NASHVILLE – Walking into the House chamber on Thursday, Tennessee Republicans faced protesters who called them “fascists,” and described how .223-caliber rounds shredded childrens’ bodies.
Twelve hours later, after they’d expelled two Black Democrats from the legislature, they heard chants of “shame,” “no justice, no peace,” “it’s all your fault,” and some four-letter words, audible all day from inside the chamber. They stepped around a “die-in” of protesters lying flat on the marble floor, as their former colleagues accused them of a racist purge against two legislators who’d staged a protest inside the chamber last week.
“What we see today is a lynch mob, assembled to not lynch me, but our democratic process,” said Nashville Rep. Justin Jones, before the GOP supermajority voted to remove him and Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson from their seats.
Both legislators are expected to rejoin the House after special elections, or sooner. The power to replace them belongs to Democratic county officials, who’ve signaled that they want to put both men back in office, and continue what Pearson called “a movement for justice, to end gun violence in Tennessee.”
They got support from the national party, too, including House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who called the expulsions “baseless” and evidence that “our democracy is under attack.” No one disputed that Republicans had won recent Tennessee elections by landslides, giving them the numbers to reject gun control bills and ban drag shows in public spaces. While locked out of power, their plan was to attack the GOP’s legitimacy — and try, eventually, to out-organize it.
“The most progressive city in Tennessee is represented by three Republicans,” said Odessa Kelly, a community organizer who waged a doomed campaign for Congress in 2022 after the GOP majority splintered Nashville’s single blue district into three safe GOP seats. “This is not a red state. It’s an oppressed state.”
Pearson, Jones, and Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson faced expulsion for what Republicans called “an insurrection,” invoking the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot to describe a brief, peaceful, and clear violation of House rules.
Last week, after a mass shooter killed three children and three adults at a nearby Christian school, March for Our Lives and other pro-gun control groups protested to demand an assault weapons ban. The “Tennessee Three” took the floor, without permission, to support the protesters in the gallery, with Jones and Pearson speaking through a megaphone after the official mic was cut. It took nearly an hour to restore order.
“You elevated yourself over the dead bodies that weren’t even in the ground yet,” GOP Rep. William Lamberth told Pearson during the expulsion debates.
On Thursday morning, protesters lined up outside the Capitol, walked through metal detectors, and carried only 8 inch by 11 inch signs to avoid confiscation. It looked nothing like Jan. 6; it looked more like the multi-day occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol in 2011, when activists tried to stop an anti-union bill from passing.
“You don’t truly understand why you’re standing there today,” said GOP state Rep. Andrew Farmer, as Pearson defended himself against the expulsion resolution on Thursday. “Just because you don’t get your way and you grab a couple friends doesn’t mean you can come to the well [and] throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn.”
Let’s stipulate that a party in power usually views a protest as an attempt to win what voters refused to give — a heckler’s veto over public policy. Why did Democrats embrace that tactic in Tennessee?
One reason is that they simply don’t take GOP hand-wringing about “insurrection” seriously — wait a few minutes, and another Republican will visit Jan. 6 rioters in jail or promise to pardon them.
Another reason is that they saw awful optics for Republicans in Nashville. Both of the ousted legislators were young charismatic Black men who’d won landslide elections. Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson, who survived expulsion by a single vote, was white, and said that “the color of our skin” determined their different fates.
“What is my crime, sir?” Johnson asked GOP Rep. Gino Bulso, who failed to pass an expulsion resolution that misstated basic facts about last week’s protests. “I came to the well. I stood with my colleagues. I fought for my constituents. I did it for the kids in my district, for the kids in my state.”
Johnson was getting at the most basic reason that Democrats embraced these tactics: The lack of any other path to power in Tennessee. Republicans have supermajorities in Nashville and 19 other state legislatures, adding North Carolina’s just this week, after a Democrat representing a safe seat near Charlotte switched parties. (Democrats have legislative supermajorities in nine states, but have only passed and successfully defended a gerrymander from lawsuits in one of them, Illinois.)
The modern, progressive Democratic Party has few means to accrue influence in Tennessee, and its liberal enclaves are limited in what they can do to defy the GOP majority. Nashville’s Democratic House seat was eliminated last year. Last month, Republicans voted to cap the size of city councils at 20 members, a measure designed to cut the Nashville Metro Council in half, after its Democratic majority rejected hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention. On Thursday, before the expulsion votes began, Republicans moved ahead on the only school safety bill with traction in a red state — one that would allow teachers to carry handguns on campus.
“It’s like a vortex of evil here,” Johnson told Semafor, remarking on how many conservative pundits had moved to Nashville since the COVID-19 pandemic. And in that environment, with this mindset, Democrats and activist groups have embraced mass resistance outside of electoral politics.
Room for Disagreement
In the Washington Examiner, Byron York calls the Tennessee Democrats’ actions a “mini Jan. 6,” and speculates about what would have happened if a few pro-Trump members of Congress had “actually joined the protesters, bringing a bullhorn to commandeer the House floor” during the 2021 riot and refused to allow proceedings until their election concerns were addressed. “There would be consequences for that, most likely serious consequences,” York writes. He does note, however, that censuring the members may have been a better alternative that didn’t involve “turning them into martyrs and inviting future expulsions.”
- One of the expelled representatives, Justin Jones, was well-known locally as a protest organizer before he ran for office. A 2021 article in the Nashville Tennessean recounts some of the charges he faced along the way, which were ultimately dismissed.