A Letter to TN Gov. Bill Lee on the People’s Plaza

Dear Governor Lee,

I am writing to you as a member of the People’s Plaza, a group of peaceful protestors in Nashville who have been calling for you to briefly discuss with them the future of policing and antiracism in Tennessee.

For 62 days straight, we have occupied space outside the Tennessee State Capitol Building. For 62 days we have knocked at your door, and for 62 days you have ignored us.

With our particular action coming to a point where we must transition to a more sustainable effort in the long run, I would like to explain to you why you are a source of pain, toxin, and detriment to the state we both call home.

Let us start from the beginning.

You were eight years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. You were living on your family’s 1,000-acre farm in Franklin, hundreds of miles away but just a few minutes from my suburban childhood home in Brentwood. Our high schools play football against each other on Friday nights. I can imagine the kind of teenager you were because I allowed myself to be placed within the same culture you yourself likely got caught up in.

But despite our upbringings, we could not be more different.

As Governor:

  • You signed a “fetal heartbeat bill” into law, which criminalizes abortions once a fetus’s heartbeat is able to be detected (around six weeks) and does not make exceptions for rape or incest.

You bring suffering to my people. But more recently, you have brought me a different kind of suffering. 

You have violated both my body and my rights as a human. I was arrested for criminal trespassing on public property where, at the same time as joggers and tourists canter unnoticed, we have been snatched, beaten, bloodied, and slammed to the ground.

My friends have suffered debilitating symptoms of COVID-19, likely contracted from a jail cell in which they were detained for 12 hours — where your officers still refuse to wear masks.

You stole the personal property of people experiencing homelessness, including the prescription medication of several of my good friends. You stood idly by as Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers beat multiple protestors into seizures.  

You allowed your supporters to spew venomous, racist ideologies at us on the streets, many inciting the first acts of non-police violence these sidewalks have seen. Your soldiers reacted only to the potential harm of these individuals, threatening Black protestors while coddling those who perpetrate their harm.

You have failed in every possible way a leader can to react to the voice of the people.

Now, you will bear the brunt of your inaction.

I attended Tennessee public schools for 12 years, and I am familiar with the state’s particular brand of historical education. More specifically, I did not learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre. I did not learn about Juneteenth. I did not read James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, or any other influential Black writers.

Instead, I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the portrait my textbooks painted of Dr. King did not align with the full context of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.

He was a pacifist. He was an advocate of nonviolence. He initiated revolutionary change through the institutional channels of the church, the people, and the state. Those who fought against him were vicious, barbaric, inhuman, tyrannical racists.

So tell me, why was this perfect protestor murdered?

I learned on my own accord of Rep. John Lewis, the late Congressman who passed just last month. I need not explain his persona and his acts of courage to you; your State Capitol lowered its flag to half mast to honor him. Meanwhile, our sign memorializing him was removed from the balcony by your soldiers.

John Lewis was involved in the 1960 Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, where he was torn from his seat and beaten for the crime of being Black in America. As a teenager, my grandmother worked at the same lunch counter — Woolworth’s — during sit-ins in the years before. Today she spits at your face on television.

Too often do we forget how repetitive our small slice of time is. What has happened here has happened before and will happen again, no matter what you or I or anyone else has to say about it. 

I implore you to examine John Lewis and other freedom fighters who set a historical precedent for our protest today. Because then, with a little introspection, you might come to realize on what side of history you sit today.

Those who perpetuate an unjust system will be held accountable for its failures. But even your silence, an offense vile in and of its own, is overshadowed by your direct orders to cripple peaceful protest — both in the courts and in the streets.

Several bills aiming to criminalize peaceful protest have passed swiftly through the Tennessee legislature. They make camping on state property a felony punishable by one to six years in prison. They include chalk under instances of felony vandalism. They seek to make law enforcement officers invulnerable to basic accountability for things such as assault, sexual assault, hate crimes, and abuse of power.

These bills sit before you now, awaiting your signature. I am confident that, no matter the response from your constituents, no matter the pressure of your own moral compass, you will make the wrong decision.

You have the chance to end the reign of violence your police have waged against those seeking to have their voice heard. You and you alone have the chance to amend the ignorance you have reinforced in your own house. But history says you will not.

I am now 20 years old, and though I have witnessed likely only a fraction of what you have seen in your 60 years, I am confident that you will never be the man of God you think you are. The values you preach to your children and to your constituents deny every spiritual quality on this Earth.

Tennessee is at the forefront of revolution. It is the crossroads of Southern ideology and progressive thought. The hegemony of systemic racism and oppression prevalent in our businesses, our schools, and our government has burned brightly for centuries, but that time is over.

I have no call of action for you because there is no action you could take to revoke your acts of oppression against your people. This is a message, plain and simple.

Your culture of hate is dying, and I will live to see it buried.

Sully Barrett