Silenced by her Republican colleagues, Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr looked up from the House floor to supporters in the gallery shouting “Let her speak!” and thrust her microphone into the air — amplifying the sentiment the Democratic transgender lawmaker was forbidden from expressing.
It was a brief moment of defiance and chaos. While seven people were arrested for trespassing, the boisterous demonstration was free of violence or damage. Yet later that day, a group of Republican lawmakers described it in darker tones, saying Zephyr's actions were responsible for "encouraging an insurrection.”
It’s the third time in the last five weeks — and one of at least four times this year — that Republicans have attempted to compare disruptive but nonviolent protests at state capitols to insurrections.
The tactic follows a pattern set over the past two years when the term has been misused to describe public demonstrations and even the 2020 election that put Democrat Joe Biden in the White House. It’s a move experts say dismisses legitimate speech and downplays the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Shortly after, the U.S. House voted to impeach him for “incitement of insurrection.”
Ever since, many Republicans have attempted to turn the phrase on Democrats.
“They want to ring alarm bells and they want to compare this to Jan. 6," said Andy Nelson, the Democratic Party chair in Missoula County, which includes Zephyr's district. “There’s absolutely no way you can compare what happened on Monday with the Jan. 6 insurrection. Violence occurred that day. No violence occurred in the gallery of the Montana House.”
This week's events in the Montana Legislature drew comparisons to a similar demonstration in Tennessee. Republican legislative leaders there used “insurrection” to describe a protest on the House floor by three Democratic lawmakers who were calling for gun control legislation in the aftermath of a Nashville school shooting that killed three students and three staff. Two of them chanted “Power to the people” through a megaphone and were expelled before local commissions reinstated them.
As in Montana, their supporters were shouting from the gallery above, and the scene brought legislative proceedings to a halt. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton condemned the Democratic lawmakers.
“(What) they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the Capitol,” Sexton, a Republican, told a conservative radio station on March 30.
He later clarified to reporters that he was talking just about the lawmakers and not the protesters who were at the Capitol. He has maintained that the Democratic lawmakers were trying to cause a riot.
To Democrats, Republicans' reaction was seen as a way to distract discussion from a critical topic.
“They are trying to dismiss the integrity and sincerity of what all these people are calling for,” said Tennessee Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons. “They’re dismissing what it is just to avoid the debate on this issue.”
Legal experts say the term insurrection has a specific meaning — a violent uprising that targets government authority.
That’s how dictionaries described it in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the term was added to the Constitution and the 14th Amendment, said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University.
Protests at the capitols in Montana and Tennessee didn’t involve violence or any real attempts to dismantle or replace a government, so it’s wrong to call them insurrections, Tribe said.
Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said insurrection is understood as a coordinated attempt to overthrow government.
“Disrupting things is a far cry from insurrection,” Gerhardt said. “It’s just a protest, and protesters are not insurrectionists.”
Nevertheless, conservative social media commentators and bloggers have used the word insurrection alongside videos of protesters at state capitols in attempts to equate those demonstrations to the Jan. 6 attack, when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to halt certification of the presidential vote and keep Trump in office. Some of the rioters sought out then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and shouted “Hang Mike Pence” as they roamed the Capitol.
Republicans’ use of the term insurrection in these cases isn't just wrong, it's also strategic, said Yotam Ophir, a University at Buffalo communications professor who focuses on misinformation. Repeating a loaded term over and over makes it lose its meaning and power, he said.
The term also serves two other purposes for Republicans: demonizing Democrats as violent and implying that the accusations against Trump supporters on Jan. 6 were exaggerated, Ophir said.
In Montana, one widely shared Twitter post falsely claimed transgender “insurgents” had “seized” the Capitol, while the right-wing website Breitbart called the protest Democrats’ “second ‘insurrection’ in as many months.”
The Montana Freedom Caucus, which issued the statement that included the insurrection description, also demanded that Zephyr be disciplined. The group includes 21 Montana Republican lawmakers, or a little less than a third of Republicans in the Legislature. It was founded in January with the encouragement of U.S. House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Matt Rosendale, a hardline Montana conservative who backed Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Republican lawmakers eventually voted to bar Zephyr from participating on the House floor, forcing her to vote remotely. Notably, Republicans largely avoided referencing insurrection when discussing the motion, but some did accuse Zephyr of attempting to incite violence and putting her colleagues at risk of harm.
The Montana and Tennessee examples follow at least two other statehouse protests that prompted cries of “insurrection” from Republicans.
Donald Trump Jr. cited “insurrection” in February in a tweet claiming transgender activists had taken over and occupied the Oklahoma Capitol. But according to local news reports, hundreds of supporters of transgender rights who rallied against a gender-affirming care ban before the Republican-controlled Legislature were led in through metal detectors by law enforcement and protested peacefully.
In Minnesota, some conservative commentators used the word insurrection earlier this month as demonstrators gathered peacefully outside the Senate chambers while lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature debated contentious bills ranging from LGBTQ issues to abortion. There was no violence or damage.
The rhetoric lines up with the refusal among many Republicans to acknowledge that the Jan. 6 attack was an assault on American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.
“My colleagues across the aisle have spent so much time trying to silence the minority party that anyone speaking up and amplifying their voice probably strikes them as insurrectionist, even though it doesn’t resemble anything like it,” said Clemmons, the Democratic lawmaker in Tennessee.