United States: ‘The Tennessee Three’ for democracy, against gun violence

April 14, 2023
Tennessee Three
Justin Jones (front) and Justin Pearson (back). Pearson said after his resinstatement: 'You can't expel hope. You can't expel our voice. And you sure can't expel our fight.' Photo: @justinjpearson/Twitter

In the wake of the Covenant primary school shooting in Memphis, Tennessee, three Democratic legislators took part in a protest against gun violence from the floor of the state’s House of Representatives, in Nashville, on March 30.

In response, Republicans, who hold a super majority in the chamber, voted to expel two of them — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — from the state legislature, on April 6.

Jones and Pearson are young and Black, representing multiracial cities and serving their first terms in office. The third councilor, Gloria Johnson, serving her fourth term, avoided expulsion by one vote. She told journalists she survived the vote because of the “colour of my skin”.

Jones was reinstated on an interim basis on April 10 by a unanimous vote of Nashville’s Metro Council. Pearson, from Memphis, was reinstated by the Shelby County Commission on April 13. Both will face a special election to regain their seats.

Following his resintatement, Pearson said: "For all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can't expel hope. You can't expel our voice. And you sure can't expel our fight."

The Tennessee House Speaker alleged the three led a “mutiny” and were “insurrectionists”. The actual charge was violating chamber decorum.

Due to their super-majority in the House, Republicans can pass any law without fear of a veto. Democrats can only speak out and rally public support for bills that serve the public’s interests.

Jones and Pearson led protests for justice before being elected to office. The expulsion sent a strong message to all those protesting gun violence, but also to those demanding racial justice and women’s rights.

School shooting

Three days after the school shooting, where three nine-year-olds and three adults were killed, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state Capitol, calling for tighter gun control laws.

It was the first day that the state's legislature had sat since the shootings.

The three murdered school children were white; the three adults included the Black custodian and two white women, including the principal. The shooter was white and a former student.

Protesters lined the hallways before entering the galleries of the House and Senate chambers, chanting and shouting.

On the House floor, the "Tennessee Three", brought proceedings to a halt. Jones and Pearson led chants through a megaphone as legislators instituted a recess.

Video filmed by a Republican on the house floor — also a violation of the legislature's rules — showed the three speaking on the floor as demonstrators could be heard in the background.

Republicans pledged a rapid response. Johnson and Jones were stripped of committee assignments. (Pearson was newly elected and had yet to receive any committee assignments.)

Motions to expel the three from the legislature were introduced by three different Tennessee Republicans on April 3, accusing the trio of “disorderly behaviour”.

The ‘Trial’

Jones was the first of the Tennessee Three to be expelled from the House, by a vote of 72–25 after giving his defense on the floor.

Jones represents 70,000 residents in the Nashville metro area. On his campaign site, he describes himself as an activist and community organiser.

In an impassioned speech on the House floor before the vote, he said: “This is not about expelling us as individuals. This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people's house. It will not be successful.

“Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up.”

Pearson — who was expelled by a 69–26 vote — was elected in January in a special election after the incumbent died. He represents about 64,000 residents from part of Shelby County, where Memphis is located.

Pearson describes himself as a community leader and advocate. In an emotional statement before the expulsion vote, Pearson referenced Martin Luther King's beliefs in putting “conscience above rule”. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, while supporting striking Black sanitation workers.

“We have heard from thousands of people asking us to do something about gun violence,” Pearson said. “What is in the best interest of our people is ending gun violence.”

Johnson, a retired teacher representing part of Knox County, spoke of her experience surviving a school shooting, before the vote. She was stripped of her committee assignments. It is unclear if those will be restored. 

She defended Pearson and Jones, saying the legislature has to “welcome this younger generation”, who might do things differently, but “are fighting for their constituency”.

After the votes were concluded, Johnson told CNN: “I think it's pretty clear: I'm a 60-year-old white woman [a]nd they are two young Black men … amazing young men ... working so hard for people in their communities.”

The forced expulsion of lawmakers from any state legislative body in the United State is uncommon.

In Tennessee, according to local media, just eight lawmakers have been expelled from the House in the past.

Six of those were Confederates who were expelled in the 19th Century for refusing to affirm the citizenship of formerly enslaved Black people. In the 20th Century, a legislator was expelled after being convicted of bribery, and in 2016, a member was expelled for sexual misconduct.

Swift public reaction

Democrats nationwide were quick to condemn the expulsions. President Joe Biden issued a statement calling it “shocking” and “undemocratic”.

Vice President Kamala Harris headed to Nashville to meet with the three on April 7. The White House said Biden spoke with them to “thank them for their leadership in seeking to ban assault weapons and standing up for our democratic values”. He invited the Tennessee Three to visit the White House.

Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice — especially when they're doing it on behalf of our children.

“Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won't lead to progress.”

The Tennessee House Republicans said it was a “sad day” for the state — but defended the vote as “the only path forward” in response to the trio's “disrespectful” action.

One Republican representative claimed they had “never looked at the ethnicities” of the expelled House members. Blatant racism rarely has such a transparent disguise.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in Against the Current.]

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