Thursday, April 6, 2023

Tennessee legislature looks to expel three members for protesting gun laws

The Tennessee House is voting Thursday on whether to expel three Democrats from the legislature after they halted proceedings last week to join protesters demanding gun control, reported the Washington Post.

The House’s session has 29 items on its agenda, and the expulsion vote is expected to come near the end of the session. At the start of Thursday’s proceedings, Rep. Justin Pearson (D), one of the three facing expulsion, welcomed his supporters to the Capitol on the House floor.

“Thank you for getting on the bus at 3 a.m. or 2:30 a.m. this morning to be a part of this process,” Pearson said, “and to make sure your voices are heard and your presence is power so that we can continue to elevate the issues in our community and those who we continue to lose.”

As bills related to school safety and mental health were debated on the House floor on Thursday morning, Rep. Justin Jones (D), another of the three facing expulsion, argued that Republicans were trying to pass bills just to pass bills in a “PR move.”

“[These are] false solutions right before an expulsion vote,” Jones said, as supporters could be heard protesting outside the chamber.

At the doors to the entrance of the main gallery, several hundred protesters stood with ponchos and umbrellas on a rainy Nashville day, blowing whistles and chanting, “What do we want? Gun control. When do we want it? now” and “Do your job! Do your job!”

A young woman in a red bandanna with a pink whistle held a sign that says “I turn 18 today. Hallie, William and Evelyn never will,” in reference to the three 9-year-olds killed in the Covenant School shooting in Nashville.

Young children, teenagers, and parents stood in a light drizzle and 53-degree temperatures. They held an extended, bloodcurdling scream for more than three minutes, then chanted, “14 minutes. 14 minutes. Six Lives. Six Lives.”

Pediatric emergency physician Steve Riley, of Gallatin, Tenn., said he felt the need to make his presence known at the capitol despite the cold and rain.

“I’ve seen the video of what happened on the House floor, and I understand [the three Democrats] being reprimanded for not following the rules of decorum for the House, but a vote to expel them is wrong,” he said.

The Tennessee House has only expelled members twice in the modern era, according to a report from the office of the state’s attorney general.

On March 30, hundreds of students, parents, teachers and people from across Tennessee flooded the Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass gun-control legislation in the wake of the Covenant School shooting that killed six people, including three 9-year-olds.

During the protests, Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Pearson walked to the front of the chamber to join in the chants that reverberated from the gallery.

There were protesters of all ages — including children “from strollers to high school,” according to Johnson — padding the gallery, filling the rotunda and overflowing outside the building.

Jones, who held a sign that read “Protect kids, not guns,” led the crowd on the chamber balcony, shouting “No action, no peace!” into a megaphone. Afterward, Pearson spoke through the megaphone about gun violence and chanted, “Enough is enough.”

“There comes a time when you have to do something out of the ordinary,” Jones tweeted later that day. He added that the lawmakers “could not go about business as usual as thousands were protesting outside demanding action.”

The same day, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R) referred to the Democrats’ actions as an “insurrection.” He said they had committed “multiple violations” of the General Assembly’s rules.

Republicans in the House filed the resolutions Monday to oust Jones, Johnson and Pearson, saying the three lawmakers “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House.

The resolutions to expel the three lawmakers cited the rules Sexton referred to, which include “preserving order, adhering to decorum, speaking only with recognition, not crowding around the Clerk’s desk, avoiding personalities, and not using props or displaying political messages.”

Pearson sent a letter the same day to all Tennessee representatives acknowledging that he had broken decorum during the March 30 protests but adding that “it was untenable to hear the chants, pleas, and cries of thousands of peaceful children outside our chambers and do nothing — say nothing.”

“We must never become desensitized to the voices of people crying out for change,” Pearson wrote at the end of the letter, which he posted online Tuesday. “We must never accept senseless deaths to continue on our watch and do nothing.”

Phillis Sheppard stood in line for an hour in the rain Thursday morning, hoping to get into the capitol rotunda to witness the expulsion vote. Across the street from the line, live musicians performed and volunteers passed out snacks and bottles of water to protesters.

“They’ve stopped letting people in,” Sheppard said. “It’s clear it’s an attempt to stop legislators from seeing what kind of support exists here outside. What’s happening with legislators, trying to expel these members, runs counter to everything we stand for. We want legislators to stand and speak for their constituents. It’s disheartening and enraging.”

Minutes later, the doors opened and the crowd cheered, as a family pushing a stroller emerged from inside — Eric Zabriskie, a doctor and psychiatrist at Vanderbilt medical center, with his wife and two boys, ages 4 and 2. The older boy is holding a yellow construction paper that reads “No Guns.”

“We were in the gallery,” he said. “They were voting in a bill for making sure there’s an armed security in schools — public and charter schools. As a physician and psychiatrist and father, I am here because we want common-sense gun reform.”

The Tennessee General Assembly — where Republicans hold the supermajority in both chambers — has faced pressure to enact gun legislation since the March 27 shooting but has resisted calls to do so.

Should the lawmakers be expelled, county and city-level officials would select delegates to serve in the three vacant House seats until the next regularly scheduled election in August 2024, said Carrie Russell, a political science senior lecturer at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. Jones, Johnson and Pearson would be able to run for reelection at that time, she said.

As the resolutions were filed, protesters shouted and began chanting in the gallery, which Sexton ordered to be cleared and for state troopers to remove hecklers.

While the three lawmakers — who’ve been dubbed the Tennessee Three — awaited the votes this week, their supporters organized rallies and protests against their expulsion. Some were part of a caravan to Nashville, leaving their homes across the state in the early morning to reach the Capitol for Thursday’s proceedings.

Republican Reps. Gino Bulso, Andrew Farmer and Bud Hulsey, who filed the resolutions, did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post on Wednesday.

The White House opposed the resolutions to expel the representatives. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday that, across the country, Republican lawmakers were “doubling down on dangerous bills that make our schools, places of worship and communities less safe.”

“By doing what they’re doing with these three Democratic legislators, they’re shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting while our kids continue to pay the price,” Jean-Pierre said. “That’s what we’re seeing every time that we hear one of these tragic events.”

Before Thursday’s votes, Russell told The Washington Post that she feared a “chilling effect” on lawmakers no matter the outcome.

She said taking an “extraordinary measure” like attempting to expel representatives “doesn’t bode well” for a government based on a representative democracy and an open marketplace of ideas.

“Cutting the mics off and expelling members is seemingly pretty closed off to deliberative democracy,” Russell said.

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