Expulsion of Tennessee lawmakers illustrates Republican opposition to Black protests 

OPINION: For many decades, Republicans have called themselves the party of “law and order.” But the truth is that “law and order” is a Republican code for supporting police actions against Black people. 

Democratic state Reps. Justin Jones (lower left) of Nashville and Justin Pearson, center, of Memphis gesture to supporters during the vote in which they were expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The double standard that Republicans apply to right-wing extremist protesters versus other protesters — especially Black ones — was on display when two Black lawmakers were expelled last week from the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Republicans mustered the necessary two-thirds majorities to expel Reps. Justin Jones, 27, and Justin Pearson, 29, from the House, overruling the decision of voters to elect the pair.

Jones and Pearson were ousted for violating the rules of decorum of the House. The two used a bullhorn to briefly join the chants of protesters after being blocked from speaking in support of gun safety legislation following the horrific murders of three 9-year-old children and three staff members at a Nashville Christian elementary school.

Only one of the victims — Covenant School custodian Mike Hill, 61 — was Black. But Jones and Pearson spoke passionately in favor of gun safety legislation to protect all people, regardless of race. According to the Gun Violence Archive, guns have killed more than 11,500 people so far this year in the U.S. in homicides, suicides and accidents.

Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature made it callously clear they have no interest in approving any new laws to make it harder for anyone to buy guns — including powerful assault weapons like the ones used by the shooter in the Covenant School murders on March 27. 

The Republican refusal to even consider gun legislation led Jones, Pearson and white Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson to join protesters outraged that Republicans put a higher priority on protecting the interests of the gun lobby than protecting the lives of their constituents.

Johnson narrowly escaped being expelled from her House seat. Asked why, she said: “Well, I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.”  

Incredibly, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said the March 30 protest at the Capitol in Nashville by more than 1,000 people favoring gun safety legislation was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than the Jan. 6, 2021 riot staged by supporters of then-President Donald Trump in an effort to overturn his election loss. Sexton absurdly called the Nashville protest an “insurrection.”

Uh, not exactly, Mr. Speaker. 

NASHVILLE, TN – APRIL 06: Democratic state Reps. Justin Pearson (C) of Memphis and Justin Jones (R) of Nashville attend the vote in which they were expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

In the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, about 2,000 people (nearly all of them white) broke into the building. More than 1,000 people have been charged criminally so far. One rioter was shot dead by police, one died of an overdose and two died of heart attacks. Five police officers died, including four by suicide after the riot. About 150 police officers were injured. The Capitol Building suffered an estimated $1.5 million in property damage.

In the peaceful protests at the Tennessee Capitol, no one was killed or injured, no one was arrested, no property was damaged and no one broke into the building.

Not one of the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election results in an effort to help Trump stay in the White House was expelled. Yet for the comparatively trivial offense of violating the rules of decorum with their protest, Jones and Pearson were kicked out of the Tennessee House.

Trump has called the Jan. 6 insurrectionists “patriots” and “peaceful people,” despite hours of video showing rioters viciously attacking police and ransacking the Capitol. Trump even said he would “absolutely” pardon rioters if he is elected president again in 2024.

And although Trump was impeached twice by the House, including for his role in the Jan 6 insurrection, the then-Republican-controlled Senate failed to convict him. So unlike Jones and Pearson, Trump wasn’t removed from office before the end of his term.

For many decades, Republicans have called themselves the party of “law and order.” But the truth is that “law and order” is a Republican code for supporting police actions against Black people. 

“I am your president of law and order,” Trump said during protests over the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was handcuffed and not resisting arrest. Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military against racial justice protesters.

Republicans have attacked Democrats for wanting to “defund the police,” even though only a tiny minority of Democratic officials and candidates have called for defunding.

But now that Trump has been charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and is under multiple investigations involving his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, his efforts to overturn his election defeat and his handling of classified information, he posted on his social media platform earlier this month: “REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS SHOULD DEFUND THE DOJ AND FBI UNTIL THEY COME TO THEIR SENSES.” Even Republicans are distancing themselves from this nonsensical proposal.

In protesting nonviolently against gun violence and being expelled from the Tennessee House for their principled stand, Jones and Pearson have picked up the torch of protest passed down by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other giants of the civil rights era. They are engaged in what the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who protested with Dr. King as a young man, called “good trouble.” 

The foolish and unjust action by Republicans to expel Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee House has elevated the two young Black men to become prominent national leaders in today’s struggle for justice. I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the years ahead. America will be better for it.

Donna Brazile Headshot thegrio.com

Donna Brazile is a veteran political strategist, Senior Advisor at Purple Strategies, New York Times bestselling author, Chair of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, and sought-after Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning media contributor to such outlets as ABC News, USA Today and TheGrio. She previously served as interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee and of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. Donna was the first Black American to serve as the manager of a major-party presidential campaign, running the campaign of Vice President Al Gore in 2000. She serves as an adjunct professor in the Women and Gender Studies Department at Georgetown University and served as the King Endowed Chair in Public Policy at Howard University and as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. She has lectured at nearly 250 colleges and universities on diversity, equity and inclusion; women in leadership; and restoring civility in American politics.

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