NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two African-American activists were arrested Thursday, the final day of Black History Month, while demanding lawmakers remove a bust from the state Capitol of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader.
The protest followed a tense news conference with visibly agitated GOP House leaders, who threatened to walk out on reporters who questioned them about the recent appointment of a lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct to head an education committee.
Together, the separate events have escalated tensions within the GOP-dominant Statehouse, amid numerous demonstrations.
House leaders have remained steadfast in support of Rep. David Byrd, who faces accusations from three women who say he acted inappropriately with them while they were students and he was their high school basketball coach three decades ago. Byrd has said conduct that long ago is difficult, at best, to recall. And he was later recorded apologizing to one of accusers though he never said why he did so.
Earlier this week, state troopers escorted six women out of Byrd's legislative committee after the women held up signs and questioned the panel, during a break, about Byrd's appointment.
No arrests were made then, but Democratic lawmakers were cut off Thursday on the House floor for raising concerns about limiting the public from attending legislative committees.
Meanwhile, several top Republicans — including first-term Gov. Bill Lee — have voiced support for adding some sort of context to the Forrest bust. However, there are no current plans to do so this session.
Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War. His bust at the Capitol was unveiled in 1978 and has stirred opposition for years. However, protesters have ratcheted up their opposition to it this session under new Gov. Lee and new House Speaker Glen Casada.
The tensions saw chaotic but brief interactions Thursday between protesters and state troopers, culminating in the arrests of Jeneisha Harris and Justin Jones. The two young black activists have led sit-ins and other protests at the Capitol this year.
"Take the statue down," protesters screamed as state troopers led Harris and Jones away. Harris faces one count of disorderly conduct and Jones faces one count of disorderly conduct and two counts of simple assault.
Jones tweeted Thursday afternoon that he and Harris had been released from police custody.
"Denounce white supremacy and the policy violence that occurs every day in the Tennessee Legislature and we were pushed against. But white men in power act without consequence," Jones said.
Prior to the arrests, troopers said, Jones was witnessed throwing a cup of coffee into an elevator that House Speaker Glen Casada was in.
"This type of behavior from 'peaceful protestors' won't be tolerated," Casada tweeted afterward. "I will not stand for radicals physically and verbally assaulting my members."
Democratic leaders were quick to criticize the protesters' actions while also criticizing the speaker's response to earlier protests this week in the Capitol. In particular, they chided GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton for not speaking out against Casada's decision to remove the women from a legislative committee on Tuesday.
"I never condone the inappropriate or illegal actions of someone meaning to harm another person," said Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Democrat from Nashville.
His statement added: "But what is even more shocking is the deafening silence exhibited by Cameron Sexton and others not denouncing the illegal actions of Speaker Casada when he removed law-abiding Tennessee citizens coming to peacefully and lawfully express their First Amendment rights earlier in the week."
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden responded that the protesters were only interested in "disrupting the legislative process." He added there's no room in civil discourse for throwing items.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper also condemned Thursday's protests, adding, "violence should never be a part of any protest and should never take place within the hallowed halls of our legislature."