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Tennessee’s Waltz with Racism

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.


(From left) State Reps. Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson as they leave the state Capitol in Nashville last week. The two black lawmakers were ousted from their elected positions by their belligerent GOP colleagues

In little more than a week, thousands of Tennessee citizens have been disenfranchised. Here’s what happened:

On March 27, there was yet another mass shooting, this time at the Covenant School, a private Christian school located in Nashville. Six people were murdered: three nine-year-olds and three adults.

Three days later, more than a thousand protesters—young and old—descended on Tennessee’s Capitol, demanding that legislators address gun safety.

Instead, Republicans legislators—who hold a super-majority in Tennessee–tried to ignore the protesters and continue business as usual, debating dozens of bills related to regular state matters. The Republicans, who have spent years loosening Tennessee’s gun laws, deliberately turned a deaf ear, some of them even entering the legislative chambers wearing headphones to block out the protesters’ cries.

Protesters flooded the public viewing areas of the state House and Senate, chanting “Children are dead, and you don’t care.” According to the Tennessee Lookout, when they refused to stop chanting, they were cleared from the senate’s public gallery.

But on the House side, Democratic Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville, Justin Pearson of Memphis, and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, went to the well (a podium at the front of the chamber), where Jones and Pearson spoke out in support of the protesters, whose voices had been ignored by their Republican colleagues.

According to Johnson, who went to the well to stand with Jones and Pearson, as long the microphone was on, “they spoke and didn’t yell. When the speaker called a recess, I think that’s when the megaphone came out.”

During that recess, Jones held a sign reading, “Protect kids, not guns” and—because the microphone had been cut off—he used a bullhorn to lead the protesters up in the House’s balcony in a chant of “No action, no peace.” Later, Pearson spoke through the bullhorn about gun violence and chanted, “Enough is enough.”

The Speaker of the House, Republican Cameron Sexton, had the nerve to call the Democrats’ siding with the peaceful (if noisy) protesters, and their use of a bullhorn to speak after the microphone had been cut off, as an insurrection equivalent to or worse than the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

On April 3, one week after the mass shooting, Republicans filed resolutions to oust the three Democratic state legislators on the grounds they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House.

The debate over ousting Rep. Jones lasted no more than an hour, with the Republicans voting to move on over the outraged objections of Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons. In understandable consternation, Clemmons shouted, “You are talking about kicking somebody out of this body and you can’t sit through a debate?”

On April 6, Jones was ousted, as was Pearson. Johnson survived by only one vote. Expulsion from the Tennessee legislature has only occurred three times before—of six lawmakers in 1866 because they tried to prevent the state from granting citizenship to former slaves; of one lawmaker in 1980 for seeking a bribe; and of one representative in 2016 during state and federal investigations for sexual misconduct.

And what was the pretext for the expulsions of representatives Jones and Pearson? Breaking “decorum.” Speaking out of turn to support their constituents and chanting along with the people they represent.

The fact that, of the two ousted, one was Black (Pearson) and one was of Black and Filipino descent (Jones) was lost on no one. When Gloria Johnson, who is white, was asked why she alone of the three survived the ouster, she replied, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”


On Monday (April 10), the Nashville Metropolitan Council–which has authority to name an interim replacement for Justin Jones pending a special election–voted unanimously to reinstate him. Jones was sworn in, and returned to the Tennessee House to great cheers. Memphis may do the same for Justin Person in the near future.

The anti-democratic maneuver failed in this instance because the people of Nashville found a way around it. Nevertheless, this vulgar, open disenfranchisement in Tennessee was perpetrated against representatives of color and their constituents. Whites should not get comfortable, because they are next. And this battle needs to be joined throughout the country.

Many commentators have pointed to the massive protests in Tennessee and say that the Republicans have overreached, are being driven by their base, are misreading Middle America, and will pay a price. They point to losses in some recent elections and maintain that Republicans will continue to lose elections because they refuse to acknowledge and deal with what the majority of Americans want—be it related to gun control, abortion, race, LBGTQ rights, or other such issues.

But these pundits are missing the point.

Overreach suggests one has gone too far and voters will vote one out. Republicans are not committing overreach; they are grabbing power in order to prevent anyone from voting them out. They are not driven by their extremist base—they created that base to help them stay in power. And there’s no evidence that these politicians are being dragged unwillingly towards ever more extreme positions. Furthermore, what middle or other Americans think or want is irrelevant if those who oppose the Republicans’ reactionary agenda cannot vote or have their votes counted.

The error is assuming that Republican politicians consider themselves bound by the tenets of an ongoing, working democracy. Their actions scream that they do not. The Republican Party’s plan is to obtain Republican control of every level of government and hold it in perpetuity. Legitimate participation in the nation’s democratic institutions is not the plan and has not been so for decades.

If you control the state legislatures, you can prevent anyone who disagrees with you from even speaking—as just occurred in Tennessee.

You can impeach any judge you don’t think will do your political bidding—a fate some of Wisconsin’s Republican legislative supermajority are contemplating for the newly elected Democratic Wisconsin Supreme Court justice--who has not even yet taken her seat.

You can fire an elected prosecutor who disagrees with your stance on abortion rights—as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has already done in Florida.

You can even push through a law giving a partisan board the power to remove a prosecutor elected by the people of your state in order to prevent her from prosecuting an alleged criminal you wish to protect—as the Georgia legislature is attempting in order to prevent Fanni Willis’s prosecution of Donald J. Trump.

Not to mention passing legislation permitting your Republican-controlled legislature to replace the voters’ choice with that of the legislature—which is being attempted in numerous states.

And if an appeal of any of this fascist tyranny ultimately goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, you can likely count on the six political hacks the Republican party has installed there to back your power grab and do your ideological bidding.

As Justin Jones, the first to be expelled from the Tennessee legislature, stated last week, there is no democracy in Tennessee. He added “it’s coming to your state next.” Mr. Jones is incorrect about one thing—the effort to eliminate democracy in other states has already arrived.

Democratic leaders tend to worry which issues are most important to the electorate. Should their pitch to voters mainly focus on the economy or healthcare, gun regulation or racial equity, school loans, or something else? In doing this, they, like some commentators, are missing the big picture. Citizens must be made to understand that no matter what individual issue they are concerned about, the most important, overarching cause on which they must coalesce is the survival of democracy—because without that, Americans will lose a say on any issue.

 

Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.


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