About 500 people packed the chapel at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, and sang the civil rights anthem This Little Light of Mine while they waited for US vice-president Kamala Harris to appear. When she did, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Harris and her listeners were there to show support for her fellow Democrats and state lawmakers Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson – Jones and Pearson were ousted from the Republican-controlled Tennessee house of representatives after joining a protest in favor of gun control at the capitol in Nashville, and Johnson narrowly survived an expulsion vote.
“We are here because [Jones, Pearson and Johnson] and their colleagues in the Democratic caucus chose to show courage in the face of extreme tragedy,” Harris said, alluding to how the targeted representatives stood with gun control advocates after the killings of three students and three staffers at the Covenant elementary school in Nashville on 27 March. “They chose to lead and show courage and say that a democracy allows for places where the people’s voice will be heard and honored and respected.”
The vice-president said they also added another chapter to a vibrant local history of civil rights activism that previously saw sit-ins at segregated lunch counters led by the late US congressman John Lewis and his movement colleague Diane Nash, saying it was on their “broad shoulders upon which we all stand”.
Harris’s visit punctuated a dramatic week for the so-called “Tennessee Three”, who faced expulsion proceedings after talking without being given the floor by the Republican house speaker Cameron Sexton. Johnson, Jones and Pearson said they spoke out in that manner because capitol staff had cut their microphones off when they attempted to bring up gun control and regulation efforts in response to the shooting deaths at Covenant.
Jones and Pearson led chants from protesters in favor of their proposed measures with a bullhorn while Johnson stood by them silently in solidarity.
Their colleagues then drew up papers to expel all three from the seats in the chamber to which they were democratically elected. Votes on Thursday left Jones and Pearson – two Black men and the house’s youngest members – ousted while Johnson, a 60-year-old white woman, managed to keep her seat by a single vote.
“A democracy says you do not silence the people, you do not stifle the people, you do not turn off their microphones when they are speaking,” Harris said, outraged. “These leaders had to get a bullhorn to be heard.”
Such expulsions are exceedingly rare even in today’s ultra-divided political climate, and they are generally used against lawmakers accused of misconduct more serious than a decorum breach. For instance, the body had previously expelled one lawmaker accused of spending federal nursing school grant money on a wedding and another who allegedly had improper sexual contact with more than 20 women in four years in office. Meanwhile, the state legislature opted against expelling a Republican representative accused of sexual misconduct in 2019.
County commissions in Jones and Pearson’s districts are now set to pick someone to serve in the newly vacant seats until special elections can be held. Jones and Pearson remain eligible to run in those special elections and could also possibly be appointed by the county commissions to stay in their seats until those contests, though the commissions are reportedly facing pressure to choose interim replacements.
To be sure, Jones and Pearson’s expulsions have given both men significant national platforms. In addition to Harris’s remarks, Joe Biden met with them and Johnson virtually. The president tweeted a photo of the meeting, saying: “Our country needs to take action on gun violence – to do that we need more voices like theirs speaking out.”
The chapel was warmly receptive to the vice-president, responding to her statements with the sort of affirmations that are familiar in the halls of Black churches.
“Some things are up for partisan debate,” she said. “Sure. But regarding the issue of gun safety laws, background checks, the policy is really pretty straightforward.”
“Facts!” someone shouted from one of the pews.
“Assault weapons … are weapons of war,” Harris continued. “These are weapons that are designed to kill a lot of people quickly. They have no place on the streets of a civil society.”
Murmurs of “amen”, and “I know that’s right”, moved through the crowd.
Young Black women – Fisk students – lined the aisles of the chapel wearing pearls and bright pink-and-green apparel signifying their association with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority of which Harris is also a member. One of them, Kayla Willis, told the Guardian it was “an honor to see our legacy as a sorority and also as a Black-founded organization to be put at the forefront, especially in this political climate”.
Willis is a senior studying political science and Spanish, and she said she was deeply disappointed with the expulsion of representatives Jones and Pearson. Still, the turnout, the speeches from local activists and officials, and Harris’s appearance lifted her spirits.
State representative Torrey Harris – who, like Pearson, is a Black Democrat representing Memphis – was similarly affected. He noted how he was the legislature’s youngest member after the expulsions which targeted two men whom he referred to as “brothers” and people whom he had “grown to love”.
Harris said he had no doubt race factored into Jones and Pearson’s expulsions as well as the more favorable outcome for Johnson.
“We have to be honest and transparent that race plays a huge part in a lot of the decision-making that happens not only in this state, but in other states,” Harris said. “To cut off somebody else’s belief and ability to fight for their people is wrong. We live in a country that is built on democracy, and I would hope that we will one day get back to that place.”
( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )