Tennessee garnered national attention as two state representatives were reinstated after a week of expulsion following their involvement in protests against gun violence.
Three Democratic representatives took to the podium between bills without being recognized to speak to lead protesters in chants against gun violence.
The representatives joined a thousand peaceful protestors gathered to call for action against gun violence as a response to a devastating school shooting at Covenant School on March 27 that left three children and three faculty members dead.
This spiraled into a case of what House Republicans termed “disorderly behavior,” prompting House Republicans to call for the immediate expulsion of the three representatives from the Tennessee House.
The three Democrats—Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis, Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville—represent over 100,000 Tennessee residents in their combined districts. They were put on trial in the House, where they were questioned by Republicans about their actions, which Republicans compared to the Jan. 6 insurrection in 2021. The public has heavily disputed the comparison since the demonstration was well within the rights of the Democratic representatives and remained peaceful.
The House eventually expelled Pearson and Jones for their involvement in the demonstration; Johnson only narrowly escaped expulsion. The House was quick to cut off their access to the building and remove them from their committee assignments.
When asked why she thought she was not expelled, Johnson told CNN, “I am a 60-year-old White woman, and they are two young Black men.” She told other news outlets that House representatives spoke to Jones and Pearson in a highly demeaning manner, describing the incident as a clear race issue.
Over the past couple of months, the Republican-led state has passed restricting laws targeting marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color.
This is only the third time in Tennessee history that representatives have been expelled from the House; the other two times were for bribery and sexual misconduct. The representatives dubbed the “Tennessee Three” left the Nashville courthouse with their locked hands held high above their heads as protestors chanted their names.
Jones, the youngest representative in the House at only 27 years old and only sworn in a week prior, told the House that “the world is watching Tennessee. What is happening here today is a farce of democracy.”
The undemocratic expulsion of these representatives, who are backed by voters in their district as well as supporters around the nation, is a stark example of lawmakers silencing people of color and progressive movements. Although the act silenced their individual voices, it attracted massive attention to the two young representatives, their policies and their hard work.
Four days after being expelled, Jones walked back into the capitol building after the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to reinstate him. The same happened with Pearson nearly a week after his expulsion; the Shelby County Board of Commissioners of Memphis voted him back into office, citing that he was chosen by the people and should therefore properly represent them. The national attention surrounding the expulsion and the massive movements in Nashville calling for justice on the behalf of the Tennessee Three are credited for this quick turnaround.
Upon being reinstated, Pearson gave a speech in the House chamber to his supporters, which he ended by saying, “So the message for all those people in Nashville who voted to expel us: You can’t expel hope. You can’t expel justice.”
Amelia is a sophomore majoring in history and political science and minoring in music.