‘A farce to democracy’: The dramatic moments inside the Tennessee Capitol when two Black lawmakers were expelled

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the Legislature

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On Monday, when Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson were addressed in a motion for expulsion, I thought it couldn’t happen, that it had to just be political theater.

To be sure, much worse behavior has been waved off in the House. These three representatives had broken a minor procedural rule. Rep. Johnson has worked with me on stories before, namely my 2018 investigation into the allegations that former Rep. David Byrd molested minors during his time as a high school basketball coach (he was not expelled). She has also long stood out in the legislature for her dedicated allyship to Black and brown Tennesseans and legislators.

Soon, all hell broke loose.

On Thursday, the gallery in the Capitol was full ahead of the House floor meeting. Hundreds more who could not get inside to witness the proceedings crowded outside in the rotunda, chanting and singing and stomping in support of the three lawmakers. “This is what democracy looks like!” rang out, alongside “whose house? Our house!” Cheers erupted when Johnson, Jones, or Pearson would appear on the livestream of the proceedings. Still more Tennesseans who could not get into the Capitol building marched outside, and the accompanying beats of a snare drum broke through the legislative business inside.

Constituents from Memphis and Knoxville, where Pearson and Johnson serve, came in on buses, and there were plenty of Nashvillians in attendance to support Jones and gun reform more broadly. The people at the Capitol were a diverse crowd. There were women holding signs that said, “Grandmothers for justice!” Teens and 20-somethings also crowded around, keeping the energy up. Black folks, white folks, brown folks all stood together against the inherently racist proceedings that were happening inside.

The House prioritized regular business first, including a bill that would allocate more money toward security for schools, but stopped short of the meaningful gun control that demonstrators demanded. Johnson, Jones, and Pearson voted against it, saying that the effort does not make meaningful progress toward stopping guns before they enter Tennessee schools.

The hours dragged on. People in the gallery grew restless, and then confused. They were taking up the expulsion motion that day, right? Word passed around that, yes, that was the plan. It would just happen under “unfinished business,” which was why the motion was not on the agenda. Supporters of the three settled back into their seats to continue waiting. Protesters outside continued their vocal support.

The tenor of the room changed when the clerk called up and read the motion to expel Rep. Justin Jones, a 27-year-old representing District 52, which currently encompasses most of the southeastern portion of Nashville. The folks in the gallery sat up a little straighter, and some stood, pushing to be as close to the balcony as possible. Jones had 20 minutes for opening remarks, and it was like he had been preparing for the moment for years. (Despite his youth, Jones is a seasoned activist in the Nashville area, and he speaks with wisdom and gravitas beyond his years.) Dressed in a pristine white suit, he said into the microphone, “The world is watching Tennessee. And what is happening here is a farce to democracy.”

Jones defended himself with grace, explaining—but being careful not to apologize—that his actions were motivated by his responsibility to the people he represents who had been ardently arguing for more gun control in Tennessee. When his mic was cut, he said he felt he had to do whatever was necessary for the people’s voices to be heard. Johnson and Pearson felt similarly.

“This is not a temple,” Jones said. “This is a place where we’re supposed to wrestle for our democracy, wrestle with ideas.”

He was expelled in a 72-25 vote. (In the hours that followed, Johnson would survive expulsion by a single vote, and Pearson, too, would be expelled.) By that time, I had left the gallery, and I was in a hall lined with the offices of House representatives. An aide who was watching the proceedings on her computer let out a howl and began to sob. She was young. She believed that in her work, she could make a difference. She believed in the work that the three lawmakers were doing, and she believed in the power of democracy. That belief had been shattered. Other House employees came in to comfort her, but she was inconsolable, and eventually, she was left alone.

Becca Andrews

Becca Andrews |

Becca Andrews is a reporter at Reckon News and the author of "No Choice: The Destruction of Roe v. Wade and the Fight to Protect a Fundamental American Right."

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