Republican legislators in Tennessee voted Thursday to expel two Black Democrats from the state House over their protests on the chamber floor against gun violence last week, while a vote to expel a third, white Democratic representative fell short.
In the first vote, Republicans expelled Rep. Justin Jones. The second vote, to kick out Rep. Gloria Johnson, failed. Republicans then voted to remove Rep. Justin Pearson.
Jones and Pearson are Black. Johnson is white.
Cheers erupted in the chamber with chants of "Gloria!" after her tally was announced, later followed by "Shame on you!" after Pearson was removed.
The House voted 72-25 along party lines to expel Jones. The effort to remove Johnson fell short of the two-thirds majority of all 100 members needed. That vote was 65-30. Pearson was removed in a 69-26 vote.
The resolutions accused each of the Democratic legislators of engaging in “disorderly behavior” and purposely bringing “disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives” during protests against gun violence on the House floor last week.
Chants from protesters — many of whom bore signs defending the “Tennessee three” — were audible throughout the entire legislative session Thursday. Organizers said hundreds were present.
Over the cacophony of protesters outside the House, Republican legislators began expulsion proceedings Thursday afternoon against the three Democrats.
At the outset of the proceedings, House Republicans moved to play a heavily edited video showing some of the events of last week’s protests — despite Democratic objections.
That led quickly to the votes to expel. In a process that closely resembles a trial, the House allows all members to defend themselves with a 20-minute speech. House members then debate the resolution, and then each member is allowed to answer questions about the accusations from legislators.
“What is happening here today is a situation in which the jury has already publicly announced the verdict,” Jones said in a floor speech. “A lynch mob assembled to not lynch me but our democratic process.”
Jones said his participation in the protests amounted to his “standing for those young people ... many of whom can’t even vote yet but all of whom are terrified by the continued trend of mass shootings plaguing our state and plaguing this nation.”
In an MSNBC interview after his expulsion, Jones said the House was setting a "dangerous" precedent.
“What the nation is seeing is that we don’t have democracy in Tennessee — and that if we don’t act we have some very dark days ahead. And so we have to respond to this with mass movements, nonviolent movements,” he said.
“To expel voices of opposition and dissent is a signal of authoritarianism,” he added, suggesting that Tennessee’s action should “sound the alarm across the nation that we are entering into very dangerous territory.”
During the March 30 protest, the trio led supporters in chants calling for stricter gun safety measures after a mass shooting in a Nashville school that killed six people — including three 9-year-old children. A bullhorn was used, in violation of rules for the House chamber, and the legislators were gathered in area on the House floor without being recognized to speak. House leaders at the time called their actions “an insurrection.”
“They tried to shred our constitution with a bullhorn,” Rep. Gino Bulso, who introduced one of the resolutions, said Thursday.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who tweeted earlier this week that the Democrats’ actions were “unacceptable,” said after the expulsions that he was concerned about "following the process and procedures that are laid out that you should follow, and not having a protest — as it was described over here — on the House floor."
As members Thursday debated the resolution to remove Johnson, she said she participated in the protest because she felt she had to "raise the voice of the people in my district," adding, "I did what I felt those folks wanted me to do.”
“I did it for the kids in my district, for the kids in my state, for the kids in this community,” she said.
“My friends in school all called me Little Miss Law and Order because I’m a rule follower. And I know that rules sometimes have to be broken, and sometimes you have to get in good trouble," she added.
She also said the resolution's charge that she "began shouting without recognition" was false, insisting that while she did protest in the part of the chamber known as the well, she didn't yell.
Seven Republicans voted against the motion to expel Johnson, three opposed Pearson's expulsion resolution, and one voted against Jones'.
Addressing her supporters after the vote, Johnson said, “America should be worried," adding, according to The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville, that the failed vote to expel her “might have to do with the color of my skin.”
In a sharply worded statement, the Congressional Black Caucus said Thursday's votes made it "clear that racism is alive and well in Tennessee."
"The GOP-led House chose to silence dissent from not only the Black representatives in the chamber, but the voices of their constituents as well," the CBC said. "This move is not only racist and anti-democratic, it is morally-bankrupt and out of step with the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that we need common sense gun control reforms to save lives.”
Pearson alluded to race when he referred to Lois DeBerry, the second Black woman elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, who later served as speaker pro tempore.
He suggested that DeBerry, first elected in 1972, was guided by strict rules of decorum and presentation because “Black folk wouldn’t get respected otherwise, because white folks wouldn’t respect them, they’d call them ‘boy,’ they’d call them ‘girl’ instead of ‘chairperson’ or ‘speaker pro tem.’”
GOP Rep. Andrew Farmer, who sponsored the resolution to expel Pearson, described the trio’s March 30 protest on the House floor as a “temper tantrum.”
“Just because you don’t get your way doesn’t mean you can come to the well with your friends,” he said Thursday.
Pearson responded by saying: “He called a peaceful protest a temper tantrum. It isn’t a temper tantrum to say kids should go to schools that are actually safe."
The proceedings prompted criticism from Democrats across the country, including the White House. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dubbed the scheduled expulsion votes as "legislative bullying."
“The fact that this vote is happening is shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” she said at Thursday's White House briefing.
President Joe Biden chastised Republican legislators over their votes Thursday night.
"Last week, three more students and three school officials were gunned down in yet another tragic mass shooting in Nashville. On Monday, 7,000 Tennesseans, many of them students, marched to their state capitol to call on their lawmakers to take action and keep them safe," Biden said in a statement.
"Instead, state Republican lawmakers called votes today to expel three Democratic legislators who stood in solidarity with students and families and helped lift their voices. Today’s expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent. Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee."
Former President Barack Obama also commented, tweeting that the nation was built on peaceful protest.
“No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice — especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children,” Obama wrote.
He called Thursday's proceedings the "latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms."
"Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress," he added.
At a news conference after the votes, all three Tennessee Democrats appeared defiant. Johnson promised to help her two now-former colleagues get back to the legislature, and Pearson led the crowd in a chant: “We will never quit.”
In an MSNBC interview before his expulsion vote, Pearson said: “We are losing our democracy. This is not normal. This is not OK.”
“We broke a House rule because we were 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,” Pearson said.
“No one should be wanting to operate as though this is not happening, as though we are not living in a gun violence epidemic in the state of Tennessee," he added.
Tensions flared this week when the expulsion proceedings started Monday with the introduction of the resolutions. Over the yells of protesters who had again filled the chamber, each proposal passed on a party-line vote.
A protester was arrested Monday during the chaos, which, according to reporters at the session, included a physical altercation between Jones and GOP Rep. Justin Lafferty. Jones accused Lafferty of stealing his phone and trying to “incite a riot with his fellow members,” The Tennessean reported.
The Tennessee Constitution allows either of the legislative chambers to expel a member with support from two-thirds of its members.
With Republicans holding the necessary supermajority to carry out the expulsions Thursday, Democrats had no tools to put up any meaningful resistance.
Jones and Pearson will be able to run in special elections for the seats they were booted from.
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has 30 days to set a date for the special elections. In the meantime, interim representatives selected by county commissions in counties where the seats are located will fill in.
Johnson’s district includes parts of Knoxville, Jones’ includes parts of Nashville, and Pearson’s includes parts of Memphis.
The Tennessee House last voted to expel a sitting member in 2016, when members voted 70-2 to throw out Rep. Jeremy Durham over sexual misconduct allegations.
According to The Tennessean, House members had previously voted to expel a member in 1980 — but they hadn’t done so since the Civil War. The Tennessee Senate voted last year to expel a sitting member for the first time — Katrina Robinson — after she was convicted of federal wire fraud charges.
But unlike in those instances, Johnson, Jones and Pearson faced no criminal or civil charges or any investigations.
More than 250 Democratic state legislators across the U.S. signed on to a letter organized by the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive legislation advocacy group, that accused Tennessee Republicans of racist motives.
“The attempts to expel Reps. Jones, Johnson, and Pearson show a dark truth in the light of day: there’s a robust and racist connection between fighting against gun safety and dismantling our democracy,” the letter says.