Harris visits ousted Tennessee lawmakers as Republicans accused of ‘overt racism’

<span>Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/″ data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw–/″><button class=

Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters

Kamala Harris made an urgent trip to Nashville on Friday to meet with two Black Democratic lawmakers expelled from the state legislature for their role in in a peaceful protest calling for gun control in the aftermath of a school massacre, an unprecedented act of retaliation that sparked accusations of overt racism.

The Republican-controlled legislature voted on Thursday to expel representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, but to spare a white Democratic lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, who participated in the same protest but narrowly avoided being kicked out.

Justin Jones, representative for Nashville, and Justin Pearson, who represented Memphis, gave rousing speeches in the chamber before the majority-white legislature voted to oust them, leaving tens of thousands of mostly Black and brown Tennessee residents without representation.

Related: Joe Biden calls Tennessee’s expulsion of two Black Democrats for gun control protest ‘undemocratic’ – live

Jones, 27, said he had “no regrets” and would “continue to speak up for Tennesseans who are demanding change”, in an interview with CNN on Friday.

“What happened yesterday was an attack on our democracy and overt racism. The nation got to see clearly what’s going on in Tennessee, that we don’t have democracy especially when it comes to Black and brown communities. This is what we have been challenging all session, a very toxic, racist work environment.”

Jones said Republican lawmakers were trying to take Tennessee backwards, and pointed to the state’s history of white supremacy, the birthplace of the ultra-violent Ku Klux Klan.

Pearson, 27, told reporters that in carrying out the protest, the three had broken “a house rule, because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities”.

The vice-president arrived in Nashville on Friday afternoon to meet with the expelled lawmakers and Gloria Johnson. The group has come to be known as the Tennessee Three.

Vice-president Kamala Harris meets with Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson.

Vice-president Kamala Harris meets with Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Photograph: Andrew Nelles/AP

Harris and the Tennessee Three gathered at a chapel on the campus of Fisk, a historically Black university in Nashville. Some 500 people later arrived at the Fisk Memorial Chapel to see Harris speak, with students and others lining the block. Sorority sisters from Fisk’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, to which the vice-president also belongs, served as ushers.

Pearson, Johnson and Jones entered the packed chapel before Harris was due to speak, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. Seeing the massive turnout “shows us that there’s still a sense of hope”, said senior student Kayla Willis.

In an impassioned speech, Harris voiced her support for the expelled lawmakers and urged the gathered crowd not to give up their fight. “Your voices are part of the conscious of our country,” Harris said. “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.”

Local activists and politicians also addressed the crowd ahead of Harris’ appearance. “I want to thank the Tennessee Three for standing up for what is right, for exercising their right to peacefully protest,” said Zulfat Suara, a councilwoman at large. “To Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, thank you for your persistence.”

Suara said the expulsions “tell us exactly what we need to know about how the state views young Black men” standing up for what they believe. Evoking the city’s civil rights history, she said, “Just like John Lewis and Diane Nash did many years ago, we too will resist.”

After the vote to expel them on Thursday, Jones and Pearson, the two youngest Tennessee lawmakers and former community organisers, were greeted with rapturous chants and songs of resistance by a huge crowd outside the state capitol building. During the vote, the visitors’ gallery exploded in angry shouts of “Shame!” and “Fascists!”

Johnson, the white Democrat spared expulsion by a one-vote margin, was asked by reporters about the split vote as she left the chamber on Thursday.

“I’ll answer your question; it might have to do with the color of our skin,” said Johnson, a retired teacher.

Republican lawmakers denied allegations of racism, and said the expulsions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of proceedings through protest would be tolerated.

Jones, Pearson and Johnson joined protesters last week as hundreds of Tennesseeans packed the capitol to demand gun-control measures, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Covenant school, a private Christian school where six people including three children were slain.

As the protesters filled the galleries, the three made their way to the front of the house chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant.

Pearson greets supporters as he arrives to attend an address by Harris.

Pearson greets supporters as he arrives to attend an address by Harris. Photograph: Cheney Orr/Reuters

The extraordinary banishment was widely condemned.

Joe Biden called the move “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent” in a statement.

He said: “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.”

The expulsions mark the fourth time since the end of the civil war that house members expelled their elected colleagues. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.

Jones and Pearson have both accused Republicans of double standards, pointing to sitting white Republicans who have been accused of serious criminal offences, without censure from their colleagues.

In response to calls from the Jeremy Faison, the chairman of the house Republican caucus, to apologise for last week’s protest in the chamber, Jones told CNN: “Apologise to the families of the victims of the mass shooting, and we will apologise for our action.

“They expelled the two youngest lawmakers, which is no coincidence, because we are outspoken because we fight for our districts and I’m going to keep doing that whether outside or inside the chamber.”

County commissions in each of the expelled lawmakers’ districts will choose replacements to serve until a special election can be held.

The commissions could choose Jones and Pearson, letting them return to the capitol. The expelled lawmakers also would be eligible to run in the special elections to fill the seats.

Abené Clayton and the Associated Press contributed reporting

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