‘Farce of Democracy’: Tennessee Republicans Just Expelled 2 Black Democrats for a Peaceful Protest

Republicans voted to kick Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson out of the legislature, while a vote to oust Rep. Gloria Johnson failed by one vote.
Democratic state Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis speaks on his phone while being expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Seth Herald/Getty Images)

Tennessee Republican legislators voted Thursday to expel two Black Democrats who launched a peaceful protest for gun reform last week, in a move that critics decried as an authoritarian crackdown on political opponents. 

After first signaling their intent to expel three Democrats Monday, Republicans officially kicked Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis out of the legislature. A bid to oust Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who joined Jones and Pearson in the protest, narrowly failed to clear the two-thirds threshold for expulsion. 


Republican Rep. Johnny Garrett claimed that the protest, which came days after the Covenant School massacre in Nashville, “silenced 7 million people.” Democrats said that the three lawmakers were “ambushed” by the proceedings. 

Jones called his expulsion a “farce of democracy.” 

“For so long this body, drunk with power, has modeled for the world what we know is authoritarianism,” he said during his defense. “And today is the climax of that behavior.”

Jones was expelled 72-25 on a mostly party-line vote. Following his expulsion, Jones joined a protest with Tennessee students who rallied in support of the lawmakers and for gun reform. 

Asked why she was not expelled along with the other two Democrats, Johnson told CNN: “I think it's pretty clear. I'm a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young black men.”

Last week, three days after a mass shooter entered a private Christian school in Nashville and killed six people, including three children, the trio joined students protesting at the Capitol. While on the floor of the House, they held up signs and used a bullhorn to plead for “gun control now.” 

Republicans expressed outrage that the lawmakers spoke out of turn, and the Speaker of the Tennessee House, Cameron Sexton, later compared the demonstration to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—despite the fact that no one was hurt and no one was attempting to seize control of the government. 


Jones and Pearson were expelled because they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions,” according to language in the expulsion resolution. 

Prior to the vote Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the state Capitol in Nashville in support of the lawmakers. The crowd could be heard from inside the House chamber throughout the session, chanting, “You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags,” a reference to legislation the right-wing legislature has passed this session.

But the result was a foregone conclusion, given Tennessee’s Republican supermajority in the state House and overall domination of the state’s politics. On Wednesday, Johnson—a te tweeted that she’d been told by the House ethics lawyer and the head of human relations at the Tennessee General Assembly that she would lose her health benefits if she was expelled—but not if she resigned. 

Johnson, a four-term legislator, retained two former Democratic lawmakers as counsel. Republicans, however, refused to allow her attorneys to speak in her defense, aside from speaking during her allotted 20-minute opening remarks. 


“We have got to be allowed to stand up and speak for our constituents, and we have to welcome this younger generation, who might do it a little bit different, but they’re fighting like hell for their constituents,” Johnson, a former teacher, said. 

Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting against Johnson’s expulsion, but later voted to expel Pearson as well. 

“You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened here today,” Pearson told reporters afterward. “Two young Black lawmakers get expelled but the one white woman does not? That’s a statement in and of itself.”

Prior to expelling Jones and Pearson, the House passed a bill Thursday that Republicans said would make schools a “fortress,” which included a provision to defund public schools that leave their exterior doors unlocked. On Wednesday, a bill advanced in the House that would let teachers carry guns in schools. At no point have House Republicans indicated they would pursue legislation to even slightly restrict access to guns. 

Rep. Jason Powell, whose son played in a Little League with one of the 9-year-old victims of the Covenant School shooting, grew emotional while denouncing the proceedings. 


“I had to leave here Monday night after this resolution was introduced, and go to my son’s Little League field and see red ribbons surrounding the outfield in memory of William Kenney, who was murdered. And I’m outraged,” said Powell, who represents a district adjacent to Jones’ in Nashville. “We need to do something. And expelling Justin Jones is not the answer.” 

This is just the third time lawmakers have been expelled from the Tennessee House since the end of Reconstruction, and the first time for violating rules of decorum. The last was in 2016 when Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham was expelled for sexual misconduct; in 1980, a lawmaker was expelled after he was convicted of taking a bribe

The White House condemned the expulsion of the lawmakers earlier on Thursday, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calling the vote “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent.” 

It’s likely Jones won’t be gone for long.  The Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County, the governing body of both, has already called an emergency meeting for Monday to potentially appoint an interim replacement until a special election can be held. At least 15 members of the 40-member body have already said they would vote to re-appoint Jones, according to the Tennessean


Pearson could also be reappointed by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which already appointed him to the seat once this year after he won a special election primary and was unopposed in the general election. The Chairman of the county board, Mickell Lowery, told VICE News in an email Monday night that he would convene the Commission to discuss the issue “as soon as possible.” Asked whether the choice would Pearson, Lowery said he “cannot speak for the body as it takes 7 votes to appoint.”

Given that they were not expelled for committing felonies, nothing is stopping Jones and Pearson from running for office again—and if elected again, Republicans would not be able to expel them for the same offense, according to the Tennessee state Constitution. 

Speaking with reporters following his expulsion, Pearson made his intentions clear. 

“I’m coming back,” he said. “Because this institution has to change.”