In a juster, saner world, a Google search for the term “racist show trial” would promptly yield footage of the despicable vote in the GOP-led Tennessee legislature to expel two Black members for the offense of doing their jobs: using their position to advocate for desperately needed gun-control legislation. Justin Jones, a representative from Nashville, and his Memphis colleague Justin Pearson both helped escort a group of high school protesters into the state capitol last Thursday to demand action on gun control in the wake of the horrific killing of six people at a Nashville private school. Both men went to the “well” of the legislative chamber—the spot on the floor where lawmakers typically address the assembly—and helped lead chants of protest. At times, they each spoke through a megaphone. The crowd stayed briefly, and peacefully dispersed.
That’s it. That’s how little you have to diverge from the anxious, controlling, autocratic leadership of the MAGA Republican Party to lose office outright. Nor is that all, of course: Another member, Gloria Johnson, who is white, was also subject to the expulsion vote, but wound up keeping her seat when the Republicans fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority vote required to expel her. When reporters asked her why she was spared expulsion while Pearson and Jones weren’t, she bluntly replied, “It may have to do with the color of our skin.”
It certainly does. All you have to do is queue up the sententious, gloating speeches by supporters of the Jones and Pearson expulsions to see racist contempt in undiluted form. White GOP Representative Andrew Farmer berated the protesting lawmakers for disruptive and immature protest antics. “Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn,” Farmer intoned, sounding for all the world like an outraged plantation overseer. The reason the motion was moving forward, Farmer continued, was because of Jones, Pearson, and Johnson’s “yearning to have attention. That’s what you wanted. Well now you’re getting it.” In his closing flourish, he counseled them that they could have better served their cause by simply introducing and passing legislation—“All you got to do is pass a bill,” he sneered, as if the notion had never occurred to sitting legislators. Of course, the whole reason the protest was mobilized was to exert pressure on the state GOP to do precisely that, at a moment when its members were only considering measures to increase armed security personnel in state schools, along with token mental health screening language that does virtually nothing to confront the plague of gun violence in America.
“They want to increase guns in schools, do ‘mental health’ and more school security,” says Tennessee Democratic Representative Steve Cohen. “That will do nothing for people killed in movie theaters in Colorado, at concerts in Las Vegas, in churches in Texas, and gay clubs in Florida. To deal with the real problem, you have to stand up to the NRA, who want to sell guns to everyone. And they’ll never do that.”
Cohen served for more than two decades in the Tennessee legislature prior to coming to Congress, and was shaken by the chamber’s action. “What they did today was shameful,” he says. “I’m a little teary eyed watching [the coverage]. I spent 25 years there, I put up with a bunch of aggressive conservative behavior. I was put in time-outs by those people.” But the militant and punitive mood of this Republican majority is different, he says: “Conservative’s not even the right word for it—they’re reactionaries.”
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State political observers note that the expulsion votes for Jones and Johnson come with generous complements of ideologically driven payback courtesy of House Speaker Cameron Sexton. Sexton had exiled Johnson to “a literal closet in a new statehouse office building,” says former state politics reporter Cari Wade Gervin, who now publishes a Substack newsletter called The Dog and Pony Show. “She’s been a thorn in [the GOP’s] side ever since she got elected. They tried to redistrict her several times–she did lose one reelection campaign, but since then, she’s won. There are also a lot of Baptists in leadership; they don’t like women to be in charge of anything, so there’s animosity there.”
Jones, meanwhile, led protests to remove a bust of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest outside the state legislature, and in that episode, several of the same legislative players rushed to stifle legitimate dissent with even more draconian measures. “In 2019, Jones threw a cup at House Speaker Glen Casada. They claimed it was hot coffee; Jones claimed it was an empty iced tea cup. They had Justin arrested and banned from the capitol. They also sent a fake e-mail to the DA saying he had violated the terms of his bond and tried to get him thrown in jail. That was caught, and so it didn’t happen, and eventually the charges were dropped. Cameron Sexton was on talk radio at that time, talking about Jones and what a threat he was.”
It’s worth noting that Casada, the GOP leader at the center of that episode, was forced to resign after he was arrested on 20 federal counts stemming from a bribery and kickback scheme. As Jones noted in his eloquent speech before the assembly yesterday, Casada never came up for an expulsion vote, nor did members who had committed child molestation, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. Indeed, a member who had urinated on another member’s seat—a textbook example of the “poor decorum” charge that Jones and Pearson were railroaded out of the legislature on—suffered no expulsion vote. There have been just three expulsion votes in the legislature’s history. The most recent, in 2016, resulted in the expulsion of Jeremy Durham, who was investigated for months after more than 20 women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. “It was all documented, really egregious—involving other legislators, staff, lobbyists,” Gervin says. “So that ended up in Durham’s expulsion, and the efforts to get that expulsion on the calendar was itself an ongoing debate. People were asking, well, are we setting a precedent here to make it too easy to expel people? There was a lot of debate—this was over a period of months.”
By contrast, Jones and Pearson were sent packing just a week after a public protest in which nothing more than a brief interruption of legislative business occurred. (As a practical matter, both lawmakers seem likely to regain their seats; the Nashville and Memphis city councils will vote on interim replacements, and both bodies are likely to approve the recent incumbents. And once expelled legislators assume their former seats, they can’t be discharged on the same charges again.) Sexton and other GOP leaders have tried to make it appear that the anti-gun protest was a full-blown “insurrection” in the vein of the January 6 coup attempt. It’s a delusional claim, Gervin notes: “All the protesters went through security to get into the building, going through metal detectors and emptying their pockets. It’s like airport security.” There’s a rich irony in a GOP caucus so eager to appease the firearms industry that it’s considering lowering the state’s open-carry age threshold from 21 to 18 claiming to be menaced by a peaceful group of chanting high school students and a pair of lawmakers who breached decorum with a megaphone.
But such is the logic of a politics of recursive white grievance anytime it’s confronted with anyone or anything that countervails its chosen narratives of acute victimization and concerted payback. “The state has gone totally fascist—well, if not fascist, then white evangelical Christian,” Cohen says. “It’s 2042 they fear—the moment when they’re no longer in the majority.”