Oakland, Ca. (Feature; Special to Informed Comment) – The demonstration on the floor of the Tennessee Legislature on March 30 was not an insurrection, such as occurred on January 6. It was a passionate political protest, driven by raw emotions in the wake of another AR-15 massacre at a local school on March 27. The demonstration spilled over from the lawn of the Tennessee Capitol Building into the chamber. That’s where the comparison stops. The same sort of people who enabled January 6, and called it “a normal tourist visit,” have responded with unlawful demands for expulsion, over a “breach of decorum.” Tennessee Republicans have a history of giving their own members a pass for actual offenses, such as sexual abuse of minors.
Yet, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton argued that the breach was an “insurrection.” The Republican supermajority is concealing, behind this red herring that they are now now Trumpians, resorting to racist scapegoating to score political points.
The expulsions may conflict with the SCOTUS precedent, established when the court reversed the decision of the Georgia state assembly to expel Julian Bond for endorsing a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee statement charging the United States with contravening international law in Vietnam. The expulsion also violates the Home Rule Amendment, Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution.
Justin Jones (Nashville), Justin Pearson (Memphis) and Gloria Johnson (Knoxville) knowingly violated the rules of decorum and expected to be sanctioned, proportional to their offenses. They used their standing to articulate the depth of outrage towards those lawmakers who ignore the consequences of the gun violence epidemic, and profit from it. In an act of brazen partisan retribution, Jones was ousted by a vote of 72-25, while Pearson went down 69-26 vote. Johnson was sanctioned, but not expelled, which she attributed to racism, as the speeches by Republicans had strong racist overtones.
The three state reps joined protesters outside the Capitol on March 30, demanding that lawmakers pass gun-control legislation. Then they brought the House session to a halt, shouting, “No action, no peace,” as Pearson spoke on the floor through a megaphone and chanted “Enough is enough!” about gun violence.” Jones held a sign that read, “Protect kids, not guns.” Republicans reacted with their usual echo chamber about using a tragedy to score political points, and the “now is not the time” refrain. Pearson and Jones were told, “Don’t elevate yourself above the victims of the tragedy, whose bodies aren’t even yet in the ground.” So, this is also about the stranglehold the NRA has on the Republican Party, as it has gained strength from voter suppression and gerrymandering nationwide.
Rural white Republicans are trying to override the will of the voters in three urban districts, and to further erode Democratic representation. They’re punishing their colleagues and three cities over objections to their refusal to enact effective gun legislation after the Nashville shootings and using this charade to avoid a gun control bill.
Inadvertently, Republicans have catapulted the state reps to national prominence, and elicited a forceful backlash of objection and ridicule from a broad political spectrum, including some National Republican leaders. Objectors include Congressional Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who represents urban Memphis, and served 24 years in the State Senate. If we put together his various statements on the issue, they go like this: “As a former state Senator and current Member of Congress, I understand the need for compliance with rules in a legislative body. But . . . expelling Members Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones will result in the disenfranchisement of their constituents in Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville who voted for them, and result in the unnecessary expense of primary and general elections. . . the heightened emotions prompted by the horrific Covenant School shootings should be a mitigating factor in any disciplinary response. . . The three Democratic Members did violate the rules of decorum, however I believe expulsion to be too extreme a consequence. The passion that motivated the breach of decorum, should mitigate any discipline.”
The Tennessee ACLU said, “Trying to expel three lawmakers without due process for amplifying the voices of their constituents in a peaceful, non-violent manner undermines democracy . . . Instead of rushing to expel members for expressing their ethical convictions about crucial social issues, House leadership should turn to solving the real challenges facing our state.”
This is the rawest form of election interference, a racist, unconstitutional, extra-legislative power play, which dictates to hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans that they can’t choose Reps. Jones and Pearson, their duly elected state legislators. Over 200,000 voters are disenfranchised by this action. Victor Ashe, a former Knoxville mayor, state legislator and an ambassador under the Bush administration said, “The violations of House rules, don’t rise even remotely to the level of expulsion.” But party elder statesmen such as Ashe don’t hold sway in Trump’s party; his ownership was confirmed by the ugly language and implications of these actions. But the legal reaction has yet to unfold.