this bigotry and hatefulness, that some people have thought we’d overcome. And it’s a huge escalation of antagonistic behavior toward people exercising their rights.”

“We’ve had lawmakers tell us that they’re not racist because they have black friends,” continues Jones, referring to Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver. 

From left: Jawharrah Bahar, Alex Chambers, Dawn Harrington, Keeda Haynes, Aniya WileyPHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS

The Fight to Remove Barriers

It may have seemed like most of the legislation that passed this session was a step backward. But Free Hearts, an advocacy group made of up of formerly incarcerated women, landed what they consider a big win. For the past three years, the women of Free Hearts have fought for legislation to consider community-based alternatives, rather than jail time, for nonviolent offenders who are primary caregivers.

The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis), passed overwhelmingly in the House (91-5) and Senate (27-4). 

“When we first started this process, almost no one in this group knew anything about the legislature,” says Dawn Harrington, executive director of Free Hearts. “That space was, and continues to be, intimidating to black women and just people of color in general. There’s the bust when you come into the building, and the fact that it’s just an overwhelmingly white environment. In fact, when the bill was introduced, we were all kind of like, ‘Oh no, OK, where do we go from here?’ ” 

The women of Free Hearts were able to advocate for the bill in very personal ways — two of the women gave birth to children while in jail and were mothers before their sentencing. If they’d been able to go through a community-based program rather than serve jail time, their children would have been able to stay with them. Women are in the vast majority of cases primary caregivers, and when women are incarcerated, it’s most often for nonviolent crimes.

“When you go through that process of having your children taken from you, you have to process that, and then once you come home, you have to get yourself together so you can take care of your children,” says Jawharrah Bahar, an organizer with Free Hearts. “And that within itself is a hard process as well, because you got to find housing, you got to find a job, you got to find transportation. I mean, that’s a lot. I’ve got to have money to purchase clothes and shoes and just everyday essentials. A rehabilitation program is going to help people a lot more than putting them in a jail cell.”

It’s not unusual for legislation to take more than one session to make it through, but Free Hearts says they were initially discouraged by Republicans who said they wouldn’t even consider the bill at