Expelling me from the TN legislature backfired
Editor’s Note: Tennessee Rep. Justin J. Pearson is a Democrat and former community activist in Memphis. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Republicans who instigated my removal from the Tennessee House last week, along with and that of my legislative colleague Rep. Justin Jones, apparently failed to anticipate the nationwide backlash that their actions would engender. Democracy prevailed and the rule of law has won.
This week, I will retake my seat. After a vote held Wednesday afternoon by the Shelby County Commission, I will once again represent the beautifully diverse jurisdiction of District 86 in Memphis in Tennessee’s Assembly — as I did until Thursday of last week, when Republicans voted to remove me and Rep. Jones.
The unprecedented and partisan move by the chamber’s Republican supermajority to expel me from my duly-elected position temporarily silenced the voices of my constituents and flouted their right to be represented in the House. But it failed – as it did for Rep. Jones, when he was sent back to the House on Monday following a vote by the council of his district in Metro Nashville.
This should be a chastening moment for revanchist forces in Tennessee’s legislature and across the country. Over the long haul, the undemocratic machinations employed to oust us from office are destined to fail. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Events this week demonstrated, more than ever, that this is indeed the case.
The stated reason for my expulsion was that I, Rep. Jones and another Democratic colleague, Gloria Johnson, “breached decorum” by peacefully walking side by side to the well of the House Chamber to acknowledge rampant gun violence that has victimized and traumatized grieving children and families across our state and around the nation.
If decorum was breached, it was by the heavy-handed Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House, which denied us the chance to speak during regular order, cut off our microphones, later disabled our voting machines and revoked our access to the building.
My colleagues and I exercised our First Amendment rights and joined chants from the floor during a recess hastily called by House Speaker Cameron Sexton in a further attempt to silence us and our constituents.
We followed the directive of Article 2, Section 26 of the State Constitution to oppose policies injurious to the people who elected us. As a result, we were put on display in that very House to “stand trial” for our alleged offenses.
The spectacle was a gross miscalculation by Republicans in the chamber. It turns out that most Americans care deeply about democracy. Most people care about equality and progress. And over two-thirds of Americans — including four out of 10 Republicans — support the kind of common sense gun safety laws that Rep. Jones, Rep. Johnson and I were protesting in favor of, in the wake of the senseless March 27 Covenant School massacre.
And yet, calls for common sense gun reform measures fall on deaf ears in our legislature where a Republican supermajority is wildly out of step with most people’s values.
Our aggressively gerrymandered legislature ignores the wishes of constituents on combating gun violence. Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs will never have a 10th birthday party. They’ll never go to a dance, graduate high school, fall in love or cast a vote. Their loved ones will never hug them again. Neither will the families of school custodian Mike Hill, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, or Head of Covenant School Katherine Koonce. They were all senselessly gunned down at that school in Nashville.
People in Tennessee aren’t even required to purchase a permit to publicly carry guns in the state of Tennessee. Now the GOP-led legislature is considering lowering the age of permitless gun purchase and carry from 21 to 18. And at a time when we should be looking for ways to reduce the prevalence of firearms, Republican lawmakers are considering a measure to arm teachers in Tennessee, the state with some of the laxest gun safety laws in the country.
The Nashville massacre came just weeks after 20 people were killed in shootings in Memphis over a 10-day period in February. There have been far more mass shootings in the US this year than there have been days. Virtually everyone in Tennessee knows someone whose life has been touched by preventable gun violence, including me. A high school classmate and beloved son and middle school employee, Larry Thorn, was murdered just a few months ago. More guns simply cannot be the answer.
In Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and where multiple Klan, White Nationalist, and neo-Nazi organizations still thrive, the condescension and barely-veiled racism heaped on Justin Jones and me, and on the communities we represent, were on full display last Thursday night.
The Republican legislator who authored the expulsion resolution against me stood to belittle me and to minimize the deeply serious concerns of my constituents and the thousands of protestors present. He told me that he and his White conservative colleagues were “enraged” that I had had the audacity to walk, unbidden, to the front of the chamber and acknowledge the grieving families. He did so while upholding the status quo of a majority that denied equal rights to people who look like me.
But legislators don’t need permission to walk to the well of the House. There is no sanction against our peaceful actions during recess. And we are required by the Tennessee State Constitution to object to policies injurious to the well-being of our constituents.
The fact is, I break decorum with my very presence in that chamber. I am the son of a pastor and a school teacher. I am the grandson of two strong Black women who stood up against all that Tennessee hurled at them throughout the 20th century and beyond.
A new Tennessee is being born in its emerging miraculous diversity. The vast majority of people who wrote in to our largest state newspaper, The Tennessean, decried the breach of democracy they witnessed as the GOP supermajority expelled us.
I celebrate my return to the House to do the work for my constituency. Before being voted into office in a January 24, 2023 special election, I fought as a community activist against corporate environmental racism dumping toxins into Black communities in Southwest Memphis and won. My constituents sent me to the Tennessee State House to continue this work in their name. We will never be silenced. We will not sit down. We will not move to the back of the bus or the back of the house. We will march forward.
We will continue to challenge the Old South and bring about a Renewed South, one that is fair and just and democratic for Black, brown, White, indigenous, transgender, poor, immigrant — for all people. And we will win. Because we are on the right side of history.