Black lawmaker expelled by Tennessee GOP delivers stunning final speech on power of protest

‘A country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn, to build a nation’

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 07 April 2023 15:27 BST
Tennessee lawmaker calls out GOP after Democrats expelled for gun control protest

Memphis-area Democratic state Rep Justin Pearson, one of two Black Democratic lawmakers expelled from the state’s House of Representatives by Tennessee Republicans, delivered a stirring rebuke of their unprecedented action in a speech defending the power of protest.

Republicans targeted three Democratic state representatives for removal from office after they joined protests in the capitol mounted largely by students and young people against the state’s inaction in the wake of the mass shooting inside a Nashville school last week.

On 7 April, lawmakers ultimately voted to remove Representatives Pearson and Justin Jones, another Black Democratic lawmaker representing Nashville. Lawmakers fell short by one vote to expel a third Democratic member, Gloria Johnson, who is white.

The extraordinary action inside the Republican-dominated chamber marks only the third time since the Civil War era that the House has expelled a member from its ranks.

Moments before a vote to expel him, Mr Pearson invoked Dr Martin Luther King Jr, stating that “sometimes there’s a consciousness above rule, above what you might say is law – and that the true form of protest is nonviolent disobedience.”

“For less than a few minutes [of protest], we and you are seeking to expel District 86’s representation from this House in a country that was built on a protest,” he continued.

“You who celebrate July 4, 1776, pop fireworks and eat hot dogs, you say to protest is wrong because you spoke out of turn, because you spoke up for people who are marginalised, you spoke up for children who won’t ever be able to speak again, you spoke up for parents who don’t want to live in fear,” he said.

“You spoke up for Lary Thorn, who was murdered by gun violence,” Mr Pearson added, referencing the fatal shooting of a Memphis-Shelby County schools employee earlier this year.

“You spoke up for people that we don’t want to care about,” he continued. “In a country built on people who speak out of turn, who spoke out of turn, who fought out of turn to build a nation.”

City and county officials in Memphis and Nashville are likely to consider reappointing the two men back to their seats in the House within days following their expulsion.

But the GOP-led expulsion has been widely condemned as an antidemocratic show of force against Black legislators and voices demanding action on gun reform, while underscoring defiant right-wing commitments to protecting access to guns despite a surge in gun violence in Tennessee and across the US.

“We need to fight for democracy in the state of Tennessee,” Mr Pearson told reporters over the sound of protests and demonstrators on Thursday night.

“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today – two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not,” he added. “They’re treating this like this is normal. We can never normalise the ending of democracy. We can never noramlise the tyranny of the way that these people in positions of power are operating due to white supremacy and ... the patriarchy. That is what we’re up against. But we are going to fight it because we think there is a future that we can live into that is better than the present we currently have.”

In a White House statement, President Joe Biden said the lawmakers’ expulsion 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,” he added.

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