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Expelled Tennessee lawmakers reinstated by local commissions

State Representatives Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, the youngest Black members of the Democratic caucus, were expelled by the Republican supermajority for breaking rules of decorum.

(CN) — It’s a temporary yet redemptive reprieve that will ensure their service through the ongoing legislative session: Two Black Democratic state representatives who were expelled from the Tennessee Legislature last week have been reinstated by local authorities and expect to return to the House floor Thursday. 

After their partisan expulsion for leading a disruptive protest against gun violence April 6, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis will still be subject to special elections in the future. But on Monday, the 40-member Metropolitan Council of Nashville voted 36-0 to send Jones back as the interim representative for District 52, while the 13-member Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted 7-0 on Wednesday to do the same with Pearson in District 86. 

Gloria Johnson, a white Democrat who represents Knoxville's District 90, was also subject to expulsion for her role in the protest, but was ultimately spared by a single vote. Instead, the Republican supermajority’s decision to expel only the youngest Black members of the Democratic caucus was seen as a racially motivated attack on democracy

All three gathered before Wednesday’s meeting in Memphis to speak to supporters outside the former Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a gunman 55 years ago April 4. Together, they vowed to continue to fight for victims of gun violence and invoked late Congressman John Lewis in promising to continue to make “good trouble” when they return State Capitol.

“As we walk in that chamber tomorrow as representatives again we must continue the demands that led us there in the first place,” Jones said. “That a week after a mass shooting hit Nashville, rather than pass common sense gun laws, they passed a resolution to expel the two youngest Black members of the General Assembly. Speaker Sexton represents an enemy to democracy, to multiracial democracy. He’s trying to bring us back to a Tennessee of our past, the same Tennessee where the [Ku Klux Klan] was founded].”

In a further act of defiance, Jones said he would introduce a resolution seeking the resignation of Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton. 

Pearson encouraged his supporters to get even more involved, suggesting the political tides will eventually turn in their favor. 

“This is the democracy that will lift up the victims of gun violence instead of supporting the [National Rifle Association] and the gun lobbyists,” he said. “This is the democracy they are worried about because this is the democracy that changes the status quo. The status quo needs changing.”

Amber Sherman of the Shelby County Young Democrats, who noted she had been banned from meetings of the Memphis City Council, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the legislature’s expulsions. 

“What message are we really sending the youth when we villainize the most outspoken voices?” she asked. “When we chastise the most courageous? When we lie on one of the most tried and true leaders who represents the voice of thousands?”

Yet Sherman also emphasized that young voices matter, noting that in separate actions Tuesday, Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order strengthening background checks for gun purchases while the city of Memphis adopted a law preventing its police force from pretextual traffic stops, which inordinately discriminated against drivers of color.

Wednesday’s resolution, sponsored by Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery, noted Pearson was expelled by the Legislature “due to issues of decorum on the State House floor in the wake of a horrific mass shooting that left three nine year old children and three adults dead.”

‘The Shelby County Board of Commissioners does not condone the removal of any duly elected official due solely to issues of decorum or any other such issue that does not directly impact the fitness of office for said official,” it reads. 

In both Memphis and Nashville, commissions suspended the rules and nominated the respective candidates. Nashville Mayor John Cooper called the Legislature’s action “unprecedented.”

“Voters in District 52 elected Justin Jones to be their voice in the statehouse and that voice was taken away last week, so let’s give them their voice back,” Cooper said, encouraging a unanimous vote.

On Wednesday, Shelby County Commissioner Shante K. Avant said she had received some 5,500 emails in support of Pearson since his expulsion and commended his effort and commitment to gun control. Memphis experienced a record high of 346 homicides in 2021, most of them gun crimes. 

“You have done well by us in making sure our voices can be heard,” she said. 

After the vote Wednesday, Pearson expressed optimism about returning to the House, again noting the “proliferation” of guns in the state allegedly exacerbated by Republican laws designed for ease of access and constitutional carry. 

“You can’t expel hope, you can't expel justice, you can't expel our voice and you can't expel our fight,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to fight, continuing to advocate, until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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Categories / Government, Politics, Regional

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