‘Angry Mob of Antifa’: Robocall Attacks ‘Tennessee Three’ with Regurgitated Smears

A “robocall” circulating in Tennessee spread false accusations about the trio of Democratic state lawmakers dubbed the “Tennessee Three” in the wake of their being targeted by their Republican counterparts for expulsion from the state House — but they have all been reinstated to their seats as of August 2023.

The Tennessee Holler — an independent news organization — posted audio from the call smearing state House Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson:

Fact Check

Claim: The Tennessee Three led a violent protest with weapon-wielding Antifa members.

Description: A ‘robocall’ with false accusations circulated in Tennessee claiming that the Tennesse Three, democratic state lawmakers, led a violent protest along with Antifa members in the Tennessee state House. The call alleged that the protest included criminal acts of violence including carrying pipe bombs and brass knuckles.

Rating: False

Rating Explanation: The claim is proven false by multiple independent sources and news organizations. The protest in question was confirmed to be peaceful by the Tennessee Highway Patrol as no arrests were made. Besides, the accused lawmakers regained their seat in the state House, further discrediting the allegations.

These three radical activists posing as elected officials led an angry mob of antifa members from all over the country and a handful of Tennesseans into your house and intended on violence. Tennessee Capitol Police reportedly confiscated everything from pipe bombs to brass knuckles and Enlight Tennessee would like to publicly thank Republican House Rep. Johnny Garrett for standing up to the radical liberals and their two-tier justice system.

Jones and Pearson were expelled from the House on April 4 2023, after they joined Johnson in taking part in a demonstration against gun violence prompted by a fatal shooting attack against a Presbyterian Church-affiliated school that caused the deaths of three children and three adults. A separate vote to expel Johnson failed, and both Pearson and Jones were reinstated to the House by their respective cities. They retained their seats in a special election held on August 3 2023.

“Antifa? Pipe bombs? I guess parents brought them in strollers with their babies and toddlers,” Johnson wrote in response. “I didn’t know they made brass knuckles for children. This is disgusting, disgraceful, and it’s going to get someone hurt. No lie is too big for [the] TN GOP.”

The robocall hinges on the roundly-debunked claim that the protest was violent — or, as Tennessee Republicans have falsely claimed, comparable to the January 6 2021 right-wing coup attempt against the U.S. government; the Tennessee Highway Patrol confirmed that no arrests took place in connection with the protest.

“The critical difference is there was no threat to the integrity of a democracy in Tennessee,” Syracuse University law professor William Banks told USA Today. “Insurrection conditions occur when civilian authorities are unable to enforce the laws. That was a real threat on Jan. 6. Not so in Nashville.”

The message also invokes two familiar right-wing boogeymen: “Antifa” (which is shorthand for “antifascists,” who have been falsely blamed for everything from arson to instigating protests to storming the Capitol) and “outside agitators,” a longtime dog-whistle phrase meant to denigrate non-white demonstrators.

“Enlight Tennessee,” the group named in the call, is a Knoxville-based political action committee. The group’s website includes a section labeled “partnership” featuring a photograph of a Black woman shaking hands:

However, this is a stock photograph that has also been used by the healthcare provider Cigna:

According to WBUR-TV, its website leads visitors to a separate Knoxville firm, “Spry Strategies.” This company’s OpenSecrets listing, which tracks political payments, shows that it received $235,131 during the 2022 election cycle, with $44,326 coming from a group supporting disgraced former North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R).

Spry Strategies’ website contains no contact information. Its listing of clients includes an outdated logo for the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Knoxville campus:

However, a spokesperson for the UT system told us there was no record of any contract between them and Spry.

We attempted to contact the firm through information posted on its Facebook profile, but we received no response. The website also lists a wide array of right-wing political figures and groups as clients, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Democrats in two Tennessee counties, as well as Jones, have called on Sexton to resign following reporting by independent journalist Judd Legum showing that Sexton owns a residence in Nashville while collecting travel per diems that would apply to someone traveling from Crossville, the community he ostensibly represents in the legislature.

We have contacted Reps. Jones, Pearson, and Garrett seeking comment.

The Holler also reported on April 21 2023 that Enlight Tennessee also produced a robocall “thanking” right-wing state Rep. Scotty Campbell.

Campbell, who voted for the expulsion of the “Tennessee Three,” resigned from his seat on April 20 2023 after WTVF-TV reported that the House Ethics Subcommittee found that he had sexually harassed “at least one legislative intern [and] likely two.” The station added:

Under the Tennessee General Assembly’s own rules, however, quietly placing that vaguely worded memo in a representative’s personnel file is the only action that the ethics subcommittee can take upon a finding that he has engaged in improper conduct.

Ethics subcommittee members are also barred from publicly discussing their proceedings.

According to the Tennessee Holler, the robocall promoting Campbell was released on April 13 2021 — after the subcommittee determined that he had committed sexual harassment.

Update 4/19/2023: Updated to account for the apparent misrepresentation of a University of Tennessee campus as a client of Spry Strategies. — ag

Update 4/21/2023: Updated to reflect report that Enlight Tennessee produced a robocall in support of state House Rep. Scotty Campbell. — ag

Update 8/4/2023: Updated to reflect the formal reinstatement of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson to the Tennessee state House as a result of a special election. — ag