The arduous process to remove a bust commemorating a Confederate general, early Ku Klux Klan leader and alleged war criminal from the Tennessee Capitol is underway. On Friday, the Tennessee Historical Commission convened and heard comments regarding the relocation of the Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol to the Tennessee State Museum.

An overwhelming amount of comments were in favor of removing the bust, an outcome many racial justice activists have sought for years. The removal of the statue was one of several demands listed by the Black Lives Matter protesters who occupied Legislative Plaza for 62 nights — an activist action given the names People's Plaza and Ida B. Wells Plaza (the latter name in honor of the pioneering Black journalist).

In July, protesters celebrated when the State Capitol Commission voted to request a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission, as required by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, to move the bust to the state museum. But since the Tennessee Historical Commission meets quarterly, it didn't land on their agenda until last week. The focus of the meeting was on identifying people and entities who should be notified of the relocation effort. The final vote on granting the waiver to relocate the bust from the Capitol won't happen until February. Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally are vocal opponents of the waiver, both signing a letter calling for the State Building Commission to be involved in the process ahead of the meeting.

With the long-running protest taking place at the Capitol steps, the Tennessee state legislature passed — among other bills during a special session —  a law that enhances penalties for those who violated anti-camping laws.

In light of the recent steps toward the bust's removal, we offer a look back at the People's Plaza protest action, one of the most recent and most visible sources of pressure for the relocation effort.

Photojournalist David S. Piñeros spent weeks documenting the movement, taking pictures and conducting brief interviews, which he now shares with the Scene. 

"Instead of having the difficult conversation on police violence and racism that protesters have been peacefully requesting for months, the governor signed an anti-protest bill that even he believes goes too far," says Piñeros. "After 21 detentions, about 210 arrests and $877,000 tax dollars for state troopers’ overtime among other expenses [in June alone], Tennessee is once again on the wrong side of history."

Photos and words David S. Piñeros. Alejandro Ramirez contributed reporting to this story.


June 12

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Justin Jones in June 2020

A group of protesters takes the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol and camps outside, seeking an audience with Gov. Bill Lee to discuss racial injustice in Tennessee. Hours earlier, the governor said state troopers would enforce laws prohibiting camping, but no arrests are ultimately made.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

June 13

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Around noon, state troopers tell the activists they need to move so the area can be power-washed. They do not permit the protesters to return to the site, and the activists sit in on a corner of the Capitol lawn. A Black Lives Matter march takes place the same day, which offers the protesters an even bigger audience for their standoff with troopers. At 11 p.m., the protesters move off the Capitol grounds and across the street to Legislative Plaza, where they remain for the next two months.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

June 15

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

After 78 hours, the founders of Teens for Equality, who earlier that month organized a march of thousands through Nashville’s streets, make an appearance at the occupation. They address the crowd standing on the grass at the Capitol. “How come a cop with three months of training makes more than my teacher?” says 14-year-old activist Kennedy Green.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

State troopers announce they will arrest anyone still on the premises after the Capitol grounds close at 11 p.m. Dymin Cannon, center, reassures Kylia Thomas, left, and Candace LaFayette, right, as they prepare along with 19 other activists to disobey the order and be arrested.

June 19

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Protesters take a knee, following the lead of a Black man from the crowd who kneels and reads the last words of Gorge Floyd, ending with a heartrending scream of “Mama!”

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

The National Guard, equipped with riot gear, interpose themselves between protesters and the Capitol. The people respond by lifting their hands and standing their ground. Twenty minutes later, after speaking with protesters, the Guardsmen are dismissed.

June 23

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

State troopers conduct a raid, taking not just protesters’ canopies and water but also medicine and clothes from houseless people participating in the occupation.

Here, Tamara says with a broken voice that she tried to reach for some of her clothes in the hands of a trooper, and he reacted by hitting her twice in her face.

June 25

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

State troopers raid the plaza at 5 a.m. and take possessions from protesters for the second time in a week. Later that day, protestors block the doors of the Capitol with furniture.

June 28

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

At this point, activists have protested at the Ida B. Wells Plaza (the name they gave Legislative Plaza) for 17 days. Gov. Lee has not yet spoken with them. “We are about to engage in an act of civil disobedience,” says Justin Jones as he asks the plaza protesters to jump over the Capitol wall with him, a challenge to the arbitrary boundaries the state troopers have set for them. Forty-two people are arrested for criminal trespassing.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

July 4

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Teens for Equality organize another rally on the Fourth of July to protest police racism and violence. They lead a massive march through downtown Nashville and pass by Ida B. Wells Plaza. The activists once again take the Capitol steps.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Dozens of state troopers come out of the Capitol and begin arresting protesters. Many of the demonstrators lock their arms and legs together to resist arrest in unison. “It was symbolic for them to see that even in a time like that, we’re still going to hold each other down,” says activist Jonelle Christopher. The state troopers forcefully separate and apprehend them, hauling them up the stairs. In total, 55 people are arrested and spend the Fourth of July evening with their ankles shackled.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Many protesters would later complain about excessive use of force in their arrests, and decry unsanitary conditions at the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, where they were held for hours.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

July 7

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Seven activists and two journalists are arrested for standing on the wall of the parking lot at the Capitol. The area is public space but closes at 11 p.m. At 10:30 p.m., state troopers begin pulling people off the wall. Protesters chanting freedom songs and holding signs are charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct. Troopers raid the plaza at 1 a.m., arresting 51 more protesters.

July 9

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

After almost a full month of pressure from the People’s Plaza, the governor calls for a capitol commission to vote on the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust. On July 9, the commission votes nine to two in favor of relocating the statue from the Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum. Many activists in past years have called for the bust’s removal. The protestors are joyful following the vote, marching from the Tennessee Tower where the vote took place into Capitol grounds to continue celebrating. A final vote by the Tennessee historic commission is needed in order to remove the bust, but that won’t take place until February.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

July 11

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Protesters light candles during a vigil for all of those among them who have been arrested, assaulted or threatened during this occupation. They chant, “You can break our bodies, but you can’t break our minds.”

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Protester Emily Rads is arrested for the sixth time. She and other five protestors are forced to the ground and arrested after some protestors move the barricades at the Capitol.

August 7

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

William “Goodwill” Miles (left) and Trayvon Knight stand by the Capitol doors. “I don’t have much fears or doubts fighting the system anymore, I’m fighting with friends, with a purpose,” says Goodwill. He thinks they are “food for hungry people out here,” and that the troopers are not on the people’s side but rather “puppets being ordered by the governor.”

August 10

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Dieama McDougal poses by the iron doors of the State Capitol. She thinks defunding the police is a "brilliant idea, to take some of their muscle away," get their attention and "let them know they can't just do whatever they wanna do." She believes in investing in disenfranchised urban areas. Mcdougal has been attending the occupation, and adds that "being present here is very important for me as Black as I am."

The names of victims of police brutality, written in chalk, vanish with the weather, and state troopers use their hands to erase them at times.

August 10

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Trayvon Knight and several other protestors make it inside the Capitol to observe the voting process for the special session bill SB 8005, which will enhance the penalties for violating laws that prohibit camping on state grounds. The bill would also increase the violation from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to six years in prison — and people convicted of a felony can’t vote in Tennessee. “As I like to call it, the new Jim Crow laws here in Tennessee,” says activist Justin Jones, one of the first activists to camp outside the Capitol.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

After the first day of the session concludes, protesters block the Capitol parking garage, preventing lawmakers from leaving the building. Around this time, Jones is arrested and charged with criminal littering.

August 12

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

Bill SB 8005 is debated in the legislature and eventually passes. Meanwhile, 16 activists handcuff themselves to the railing outside the Capitol in protest. They remain handcuffed for seven hours. At 11 p.m., state troopers come out of the building to arrest them. This is the last night of occupation. Gov. Lee later signs the bill into law, never having met with the protesters.

A Look Back at the People's Plaza Protest

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