The Tennessee House of Representatives’ Democratic representatives were caught in the line of fire for bringing anti-gun protest to the House floor following the Nashville Covenant school shooting. Stripped of their status by the Republican supermajority, Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis)—colloquially known as “The Justins”— quickly became the talk of Tennessee amidst accusations of racism, breaching democracy and the greater issue of gun violence in the eyes of America—doubly so with The Justins’ sudden reinstatement only days later.
On Mar. 27, a shooter killed three students and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Three days later, hundreds of protesters—including The Justins and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), forming the ‘Tennessee Three’—marched onto the Tennessee State Capitol building pushing for gun reform. The three Democratic representatives participated in chants of “No action, no peace!” during the House’s Mar. 30 proceeding. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton compared the conduct of the Tennessee Three to the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters.
“Their actions are and will always be unacceptable, and they break several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor,” Sexton wrote in the Twitter thread on Apr. 3. “In effect, those actions took away the voices of the protestors, the focus on the six victims who lost their lives, and the families who lost their loved ones.”
Of the Tennessee Three, The Justins were stripped of their positions and Johnson was a single vote away from being given the boot by the Republican supermajority.
One of the most immediate accusations levied against the Tennessee House of Representatives was the charge of racism in the expulsion of The Justins—two Black men—and not their white contemporary Johnson, who was just as much of a participant in the protest that got The Justins the boot.
“Well, I think it’s pretty clear,” Johnson told CNN. “I’m a 60-year-old60 year old white woman and they are two young Black men.”
These cries of foul play were echoed by Pearson even as Republican leaders deny racial motivation in The Justins’ expulsion.
“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today,” Pearson said to The New York Times. “Two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not.”
Four days after his expulsion, the Nashville Metropolitan Council unanimously voted to send Jones back to his seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. On Apr. 12, Pearson followed shortly after.
In response to attempts to remove the Tennessee Three for their floor protest on Mar. 30, the Tennessee Democratic Party has issued a resolution urging Sexton to resign. Additionally, the Tennessee Three met with President Joe Biden on Apr. 24 to further discuss gun control and the potential that even a solidly Republican state like Tennessee has for gun reform.
“If we can do it in the South, the South is going to set the tone for the rest of the nation,” Jones told Biden.