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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A day after Tennessee Democratic representatives Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones were expelled from the state legislature, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at Jones’ alma mater — Fisk University, a historically Black institution — delivering a message of praise for the lawmakers and an indictment of the Republican supermajority that expelled them.
“A democracy says you don’t silence the people,” Harris said. “You don’t stifle the people. You don’t turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty. That is not what a democracy does.”
Jones and Pearson were two of three Democratic representatives who took to the House floor to amplify the voices of protesters who they said were being ignored last week as they demanded action on gun control following a shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville that left six people dead. A third representative, Rep. Gloria Johnson, avoided expulsion in a vote Thursday. Jones and Pearson are Black, and Johnson is White.
From the pulpit of the Fisk Memorial Chapel, Harris leaned into the school’s legacy of producing leaders who fought for freedom, like John Lewis, Diane Nash and now Justin Jones.
“We will not be defeated. We will not be deterred. We will not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves. We will fight. We will lead. We will speak with truth. We will speak about freedom and justice and we will march on,” Harris said.
She demanded legislation around gun control such as background checks and red flag laws, which would allow intervention when an individual owning a gun poses a threat to themself or others.
“The policy is pretty straightforward,” she said. “Let’s not fall for the false choice, which suggests you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws. We can do both.”
Harris’ call for gun control resonated with students in the crowd.
Anaya Turner, a sophomore at Fisk, lost a brother to gun violence earlier this year. She is a political science major and aspires to be an attorney and policy analyst so she can write laws on issues such as gun control and abortion.
“I think we’re at a very important state in our history where we could be a part of history as students because [Jones] is representing us. We’re for the future. Gun control heavily affects not only me, but all students across America because we have to fend for our lives every day,” Turner said.
Lauryn Bradley, a senior biology major at Fisk and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., like Harris, said the vice president’s words inspired her.
“I didn’t think that my voice did matter, but hearing her message today let me know that I needed to be out there letting my voice be heard and actually standing with [the representatives] and making decisions to get them back into their positions,” she said.
Like Pearson, both Turner and Bradley are from Memphis.
Expulsions in Tennessee are rare. There have been two in the House in recent history, both linked to criminal charges. Critics say this legislature’s expulsion resolutions, brought forth because of a break in House decorum, are an abuse of power by the Republican supermajority and the outcome — two young Black men expelled, while their White counterpart remains in office — an example of the racism that has never gone away in the Southern state.
Brenda Gilmore, a former state Democratic representative and senator in Nashville, was at Fisk Friday and has been in the three representatives’ positions, trying to get meaningful gun reform passed and being denied by a Republican supermajority.
“I think that the NRA has bullied our Tennessee General Assembly. And for that reason, they will not take a stand and protect our children and the citizens of Tennessee,” she said.
The actions of Tennessee’s Republican supermajority have been widely criticized, not only by protesters, but by other legislators like Gilmore, who said she believes the expelled lawmakers’ actions did not merit the excessive punishment.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said that the expulsions in Tennessee are an example of how supermajorities are wielding their power unabashedly.
“This is the type of infraction that warranted a reprimand or maybe a censure, not expulsion. That the legislature opted for what amounts to a nuclear option was an exertion of power on the part of the GOP — unchecked power,” Gillespie said.
Elected officials in Pearson’s and Jones’ districts have already called for their reinstatement. In Fisk’s chapel Friday, Harris’ message was clear: This is not the end.