Our “Truth In Strange Places Award” this month goes to the framers of the Tennessee Constitution, who included in that august document the following words:
“That government being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
That comes from Article 1, Section 2 of the “Tennessee Declaration of Rights,” and can be found on page 54 of the Tennessee Blue Book. And why has it become relevant?
Karl Marx said that everything that happens in history happens twice; the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce. That’s certainly proved true for my friend Bernie Ellis.
The first time the law came to his home, it was a tragedy: Bernie was arrested for growing medical marijuana, did time, nearly lost his farm, and lost his main source of income, which was consulting for state governments on….drug, alcohol, and treatment issues, including the implementation of medical marijuana programs.
The second time he encountered the power of the state, the worm turned, and the joke was on the state. The story has been well told in many places, but let me recap it for you:
Bernie started an outfit called “Gathering To Save Our Democracy,” which is a bipartisan group (yes, it includes some registered Republicans) working to restore verifiable election results in Tennessee. The group thought they had won a big victory last year when the legislature passed the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, which mandated a return to paper ballots instead of the state’s currently near-universal reliance on touch-screen voting machines, which are notorious for “malfunctions” that flip votes from one candidate to another, usually to the Repuglycan one, and leave no record of the voter’s original intent. And, by the way, the head of the company that makes these magical devices is on public record as saying he wants to help elect Republicans.
So, we were supposed to dump the touch-screen machines. However, when the legislature reconvened this year with a Republican majority, many Republicans, who had voted for the bill originally, had a change of heart, and, at the behest of the new Republican Secretary of State, Tre Hargett, tried to pass a bill delaying implementation until 2012, on the grounds that the switch could not be made in the amount of time remaining before the 2010 election. Fortunately, this bill failed by one vote–Tim Burchett, a Republican from Knoxville, had the courage to oppose it, along with the Senate’s Democratic minority.
He could oppose it because it wasn’t really a partisan issue. Simply stated, the reasons for not switching voting machines by 2010 were a pack of lies. Hey, the precedent had been set. It was amply proved by the Gathering to Save Our Democracy crew that there was time and enough money to implement the bill before the 2008 elections, but the state election commission, possibly under the influence of touch-screen machine manufacturers, did not want to move that fast, and legislators deferred to them. Now they have declared that the much longer interval before the next election is still not enough time, and there aren’t voting machines available that meet the standards, it would cost too much ….well, you can see where they’re going with this. If the deadline had been extended to 2012, the election commission doubtless would have dragged its feet and then appealed to the legislature to extend the deadline again.
Meanwhile, optical-scan machines are in use in 40 states, providing a verifiable source for recounts, and Al Franken owes his Senate seat to their existence. Maybe that’s what’s bothering the Repuglycans? And how did Bernie’s history of interviews with law enforcement officers return as farce?
I’m getting to that.
It’s characteristic for sociopaths to allege threats from others in order to justify their own actions, and that seems to be what happened next. State Election Co-ordinator Marc Goins, a former Republican legislator who is working closely with Tre Hargett to stonewall the mandated changes, accosted election activist Mary Mancini while she was eating lunch at the Capitol, and, according to Mancini, this is what he said:
“I’m a friend of paper ballots … But when you push your friends too far, sometimes they bite back.”
And, he added, “I’m this close to biting back.”
Hannibal Lecter lives!
And, next thing you know, the State Police are back at Bernie’s door, checking out an allegation that he had made “terrorist threats” in emails he sent to the Secretary of State’s office. Well, Bernie had not sent any emails to Tre Hargett, but the “terrorist threats”? That may have come from Bernie’s written references to “The Battle of Athens” he had sent to his friends and supporters–but not the Secretary of State.
OK, you’re asking–what was “the Battle of Athens?”
This refers to the successful effort of a group of WWII vets to end a long string of stolen elections in Athens, Tennessee, in 1946. It was pretty dramatic. There was a local political machine that was shaking people down, fixing elections, jailing election monitors who complained about their tactics, and, in one particularly egergious case, shooting a black citizen in the back after turning him away from the polls on racial grounds. The veterans, who found all this more like what they had been fighting to overthrow than what they had been fighting to protect, took up arms, took hostages, raided the local National Guard Armory, and ultimately threw dynamite at the county jail, where the political boss and his cronies had sequestered themselves with the ballot boxes. The vets succeeded in unseating the corrupt machine and none of them were prosecuted for their efforts. I’m surprised John Sayles hasn’t made a movie about it. Couldn’t be censorship, now, could it? Would such a movie give people “dangerous ideas”? Naw….
The vets beat the system in part because they were resisting that “arbitrary power and oppression” mentioned in the state’s constitution. Maybe Tre Hargett’s muzzled conscience has something to do with why he feels threatened by the story of “The Battle of Athens.” It’s certainly not a reference that would be feared by an honest politician, if I may be so bold as to posit such a thing…but I digress…the troopers are talking to Bernie again.
Bernie was friendly but blunt with them. In his words:
I also asked the two TBI agents to deliver a message from me to whoever had caused them to have to drive to my farm today. Before they left, the lead agent repeated my message verbatim to make sure he had it right:
*”Mr. Ellis would like whoever issued the complaint against him to grow a pair of balls, ‘man up’ (the agent’s words) and call him at any time to discuss any concerns they may have with him or with anything Mr. Ellis has ever said.” *
The agent looked to me like he is going to be happy to deliver that message personally.
Since then, Democrats in the state, smelling blood, have picked up on the issue and are calling for Hargett’s resignation. To their great discredit, most media in the state have cast this as a partisan fight and lent credence to Hargett’s arguments against implementing the law, all of which were thoroughly refuted when the bill was first passed in 2008. Ah, ain’t media amnesia wonderful!?
Well, speaking of media amnesia, here’s something a lot of people don’t realize: this isn’t the only illegal stonewalling going on at the Secretary of State’s office. We in the Tennessee Green Party instituted a lawsuit to overturn the state’s unconstitutionally difficult requirements for granting a ballot line to political parties other than the Demopublicans. We are sure we can prevail in this case, because the courts have already overturned Ohio’s similar strictures. That was last year. After the state demanded a voluminous amount of “discovery” from us in an almost impossibly brief time period, our lawsuit has vanished without a trace in the labyrinthine murk of the Secretary of State’s Office. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” is a principle that dates back to the Magna Carta, and we Greens are about ready to haul King Hargett before a court and allege obstruction of justice. The fact that he is also clearly blocking implementation of voting reform is just gonna make it easier for us. Thanks, Tre, you’ve brought the rope and you’re tying your own noose (figuratively, speaking, of course–I don’t believe hanging ever improved anybody’s character!). Oh, oh, am I threatening our revered Secretary of State? Guess I’m a terrorist, too. Come and get me!
music: Leonard Cohen, “Democracy“