In the long history of the Tennessee House, only eight members have ever been expelled, including six Confederates who wouldn’t affirm the citizenship of freed slaves after the Civil War.
Now add to that number two young Black men who wouldn’t accept the status quo of America’s gun violence epidemic.
Last week, Tennessee House Republicans condemned three Democratic legislators for participating in a floor demonstration against the state’s lax gun laws following the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville. The Republican House speaker likened the demonstration to an “insurrection.”
Days after a heavily-armed shooter killed three children and three adults at the Presbyterian school in nearby Green Hills, the three Democratic members approached the podium between votes without being recognized to speak, a breach of House chamber rules.
The reps then led chants in the gallery with a bullhorn, calling for gun reform legislation. The chamber’s Republican leadership was apoplectic.
On Thursday, two of the “Tennessee Three” — Rep. Justin Jones (D) and Rep. Justin Pearson (D), both 28-year-old Black men — were expelled from the House. The vote to remove Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), a 60-year-old White woman, failed by a narrow margin.
The expulsions came as a shock, even by Tennessee’s standards, where the legislature recently passed blatantly discriminatory bills including a ban on public drag performance, the outlawing of gender-affirming care for minors, and also recently voted to advance legislation expanding the concealed-carry law to include AR-15’s for gun owners as young as age 18.
“Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting,” President Joe Biden (D) was moved to write on Twitter. “And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action. It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”
As voting concluded Thursday night, spectators in the gallery shouted “Fascists!” and chanted “Shame on you!” according to The Tennessean.
In a passionate speech on the floor before the votes, Rep. Pearson railed at Republican colleagues, who outnumber Democrats in the Tennessee House 75-22, about the irony of expelling members over protest “in a country that was built on a protest.”
“You, who celebrate July 4, 1776 — pop fireworks and eat hotdogs — 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!'”
Pearson continued, “‘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 thought out of turn to build a nation.'”
“I come from a long line of people who have resisted,” he said.