Uncivil Liberties 

One Tennessee lawmaker sets a bad—if protected—example

One Tennessee lawmaker sets a bad—if protected—example

When state lawmakers take the oath of office, they raise their hands and swear to support, defend, and uphold the state and federal constitutions. This is, of course, after they’ve already been elected to represent the state in the first place.

Given all this, there’s an argument to be made that state Rep. Henri Brooks, a Memphis Democrat who has taken to refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with her colleagues, is just exercising what the U.S. Constitution guarantees—freedom of speech.

But there’s a better argument to be made: that the Pledge of Allegiance is a spoken testament to freedom. One would think Brooks would show respect for the very symbol that allows her to be as insufferable and dishonorable as she wants to be. As a public official, she represents constituents who have fought for the flag and have lost limbs and loved ones to help guarantee constitutional rights. They have every right to expect their representative to have more reverence for the American political tradition.

Beyond that, Brooks, who is black, decided to make a political statement before a group of visiting schoolchildren. She has stood for the Pledge before, but recently said that the American flag “represents those colonies that formerly enslaved our ancestors.”

For those who have missed the political debate du jour at the Legislature—separate and apart, of course, from the budget—Brooks has managed to alienate most, if not all, the 98 other members of the state House by accusing House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh of talking to her “like a master to a slave.” (It should be noted that this is not a first for Brooks.) She says he did that when he told her that he’d prefer she stand for the Pledge or wait outside the House chambers until it was over.

Brooks may have thought that she’d engender some political sympathy for both the gesture and the ensuing characterization of Naifeh, who is of Lebanese descent, as a racist. She was wrong. Even fellow Memphis Democrat Larry Miller, who is also black, says Naifeh was respectful to Brooks.

Naifeh is a lot of things, but a racist isn’t one of them. A glad-handing, good ol’ boy, yes. A perpetuator of the sometimes unhealthy relations between lawmakers and lobbyists, of course. A shameless and annoying UT fan, hell yeah. But he’s no racist.

Lawmakers have come wholesale to Naifeh’s defense, both because they know Brooks’ claim is a flagrant untruth and because they resent her indecency toward the flag. “It’s like flag burning,” one of her colleagues tells the Scene. “Intellectually, we all know that it should be permitted, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to swallow.”

Meanwhile, longtime Naifeh aide Bertha Walker, an African American who has worked on the Hill for 25 years—13 of them with the speaker—perhaps has more credibility than any other Naifeh defender, given the nature of Brooks’ charge. “If he treated her that way, that would be so out of character,” Walker tells the Scene. “I don’t understand her position at all.”

Walker felt so strongly that she was moved to post a lengthy defense of the House speaker on a legislative bulletin board. “I just felt like it built to proportions that were so confusing and out of place; I just wanted people to hear that,” she says.

Meanwhile, here’s a memo to the ACLU, whose officials wrote Naifeh criticizing him for his position that he’d prefer Brooks to stand or leave the House chambers: The House speaker spoke his preference; he didn’t issue a mandate. Isn’t that protected too?

Media play

Contrary to reports in the state’s dailies, state House negotiators say they didn’t meet in secret this week. “There were reporters in the room,” one legislator says. In fact, a national Fox News crew—in town for a piece about the Naifeh/Brooks imbroglio—was in the room at the time the House budget negotiators were meeting.

“[Speaker] Naifeh’s been adamant about keeping stuff open,” the lawmaker says. “We have had one closed caucus meeting, just to talk about how everybody’s doing, you know, have a little group hug. We didn’t think anybody needed to see that.”

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