Behind the Expulsions of Two State Representatives in Tennessee – GOP Super-Majorities Are Undermining Democracy in States
To understand why Republicans around the country are pushing for laws to make it more difficult for young people to vote, you need only to look at the events of the past couple of weeks in Tennessee. On March 30th, three days after six people, including three children, were killed at the private, church-affiliated Covenant School in Nashville, by a person wielding legally purchased guns including two assault-type weapons, more than a thousand high-school and college students walked five abreast through the streets of the city to the state capitol to demand gun reform. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they shouted, “Ban assault weapons,” “Do your job,” and “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers.”
It was thoughts and prayers, though, that had been offered by the Republican governor, Bill Lee, in a pre-recorded video the day after the shooting. “I am calling on the people of Tennessee to pray,” he said. “Prayer is the first thing we should do, but it’s not the only thing.” He added, “Clearly there’s more work to do,” but that “the struggle is against evil itself.” The students, who are all members of the shooter-drill generation, were incensed. In early April, March for Our Lives, a student-led gun-reform group, called for a nationwide student walkout. In Nashville, crowding into the capitol, students chanted, “You ban books, you ban drag—kids are still in body bags!” David Hogg, one of the founders of March For Our Lives, wrote on Twitter, where he posted a video of the students in Tennessee, “If voting didn’t work, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop us. We are going to win, and they know it.”
The Nashville massacre was a rare case in which the supposed solutions that committed Second Amendment supporters usually propose were in place: the school’s doors were locked, there were armed staff members in the building, and the shooter was under mental-health care. Nonetheless, in response to the shooting, Senator Marsha Blackburn, who has received more than a million dollars from the N.R.A., along with the state’s junior senator, Bill Hagerty (who has received around sixteen thousand dollars from the group after two years in office) proposed federal legislation to create a nine-million-dollar grant program that, in part, could be used to train veterans and former law-enforcement officers to serve as school security guards. In other words, Tennessee’s senators would like to see more guns in schools. And it was Governor Lee who, two years ago, pushed for N.R.A.-sponsored legislation to allow most people over twenty-one to carry a handgun in public without a permit. The Tennessee House is now poised to lower that age to eighteen.
On March 30th, three Democratic members—Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson—now known as the Tennessee Three, stepped into the well of the chamber without being formally recognized and led the student protesters sitting in the gallery in the chant “No action, no peace,” demanding that lawmakers pass gun-reform legislation. Jones and Pearson used a megaphone. On April 6th, their Republican colleagues voted to expel both members for having violated the decorum of the chamber. When Johnson was asked why they, and not she, had been kicked out, she was blunt, saying, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.” (A representative who voted to expel Jones and Pearson but not Johnson said that he did so because she “did not participate to the extent that Jones and Pearson did”—she did not use the megaphone.) Van Turner, the president of the Memphis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., called the expulsion, which happened in a statehouse located on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard, two days after the fifty-fifth anniversary of King’s assassination, a “political lynching.” Together, Pearson and Jones represent more than a hundred and thirty thousand constituents.
After the vote, Johnson, a former special-education teacher who, in 2008, lived through a school shooting in Knoxville, said, “To the nation, keep watching. We are losing our democracy. We need to make sure we stamp out this march to fascism. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Though she was quoting the nineteenth-century British historian and politician Lord Acton, the absolute power she was referring to is the Republican super-majority that controls the Tennessee legislature. Republicans also control both the executive and judicial branches of the state government. This has created a formidable bulwark against sensible gun reform in Tennessee.
In a crucial way, the outcome of the April 6th expulsion vote was preordained in 2010. That year, Republican lawmakers used the redistricting provision that follows every census to gerrymander the state in such a way that it packed Democrats into a smaller number of districts. Not surprisingly, the election of 2012 delivered the Republicans their super-majority in both houses of the legislature. This essentially gives them the power to do as they please, such as expelling duly elected legislators and, in 2020, passing a criminal-justice-reform bill that, among other things, makes it a felony to pitch a tent outside the capitol overnight, punishable by up to six years in prison. (That bill was passed in response to weeks-long demonstrations by racial-justice activists, who were protesting police overreach and advocating the removal from the capitol of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Justin Jones was an organizer of those protests.)
Less than twenty-four hours after the expulsions, the Tennessee Republican Party was using the event as a fundraising opportunity. “Actions have consequences, and we applaud House Republicans for having the conviction to protect the rules, the laws, and the prestige of the State of Tennessee,” an appeal read. Meanwhile, Democrats, led by Senator Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, raised nearly half a million dollars for reëlection campaigns for Jones and Pearson in a special election, which can take place anytime within the next hundred days or so, at the discretion of the governor. Both Jones and Pearson are expected to be reinstated this week for the interim—Jones was voted back in on Monday, by the Nashville Metropolitan Council, and Pearson is due to be voted back in on Wednesday, by the Democrats who control the Shelby County Board of Commissioners—but G.O.P. leaders have threatened to withhold funds for projects in the Memphis area if Pearson is reinstated, according to a Shelby County commissioner.
The assault on democracy in Tennessee is also a reminder of how quickly the swirl of politics can overtake grief. I asked a friend, David Dark, a progressive evangelical and an assistant professor of religion and the arts at Belmont University, a private Christian institution in Nashville, what was not being reported. He told me that Dick Koonce—the husband of Katherine Koonce, the head of the Covenant School, who was killed in the shooting—who is the executive director of Charis Ministries, a social-services agency, “is grieving and challenging his own friends, family, and co-congregants” to think of the shooter’s family, too; as Koonce wrote in a statement, “honoring Katherine compels us to remember a seventh family, equally wounded in the loss of someone dear to them.” Dark himself is concerned about what he termed “for-profit transphobia,” adding, “That story needs to surface, but I fear it’s already sunk to the bottom of the Internet.” (The Nashville police said that the shooter, Audrey Hale, apparently identified as transgender, a detail that has led much right-wing coverage of the tragedy.)
Dark also told me, in an e-mail, “The prophetic task is to dramatize the moral contradictions we are otherwise compelled to abide as normal. During Holy Week, they tried to deny the Tennessee Three, but they ended up magnifying them. Our local beloved community is now international news, just as it was when Rev. James Lawson, Diane Nash, John Lewis & others staged the lunch-counter sit-ins. A friend messaged me to say that Tennessee is going off the rails. No, I say a select number of white people in Tennessee are going off the rails loudly and publicly. Millions of others are waking up. Just watch. We live in hope.”