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Tennessee House of Representatives voted on resolutions to expel three of its Democratic members — Justin Jones, Justin J. Pearson and Gloria Johnson — who, in the wake of the Nashville Covenant School shooting, were accused of breaking the House’s decorum rules by leading personal protests for gun reform on the House floor and joining demonstrators in the chamber’s public gallery.
By now most are familiar with the exploits of the two Justins and Gloria Johnson — “The Tennessee Three.” I use the term “exploits” because of its connotation of triumph. Triumph is what they did! It offers us the temporary euphoria of a victory over an overt act of racism. But like all victories, it occurs, celebration is temporary, it becomes a source in history, and THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES!
As a child of The South, I clearly understand the intent and message of the Tennessee House of Representatives when its Republican majority expelled Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson and nearly did the same for Representative Gloria Johnson. I seriously question the stated reason for the expulsion. Even today, it is not uncommon for white racists to flex their social/institutional muscles attempting to emasculate Black men. Despite the veils of procedural legitimacy or word salad of “institutional speak,” the goal of the expulsion was to put the Justins in their “place.”
As I watched the expulsion process, my mind was visited by memories of the original “Roots” series and Levar Burton, as Kunta Kinte, being beaten until he surrendered his name and accepted the slave name “Toby.” The physical whip was absent, but the Southern tradition of “keeping the n—–s down” was obvious. What made the intent of their action irrefutable was the one vote that saved Gloria Johnson from expulsion. Most television commentators were even at a loss to give it any other explanation.
The disingenuousness of the Republican House supermajority is measured by the actions of the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Speaker Cameron Sexton condemned the protest and wildly compared the three to rioters during the January 6 insurrection. On April 3, prior to their expulsion, Sexton revoked their ID card access to the State Capitol and stripped them of their committee assignments.
The actions of which the three were accused were on full display. They did use a megaphone to express their discontent with the remainder of the body ignoring the immediate issue of gun violence. They did chant, “No Action, No Peace!” They expressed their discontentment with what they identified as efforts to ignore and ‘muzzle’ them in their respective committee sessions rendering their constituents voiceless. I sure admire their determination to stand firm in defense of their principles.
It seems inconceivable that after a mass shooting, notwithstanding the fact that among the six persons killed were three nine-year-olds, the majority party of the legislative body of a state would not, in some manner, address the concerns of three of their members and/or the hundreds of citizens filling their gallery. The emotions of the assembled citizens were palpable. They were looking for an answer to a continuing and growing problem of violence threatening their communities. As House business progressed, the problem of gun violence was ignored. Instead, a contest of wills and measurement ensued.
The job of any legislative body is to address the needs and remedy the concerns of its citizens. Regardless of differences of opinion, the opportunity for constructive dialogue and the appreciation of the urgency of a citizenry concerned with the safety of their children should exist.
Fortunately, the expelled representatives have been returned by their respective county boards. They can now take back the issue of the security of their constituents.