The Expulsion of Pearson and Jones Ignites a Firestorm of Opposition against the Republican MAGA Party

State reps. Justin Jones (left) of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis held a moment of solidarity in the rotunda outside of the legislative chamber on Thursday, where hundreds of constituents gathered to support the lawmakers ahead of a House vote on their expulsions—photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

By Danny R. Johnson – Political News Editor

WASHINGTON–After seeing Republicans in the state legislature vote to expel two young, Black lawmakers from their ranks for protesting gun violence on the House floor, Black Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee have a warning for the rest of the country: This could happen in your state.

Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, of Nashville and Memphis, were out of office only days before local officials quickly and unanimously voted them back in last week as interim successors for their just-vacated seats, undercutting the Republican-led actions.

“What we have shown here … is that we do not speak alone. We speak together,” said Pearson at a meeting in Shelby County on Wednesday after being voted back into his role, to a roaring crowd. Jones was sent back to the Statehouse on Monday. “We fight together. And so the message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can’t expel hope. You can’t expel justice. You can’t expel our voice. And you sure can’t expel our fight. We look forward to continuing to fight and continuing to advocate.”

The situation quickly garnered attention for being at the intersection of several national issues, from gun control — the lawmakers had been protesting in response to a school shooting at the end of March that left six people, including three kids, dead — to voter disenfranchisement to racism. Pearson and Jones were expelled while a third lawmaker, who is white and who had protested alongside them, survived the vote and kept her seat.

The connecting thread, said several of Jones and Pearson’s colleagues in interviews with the news outlets, is the Tennessee Republican party’s determination to keep a firm grip on power. And, they said, this attempt to throw out democratically elected officials is a mere testing ground for other states with conservative supermajorities.

“We just so happen to have the light shown on us for the last few weeks,” state Senator Charlane Oliver said. “What can happen in Tennessee can happen anywhere in the country. We should absolutely be alarmed and concerned that it can get this bad. There is unchecked power running rampant.”
The Tennessee legislature has a recent record of dabbling in culture wars and racism.

Earlier this year, Tennessee reportedly became the first state to ban drag shows in public spaces. A white Republican lawmaker proposed adding lynching as a method of execution in the state; he later apologized. And another legislator proposed and then withdrew a bill that would have renamed a street honoring late Representative John Lewis of Georgia — a civil rights icon — for former President Donald Trump.

Black lawmakers describe an atmosphere of microaggressions and the refusal of some Republicans to speak with them. One Politico report described a text referring to Jones and another Black lawmaker as “baboons.”

Several Republican officials, from the legislature and state Republican party, did not immediately return requests for comment or interviews on the expulsion of their Democratic colleagues. But the state House speaker, Cameron Sexton, equated the protests to an “insurrection.”

“We had three legislators believe they were above the rules and that the other 96 members’ constituents were lesser than their own,” tweeted state Representative Andrew Farmer, a Republican who sponsored legislation to expel the members. “These three were not exercising their rights as legislators, they were performing as protestors.”

The resolutions against them accused the Democratic lawmakers of “disorderly behavior,” including speaking without recognition, using a bullhorn, and displaying a sign with a political message.

The expulsion of Jones and Pearson was seen by many as overreach in a state where such drastic disciplinary measures against sitting lawmakers are rare in modern times, reported The Tennessean, and usually in response to crimes or scandals versus voicing dissent.

“A democracy says you don’t silence the people, you do not stifle the people, you do not turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty,” said Vice President Kamala Harris in remarks at Fisk University in Nashville on April 7.

This is not to say that there wasn’t an immediate upside for Democrats, including the party outside of Tennessee.

Jones and Pearson became overnight stars of the Democratic party, far exceeding the amount of attention that would normally be paid to elected officials at their level. Their social media influence grew significantly, with follower counts ticking dramatically skyward. Harris traveled to Tennessee and met with them and Gloria Johnson, the third lawmaker involved in the protest. President Joe Biden also called them and extended an invitation to the White House. The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, also a Democrat from a southern state, spoke with them. And there’s already talk among Democrats of them being sent as surrogates across the country for party causes.

“I think their future is unlimited, depends on what they want to do, and whatever that is, they have my full support,” said state Representative Sam McKenzie, the chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.

McKenzie said he “would love” to see Jones replace US Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, he said when asked whether he could see them running for higher offices. Both Jones and Pearson are in their first terms, but Jones has served slightly longer than Pearson, who won a special election in January. McKenzie added that he hadn’t had any conversations with Jones about pursuing that office.

“At this point, I think he could win,” McKenzie said. Jones and Pearson did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.

Democrats’ optimism is not contained to the platform that the “Tennessee Three,” as Jones, Pearson, and Johnson are now known, now have, but extended to elections ahead. They’re hoping that the momentum they say they’ve seen is sustained through the midterms.

The chair of the state Democratic Party, Hendrell Remus, told the Globe that in the first week of April the party raised more money than it had the entire first quarter of the year. Less than 15 percent of the contributions were from within Tennessee, a “testament,” he said, to how closely people elsewhere were watching— they’ve had donations from each state in the country.

“A moment like this wakes people up in rural communities and suburban communities who are sitting on the fence,” Remus said. “No, we may not be able to win a lot of these counties and a lot of the districts in some red areas, but it gives us a key opportunity to turn people out and close the margins enough to help supplement the votes that are coming out of the major metro areas to hopefully win a statewide seat.”

A couple of Democrats also mentioned their excitement over the engagement from younger voters in the last couple of weeks, thinking of them as a key demographic that could help begin balancing their red-tilted state.

“What the Republicans did, what they did for the Democratic party — what we have failed to do — they awakened the demographic from 18 to 25,” said state Representative Vincent Dixie. “Now they’re paying attention. Now they know they’ve got to get out here and vote. Their voice matters, showing up matters.”
Though Pearson and Jones are back in their seats, Democrats consider the matter far from resolved.

There’s concern that despite Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, calling on the legislature to pass gun control measures before the session is scheduled to end later in April, little will actually change.

“I think [the political reality has] shifted some, but I’m cautiously optimistic. You have so many people that are hardened in their positions when it comes to common sense gun legislation, and they may not want to pivot,” said state Representative Antonio Parkinson, adding that the problem wouldn’t be solved until the social issues that led to the shooting were addressed. “What we’ve solved is a response to the problem, which was a response to try to silence the individuals who were speaking up on the problem.”



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