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Katherine Oung

Protestors chant as legislators walk into the House chamber, as photographed on April 6, 2023. (Hustler Staff/Katherine Oung)

‘The nation is watching’: Students lead protests as Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson are expelled

A Republican supermajority voted on the removal of “Tennessee Three” over their involvement in a gun violence protest in the wake of the Covenant School shooting.

The Tennessee House of Representatives took the unprecedented move of expelling Rep. Justin Jones (D – Nashville), a Vanderbilt Divinity School student, and Rep. Justin Pearson (D – Memphis) — the body’s two youngest Black lawmakers. The resolutions passed in a party-line vote on April 6, while a resolution to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson (D – Knoxville) failed by one vote.

These resolutions are the first pieces of legislation the Tennessee state government has passed in light of the mass shooting that killed three 9-year-olds and three faculty members at The Covenant School 10 days prior.

During a House session on March 30, the three lawmakers called for gun violence reform at the podium without being recognized by Speaker Cameron Sexton (R), a violation of House rules.

“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” Jones said during his hearing. “If it can happen in Tennessee, it’s coming to your state next. That is why the nation is watching us.”

The rotunda filled with hundreds of protestors — including Vanderbilt students and faculty — and state troopers as the House session geared up to begin at 9 a.m. CDT.

March for Our Lives organizers junior Brynn Jones and first-year Ezri Tyler organized a coalition of over 50 college and high school students to protest for the entire 10-hour House session. Other members of the public engaged in largely-silent demonstrations in the gallery, where they could observe the House proceedings.

In an interview with The Hustler, Pearson commended the persistence of student organizers.

“We create a more just society because we choose to work for it, to fight for it, to get expelled for it,” Pearson said. “It is inspiring and motivating to see so many young people — college students and other young people in high school, middle school and elementary school — who are saying that we can be a better state than we currently are.”

Thousands of people opposing the expulsions also flooded the capitol steps and Legislative Plaza Three despite rainy weather. When Jones, Johnson and Pearson passed by — their hands linked — the crowd erupted into cheers of “We stand with the Tennessee Three.”

“This expulsion is such a mark of facism. It’s so scary and sets a dangerous precedent,” sophomore Lexi Abrams said about her reason for protesting at the House.

President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama and the ACLU of Tennessee were among those who condemned the expulsion online. Vice President Kamala Harris attended a community event in support of the Tennessee Three at Fisk University — Jones’s alma mater — today. The Tennessee House’s Republican Caucus released a statement about the expulsion later that night, calling it a “sad day for Tennessee” and stating that it felt the removal was “the only path forward.”

From a MFOL walkout on April 3 to protests during an April 5 hearing of a bill that would arm K-12 teachers, students like Jones, Tyler and Abrams have advocated for gun reform at the capitol almost every day since the Covenant School shooting.

“Our legislature needs to be more responsive to young people and to young adults, and to youth,” Pearson continued. “It is being run by people who are nearing retirement and are not interested in elevating the issues of our communities, and the issues that matter to young people.”

What happens after expulsion?

Special elections will be held to fill Jones’s and Johnson’s seats, and local city councils can decide to appoint an interim representative until the election is held. Expelled members can be reinstated as interim representatives and rerun for their position. Members also cannot be expelled for the same offense multiple times.

The Metro Nashville City Council has scheduled an interim appointment vote for April 10, with a majority of members pledging on social media that they would vote for Jones. A simple majority is needed. Several members of the Shelby County Commission have also stated they would reappoint Pearson but an interim appointment vote has not been scheduled yet.

“We keep fighting,” Pearson told The Hustler. “We were fighting for justice before we were elected; we’ll fight for justice after we’re expelled.”

House proceedings

The expulsion of Jones and Pearson marks the third time since the Civil War era that elected members of the Tennessee House have been removed — and the first time expulsion has been motivated by a rule infraction rather than a crime.

Representatives were expelled in 2016 for allegations of sexual misconduct from over 22 women and in 1980 for accepting a $1,000 bribe from a sheriff. In 1866, six House members were expelled for trying to prevent Tennessee from ratifying the 14th Amendment to provide citizenship to former slaves.

A two-thirds majority is needed to pass an expulsion resolution in the Tennessee House. The Republican supermajority voted 72-25 to remove Jones and 69-26 to remove Pearson. Seven Republicans broke from party lines in the vote to expel Johnson, putting her in the clear by one vote at 65-30.

Johnson told media that the reason that she survived the expulsion vote “might have to do with the color of our skin.” Sexton and other Republicans later denied that race factored into the votes.

The House considered each of the Tennessee Three’s actions in separate expulsion resolutions, which were placed in the “unfinished business” section at the end of the session calendar, starting with Jones.

The three lawmakers, and attorneys if they had them, were each given 20 minutes to speak during their hearings. Then, members of the House had the opportunity to question each lawmaker in cross-examination. Expulsion occurred effective immediately, meaning Jones could not vote on the resolutions to expel Johnson or Pearson.

Republican representatives argued that the three lawmakers showed disrespect for democratic process and silenced the voices of other House members by speaking out of order.

“What we’re doing today is we are upholding our Constitution. We are protecting the integrity of this body,” Bulso said. Bulso also accused Jones of “mutiny.”

Jones criticized the supermajority for attempting to strip Tennesseans of their elected representation. The Tennessee Three represent a total of about 210,000 constituents in some of the most racially diverse districts.

“For long, this body — drunk with power — has modeled for the world what we know as nothing less than authoritarianism, and today is the climax of that behavior,” Jones said.

Often, when Jones paused between sentences, songs and chants from protestors from the rotunda could be heard from behind the chamber’s doors. Jones emphasized the peaceful nature of the demonstration which he participated in on March 30. He claimed his actions that day resulted from frustration at repeated instances of Sexton cutting off Democratic lawmaker’s speaking time, as well as the legislature’s unwillingness to consider gun reform legislation. He also referenced many Republican lawmaker’s ties to the gun lobby

“Last Thursday, when thousands gathered here, [Republicans] tried to silence members from talking about the issue of gun violence because they were afraid that a conversation would remind people that there is complicity in this body for what happened at Covenant,” Jones said.

Johnson’s legal counsel spoke for her during opening remarks, while she provided responses to cross-examination herself. Johnson’s team disputed the resolution’s claims that Johnson broke House rules, stating that she did not speak at the podium while the group demonstrated and brought a bullhorn into the building. Johnson also recalled being a teacher at Central High School in Knoxville when a student was shot and killed.

“Sometimes, in order to be heard, in order to bring attention to an issue that is killing children and killing people in our communities, sometimes you have to take a stand,” Johnson said. “And that’s what we did.”

Pearson began and ended his remarks with references to his faith. He argued Republicans should acknowledge that America was a country “built by protest” and that new lawmakers were not properly informed of House rules.

During each of the Tennessee Three’s closing remarks, the House Democratic Caucus gathered behind them at the podium in a show of support.

“Resurrection is a promise, and it is a prophecy. It’s a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields. It’s a prophecy that came out of the lynching tree,” Pearson said before the vote for his expulsion. “I’ve still got hope, because I know we are still here, and we will never quit.”

MFOL die-in

After the House adjourned, the Tennessee Three re-entered the rotunda, again with their arms linked. As legislators and observers streamed out of the chamber, MFOL activists gathered for a 14 minute “die-in” in memory of the victims of The Covenant School shooting. When the shooter killed six last Monday, 152 rounds were fired in 14 minutes.

“I participated in the die-in to make the extremist right-wing legislators look at the consequences of their inactions in the face,” first-year Sam Schulman said. “I think it showed the world that people, especially students, aren’t gonna stop fighting for justice for victims of gun violence.”

The Tennessee Three later attended a press conference organized by MFOL activists featuring student and community speakers from organizations like the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition.

“The reason we’re out here is because they [the Tennessee Three] stood with us, and we are standing with them,” Tyler said during the press conference. “Something so unique and so powerful about these representatives is they have encouraged young people to find their voices in their own communities.”

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on April 7, 2023.

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