In the last week or so, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spent a lot of time covering Rep. Justin J. Pearson’s expulsion from and reinstatement to the Tennessee state legislature. There were many moving parts, and we used all of our platforms to tell this story, to inform, to provide context, to give meaning.

With the weekend, we got to take a breath, and I have had some time to reflect on what happened and what we, as an organization, can learn from it to produce better and deeper coverage.

A recurring theme in the representative’s comments throughout his ordeal was his invocation of the movement being led and sustained by young people (as it often is). “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,” Pearson said.

So protest and voting will be key to changing the unyielding, cruel policies and those who create them. And the young people, like those who protested in favor of gun control in the well that fateful day, will lead much of the work.

I believe Pearson is right. I have written before about the low voter turnout of young people in Shelby County. I also know how officials often treat young people. On Friday, I read The Commercial Appeal’s story about the Memphis Police Department’s proposed initiative, which would create a new eight-person unit to attack actions that “disrupt the harmony” Downtown. The Juvenile Crime Abatement program would look for curfew violators, but also youth who are passing out flyers, dancing in the street and being inappropriately dressed. The program’s goal, according to an MPD video, is to help maintain “peace and order” Downtown; officers will “arrest juvenile offenders when necessary, and hold parents or legal guardians accountable for the presence and actions of their children in the downtown area.”

Thankfully, it looks like the program’s development has been halted. But I take note of its consideration because of something I read in the recently released book, “Poverty, By America.” In it, the author Matthew Desmond mentions research that shows that those stopped but not arrested by police are less likely to vote. I did a quick search after reading that and found other researchers have shown that even very short jail sentences drive people away from voting

Those kinds of programs chip away, even batter, a sense of citizenship. Voting should feel precious. But when you’ve been detained for little (or no) reason, the message is you’re not part of this democracy. Why vote?

I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. I don’t think the MPD got a call from the Republican supermajority in Nashville to figure out a way to depress the youth vote. But there’s no need to call. This way of thinking about justice and about young people and who gets to fully exercise their privileges as Americans is baked into the system. It’s the way things are. 

As a news site whose mission is to help people thrive and bear witness to movement-making, we pay attention to these patterns and actions. 

Yet, the last week proves that we can’t just record the process. We have to continue to figure out ways our work can undo the system’s intentions. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

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