Kamala Harris leads Tennessee rally, backs ousted lawmakers

Vice President Harris delivers speech at Fisk University

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris made a last-minute trip Friday to Tennessee where she called for tougher firearm laws and criticized the Republican-controlled state House, which a day earlier expelled two Black Democratic lawmakers for their role in a protest calling for more gun control following a school shooting in Nashville.

Harris received wild applause and several standing ovations as she told a crowd at Nashville’s historically Black Fisk University that the so-called Tennessee Three — ousted Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson and a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, who avoided expulsion by a single vote — were being, in her words, silenced and stifled for standing up for the lives of schoolchildren.

“Let’s understand the underlying issue is about fighting for the safety of our children,” Harris said. “It’s been years now where they are taught to read and write and hide in a closet and be quiet if there’s a mass shooter at their school, where our children, who have God’s capacity to learn and lead, who go to school in fear.”

Vice President Kamala Harris hugs expelled Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, before Harris speaks at Fisk University, Friday, April 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

She called for background checks, red flag laws and restrictions on assault rifles.

“Let’s not fall for the false choice — either you’re in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws,” Harris said. “We can and should do both.”

Harris met privately with Jones, Pearson and Johnson, as well as with other elected officials and young people advocating for tougher gun control laws.

Ahead of the event, students and others were lined up down the block, hoping to enter the school’s Memorial Chapel. Inside several young Black women wore sweaters with the initials for Alpha Kappa Alpha, a Black sorority that Harris belongs to.

“It’s exciting to see someone from my organization doing great and amazing things,” said one of them, Jasmyn Thrash.

Nashville Metro Councilperson Zulfat Suara addressed the crowd before Harris arrived, saying the expulsions “tell us exactly what we need to know about how the state views young Black men” standing up for what they believe. Evoking the city’s civil rights history, she said, “Just like John Lewis and Diane Nash did many years ago, we too will resist.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Fisk University, Friday, April 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Pearson, Johnson and Jones entered the packed chapel to a standing ovation.

President Joe Biden has called their expulsions “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”

“Rather than debating the merits of the issue (of gun control), these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee,” Biden said in a Thursday statement.

The White House also said Friday afternoon that Biden spoke with Jones, Pearson and Johnson via conference call, thanking them “for their leadership in seeking to ban assault weapons and standing up for our democratic values.”

The oustings of Jones and Pearson drew accusations of racism. Johnson, who is white, was allowed to continue to serve in the chamber. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor.

GOP leaders said Thursday’s actions — used only a handful times since the Civil War — were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.

Republican state Rep. Gino Bulso said the three Democrats had “effectively conducted a mutiny.”

Most state legislatures retain the power to expel members, but it is generally a rarely used punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct.

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