Thousands of protesters flocked to the Tennessee state capitol on Thursday to support three Democratic lawmakers facing expulsion for their role in a gun control demonstration after the killings of three children and three adults at a Nashville elementary school last week.
Crowds cheered and chanted outside the house chamber, so loud that they drowned out proceedings.
Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson are the subjects of the expulsion vote. Last week, they approached the front of the chamber floor and chanted back and forth with gun control supporters who packed the gallery.
On Thursday the three Democrats held hands as they walked on to the house floor. During the pledge of allegiance, Pearson raised his fist to the crowd.
Their possible expulsion has once again thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight, underscoring not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents but also its increasing willingness to do so. The move sends a chilling message just as lawmakers grapple with how to respond to the devastating shooting at the Covenant school.
On Thursday, many protesters had traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the building. Johnson urged those in the gallery to remain calm and not shout at lawmakers, to avoid getting removed.
Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said “School zones shouldn’t be war zones”; “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute”, with a photo of George Washington; and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people”.
As the House began proceedings, a Democrat, Vincent Dixie, urged that colleagues “not get distracted”. He mentioned the funeral of Mike Hill, the custodian killed at the Covenant school, which took place earlier in the week.
“I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice that he made to keep those kids safe,” Dixie said. “Each of us has power to make change.”
Before the expulsion vote, House members were set to debate more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit building safety plans to the state.
The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticisms from some Democrats that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
Expulsions in the Tennessee general assembly are rare.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel the former Republican representative David Byrd, after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades before.
Republicans declined to take action, pointing out that he was re-elected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
In 2022, the state senate expelled a Democrat, Katrina Robinson, after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a house member in 2016, voting 70-2 to remove the Republican Jeremy Durham after an investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women in four years in office.
If Johnson, Jones or Pearson are expelled, the county commissions in their districts would get to pick replacements to serve until special elections could be held. The three Democrats would remain eligible to run in those contests.
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