The Tennessee state legislature, with its Republican supermajority, will vote Thursday on whether to expel three Democratic lawmakers, including Shelby County’s Justin J. Pearson, who represents the 86th District.
Pearson, Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Justin Jones of Nashville are facing expulsion for “disorderly behavior.” Last Thursday, they briefly disrupted a legislative session, leading chants from the podium in the well of the House chamber on March 30, after three 9-year-olds and three adult staff members were killed at The Covenant School in Nashville.
According to the expulsion resolution, Pearson’s actions “knowingly and intentionally (brought) disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.” House Speaker Cameron Sexton has called the three Democrats’ actions “unacceptable” and likened them to an “insurrection.”
As an organizer, Pearson, who grew up in Westwood, helped lead the charge to stop the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2020 and 2021. He represents District 86, which includes parts of South Memphis, Westwood, Downtown, parts of Frayser and parts of Millington. The district has a population of almost 64,000, more than 60% of whom are Black, according to Ballotpedia.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spoke with Pearson as he prepared for the vote.
MLK50: Do you expect to be expelled tomorrow?
PEARSON: Yes. I expect the folks who are willing to support the National Rifle Association and gun lobbyists more than the people in this state who are advocating for just reform that protects our communities to expel members of the House for exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully protest and elevate the issues of gun control and gun reform in our state, to be expelled by a super majority of people who want to keep the status quo. … We went up to the well of the House because six people were killed in Nashville at The Covenant School, three of whom were nine years old, because in Memphis we’ve seen an increase in murders by 44%.
We are tired of going to funerals. We’re tired of the proliferation of guns and we’re tired of legislation being passed or inaction happening by the people who are in positions of power and who’ve been elected by people who are demanding change. … I believe our peaceful protest is going to be met with expulsion by people who don’t want to meaningfully address the thousands of people across our state who are asking and demanding that we do something.
MLK50: You’re pretty new to the body and you moved from outside the system to be inside the system. How are you processing this response?
PEARSON: What is apparent and was apparent on day one is that this institution does not want to change. It does not want to have diversity and representation. You’ll remember on my first day, in honoring Black ancestors who paved the way for us to be in the institution, I wore a dashiki on the House floor and that was met with a despicable comment by a member of the state legislature. The reality is this institution does not want diversity of people nor diversity of thought, and they do not want democracy.
And so, instead of having real meaningful dialogue about gun reform, having meaningful dialogue about the end of the epidemic of gun violence that has taken the lives of so many people at our schools but also in our community, instead of putting energy and effort to actually helping to address the issue, there’s an intentional system, systemic and systematic effort by the Republican party and those in leadership to expel members of the House who just listened to the people, which is what each and every one of us were sworn to do.
It isn’t a question about how long you’ve been in the institution, it’s about who is in the institution. And there have been a lot of people who’ve been there for a very long time and we are still in a very dire situation in our cities, in our counties, and in our state and West Tennessee, middle Tennessee and East Tennessee as it relates to gun violence and as it relates to poverty and other issues that are undergirding the problems that we need to address in this state.
But instead of focusing our attention there, we see amendment after amendment, legislation after legislation that talks about supporting the Second Amendment, making sure there’s a proliferation of guns and very little (being) done to actually protect kids and to protect communities and to stop this epidemic that’s happening in our communities.
People who are peacefully protesting to end gun violence and have their schools and their homes and their lives protected are being called insurrectionists. That’s the language being used by the speaker and by the Republican party leadership because we are resisting a status quo that says, you bow to the NRA, you bow to the harm that’s done by us doing nothing.
MLK50: It sounds like you feel like there’s a bit of misdirection going on.
PEARSON: Not only is this misdirection, but is an egregious overreach of power by the Republican Party in Tennessee. The last two members that were expelled from the House in modern history had committed actual crimes. One had committed 22 forms of sexual assault and another had committed an act of broad bribery when they were expelled from the House. They committed crimes, they were indicted, they went to court. We’re being told that we have broken house decorum, rules of the house that are too often bent or ignored for the benefit of people in positions of power. For instance, we were supposed to be able to speak at the beginning of that Thursday (session), after the shooting of the Nashville Covenant School, during welcoming and honoring. Only one of our members was allowed to speak. And that entire time everyone else was silenced. Granted 5,000 people were at the State House marching, protesting and chanting, and we were never allowed to have an opportunity to speak.
MLK50: So if the rules waiver, how do you figure out how to conduct yourself in the legislature to make meaningful change?
PEARSON: We use our voices at all times to demand justice. Justice for people who are marginalized, justice for people who have been pushed to the periphery, justice for our communities and Memphis and Shelby County, all the way to Gatlinburg. That is what we do with this platform. That’s what we do with our voices.
The reality is the rules are designed in such a way that it benefits those in positions of power. The way that we make effective change is being persistent and steadfast in our work, helping to build the movement for justice in our communities in order that we might reelect people who are advocating and being progressive like Rep. Jones and Rep. Johnson, and that we might get rid of people who are keeping the status quo, people who never speak up, people who don’t even fight to have their voices heard and fight for the issues that we care about.
MLK50: The gun manufacturing industry is really huge in Tennessee; Beretta and Smith & Wesson have relocated here. Is there a way that can be addressed legislatively?
PEARSON: I will tell you right now with the super majority Republican legislature, it is unlikely that we will see any laws that prohibit the manufacturing of guns in the state of Tennessee. In fact, many people in the state House and state Senate are welcoming gun manufacturers to our state even though there’s enough guns in the United States of America for just about everybody to be armed. I don’t think there’s going to be a legislative fix on that issue in particular because people view it as economic development and good for the state.
What does have to happen, and what we are responsible for, is ensuring that people who get access to guns have the necessary permits, they have the necessary training and they have the necessary practices to be able to protect kids and the people in their families while they have them.
And the truth is right now it is more difficult for you to get a license to drive than it is to get a license to have a weapon that kills people. It is easier in this country to get a weapon of war than it is to get a driver’s license or an ID. And the reality is that is wrong and that is dangerous.
MLK50: So is the kind of protest we are seeing among young people and others, is that at the root to get this kind of change because of the super majority?
PEARSON: That’s exactly right. I mean the children are leading us and they have to. Just yesterday, you saw this, a child near Kirby High School was shot.
The children who are suffering under this are the litmus test for what we are doing as a state and as a society. And right now, thousands of them and tens of thousands of children and teenagers and young adults are standing up and speaking up. And the reality is that pressure is necessary in order for us to make clear the arguments for change that we need to have and also necessary for us to build the democracy as the participation of the electoral process that creates change ultimately, right? … If we quit, particularly if young folks stop engaging and stop protesting and stop showing up, then it is much easier for folks not to have to look themselves in the mirror and think about the ramifications of their actions. If we allow people who’ve been in the statehouse for 10 and 20 and 30 years to operate in the way that they have without any resistance, without young people running for office, without young people showing up to vote, then we are going to continue to see bad legislation passed by the super majority and ignored through silent complicity by the minorities.
MLK50: If you are expelled, there are two paths: You could be reinstated or you could run again. Do you expect you would be reinstated and would you run again?
PEARSON: I can tell you that whatever happens after we are not going to be silent. We are not going to stop fighting for just legislation and policies for the gun reform that we know people want to see, such as red flag laws and safety storage laws. And personally, I believe folks in District 86 are also tired and hurting from the gun violence that we are experiencing. One of my constituents said, “I can’t go to the grocery store without hearing gunshots.”
I am not going to ignore those cries of folks who still are demanding and wanting to see change happen in a way that elevates our issues and elevates the voices of our community. I can promise you this, I will continue to fight for District 86 and for our state so that we can get real legislation that helps to protect people’s lives into the future, and we don’t just get folks’ thoughts and prayers.
MLK50: So you believe the community’s role is to keep the pressure on. What could your Democratic colleagues be doing at this moment?
PEARSON: I encourage them to keep the pressure on Republicans and one another. To speak up. We cannot be elected to be silently complicit with all of the bad things that are happening in the state legislature in order that we might pass one bill a year or maybe even no bills. Our silence keeps our seat, but that doesn’t do us any good. We have to fight. That is what I will say.
Our constituents in District 86 sent us there to fight for them and to fight for the issues because they’re tired. They’re tired of the poverty, they’re tired of the gun violence, they’re tired of the inequitable treatment that we’re receiving from the people in Nashville, and they want to have voices up there who are also going to raise the issues and not just be up there to have a seat. And so to my Democratic colleagues, I encourage them and I implore them to fight alongside us and to speak out at every injustice that is happening. And I promise you, there are many that are happening in Nashville. But we can not afford to be silently complicit in this status quo and to this status quo. We all have a responsibility to hold them accountable while they’re in office and when they run for reelection.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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