THE PEOPLE’S PLAZA

From June 12 to August 12, 2020, the People’s Plaza held a 24/7 protest outside the Tennessee State Capitol in opposition to police brutality and systemic racism.

Organized by alumni of Fisk University, the alma mater of John Lewis and Ida B. Wells, the protestors’ demands were simple: 1) Governor Bill Lee agree to discuss systemic racism with activists; 2) remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, from the State Capitol; 3) fire Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson for obstructing reform within the department.

During these 62 days, approximately 300 arrests were made at the protests. Chief Anderson resigned on June 18. The Forrest bust is currently in the process of being relocated to the State Museum. Governor Lee refused to speak with the protestors.

I joined the People’s Plaza on Day 1.

Promoted as a “Nashville Autonomous Zone” — a space similar to protest sites established in Seattle and Portland, OR — the Plaza’s first day garnered traction with both protestors and media. To begin, members of the American Indian Coalition blessed the Plaza in recognition of its status as land stolen from Native Americans.

The protest was expected to last hours, maybe days. The public assumed Governor Lee would abate the crowd with a short meeting.

With every hour under the beating sun, the protestors pushed harder. The Tennessee Highway Patrol pushed back with a blockade of metal barriers and a line of state troopers. A few Democratic state representatives briefly joined the crowd in speech and prayer. But out of the public eye, the line was becoming more aggressive. Several protestors were detained and released.

On June 28, hundreds of protestors flooded not only the Plaza but the streets. A line of cars, blaring a continuous symphony of horns, stretched for blocks around the Capitol. On the other side of the Plaza, a pro-police and pro-Trump counterprotest with no police presence raised the question of violence. But the threat slowly trickled away, along with the counterprotestors, and the Plaza protestors converged at the Capitol.

In an act of civil disobedience, hundreds climbed and sat upon the inner wall surrounding the Capitol under threat of arrest. The state troopers had had enough. More than 50 people were arrested for trespassing as they swung their feet on the wall, a site normally open to the public.

On the Fourth of July, Teens 4 Equality joined the People’s Plaza to lead a march on Broadway for racial justice. The event, founded by four teenage girls from Nashville and Franklin, drew a crowd of nearly 10,000 masked marchers.

As they wrapped back around toward the Capitol, the energy culminated in a celebration of Black pride and joy in the street. Troopers had gated off the Plaza, hoping to stifle the momentum from the march, but their efforts were futile. Protestors pushed past the gates and danced all the way up to the wall, reclaiming the space where they had demonstrated for the last month.

But the troopers had had enough. As the protestors edged closer to the police line, shouting on both sides ensued, and they refused to leave. Suddenly, a mass of more than 100 officers surged, pushing them down the concrete stairs and cuffing wrists. Riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets threatened to turn the Plaza into a battlefield.

Dozens were arrested. Many were injured.

The following weeks were difficult. Troopers stormed the Plaza on random nights, arresting protestors under Equal Access. They confiscated belongings including food and medication, broke down canopies, and rarely returned what was taken. After one raid, an organizer went to the THP office building only to find her belongings stuffed in a dumpster out back.

The Tennessee State Capitol Commission met on July 9 to debate whether to relocate the Nathan Bedford Forrest Bust from the Capitol to the State Museum. Though the motion had failed multiple times in previous years, the Plaza protests placed a new pressure on members.

The protestors were denied entry to the hearing at Tennessee Tower, so they hunkered down inside and outside the lobby. They watched a livestream of the debate, and as the vote passed, their cheers rang through the building. Although the decision would have to move on to the Tennessee Historical Commission, it was cause for celebration.

The night shift at the Plaza required protestors to stay awake and on guard at all times. Troopers barricaded the upper grounds at 11 p.m. and threatened to arrest anyone who set foot past the outer wall.

Being a popular site for houseless individuals to spend the night, this would mean intruding on their space. Instead, countless members of the houseless community became a vital part of the movement, helping with security, joining and leading in direct actions, and even being arrested on many occasions.

With the sunrise came breakfast and coffee. Overnighters were replaced with a new group of protestors, and a new day began.

In mid-August, the People’s Plaza voted to end the 24/7 occupation. A special legislative session, called by Governor Lee, aimed to felonize many protest activities — including camping and writing in chalk on State property.

The final days would end in a three-day Honk-a-thon, where protestors encouraged the public to drive around the Capitol and honk while the legislators met inside.

The new anti-protest bills passed through a Republican majority, and the People’s Plaza planned for its last day of occupation.

On August 12, a group of 16 protestors handcuffed themselves to the Plaza’s railing. They sat chained throughout the day as the rest of the Plaza sounded with chants and songs until nightfall.

At 11 p.m., as they did every night, troopers swarmed the Plaza. They placed each remaining protestor under arrest, snapping the handcuffs with bolt cutters and physically carrying off those who refused to leave.

Below, on the street, the remaining protestors led a chant made famous by civil rights leaders before them:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love and protect each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Assata Shakur