On March 30, 2023, a large group of protesters marched on the Tennessee state capitol, in Nashville, in order to advocate for stricter gun laws. This protest occurred just three days after a mass shooting took place at Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville. This massacre resulted in the deaths of six individuals, three of whom were nine years-old.
Students, teachers, and parents lined the building’s hallways and gathered outside. During this time a session of the Tennessee House took place amid the chants and shouts from protesters. They continued until three representatives halted the proceedings. These representatives are Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson; or as the media refers to them “The Tennessee Three.”
Pearson, Jones, and Johnson are Democratic representatives in the Tennessee House, which is split 24-74, with Republicans holding the supermajority. Jones is 27 years old and “one of the youngest members of the state’s legislature,” according to CBS News. Pearson, also elected in January, is 28 years old and represents District 86. Johnson is a former teacher and currently represents District 90 after being elected in November of 2022. Unlike her two counterparts, Johnson has been a part of the House since 2012, formerly representing District 13.
The Tennessee Three participated in the protests by leading chants. They used bullhorns, as their microphones were, allegedly, turned off when they attempted to bring up calls for gun reform. They gathered by the podium at the front of the house during a recess. They did so without being recognized by the Speaker of the House, Cameron Sexton. Their demonstration was deemed a violation of decorum and house rules, and many called for a vote for their removal.
The Three were allowed to deliver a five minute speech on their behalf in order to attempt to sway voters against expulsion. “You are seeking to expel District 86’s representation from this House, in a country that was built on a protest,” Pearson illustrated. He went on to share his belief that fellow representatives want to remove him because he “spoke up for people that [they] don’t care about.”
Jones took an alternative approach when it came to his speech, starting off by saying “you have the votes to do what you are going to do today…and to those who will cast a vote for expulsion, I was fighting for your children too.” Jones continued expressing his opinion by stating, “We were calling for a ban of assault weapons and the response of this body is to assault democracy.” He recognized that the students and teachers who gathered outside to protest simply wanted the representatives to do something, and expressed that if he is removed, he will join their protests.
Johnson began her speech by saying the names of the six victims of the Covenant School and illustrating that her life has been dedicated to helping children, as a teacher. She stated in her speech that “there are so many things we could do that would change the trajectory of where we are headed: more school shootings.” Johnson also commented that lack of gun control legislation would cause more shootings in every place.
On April 6, 2023, a vote took place to determine whether or not Johnson, Jones, and Pearson would be allowed to continue representing their districts. There are 99 seats in the Tennessee House and 66 votes are needed for expulsion of a representative. When it came to Jones, 72 voted to expel versus 25 opposed. Pearson faced a similar vote, with 69 to 26, the majority in favor of expulsion. When it came time for Johnson’s vote, 65 voted to expel and 30 opposed, which meant Johnson was allowed to retain her seat, while her fellow representatives were removed.
In the past, House representatives have only been removed in extreme situations, such as involvement in hate groups, taking bribes, commiting a felony or fraud, or misconduct. No other representative has been removed on the grounds of decorum or ethics, which made many onlookers wonder if expulsion was the only option to reprimand the representatives for their demonstration.
Many believe that race was a factor in the expulsions due to the two young Black men being removed, while their white female counterpart stayed. Others believe it is solely due to how much each individual participated in the demonstration. Many have arrived at the same conclusion as Jones, which is that their removal is “a farce of democracy.”
Former President Barack Obama expressed his opinion on social media, stating that “[n]o elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.” He continued to express that the action of removing the representatives is an example of “broader erosion of civility and democratic norms,” and that their removal will not lead to their silencing.
On April 7, 2023 President Joe Biden also took action to support these representatives and condemn their expulsion, inviting them to meet with him at the White House. “You’re standing up for our kids, you’re standing up for our communities,” Biden told the lawmakers, according to USA Today. “What the Republican legislature did was shocking, it was undemocratic.” Biden also expressed that the actions Johnson, Jones and Pearson took were necessary to stand up for kids and stand up for committees. By inviting them to meet with him publicly, Biden helped to continue to share their story and promote the influential media presence.
On April 10, 2023, only four days after the expulsion of Justin Pearson, he was reinstated. The city of Nashville’s governing council voted unanimously to reinstate Pearson to the Tennessee Legislature. When entering the House, he stated on the floor “[w]e will continue to be your voice here. And no expulsion, no attempt to silence us will stop us, but it will only galvanize and strengthen our movement,” according to The Guardian.
That following Wednesday, April 12, 2023, would see the reinstatement of Justin Pearson by the Shelby County Commissioners unanimous vote. According to CNN, after the vote took place Pearson stated, “You cannot expel hope, you can’t expel our voice and you sure can’t expel our fight.” Pearson, similarly to Jones, would also take to the House in Tennessee to reclaim his seat and explained that he and his fellow representatives “[l]ook forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate.”