It’s been exactly one week since I saw on the news that Gov. Bill Lee would be in Memphis. With 20 minutes advance notice, I learned where he’d be visiting and instead of going to a chess meetup, I headed to Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
As a longtime activist, I had questions that needed answers about issues that are important to Tennesseans. Lee came to Memphis last Friday, which happened to be Juneteenth. As I made a U-turn on Poplar Avenue, I realized I had zero back up, but I was able to reach a good friend and ally to go with me.
Lee and his sizable entourage arrived at the church, which was doing coronavirus testing, shortly after I did. He walked past the press line and engaged with folks assisting with the testing. Every local TV news outlet was there, but the governor ignored them.
My ally and I approached the tent where Lee was standing, in hopes he was already fielding questions from the media. That wasn’t the case. So I decided to speak up. Once I started, there was no turning back.
I cycled through questions about recent legislation passed and Lee’s broken promises to increase teacher pay and make residents proud that he’s their governor.
My first question was about activists. Earlier in June, dozens of people demonstrated over several days outside the statehouse in Nashville, and more than 20 were arrested.
“Do you have a response, Governor Lee, as to why protesters were arrested at Capitol Hill?” I asked him, loudly. “I know you hear me!”
As he walked across the parking lot, I followed him. Won’t no mask stop no show. Just because someone doesn’t acknowledge you, doesn’t mean they don’t hear you. So to ensure Lee heard me, I briefly lowered my mask — from more than six feet away — to be sure I was heard loud and clear.
I had questions about education too. Just that day, the state legislature passed a budget that didn’t include any additional pay for public school teachers. “Matter of fact, why didn’t teachers get raises?” I asked. “You wanted to fund $43 million for vouchers, but you don’t want to give teachers raises? Where are your priorities for Tennesseans?”
My attention then went to the state’s decision to reopen even with escalating number of COVID-19 cases. “And you can go ahead and shut Tennessee down again. Why? Because our numbers are going up. Because you opened it back up too fast.
Reproductive justice was also on my radar. Early on Juneteenth morning, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that prohibits abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which could be as early as six weeks.
“Why did you put an abortion plan in place that doesn’t allow for victims of rape or incest to be protected?” I asked. “Who does that? You’re a man making these decisions? Nobody belongs making these decisions except for a woman and her doctor.”
As Lee sat down under a tent, the woman giving him the test told him it would be a little bit uncomfortable. “It should hurt,” I said, “as bad as Tennesseans are hurting from his poor legislation.”
After Lee was tested, someone commented that he seemed to have tears in his eyes, which led me to my next question about why he hadn’t expanded Medicaid even in the midst of a pandemic.
“Yeah, Tennesseans have tears in their eyes too. Especially black women. Especially people who need access to healthcare. Matter of fact, what about the billions of dollars that have not been afforded to Tennesseans because you refuse to expand Medicaid?
“As a cancer patient, that affects me directly because I’m not insured because of your poor legislation…. I got time. If you won’t stand up for Tennesseans, I will.”
Sadly, Lee did not respond to any of my questions or acknowledge I was there. That’s not a surprise. This tracks with treatment I’ve received from other local elected officials, including then city council member and chairman Berlin Boyd, who a couple years ago sent me a letter banning me from two council meetings after I spoke up during a meeting. It’s routine for Black women to be ignored, especially in the political space.
Memphis activist Theryn Bond asked several questions of Gov. Lee that went unanswered today. He also did not take questions from the media, with spokesperson noting Lee was in town for photo only pic.twitter.com/zapkuj7r4Y— Laura D. Testino 〽️ (@ldtestino) June 19, 2020
It’s been crazy to see how people have reacted to what I did. Some root for me. Some say I’m out of line and there’s a better, nicer way to address elected officials. But when you assume the title of elected official, you are serving the public, which includes being praised for great decisions and questioned or scrutinized for bad ones.
If Lee didn’t make decisions harmful to Tennesseans, then I would have nothing to say.
If he had a history of meeting with Black folks, activists, young folks, or any other demographic that doesn’t kiss the ground he walks on, yes a simple call or email would suffice.
That’s not the case. Sometimes, bold actions by bold individuals are required.
Fortunately, more folks are stepping up and boldly speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, it took the public murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement and so many before him to realize the importance of Criminal Justice reform.
In Tennessee specifically, it’s taken the failure to expand Medicaid and the chipping away at women’s reproductive rights for people to see that our government needs massive restructuring. We the people have the power, and it’s a shame that these issues have to come to our front doorstep for us to truly get it.
With this being yet another election year, we need everyone on board. I need everyone to do something.
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking boldly to elected officials, make the time to vote.
You can’t vote because you’re an ex-offender and lost the rights to do so? Make the time to encourage as many people as possible to cast a vote in your honor.
You’re really not into voting or old enough to vote? Make the time to phone bank or canvass for a candidate that represents your values.
In August we will also elect Shelby County School Board members and vote in the primaries for several state representatives, state senators and state executive committee members. The deadline to register to vote in the August election is July 7, less than two weeks away. Early voting for the August election is July 17-Aug. 1 and Election Day is Aug. 6.
And of course the presidential election in November is important, but also on the general election ballot is one of Tennessee’s two U.S. senate seats, both of Shelby County’s U.S. representatives, and two state senate seats. All of the Tennessee House of Representatives seats are also up for grabs. The deadline to register for the November election is Oct. 5. Election Day is Nov. 3.
Your Tennessee house representatives and senators are some of the most critical folks you can cast a ballot for. Their votes directly affect whether our trajectory is one of progress or detriment.
I need you to make time to request an absentee ballot. Make time to get your butt off that couch and go to the polls. If you can’t vote, drive someone to the polls.
Let’s reclaim our vote and move Memphis forward for real. We deserve to have elected officials who listen, respond, and legislate effectively on our behalf.
Lee’s policies stifle hope and change, but people power will push Tennessee forward.
Theryn C. Bond, who also goes by #PoliticalBarbie, is a native Memphian whose family has roots in politics and civil rights. She is active in the community and gives motivational speeches on electoral politics. Her favorite quote is from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.