Tennessee Republicans’ racist expulsions backfire; movement for democracy and gun control galvanized
Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones calls on his colleagues to pass gun control legislation from the well of the House Chambers during the legislative session at the State Capitol, March 30, 2023 in Nashville. The Republican House leadership, in a racist move, expelled Jones and a second lawmaker, Rep. Justin Pearson (lower right), and tried to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson (left). | George Walker IV / The Tennessean via AP

A public lynching! A racist kangaroo court legislature! A fascist assault on democracy! All of the above characterize the proceedings of the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature that on Thursday, March 6, expelled two Democratic African American lawmakers under the guise of disrupting that racist legal body. A third Democratic representative similarly accused, but who is white, survived the expulsion.

This writer was a witness to the seven-hour-plus proceeding that expelled State Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and nearly expelled Gloria Johnson, a white colleague whose legislative seat was also on the Republican hit list. Jones and Pearson are representatives of predominantly Black districts. With the expulsion of the two representatives, at least 140,000 people were left with no voice in the legislature.

Jones has now been reinstated and Pearson is expected to join his colleagues after a vote of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis. And as for the Republican cabal who control the legislature, they’re just beginning to feel the backlash they’ve unleashed with their actions.

The representatives, now called the “Tennessee Three,” were accused of “disorderly behavior” for joining in chants from protesters in the chamber gallery and continuing to do so on the House floor.

Jones and Pearson were expelled for participating in a peaceful, non-violent protest against gun violence. Expelled for advocating gun control. Expelled for standing up for children’s safety.

They were responding to the legislature’s refusal to even discuss gun reform in the wake of the mass school shooting of March 27, in which three nine-year-old children and three staffers were killed at the Covenant Christian School in the city. The death toll was seven, counting the shooter.

The Tennessee Three were charged with violating House rules, for which the Republicans in charge chose to exact maximum, unprecedented retaliation.

The expulsion hearings on April 6 were rife with racism and violations of due process. Republican Rep. Gino Bulso verbally attacked lawmaker Jones for calling the “House speaker (Cameron Sexton) a liar.” It was almost as if Bulso was implying that Jones had no right to speak in this way about a white man.

Jones sarcastically responded that Bulso obviously regarded him as an “uppity Negro.” Jones had said that Sexton lied when the House Speaker called an April 3 demonstration at the Capitol an “insurrection.”

Even more flagrant, condescending racism in true plantation style was evoked by Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer when he questioned Pearson and began by saying, not once but twice, “You don’t understand why you are here,” and further stating that Pearson’s actions were “a temper tantrum.”

This was racism supreme and outrageously insulting. Pearson, right on point, responded, “How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?”

These two Republicans truly represented shades of the old, antebellum South along with the rest of their racist, ultra-conservative colleagues.

In regard to due process violations, the Republicans introduced, over the objections of the representatives, a video of the alleged “disorderly behavior” of March 30. Due process demanded that the representatives be given prior notice of the video and the opportunity to view it prior to the hearings. Also, there was the issue that the House rules prohibited the making of a video during a legislative session. These objections concerning Republican violations of rules were summarily overruled.

The Three acquitted themselves nobly and eloquently before their accusers. Johnson has stood shoulder to shoulder with her Black Democratic colleagues and remarked that she missed the chopping block because of “the color of my skin.”

Talking to the press, she left no doubt about why her colleagues had been kicked out and she was spared: “I think it’s pretty clear: I’m a 60-year-old white woman. And they are two young Black men.”

Repercussions of the expulsions have been fast and furious. On Friday, April 7, Vice President Kamala Harris visited met with the Tennessee Three and to denounce the expulsions, and President Joe Biden invited the Three to the White House.

Nashville fights back

There have been multiple demonstrations and vigils following the deadly tragedy at the Covenant School—and now these expulsions bring new reasons for protest. Nashville remains a city in mourning, but also a city in fury.

On April 3, thousands of students, parents, and supporters converged on the State Capitol demanding gun reform. Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee’s response has been to feebly promise money for armed guards for all of Tennessee’s public schools, but he has given a solid “no” to requests for gun reform. He won’t even consider red flag laws.

The only thing the Republican legislature offered was to delay hearings on legislation to expand access to firearms for one year. In recent years, the state has made it easier to obtain guns and has eliminated the requirement for permits to carry concealed weapons.

Let’s examine the above responses. The governor’s proposal for armed guards is senseless, as multiple studies have abundantly shown there is no connection between the presence of armed guards and the deterrence of gun violence. Lee’s answer to the problem of too many guns could actually mean the purchasing of thousands of more guns to arm these guards.

The bottom line is that armed guards are not effective and would only increase gun manufacturers’ profits. Again, research shows that armed school police do not prevent school shootings.

To add another layer of nonsense to these proposals, the Republican legislature is advancing a bill to allow teachers to carry guns in Tennessee schools. This measure is scheduled to be heard on April 13. These proposals are just public relations smokescreens, an attempt to hide Republican fealty to the NRA.

The existing system works…for profits

In a June 2, 2022, People’s World column, I predicted that absent adequate gun control measures another massacre of little children would happen again. At the time I was referring to the massacre of 19 elementary schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. Little did I know that the next massacre would take place so close to home. The fact of the matter is that the massacre of schoolchildren can happen anywhere in the country on any given school day.

The point of sanity to be made over and over again is the need for a ban on assault weapons, along with other rational gun reforms. The assault rifles in the Nashville slaughter were reportedly AR-15s, which do horrific damage to a human body.

In the wake of this deadly shooting, we see again the usual dysfunctionality of the U.S. government. The smug refusal of the barbarous Republican representatives to allow effective gun reform to come to fruition is intolerable. In fact, the usual response of the cold-blooded, corrupt politicians has been to propose the further lifting of restrictions on gun purchases.

In North Carolina, the Republican House eliminated the requirement of a permit to buy a handgun. Again, in Tennessee in recent years, the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon has likewise been eliminated.

In the meantime, the United States as a country has sunk into the depths of barbarism at the behest of the Republicans—all for the sake of the profits of the gun manufacturers they serve. The schools are not safe! The political system is so structured that needed gun laws cannot be passed.

Two former Tennessee governors issued a statement that said in pertinent part, “No other developed nation in the world has anywhere near the mass shootings we do.” I would take that a step further by saying that no other nation in the world, developed or otherwise, has the mass shootings of the United States.

It also must be kept in mind that the vast majority of people in the U.S. is in favor of gun reform. The Republicans have long been at odds with the nation on this crisis issue, and still are.

There are so many layers of this crisis screaming to be addressed. There is the issue of armed teachers. Reportedly, there were armed teachers at Covenant School, but that made no difference. Again, there is the issue of armed guards at schools, which statistics show make no difference.

There is the issue of locked doors. Locked doors did not stop the Covenant killer. In the Nashville massacre, the murderer simply shot out the glass in the locked doors and came right into the school.

There is the issue of National Rifle Association money paid to Republican representatives. In Tennessee, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who has consistently blocked efforts at gun reform, has also received throughout her political career over $1 million from NRA lobbyists.

No casualty figures, no massacre of children or adults, no matter how many were killed, will force a turning point for barbarous, hardened, cold-hearted Republican representatives. No number of grisly deaths will be enough to turn the heads of these politicians with blood-soaked hands, these politicians who cavort in a frenzy of money-laden payoffs, who could care less for children’s safety as long NRA checks keep rolling into their gore-encrusted campaign coffers.

Indeed, with each massacre, all they see is another opportunity to sell more weapons of human destruction made by profit-mad arms manufacturers. The Republican modus operandi after every massacre is to push for more relaxation of gun laws so more people can buy more guns. This is a form of complicity in the ongoing carnage that is happening in no other country on the planet than the U.S. The Republicans are filling their pockets from this continuing slaughter of innocents.

Hence, I will reverse what I asserted in the prior column on mass shootings when I said the Republicans were doing nothing, quite the contrary. The Republicans are not doing nothing. They are taking affirmative measures to foster more gun sales while they are taking action to block gun reform.

Lo and behold they are not inactive but are rather doing everything in their power to promote gun purchases. For this, they should be roundly condemned. They are taking action that will take the lives of more little children and others, and in this regard, they are complicit in the murders of countless innocents.

Representative and family pose with guns on Christmas card

Just so the readers can get an idea of how crazy things are here in Tennessee, the Republican representative for the district in which Covenant School is located posted a Christmas card in 2021 of himself, his wife, and two of his three minor children holding assault rifles. The post read “Merry Christmas! The Ogles Family.” For want of a better word, this is insanity.

The Republicans’ constant assertion of the Second Amendment as the basis of their support of gun rights is a farce. For most of U.S. history, courts understood and ruled accordingly that the Second Amendment created no personal right to possess arms; it only created a right to bear arms in connection “with a well-regulated militia” and the “security of a free state.”

It was only in the late 20th Century that a conservative Supreme Court began perverting the Second Amendment. Beginning in 1995, the Court hastily threw out all or parts of three federal laws in five years: The Gun Free School Zones Act in 1995; the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1997; and the Violence Against Women Act in 2000.

These ghastly Court decisions acted as a springboard for conservative, white supremacist, right-wing, fascist-minded extremists and, above all, for the cold-blooded gun manufacturers and their firearms lobby, the NRA.

Political ramifications of the expulsions

The political effects of the ignominious expulsions are many and far-reaching. To begin with, the Republican efforts to silence Jones, Pearson, and Johnson have hugely backfired. Not only is the focus of the nation on Tennessee, but the world is now watching events unfold in regard to the struggle for gun reform and democracy in the United States.

Gun reform has become a pivotal point of the contest for democracy in this country. The voices of the Tennessee Three have been enormously amplified worldwide. Tennessee has become the focal point of the struggle for democracy against incipient fascism and long-existing racism.

This struggle has been tremendously sharpened because of the courageous actions of the Tennessee Three and their constituents. It was their actions in the gallery and in the days that followed which have elevated the struggle to new heights. The Republican efforts to crush democracy have galvanized and strengthened the movement, particularly among the youth of this country.

The movement for democracy has been immeasurably strengthened. The world is watching! The world is on the side of the Tennessee Three!

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.