Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have been accused of overt racism after expelling two Black Democrats from the state legislature in an act of unprecedented retaliation, for their role in a peaceful protest calling for gun control in the aftermath of a massacre at a school in Nashville.
The Republican-controlled legislature voted on Thursday to spare a white Democratic lawmaker who participated in the same protest.
Justin Jones, representative for Nashville, and Justin Pearson, who represented Memphis, gave rousing speeches in the chamber before the majority-white legislature voted to oust them, leaving tens of thousands of mostly Black and brown Tennessee residents without representation.
Justin Jones, 27, said he had “no regrets” and would “continue to speak up for Tennesseans who are demanding change”, in an interview with CNN on Friday,
“What happened yesterday was an attack on our democracy and overt racism. The nation got to see clearly what’s going on in Tennessee, that we don’t have democracy especially when it comes to Black and brown communities. This is what we have been challenging all session, a very toxic, racist work environment.”
The White House announced on Friday early afternoon that Vice-President Kamala Harris would visit Nashville later that day and meet with the expelled lawmakers and Gloria Johnson, a third Democratic lawmaker who joined the protest in the legislature but narrowly avoided being kicked out. The group has come to be known as the Tennessee Three.
Jones said Republican lawmakers were trying to take Tennessee backwards, and pointed to the state’s history of white supremacy, the birthplace of the ultra-violent Ku Klux Klan.
After the vote to expel them, Jones and Pearson, the two youngest Tennessee lawmakers and former community organisers, were greeted with rapturous chants and songs of resistance by a huge crowd outside the state capitol building. During the vote, the visitors’ gallery exploded in angry shouts of “Shame!” and “Fascists!”
Pearson, 27, told reporters that in carrying out the protest, the three had broken “a house rule, because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities”.
He later tweeted: “We will not stop. We will not give up. We will continue working to build a nation that includes, not excludes, or unjustly expels. People power will always prevail!”
Johnson, the white Democrat spared expulsion by a one-vote margin, was asked by reporters about the split vote as she left the chamber on Thursday.
“I’ll answer your question; it might have to do with the color of our skin,” said Johnson, a retired teacher.
Republican lawmakers denied allegations of racism, and said the expulsions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Jones, Pearson and Johnson joined protesters last week as hundreds of Tennesseeans packed the capitol to demand gun-control measures, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Covenant school, a private Christian school where six people including three children were slain.
As the protesters filled the galleries, the three made their way to the front of the house chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant.
The extraordinary banishment was widely condemned.
Joe Biden called the move “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent” in a statement.
He said: “Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action.”
The expulsions mark the fourth time since the end of the civil war that house members expelled their elected colleagues. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.
Jones and Pearson have both accused Republicans of double standards, pointing to sitting white Republicans who have been accused of serious criminal offences, without censure from their colleagues.
In response to calls from the Jeremy Faison, the chairman of the house Republican caucus, to apologise for last week’s protest in the chamber, Jones told CNN: “Apologise to the families of the victims of the mass shooting, and we will apologise for our action.
“They expelled the two youngest lawmakers, which is no coincidence, because we are outspoken because we fight for our districts and I’m going to keep doing that whether outside or inside the chamber.”
At an evening rally on Thursday, Jones and Pearson pledged to be back at the capitol next week advocating for change.
County commissions in each of the expelled lawmakers’ districts will choose replacements to serve until a special election can be held.
The commissions could choose Jones and Pearson, letting them return to the capitol. The expelled lawmakers also would be eligible to run in the special elections to fill the seats.
Under the Tennessee constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled for the same offence twice.
The Associated Press contributed reporting
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