Traversing human existence in 2023 can feel daunting, and often downright futile, when you’re reminded of the scale of the ever-present and permanently unbothered opposition—especially in the South. This was laid particularly bare with Tennessee Republicans’ move to expel two Democratic lawmakers this week following a protest spurred by the recent murders of children at a school in Nashville.
Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson were both expelled from the state Legislature on Thursday, while another Democrat—Rep. Gloria Johnson—was spared. Not only did the expulsions mark an exceptionally rare occurrence in the state and elsewhere, but the carrying out of these banishments also stood as an existentially depressing though sadly not surprising display of sheer retaliation from gun-loving Republicans in the state.
Typically, these types of votes have been reserved for lawmakers who have been proven to have engaged in actual crimes. In Tennessee, per the Tennessean, the State House had expelled just eight lawmakers prior to Jones and Pearson. Of those, six were expelled way back in 1866 for trying to block the ratification of the 14th Amendment.
Below, we take a look at what has transpired at the hands of firearm-loving Republicans in Tennessee this week, as well as what could be next. Keeping reading for more.
What did the expelled representatives say?
“What Tennessee is doing is a power grab of ousting three lawmakers, your colleagues, simply because you have the numbers to do it,” Jones said ahead of this week’s vote, as seen in the video above. Jones was detailed in calling out the hypocrisy of Tennessee Republicans, specifically when viewing these expulsion votes within the larger context of the state’s history.
“A week after a mass shooting plagued our community, the most direct action this legislative body takes—or should I say, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are taking—is to expel us for speaking about the issues of weapons of war on our streets,” Jones said. “We called for you all to ban assault weapons and you respond with an assault on democracy.”
After the vote, Jones elaborated further on the hypocrisy, telling Democracy Now! that it “didn’t feel real” in the moment.
“If I didn’t know it had happened to me, I would think it was 1963, not 2023,” he said. “That a predominantly, almost entirely white Republican caucus expelled the two youngest Black lawmakers not for any unethical or criminal behavior but for our First Amendment amendment activity and for standing and doing our job to speak up for our constituents and to speak up particularly for young people who are terrified.”
Pearson, in his own closing statement on Thursday, urged the importance of holding to hope during moments like this. He noted that he still believes, as do others with a progressive view of how the state can evolve in the right direction despite such setbacks, that “better days in Tennessee are ahead.” But maintaining that hope, he repeatedly advised, was key in the success of a stronger tomorrow.
“Even when they were whipped and chained and told they had no name, my people didn’t quit,” Pearson said when connecting this week’s events to the South’s racist history. Deeper into his closing statement, Pearson made a timely connection between current events to the story of Jesus.
“Sunday always comes,” he said. “Resurrection is upon us.”
What did Republicans say?
Why was Rep. Gloria Johnson not expelled?
While Johnson and Pearson were both expelled, a push to do the same for Rep. Gloria Johnson ultimately proved unsuccessful with a 65-30 vote.
The protest was entirely peaceful and should be viewed as well within the right of anyone to engage in as they see fit. But Johnson’s single-vote avoidance of expulsion has seen some pointing to minor specifics from the scene of the demonstration. A Knoxville News Sentinel piece, for example, points to (as Johnson herself highlighted in response to the expulsion push) the fact that she did not use a megaphone or yell during the protest.
To be clear, Johnson herself has also publicly agreed with the criticism aimed at Republicans over the expulsions of Jones and Pearson, namely that the outcome is racist.
“Well, I think it’s pretty clear [why I wasn’t expelled],” Johnson said on CNN. “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men. In listening to the questions and the way they were questioned and the way they were talked to—I was talked down to as a woman, mansplained to—but it was completely different from the questioning that they got.”
What's the White House saying?
Per President Joe Biden, the lawmakers’ expulsions marked a “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent” move from Tennessee Republicans.
“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.
Biden was far from the only one to speak out in condemnation. Among those who joined him in calling out the expulsions was former POTUS Barack Obama, who said “no elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice.” This is especially true, Obama added, when such officials are doing so in response to acts of violence against children.
Prominent Nashville creators have also spoken out in support of the Tennessee Three, including musician and author Margo Price, who was among those who contributed their voices to the peaceful protest.
In short, both Jones and Pearson were confirmed to have the possibility of again taking on the roles they were stripped of after participating in a peaceful protest over gun violence against children.
The Tennessee Constitution states that a vacancy due to expulsion or otherwise should spur a special election in the event that “12 months or more remain prior to the next general election for legislators.” Meanwhile, an “interim successor” for each vacancy can also be elected.
Both Jones and Pearson had expressed interest in continuing their work as lawmakers prior to being reinstated.
On April 10, Jones was sworn back into his position following a unanimous Metropolitan Nashville Council vote.
“I want to welcome democracy back to the people’s House,” Jones said upon his return.
Also on Monday, Jones called for the resignation of Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, Cameron Sexton.
“He must resign for his attacks on democracy, because it was the most extreme example,” Jones told reporters. “What we saw Thursday was an attempt to crucify democracy.”
As for Pearson, he was also reinstated days later following a unanimous Shelby County Board of Commissioners vote.