Expelled Tenn. lawmakers remind us what political bravery looks like

by Lorraine Ali

The churn of local politics rarely makes national news unless the outlet happens to be C-SPAN, but headlines, history and careers were made during proceedings at Tennessee’s State Capitol on Thursday when a GOP supermajority voted to expel two of three Democratic legislators for their participation in a gun control rally. 

In a brazen act of political retribution, Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson were accused of “violating decorum rules” for their part in a protest last week on the House floor following a mass shooting at a private school in Nashville where six people — including three 9-year-olds — were slain. Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were expelled by the Republican legislators. Johnson, who is White, was not. And it was all caught on live feeds from the chamber and local news outlets. 

The vote was stunning, even now, when defying the rule of law is practically a badge of honor among many right-wing leaders. The ousting was so brazen it could have been pulled from another era, before social media or smartphone cameras, when decisions made in smoke-filled rooms shaped politics and the authoritarian impulses of local officials could be more easily hidden from the rest of the country. 

By plowing ahead like no one was watching but a handful of colleagues and young protesters, the architects of the expulsion unwittingly engineered a national inflection point in the fight over gun control, systemic racism and the GOP’s troubling embrace of dictatorial governance. And overnight, Jones and Pearson became rock stars among the Democratic Party and legions of voiceless young people, a galvanizing force for solutions to the problem of gun violence that have had plenty of support in polls but few singular voices to coalesce into a broader movement. 

Visually, and in their oratorical skills, both men invoked the passion and unifying power of civil rights-era leaders while speaking to the continued inequity and political stalemates of the 21st century. At once classic and fresh, their choice of clothing alluded to the cuts of the 1960s, which only added to its present-day edge, and they spoke with a conviction that echoed the poetic ferocity of Martin Luther King Jr., the steadfast conviction of Malcolm X and the urgency of their own generation, which has come of age in arguably one of the most contentious periods in U.S. history. 

“What we see today is a lynch mob assembled not to lynch me but our democratic process,” said Jones, dressed in a white suit and speaking in a measured tone from the chamber podium Thursday before he was voted out. “This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people’s house. It will not be successful. Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up. … The world is watching.” Onlookers in the chamber yelled “Shame!” as the majority voted to expel Jones. 

Across social media platforms and cable news channels, millions, including many far from Tennessee, witnessed Jones’ speech and the impassioned words from Pearson that followed: “You are seeking to expel District 86’s representation from this House in a country that was built on a protest,” Pearson said. “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. You spoke up for children who won’t ever be able to speak again. You spoke up for parents who don’t want to live in fear, you spoke up for Larry Thorn, who was murdered by gun violence. You spoke up for people that we don’t want to care about.”  

Jones, Pearson and Johnson were accused of violating decorum because they used a bullhorn on the chamber floor during the protest last week. They reportedly led the protest when they hadn’t been recognized to speak under House rules. 

How remarkable is their expulsion? Up until Thursday, according to the Tennessean newspaper, the state House had only expelled two members since Reconstruction, and they had been accused of sexual misconduct and bribery, respectively. Which made it all the more clear that Republican legislators, who appeared largely white and male in the footage from the floor, were sending a message to everyone else: Stay in your place. 

Jones, Pearson and Johnson had their own clear, interracial and intergenerational message in return as they walked through the Capitol, and into the national media spotlight, holding their hands in the air: We will not stand for the politics of exclusion and retribution, and neither should you. 

Lorraine Ali is the Los Angeles Times’ television critic.