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GOP lawmakers in Tennessee expel two Democrats over mass shooting protest

2 Tennessee lawmakers expelled
2 Tennessee lawmakers expelled from state House over gun control protests 03:43

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee voted on Thursday to expel two Democratic legislators who joined a protest on the House floor last week after a deadly school shooting in Nashville. On March 30, protesters gathered at the State Capitol, and Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson led a chant of "power to the people" from the House floor. 

On Thursday, lawmakers first voted 72-25 to expel Jones, 27, one of the youngest members of the legislature. The resolution to expel Johnson failed by one vote, 65 to 30. But Pearson, 28, was also expelled, in a 69-26 vote. The GOP supermajority had accused the representatives of breaking house rules on conduct and decorum. 

"A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing the two youngest Black representatives," Jones said on the House floor before the vote.

Tennessee Reps. Pearson, Johnson and Jones walk through crowd of supporters at Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville
Tennessee Representatives Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones walk through a crowd of supporters at the Tennessee State Capitol as Republicans who control the Tennessee House of Representatives prepare to vote on whether to expel the three Democratic members for their role in a gun control demonstration at the state House last week, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 6, 2023.  NICOLE HESTER/THE TENNESSEAN/USA/Reuters

Johnson was asked why she thought she'd been spared while her two Black colleagues were not. 

"It might have to do with the color of our skin," Johnson, who is White, told CNN.

"This is not about expelling us as individuals. This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people's house. It will not be successful," Jones said before the vote. "Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up."

The forced expulsion of lawmakers from any state legislative body in the U.S. is extremely rare. The Tennessee House had previously expelled only eight lawmakers — six of them Confederate racists in the 19th century for refusing to affirm the citizenship of formerly enslaved Black people, one in the 20th century for a conviction of bribery, and one in the 21st century for sexual misconduct.

"Today's expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent," President Biden said in a statement Thursday night. "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."

Each of the lawmakers facing expulsion was given time to speak ahead of the vote. 

"The world is watching Tennessee," Jones said. "What is happening here today is a farce of democracy. What's happening here today is a situation in which the jury has already publicly announced the verdict."

Jones said he was speaking for young voters in his district "terrified" by mass shootings and criticized the house for not expelling other members who had confessed to crimes or misbehaved in their roles. 

Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, listens to remarks on the floor of the House chamber in Nashville on Thursday before a vote to expel him along with two other representatives over a gun control protest.   George Walker IV / AP

Johnson, a retired teacher, called allegations that she was yelling and pounding the podium during the protest "false." She also recounted her own experiences with a school shooting. 

"I have to raise the voice of the people in my district. My folks sent me here because I'm a fighter," Johnson said. 

Johnson, 60, defended her younger colleagues facing expulsion before the votes, saying, "we have to welcome this younger generation, who might do it a little bit differently, but they are fighting for their constituency." 

In his remarks before the vote, Pearson invoked the civil rights movement and civil disobedience, saying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of putting "conscience above rule."

"We have heard from thousands of people asking us to do something about gun violence," Pearson said. "What it is in the best interest of our people is ending gun violence."

"This country was built on a protest," he added in his emotional opening remarks. "You who celebrate July 4, 1776, you say to protest is wrong."

Ahead of the votes, Republican Rep. Johnny Garrett criticized the three lawmakers and moved to have a seven-minute video showing the lawmakers on the floor during the protest played. The showing of the video was fought by Democrats, who questioned its relevance, provenance and the benefit of showing it. 

The video showed Johnson, Jones and Pearson speaking on the house floor, using a bullhorn to amplify their voices. Some legislators were gathered behind them, and protestors could be heard in the background. Democrats questioned the video, because filming on the floor violates house rules, with Democratic chairman Rep. John Ray Clemmons calling it hypocritical that the person who made the video would not be punished the same way Johnson, Jones and Pearson were. 

The expulsion votes garnered national attention, with Tennessee Republicans facing intense political criticism. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused the lawmakers of focusing on rebuking Democrats and "shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting while our kids continue to pay the price."

Three children and three teachers were killed at a school shooting at the private Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. The shooter was armed with multiple weapons and was killed by police within minutes of the attack being reported. 

"What did the Republican legislators do? They're trying to expel these three Democratic legislators who joined in the protest," Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday. 

Several votes took place ahead of the vote to expel the legislators. Those votes were on bills including HB322, to harden schools with locked doors and drills, which was passed 95 to 4, with the "Tennessee Three" and one other Democrat voting no. House Bill 1051, which would expand mental health benefits across the state, passed with 97 yeas and no nay votes. The House also passed bills to increase school security and an amendment that would implement a mobile panic alert system that would allow first responders to communicate in real time was also voted on. 

Pearson challenged the bills and said that they did not go far enough.  

"Are you saying children will go to school and these resource officers will have AR-15s on them?" asked Pearson. "This is a part of what I think is a symptomatic problem of not addressing root causes. The root cause that each of us have to address is this gun violence epidemic due to the proliferation of guns." 

Bo Mitchell, another Democrat, compared the bills to using "pain meds to treat cancer," pointing out that the United States is an outlier in regards to school shootings and "mass killings." Cheers from outside the chamber could be heard as he spoke. 

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