Ousted Tennessee lawmakers say move is ‘attempt to crucify democracy’

Black legislators were expelled for protesting the Republican-controlled house’s inaction after Nashville mass shooting

Two Tennessee state lawmakers who were expelled from the legislature after partaking in a gun control protest inside the chamber to which they were elected have called the move an unprecedented act of political retaliation as well as an “attempt to crucify democracy”.

During an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Easter Sunday, Justin Jones said his and Justin Pearson’s removals from the Tennessee house of representatives would “not go on unchallenged”.

“The Tennessee house Republicans’ attempt to crucify democracy has instead resurrected a movement led by young people to restore our democracy,” said Jones, who – like Pearson – is a Democrat.

Pearson echoed Jones’s sentiments, which seemed to evoke the imagery of Easter, when Christians mark the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion.

“The reality is an institution filled with people who are more concerned about supporting [gun access advocates] than it is protecting the [free expression] right to children and teenagers to be able to come to the capitol and advocate for gun violence prevention laws,” Pearson said to Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press.

Jones and Pearson were ousted from the Republican-controlled Tennessee house after a vote on Thursday prompted by the two Black, first-year lawmakers’ roles in a gun control protest held inside the chamber days after a shooting at a school in Nashville killed three nine-year-old students and three staffers.

Jones condemned his and Pearson’s ousting from posts to which they were democratically elected, saying: “This attack against us is hurting all people in our state.

“Even though it is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities, this is hurting poor white people,” Jones added. “Their attack on democracy hurts all of us.”

During the interview, Pearson pushed back against the Republican Tennessee house speaker, Cameron Sexton, who called the youth-led rally for gun control at the state capitol an “insurrection”.

“It’s that type of language, it’s that type of political ideology that is destructive to our democracy,” Pearson said. “And what ends up happening is the perpetuation of systems of injustice like patriarchy, like white supremacy that lead to the expulsion of two of the youngest Black lawmakers in Tennessee.”

He went on to describe the work environment in the house as “toxic … where you have people who make comments about hanging you on a tree … as a form of capital punishment”.

The remarks seemed to allude to one of the most common ways that white supremacists historically lynched Black people, particularly in the US south. In February, a Republican state lawmaker suggested adding “hanging by a tree” to a bill concerning methods of execution in Tennessee.

“They’re really sending signals that you don’t belong here,” Pearson said, adding: “It’s about us not belonging in the institution because they are afraid of the changes that are happening in our society and the voices that are being elevated.”

Jones described his and Pearson’s expulsions as a result of a “system of political hubris … an attempt to silence our districts, predominantly Black and brown districts who no longer have representation”.

He added that when he and Pearson momentarily left the statehouse to support the gun control protests at the capitol, their voting machines were turned off so they could not be able to vote on the chamber floor.

“The speaker … runs the capitol like it’s his private palace and so there is no democracy in Tennessee,” Jones said.

The expulsion of the two Black Democrats has prompted nationwide outcry.

Tennessee’s state legislature opted against expelling a Republican representative accused of sexual misconduct in 2019. Those the body had previously expelled included one lawmaker accused of spending federal nursing school grant money on a wedding and another who allegedly had improper sexual contact with more than 20 women in four years in office.

Joe Biden called the expulsions “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent”.

“Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting,” the president said. “And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action.”

A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, also joined in on the calls for increased gun control and narrowly avoided expulsion by one vote. Johnson is a white woman, and she has said she believes she was spared only because of her race.

County commissions in the districts Jones and Pearson were elected to represent are now tasked with picking their replacements to serve in the newly vacant seats until special elections can be held. Jones and Pearson remain eligible to run in those special elections and could also possibly be appointed by the county commissions to stay in their seats until those contests, though the commissions have reportedly been facing Republican political pressure to choose interim replacements.

After the deadly shootings at the Covenant school in Nashville on 27 March, the US Senate’s chaplain, Barry C Black, called on federal lawmakers to offer more than just platitudes after deadly mass shootings.

Last month, Black opened the legislative session by asking senators to move beyond “thoughts and prayers” – words that critics say are used by opponents of substantial gun control to deflect the responsibility to take action after mass killings.

Black on Sunday told CBS’s Face the Nation: “I have been hearing, ‘You have my thoughts and prayers’ … But I also know that there comes a time when action is required.”

  • This article was amended on 10 April 2023 to clarify that the protests in question were inside the state house.


Maya Yang

The GuardianTramp

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