On Thursday night, Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee state House of Representatives expelled two of three Democratic legislators who engaged in a peaceful protest on the House floor a week prior, in a move that observers have condemned as both authoritarian and racist.
The move leaves tens of thousands of constituents in Memphis and Nashville without representation during the final weeks of the legislative session.
Many observers pointed out that the votes by Republicans were likely racist, given that the two lawmakers who were formally removed from their posts were Black men, while the one Democrat who survived her expulsion vote was a white woman.
The three Democratic legislators in question — Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, who are Black, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white — interrupted discussion of a bill on education last Thursday, using a bullhorn to lead protestors who had gathered in the gallery above in chanting for gun reform.
Thousands of demonstrators have gathered at the Tennessee state Capitol building over the past two weeks, demanding that the GOP-led legislature pass bills to address gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting at a school in Nashville late last month, in which three adults and three children were killed by a shooter armed with an AR-15.
The Democrats’ interruption in support of the protests lasted only a few minutes. Republicans called an hour-long recess almost immediately after it started, after which business continued as usual without further interruption.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) cynically compared the protest on the House floor to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Unlike the peaceful protest for gun reform, however, the Capitol attack, which was waged by a mob of Trump loyalists in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election, resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.
On Monday, Republicans filed resolutions to expel the three Democrats. On Thursday evening, more than two-thirds of the House voted to remove Jones and Pearson. The attempt to remove Johnson fell short by just one vote.
“It might have to do with the color of our skin,” Johnson said when asked how she was able to avoid being expelled.
Johnson elaborated during an interview on CNN later that night.
“I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men,” she said.
Indeed, it was evident that Republicans treated the Black lawmakers differently than their white counterpart. Rep. Andrew Farmer (R), who authored the resolutions calling for the lawmakers’ expulsion, took a patronizing tone with Pearson and Jones during the proceedings on Thursday, scolding Pearson for throwing a “temper tantrum” and minimizing the protest by suggesting that the action was simply a stunt for “attention” — even though the lawmakers were joined by thousands at the Tennessee Capitol building demanding the exact same thing.
“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today — two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not,” Pearson later observed.
“We don’t have democracy in Tennessee — and if we don’t act we have some very dark days ahead,” Jones said in an interview after the vote. “We have to respond to this with mass movements, nonviolent movements.”
Jones further described his and Pearson’s removal as a “signal of authoritarianism” by Republicans in the legislature.
Demonstrators rallied at the Capitol to show support for the three lawmakers, many of them continuing to call for gun reform. Protesters chanted “gun control now” and “not one more” outside the House chamber during the expulsion proceedings, and shouted “shame on you” after lawmakers voted to expel the two Democrats.
Following the votes, demonstrators in the gallery unfurled a banner reading “Rural TN Against Fascist GOP.”
Several commentators on social media agreed that racism played a role in the expulsions.
“When two Black representatives are expelled while a white one narrowly avoids expulsion, no amount of dissembling can erase the obvious conclusion,” wrote Joyce Vance, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
“This is racist autocracy in service of the gun lobby. Shameful,” said Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe. “Democracy is dying in Tennessee.”
Bernice King, CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the daughter of the civil rights icon, also blasted the decision to expel the Black Democrats.
“So this attack on #democracy is also a #racist attack, as the third lawmaker, Rep. Gloria Johnson, is white,” King said on Twitter. “A disastrously amoral day for Tennessee House Republicans in a state reeling from a school shooting.”
“These are not REPUBLICANS punishing Memphis & Nashville,” said former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, “these are RACISTS trying to make Black people their NEGROES.”
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