Republican Tennessee lawmakers expelled two House Democrats and failed to expel another after they joined protesters in calling for stronger gun control following a school shooting.
Democratic state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled Thursday, while state Rep. Gloria Johnson managed to hold on to her seat. Jones and Pearson are both Black. Johnson is white.
The expulsion hearings were in response to the three Democrats leading protesters in chants on the House floor last week without being recognized to speak. Hundreds of protesters, many of them children, called for stronger gun control following a school shooting that left three children and three adults dead last month.
Protesters calling for gun reform laws and showing support for the three Democratic representatives who faced expulsion stand in the House gallery as legislators start Thursday’s session at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
It was the fourth time since the end of the Civil War that Tennessee House members expelled one of their elected colleagues.
In 1866, six lawmakers were ousted for attempting to prevent the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people.
In 1980, GOP Rep. Robert Fisher was kicked out of the state House after being convicted of taking a $1,000 bribe to kill a committee bill.
And in 2016, Republican state Rep. Jeremy Durham was voted out of the House after 22 women accused him of sexual misconduct.
In Thursday’s historic case, at least one of the lawmakers was expelled for chanting for the prevention of gun violence. In the Republican-led resolution to expel the members, those protests were described as “disorderly behavior” that “knowingly and intentionally” brought “disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.”
We called for a ban on assault weapons, and you called for an assault on democracy.Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones (D)
House Republican Leader William Lamberth began expulsion proceedings by giving each member facing expulsion 20 minutes to speak. Those members were also allowed to respond to questions from fellow lawmakers during the hearing.
Jones, who represents a district in Nashville, was the first to speak and called the proceedings a “spectacle.”
“What we see today is just a spectacle. What we see today is a lynch mob assembled not to lynch me, but our democratic process,” Jones said.
Jones said he was standing up for his constituents when he joined them in protest for gun control.
“I was standing for young people ― many of whom can’t even vote yet, many who are disenfranchised ― but all of whom are terrified by the continued trend of mass shootings plaguing our state and plaguing this nation.”
State Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) delivers remarks Thursday on the floor of the state House in Nashville. Tennessee Republicans voted to oust Jones and state Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) for their role in a demonstration calling for gun control legislation following a mass shooting at a Nashville school.
Jones said Republican lawmakers have put their “heads in the sand” and “refuse to listen to the voice of the people.”
“We called for a ban on assault weapons, and you called for an assault on democracy,” Jones said.
Democratic state Rep. Bob Freeman said before the vote that it would set “a very dangerous precedent.”
“There are 78,000 people that Jones represents,” Freeman said. “He was elected in a competitive primary. This is who that district wants to represent them.”
Jones was expelled in a vote of 75-26.
After Jones was expelled, Johnson, who represents a district in Knoxville, was next to defend her actions. Under questioning from GOP state Rep. Gino Bulso, Johnson denied that she was yelling during the protest.
“I believe the charges were that I was yelling, and I was not yelling,” Johnson said. “We may have broken a House rule by approaching the well, but much of this document is false.”
Bulso pressed Johnson on whether or not she chanted with protesters.
“What is my crime, sir?” Johnson asked. “You continue to ask this question. I think we’ve been through it over and over and over. I came to the well, I stood with my colleagues, I fought for my constituents, in a quiet, non-desk-pounding [way].”
Johnson, a former teacher, said she spoke up for the people in her district who are sick of gun violence.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), right, gets a hug from Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) on the floor of the House after a resolution to expel Johnson from the legislature failed Thursday in Nashville. Tennessee Republicans were seeking to oust three House Democrats, including Johnson, for using a bullhorn to shout support for gun control advocates in the House chamber.
“I did what I felt those folks wanted me to do,” she said. “It’s not a secret, my folks sent me here because they know I’m a fighter. I will fight for them.”
It takes 66 votes to expel a House member, meaning the 65-30 vote was ultimately not enough to expel Johnson.
During his own remarks, Pearson reminded his fellow lawmakers that the U.S. was founded on protest.
State Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) listens to remarks Thursday on the floor of the House chamber in Nashville. Republicans voted to expel him for his support of a demonstration by gun control advocates.
“You who celebrate July 4, 1776, pop fireworks and eat hot dogs ― you say to protest is wrong because you spoke out of turn, because you spoke up for people who are marginalized, because you spoke up for kids who won’t ever speak again … in a country built on people who speak out of turn,” he said.
Democratic state Rep. Jesse Chism addressed the chamber, saying he wanted to “speak to the humanity of everyone in the room” and noting that Pearson, 29, hasn’t been a member of the House for long.
Pearson is “a member that is just learning the decorum of this body, a member who has proven himself to be hardworking, articulate, eloquent,” Chism said. “And although this member moves a little bit different from most of us ― I’ll even go as far to say he moves different than I do ― this is a member that deserves to be a part of this body.”
Pearson was expelled in a vote of 69-26.
After his expulsion, a crowd could be heard chanting in the gallery: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”