Editor’s note: This story was produced prior to Justin Jones’ reinstatement to the Tennessee State House by the Nashville Metropolitan Council.
As Blavity previously reported, Teneessee’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to remove two Black state lawmakers from office for participating in a protest against gun violence. However, the House chose not to expel a third white colleague who joined them in the protest. The drama surrounding “The Tennessee Three” on Thursday has drawn attention nationwide and even pulled the White House into the conversation. Here’s what you need to know about what led to Thursday’s extraordinary political developments and what will likely happen next.
The protests that led to political turmoil in Tennessee
The political firestorm in Tennessee came to a head Thursday when the House of Representatives voted to expel three Democratic representatives for joining protestors in pushing for gun reform late last month. The demonstrations in the state capital came after a school shooting killed three 9-year-old children and three employees in Nashville; hundreds of people showed up at the Tennessee Capitol on March 30 to protest for stricter gun control. As reported by The Tennessean, police officers occasionally pushed aside protestors to allow legislators to move through the crowd, but at no point did either side become violent. Instead, three Democratic Tennessee state representatives joined the protests. Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson took to the podium with a megaphone, leading chants protestors echoed while watching from the viewing galleries. The protest by the state representatives disrupted the legislature’s proceedings for about one hour.
Black legislators expelled; white colleague allowed to stay
The Tennessean noted throughout the March 30 protest, “No demonstrators broke into the Capitol, no one was arrested or injured, and no property was damaged.” Nevertheless, Republicans began comparing the protest to the violent January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection. Using their overwhelming control of the Tennessee legislature, Republicans punished the protesting Democrats by stripping them of their committee assignments and then attempting to expel them from the legislature altogether, a move that has only occurred a handful of times in Tennessee state history. On Thursday, Republicans voted to remove Reps. Jones and Pearson, both young Black men, but allowed Johnson, an older white woman, to remain despite all three having engaged in the same protest. When asked why the House treated her differently than her two colleagues, Johnson mentioned, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”
Reporter asks Rep. Gloria Johnson why she thinks there was a difference between her outcome and Rep. Justin Jones
Rep Johnson: “I’ll answer your question; it might have to do with the color of our skin.” pic.twitter.com/8fyIRRqP0S
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) April 6, 2023
What happens next?
Tennessee state law leaves it up to the counties that Jones and Pearson each represented to choose who will temporarily fill their vacant seats. Their counties can appoint them back into their positions, which is likely to happen. Eventually, a special election will be held for each seat, and Jones and Pearson will be eligible to run again to win back their positions for the remainder of their terms. While these outcomes are not guaranteed, likely, both expelled legislators may quickly return to their old seats, although through a costly and time-consuming process.
The larger fallout continues to grow.
The action taken by the Tennessee GOP, widely seen as a stunt and an attack on democracy, may have already backfired. Throughout Thursday’s expulsion hearings and beyond, the Republicans were labeled “fascist” for their blatant interference with democracy. The different treatment of the Black and white legislators also drew obvious calls of racism on the part of the GOP as it targeted two young Black legislators. Outrage over these events has grown across the country, on social media, and at the highest levels of the Democratic Party. President Joe Biden condemned the actions of the Tennessee legislature and reached out to the three targeted Democrats.
Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting.
And what are GOP officials focused on?
Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action.
It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent. https://t.co/NB9gSdFI9h
— President Biden (@POTUS) April 6, 2023
Earlier, I spoke to Reps Jones, Pearson, and Johnson to thank them for their leadership and courage in the face of a blatant disregard of our nation’s democratic values.
Our country needs to take action on gun violence — to do that we need more voices like theirs speaking out. pic.twitter.com/oQl9jQSOy1
— President Biden (@POTUS) April 7, 2023
Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris made a surprise trip to Tennessee, where she met with the three legislators in person and gave a fiery speech at Fisk University. “We will not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves,” the vice president exclaimed, adding, “We will fight! We will lead! We will speak about truth!”
“We will not be defeated! We will not be deterred! We will not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves! We will fight! We will lead! We will speak about truth! And speak about freedom and justice and march on!” – @VP Harris. That’s our Vice President!! pic.twitter.com/glWOvtWJ31
— Sky | MVP supporter 💛 (@skylikeajedi) April 7, 2023
With this widespread and high-profile support, Reps. Jones and Pearson have been thrust into the national spotlight, becoming heroes to many in their home state and around the country. Although the GOP attempted to punish and silence these young Black men and the cause they champion, Republican resistance will likely remain strong in Tennessee and other states where the fight for political control and reform is raging. But so far, the moves of the Republicans in Tennessee appear to have made these legislators and the movement against gun violence stronger.