Gov. Bill Haslam’s pitch for free community college for all Tennessee adults received a standing ovation during his State of the State address on Monday. But the governor was also met by hundreds of protesters, whose chants often seeped into the chamber as he spoke.
Their mantra was “We are watching you,” delivered in a slow, hushed chant — like a group whispering en masse — holding signs with intense eyes. The vow of demonstrators was to keep tabs on state lawmakers on a range of hot-button subjects, such as abortion, guns and religious freedom.
And for many, like Mandy Haynes, of Nashville, the presidential election has set off a first-time jolt of political activism. She carried two signs: “Equality hurts no one,” and the other most visible in the chamber, “NO BAN NO WALL.”
“I was really naïve,” Haynes said. “I’m not anymore, and I am watching. I’m paying attention and learning a lot, and we do have a voice.”
Much of the demonstration keyed off of moves made by President Donald Trump and federal policies. But some, like William Moore, 44, of South Nashville, also oppose state measures.
“They can’t keep passing hate-filled regulations under the auspices of faith and belief,” he said. “We won’t stand for it.”
Moore, who described himself as a recovering addict, specifically spoke of a Senate bill that he worries will meddle with regulations for counselors.
Demonstrators also sang songs and occasionally cheered for some lawmakers as they entered for Haslam’s speech. But another message was clear when the elected officials departed, as the chant turned to a raucous, “You work for us!”
The governor did not touch on the subjects that were fueling demonstrators — like the president’s refugee ban.
Later, Democratic lawmakers called the turnout “unprecedented,” and asked for ongoing participation, including in elections.
“I thought you did an excellent job getting your message out,” Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told a group of demonstrators afterward. “We know you are watching, and we want to do what’s best for the people of our state, from the rural areas to the urban areas, to folks of all income means and folks of all status of life.”