All eyes were on the Tennessee legislature Thursday as Republican lawmakers made the stunning, unprecedented decision to expel two of their Black Democratic colleagues, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, for participating in a student demonstration for gun control. The caucus notably couldn’t muster the votes to expel the one white lawmaker who joined them, state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D).
“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today. Two young Black lawmakers getting expelled and the one white woman does not,” Pearson told reporters over the deafening shouts of protestors at the statehouse after the vote Thursday night. “That is a statement in and of itself.”
Over a thousand protesters, many of them students, had been swarming the state capitol since the mass shooting at an elementary school in Nashville that killed six (three children and three adults) on March 28. The thee Democratic lawmakers had joined the protests, chanting, “No action, no peace,” on the House floor and making speeches calling for gun control. Republicans retaliated with a motion accusing Johnson, Jones, and Pearson of “knowingly and intentionally bring[ing] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives,” which is apparently grounds for expulsion.
“What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the State Capitol,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R).
Of course, there’s a long history in this country of men like Sexton painting peaceful Black men as violent and dangerous, and that was clearly the subtext throughout Thursday’s debates. At one point, Rep. Ryan Williams (R) asked Jones directly on the House floor: “When you say, ‘No action, no peace,’ what do you mean? What does representative Jones mean by ‘no peace?’”
Jones’ response—measured, thoughtful, powerful, stirring—must be watched to be fully appreciated. But here is an excerpt in which he quotes from the Bible to give context to the chant, showing that it’s the opposite of violent:
“They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace where there is no peace....They dressed the wound of my people as though it was not serious. ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ they say, where there is no peace.’”
That’s what the chant means—that we have no peace and that until we act, there will be no peace for the thousands of children who came here demanding that we act, who are afraid that if they’re in school, they will be gunned down. Because you have passed laws to make it easier to get a gun than it is to get health care in this state. You pass laws that make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote in this state. And so, that there will be no peace in Tennessee until we act on this proliferation of weapons of war in our community. That is the peace I was talking about.
It’s hard to imagine anyone having the gall to vote to expel this man from a legislative body after those words, but Republican lawmakers did. They cut off debate and then voted along party lines, 75-25, to expel Jones from the legislature. The move was an overt and, frankly, terrifying blow to democracy. “We’re talking about nothing less than 75 people overruling the wishes of 78,000 people,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) rage-screamed at his colleagues. “And you’re gonna cut off debate? Give me a break. Is this a circus? You are talking about kicking somebody out of this body. Grow up.”
Republicans then considered the fate of Gloria Johnson, and they spared her by a single vote. This was a bit surprising, racism notwithstanding, as she’d just badly burned her GOP colleagues earlier this week in a statement that went viral. “We had a child molester on the floor for years, they helped him get reelected and did nothing to expel him,” she said. “We’ve had members pee in each other’s chairs. We’ve had members illegally prescribe drugs to their cousin-mistress, and nothing happened. But talk on the floor without permission, and you’ll get expelled.”
But the white woman got to keep her job. And then Pearson’s seat was up for a vote, and he did not go down without a fight. His speech, which steadily rose in volume and passion, cut to the very core of supposedly American values:
You are seeking to expel District 86's representation in this House—in a country that was built on a protest. In a country that was built on a protest. You who celebrate July 4th, 1776, pop fireworks and eat hot dogs. You say to protest is wrong because you spoke out of turn. Because you spoke up for people who are marginalized. You spoke up for children who won’t ever be able to speak again. You spoke up for parents who don’t want to live in fear....You spoke up for people that we don’t want to care about. In a country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn to build a nation. I come from a long line of people who have resisted.
Later, just moments before the vote to expel him, Pearson delivered a fiery, hopeful sermon to the packed statehouse. “Resurrection is a promise and it is a prophecy,” he said. “It’s a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields. It’s a prophecy that came out of the lynching tree. It’s a prophecy that still lives in each and every one of us in order to make Tennessee the place that it oughta be. So I got hope, because I know we are still here and we will never quit.”
The crowd of protesters erupted into cheers and applause, and Republicans voted to expel Pearson on party lines.
The racial implications, at this point, became hard to deny. Johnson, asked after the final vote why she was the only one of the three to keep her job, answered rather bluntly: “I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman, and they’re two young Black men.”
It can’t be overstated how much of a stunning abuse of power this was. Tennessee has only expelled two lawmakers since the Civil War, one for accepting a bribe and one for sexual misconduct. In deciding they can now just get rid of elected members across the aisle over a nonviolent protest, Republicans have shown how fully fascist they will go to hang onto power when they feel threatened by a changing electorate.
President Joe Biden condemned their actions in a statement Thursday night. “Today’s expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” he said in a statement. “Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee.”
Biden added: “Congress must ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, require safe storage of firearms, eliminate gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability, and require background checks for all gun sales, and state officials must do the same.”