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Shelby County commissioner talks protest for voting rights bill and arrest at White House

Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 10:23 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Time is running out on the federal voting rights bill and in a last-ditch effort to save it, activists across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to call on President Joe Biden to do something he’s been reluctant to do since taking office.

Among a group of protestors in Washington, D.C. was a familiar face - Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

“And that’s why we’re here to tell Joe Biden today we put you in this White House. You are 10 months overdue in what you promised us,” said Sawyer minutes before she was taken away by U.S. Park Police.

Sawyer says the protest was peaceful with singling, chanting, and holding hands.

It isn’t immediately clear why 25 activists were arrested one day before the U.S. Senate is scheduled to take up a sweeping voting rights bill.

Sawyer is no stranger to protests in the greater Memphis area.

She was the leader of the ‘Take em Down 901″ efforts and a slew of other demonstrations in the city.

However, she’s well aware critics may question why she would risk being arrested hundreds of miles away from a county she was elected to represent.

“I’ve always been someone who has been engaged in national politics, even before I was elected, and state and local politics are connected to national politics,” said Sawyer.

The Freedom to Vote Act would put certain voting standards in place in all states, such as automatic and same-day voter registration, two weeks of early voting, and the creation of election day as a public holiday.

University of Memphis constitutional law professor, Steve Mulroy, says the bill does not have the 60 votes needed to get past the Republican Senate filibuster.

“So, President Biden by himself doesn’t have unilateral authority to change the filibuster. Only the Senate can change that, but that doesn’t mean behind the scenes he can’t twist a few arms and make a few promises here or there,” said Mulroy.

Sawyer says it’s important to use his influence to help a bill that could change gerrymandering and other voter issues.

“President Biden is a known negotiator and using political language, he’s somebody who has had control of the Senate who has been able to work across party lines. And yet, we’re watching him sort of punt on that right now,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer says The League of Women voters and the People for American Way have another demonstration scheduled for next month.

Sawyer says she doesn’t have any intention of being at that protest. She also says she was given a citation by police and it’s akin to a traffic ticket.

Sawyer says the citation will not affect her role as an elected official.

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