CLT Update
Saturday, July 14, 2001

Real tax revolts are alive and well
in the "Volunteer State"

"A mob? I think it was a mob the same way that folks climbed on a ship and started dumping tea in a harbor 200 years ago were a mob. It was not an out-of-control mob that was anything other than loud."

Nashville's WWTN talk-show host Steve Gill

They still know how to throw a successful tax revolt in Tennessee!

Thursday was the second time anti-tax activists have beaten back a state income tax there; the first was in June, 2000. The American Spectator reported in its Feb. 2001 issue ("How a Horn-Blowing Mob Beat a Tax Sneak-Attack," by Dave Shiflett):

"The tax fight is interesting for a couple of reasons. It reminds us that political elites can change their stripes very quickly. In this case, Republican Governor Don Sundquist promised never to countenance such a tax, yet two months after telling the General Assembly that state finances were rosy, he pronounced a crisis and called for the imposition of a state income tax...."

Isn't it ironic that while Tennesseans look to the Boston Tea Party for precedent, two centuries later we now look to Tennessee for inspiration.

Chip Ford

The Tennessean
(Nashville, Tennessee)
Friday, July 13, 2001

Crowd hurls rocks, rhetoric to protest tax 
by Leon Alligood, Rob Johnson and Duren Cheek

A shouting mob of more than 1,000 anti-tax protesters, fearing an 11th-hour approval of a state income tax, stormed the Capitol building yesterday, pounding on office doors and breaking a few windows, one of them by a rock hurled into Gov. Don Sundquist's office.

For two emotional hours, authorities blocked entrances to the Capitol, where inside the Senate eventually voted a budget with no new taxes similar to one already passed by the House. No one was arrested. One woman was taken to an area hospital with an asthma attack, emergency medical workers said.

The crowd grew to at least 1,000 on the immediate grounds, with several hundred more across the street at the Legislative Plaza.

Many people were giving credit to conservative talk-radio hosts Phil Valentine and Steve Gill for alerting the public to possible action on an income tax. Both men urged listeners to come downtown. Valentine also suggested that listeners go to Sen. Bob Rochelle's Lebanon home and protest. State troopers were sent to Lebanon as a precaution.

"This is the greatest display of liberty Nashville has ever seen," Gill said outside the Capitol. "We're the voice, but they're the volume. Listen to them."

Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, said he sought refuge in the governor's suite of offices after sensing the crowd's angry mood.

"All of a sudden, a big rock came through a window and landed at my feet," the legislator said. Security officers directed him and the governor's staff to another room.

By late afternoon, the protesters had moved into the main lobby separating the House and Senate chambers, abandoning their car horns for their angry voices.

About 100 Metro police officers, most drawn from downtown and nearby areas, were called to the Capitol at about 6:45 p.m. by Capitol Police, who asked for additional help to cope with the crowd, Metro police spokesman Don Aaron said. Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers also were summoned.

Police closed Charlotte Avenue between Fifth and Seventh Avenues North because drivers converging on the area had made the street impassible for emergency vehicles. Four mounted patrol officers were stationed on Charlotte near Seventh.

Hand-clapping demonstrators, some carrying babies and others hopping like cheerleaders, packed the lobby outside the House and Senate chambers as uniformed State patrol officers and plainclothes officers kept a close watch.

Chanting "No means no" and wearing "ax the tax" signs, they crowded around the main Senate door, forming a gauntlet for members and staff.

They swept up and down the lobby like a human wave, stopping once to sing the national anthem.

There was a tense moment when one protester, a stocky man wearing a red shirt and blue jeans, began pounding on an unused Senate door with both hands, the noise echoing like a series of explosions in the ornate marble lobby.

He stopped after a state trooper quietly talked to him.

After the protesters were locked out of the building, they banged on doors and windows. A Nashville woman who identified herself only by her first name, Rhonda, said she broke a window with her fist. As she stood with the chanting crowd, her right hand was wrapped in a bloodstained handkerchief.

"This is my house, and it was locked," she declared, referring to the Capitol building. "If I was locked out of my own house I would bust out a window, so that's what I did."

However, the woman also maintained the broken window was an accident.

Whenever anyone wearing a suit passed through -- senators, representatives or legislative staffers -- they pumped up the volume to remind them of their displeasure.

State troopers guarded the doors. The lobbyists, who normally patrol the corridors taken over last night by the tax protesters, watched stone-faced from the lobby where, earlier in the day, they had been whiling away the legislative agenda, waiting for the General Assembly to make up its mind.

Carl Melton of Nashville waved a small American flag over his head, apparently overjoyed by failure of the income tax bill.

"I think it was a victory for poor people," said Melton, a radiation therapist. "This is an issue that brings people together."

The governor's press secretary, Alexia Levison, said Gov. Don Sundquist was delivering a speech at an economic development meeting at the BellSouth tower when someone told him about the damage to his office.

Sundquist cut the speech short and later issued a statement:

"I appreciate the right of all Americans to free speech and peaceful protest. I do not, however, approve of those who advocate violence, and I regret that occurred at the Capitol.

"State employees, legislators and law enforcement officers should be able to do their jobs in a safe, reasonable way.

"I am particularly critical of some radio talk-show hosts and at least one legislator who encouraged disruptive behavior and destructive acts," said Sundquist, referring to commentators Gill and Valentine. The legislator he referred to was reportedly Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood.

"I hope the budget debate will continue but in a calm, reasonable way."

Tax opponents, meanwhile, left behind a message that they intend to have the last word. After yesterday's protesters had dispersed, a cardboard sign dangled from the statue of Edward Carmack, a former U.S. senator and editor of The Tennessean who was shot dead in 1908 by the son of a bitter enemy upset by a critical editorial.

The sign read: "Remember in November."

Staff writers Kathy Carlson, Brad Schrade, Jennifer Barnett, Monica Whitaker and Henderson Hill III contributed to this report. Associated Press information was also used in the report.

The Tennessean
(Nashville, Tennessee)
Friday, July 13, 2001

No new-taxes budget passes as protesters swarm Capitol
by Bonna de la Crux, Duren Cheek and Rob Johnson

State senators tried to resurrect an income tax plan late yesterday but, amid protest chants of "No tax, no," ultimately approved a budget with no tax increase that lawmakers contend could put the state in deeper financial peril next year.

The Tennessean
(Nashville, Tennessee)
, July 14, 2001

Was it heroics or hysterics?
Protesters defend acts, but some felt threatened 

by Rob Johnson, Staff Writer

While the Tennessee General Assembly was dragging itself Thursday toward a budget resolution it hadn't wanted to face for more than half a year, unfamiliar faces started slipping into the smoky corridors typically crowded with legislators, lobbyists and news reporters.

Close to the empty hearing room in the War Memorial Legislative Plaza, for example, a husband and wife, both in shorts and sweat-stained T-shirts, were peeking around corners and into vacant offices. No one seemed to be around. When they found the brass doors of an elevator beneath the Capitol, they climbed aboard and tentatively pushed a button. When the doors slid open, the noise hit them full face, and they broke into smiles.

They'd found the full-throated roar from their comrades.

To those who oppose the imposition of a state income tax, the people who rushed to the state Capitol on Thursday to chant "no means no" in its marble corridors were heroes who ambushed a tax they feared their government was trying to sneak past them.

To others, particularly those lawmakers who turned the corner to find themselves staring at red-faced citizens shouting epithets at them, it was a rattling experience, one they feared easily could have lurched into violence.

On Thursday at midafternoon, the Senate, which had been laboring throughout the day to pass the so-called bare-bones budget -- one that avoided a tax increase but dipped deeply into the state's tobacco settlement money -- took a recess. A cluster of senators had gathered in Gov. Don Sundquist's office to talk about resurrecting a state income tax.

Word got out.

State Sen. Marsha Blackburn had alerted talk-radio host Phil Valentine that an income-tax plan might be brewing. Another talk-radio host, Steve Gill, said he, too, had heard similar reports. By late afternoon, the radio waves had spurred hundreds of protesters to rush to the Capitol.

They trickled in through the lower corridors and raced up the front steps. Soon, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Metro police were mobilizing crowd-control details. A rock sailed through a window in the governor's office, where Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, was standing.

Valentine said yesterday: "I think everybody who showed up was a hero. Except for the rock thrower, whoever that was."

Whenever there's a threat of an income tax, he said, "You've got to beat it back every time it comes."

For some of those on the other side of the doors -- hearing the pounding hands and the shouted insults -- the protest seemed to be what was threatening.

Sen. Roscoe Dixon, D-Memphis, was one of the legislators struggling with passing a budget. When the protestors arrived, the tenor and the tactics changed, he said.

"It created an unfriendly environment where you have concern for your members. I wouldn't have voted for the budget otherwise," Dixon said. "I thought it was just best before somebody got hurt. And these things can happen accidentally. I thought it was just best to adjourn and go home."

Many legislators said yesterday that although it was an alarming, noisy protest that surrounded them Thursday, they didn't object to the extra heat it brought them.

"I personally was not intimidated," said Rep. Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville. "I certainly appreciate and recognize that individuals have the right to protest regardless of what side they're on. And I would never want to do anything to curb that.

"I certainly wished it had not escalated to a level that I think was inappropriate."

Once the General Assembly passed its budget, it went home, leaving state glaziers the job of fixing three windows broken during the protests. Four people were cited for disorderly conduct, but Metro police said yesterday that two citations will be dismissed.

The encounters and their potential for violence troubled Hedy Weinberg, Tennessee director of the American Civil Liberties Union. But the protest, she said, was a straightforward expression of people's constitutional rights.

"That's what the First Amendment is all about," she said. "The First Amendment allows for boisterous protest. The First Amendment allows for words being used and sentiments being expressed that not everyone wants to hear. What we need to remember is that there is always room for counterspeech."

Blackburn was glad to see the turnout, even if it made for a tense Senate meeting.

"I had been on the radio Wednesday, and I told people we thought the income tax was dead for the year. I had said I would let them know if anything changed, and if it looked like it was going to come back and to keep them posted," Blackburn said. "And that I did. I think that's public information. And what we saw (Thursday) was democracy at work."

Sen. Steve Cohen encountered protestors who he feared were about to strike him, but that never happened.

"Most of those people were not anti-income tax. They were anti-government and anti-tax period and anti-revenue. And they've got the right to be. But it was pretty bizarre," he said.

"I don't think it changed the vote. I suspect that the 17 votes for the income tax were not there."

He said the experience brought the French Revolution to mind.

"Going through the crowd was the beginning of seeing what was kind of like France in the 1700s. The people started to descend on the Capitol. And start to get very demonstrative and very angrily approach you and start screaming at you."

Gill, the talk radio host, said it reminded him of another group.

"A mob? I think it was a mob the same way that folks climbed on a ship and started dumping tea in a harbor 200 years ago were a mob. It was not an out-of-control mob that was anything other than loud." 

Staff Writer Kathy Carlson contributed to this report.

The Tennessean
(Nashville, Tennessee)
, July 14, 2001

However you feel about the tax protesters,
you can't charge them with apathy

by Tim Chavez, Columnist

As many school board members have told me, if you can turn out people for an issue, you have a good chance of influencing votes.

On most issues, elected officials can't stir the public from their apathy to give an opinion, let alone show up at a public meeting. For all of us opinion writers who have criticized the reluctance of people to get involved, Thursday at the state Capitol was the response we've asked for and more.

No matter what your position on an income tax, you've got to respect the willingness of people to drive downtown after a day's work to be heard. Maybe you don't like talk-show hosts, but their ability to turn out people on an issue is incredible.

We are a republic form of government. We ask elected representatives to make decisions for us. But these protesters turned out -- many in anger -- because their representatives were trying to slip something by them. If you're going to vote Thursday evening on a state income tax, let the people know. And locking folks out of the state's most prominent public building when they know you're in there trying to slip one by only heightens emotions.

One protester carried a "No More Gore" sign. He was making a point about government living within its means like Tennessee households. He wasn't even willing to spend money for a new sign on a new issue.

There were unfortunate things. But people's shaking off apathy is good. Citizens' demanding government open its doors -- even literally -- is what opinion-writers have been seeking. Was it "a mob"? To the British press two-plus centuries ago, colonists -- who vandalized shipping in Boston Harbor over taxation without representation -- were. In U.S. history books now, they're patriots. History's judgment of protesters of July 12, 2001 -- outraged over taxation without notification -- will be fascinating to read.

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