Their lust for vengeance and opprobrium not only failed — it backfired.
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By Charles M. Blow
Last week, the same Tennessee House of Representatives that had resisted expelling a Republican member accused of sexually assaulting three teenage girls — and who was recorded apologizing to one of them, never specifying what for — expelled two young Black representatives. Their offense? Halting House proceedings by protesting the chamber’s intransigence on gun legislation.
State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were joined by Representative Gloria Johnson, a white woman, in chanting “no action, no peace” — urging their fellow legislators to act in the wake of the mass shooting in late March at Nashville’s Covenant School. They were soon known as the Tennessee Three.
Republicans, who enjoy a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, were furious. Somehow, this — this — had crossed the line.
Several legislators ludicrously compared the protesting members’ violation of House rules to the deadly insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, in which a Donald Trump-supporting mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, destroying public property and assaulting police in an effort to derail the democratic process.
When the expulsion votes were cast, Jones and Pearson were removed, but Johnson was spared.
These Republicans wanted payback. They wanted to bring these Black members to heel. They wanted to demonstrate the power of the proverbial whipping post: to publicly shame, signify dominance and try to force submission.
Their real point wasn’t about the gun-control debate or even order in the legislature. It was an attempt to silence dissent.
Expulsions from state legislatures have been rare in American history, with most cases involving “state lawmakers who faced criminal charges or accusations of sexual misconduct,” according to The Times.
But Republicans’ lust for vengeance and opprobrium not only failed — it backfired. They made martyrs of their marks. People in Tennessee and across the country were outraged by the severity of their treatment of fellow legislators, their underlying obduracy on the question of gun violence and the unavoidable racial symbolism of it all.
The expelled lawmakers became causes célèbres. Instead of being muzzled, their voices were amplified.
On Monday, the Metropolitan Nashville Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones, appointing him to his seat until the next election, and he went back to the legislature after being sworn in. He walked onto the House floor with his fist raised in defiance. It’s likely that Pearson will also be reinstated when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners votes in Memphis on Wednesday.
But long before the Tennessee Three, there were the “Original 33” from Georgia. In 1868, one of the first elections after the Civil War, more than a dozen Black men were elected to the Georgia legislature, becoming some of the first Black state legislators in the country. When the General Assembly convened, the white majority quickly expelled the Black members for no offense other than their race. There was national outrage over the move; Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives because of the expulsions. And as in Tennessee now, the state was eventually forced to reseat the expelled Black members.
The fact that Black state legislators now face the same threat as Black state legislators more than 150 years ago is as clear a portrait as can be painted of where our country is right now and the degree of regression that many Republican politicians are trying to inflict.
Republican lawmakers’ unwillingness to confront the problem of gun violence may have been the spark, but the broader problem that the Justins and their Democratic colleagues are challenging is Tennessee’s anti-democratic turn — a turn that’s emblematic of the broader Republican Party, now energized by election denialism, fears of racial “replacement” and resistance to a fast-changing cultural landscape.
There’s also an issue at play that doesn’t receive enough attention: the efforts of Republican legislators to disempower big — and Democratic — cities in their states.
While Southern states may be majority white and, for the most part, Republican-controlled, the citizenry of the South’s major municipalities is disproportionately Black. Pearson represents Memphis, which is majority Black, and Jones represents Nashville, where the percentage of the population that is Black is considerably higher than that of the state overall.
Tennessee’s Republican-dominated legislature, apparently chafed by this reality, has sought to politically neuter these constituencies.
One way this has manifested is that Republicans filed bills “to exert their control over the governing boards for Nashville’s airport, Nissan Stadium, Bridgestone Arena and other Music City landmarks,” as The Tennessean reported in February. In March, Tennessee’s legislature passed, and its Republican governor signed, a law cutting the membership of the Metropolitan Nashville Council by half. The law was seen as retaliation for the council’s vote against hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention, a law that a panel of judges blocked this week — at least for now.
Anti-democratic fervor, unbridled power and thirst for revenge have come to define today’s Republican Party. Indeed, Trump, the party’s de facto leader, recently declared, “I am your retribution.”
Republican legislators and governors have deployed that principle in their own form of federalist authoritarianism. The expulsions of the Justins is a case in point — a symptom of a widespread, dangerous and creepy disease.
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