Tennessee mobilizes to secure reinstatement of lawmakers targeted in racist expulsion

Photo: Rally in Nashville demanding the reinstatement of the expelled lawmakers

Tennessee state lawmaker Justin Pearson will be returning to the legislature following a unanimous vote today by Memphis’ Board of Commissioners. Pearson and fellow legislator Justin Jones, who are both young Black men, were outrageously kicked out of the Tennessee House of Representatives last week for protesting inaction on gun violence. The vote took place as hundreds of supporters gathered to express their rejection of this racist and anti-democratic attack in a powerful display of defiance against the right wing.

This came just two days after a dramatic meeting of Nashville’s Metropolitan Council on Monday where Representative Jones was reinstated to the State House after a unanimous vote by Nashville’s city council as hundreds of supporters rallied outside.

Since the night of Jones and Pearson’s racist expulsion by the right wing majority in the legislature, hundreds of people, mostly youth, have rallied every day proclaiming “No Justins, No Peace!” Jones and Pearson’s reinstatement is a people’s victory.

The struggle began in the aftermath of a tragic mass shooting in Nashville that claimed six lives, including three 9-year-old children, at The Covenant School. In response to this violence, gun control advocates gathered at the Tennessee House of Representatives chambers to demand action.

Three Tennessee legislators – Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson – joined in with protestors. They chanted slogans of solidarity, demanding action to prevent future mass shootings.  

The response from the Republican super-majority in the chamber was swift. There was immediate condemnation of the three representatives, claiming they participated in an “insurrection”, simply by standing with and voicing support to people who wanted to see an end to gun violence. Tennessee House leadership then began the process of removing these officials for their supposed “misconduct.” 

What followed on April 6 was an act of retribution that shocked the country with its racist and anti-democratic character. The “Tennessee Three” as Jones, Pearson and Johnson have been nicknamed, went before the state House of Representatives for an expulsion vote, which required a two-thirds majority to succeed. In votes of 72-25 and 69-26 respectively, Representatives Jones and Pearson were expelled. Johnson narrowly avoided removal with a vote of 65-30. Johnson herself stated that the decision to expel the two young Black lawmakers but retain her was racially motivated.  

The removal of these officials reflects a core strategy of the ultra-right — to ignore the will of large swaths of the voting population, and enact their own political agenda regardless. We have seen this in practice from the Supreme Court to state legislatures, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, anti-LGBTQ legislation, racist gerrymandering, challenges to Biden’s limited student debt cancellation program, and much more. The right wing is seeking to roll back fundamental rights won over generations of struggle. 

Only grassroots struggle of the working class can meet this challenge. As a whole, the Democratic Party leadership in many cases actually promotes the most extreme elements of the far right because they calculate they will be easier opponents to defeat in elections. Every episode in the struggle against the anti-democratic campaign of the right wing will have its own particular characteristics and necessitate different alliances and relationships based on those circumstances. While sometimes the fight will take the form of a conflict between political office holders, the intervention of the people is the decisive factor. 

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