A state senator called Thursday for the University of Memphis to expel students who were arrested this week for disrupting a committee meeting about anti-union legislation.
“If I did something like that, I’d be long gone back when I was there at the university,” Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, told reporters just after criticizing the protesters on the Senate floor.
McNally graduated in 1967 from what was then called Memphis State University.
Democrats defended the students and likened them to civil rights protesters of the 1960s. Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, urged the university “to be careful in how they punish those students for their deeds” and recalled the civil rights era demonstrators.
“Sometimes we forget our history,” Harper, who is black, told the Senate. “Those children marched. They were spat upon. They were burned with cigarettes. … Those young people protested before some of you were born so that I could sit at the front of the bus, so that I could go in and have a sandwich at the counter.”
Of this week’s demonstrations, Harper said, “Yes, that was a disruption. But I thought in the scheme of things they were orderly. Let’s be careful how quickly we suggest that our young people be punished.”
University of Memphis officials did not respond to a City Paper request for comment.
State troopers carried seven young activists — including two University of Memphis students — out of the Senate Commerce Committee meeting Tuesday after they locked arms, dropped to the floor and refused orders to leave. The committee delayed action on the bills on their agenda, including one that would bar unions from using dues to pay for political activities.
The students were arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Some of the activists are affiliated with the Progressive Student Alliance, which is sanctioned by the university.
“In the years that I’ve been down here, we’ve never had a situation like that where it actually disrupted a committee meeting,” McNally said. “We had ’em pounding on the Senate door one time during the tax debates. … I don’t mind people protesting. But when they get into interrupting a government meeting, you know that type of thing, that’s a different animal.”
In 2002, horn-honking, rock-throwing protesters converged on the Capitol to stop the legislature from enacting a state income tax. Democrats said those demonstrations were more disruptive.
“Those were patriots, according to the Republicans,” said Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.
“This is still America,” Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said. “People have a right to protest. We’ve not taken that right away yet. However, I fear sometimes we may be headed down that road. Those people had every right to protest what they did. They locked arms. They weren’t cooperative but they weren’t trying to beat anybody up or anything like that. This country was founded on protest.”