“A Public Lynching”: Justin Jones, Black Tennessee Lawmaker, Responds to Expulsion from State House
Written by GRB on 08/04/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Tennessee, where a Republican supermajority in the state Legislature carried out its threat Thursday to expel two Black Democratic lawmakers from their seats for peacefully protesting gun violence on the House floor last week, breaking with decorum as thousands rallied outside the Capitol to demand gun control, days after the Covenant elementary school shooting in Nashville that killed six, including three 9-year-olds.
Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis are both African American and from Tennessee’s two largest cities. They were part of the Tennessee Three, but the vote to expel their white colleague, Gloria Johnson, who joined them in solidarity, narrowly failed.
In a minute, we’ll speak with Jones, but first we bring you some of the historic scenes that unfolded as Justin Jones and his colleagues defended themselves, and supporters looked on from a packed gallery but stayed quiet so they could witness the proceedings. This is Representative Jones facing questioning from his Republican colleague and laying out his defense.
REP. JUSTIN JONES: I was shocked to have the speaker of the House condemn mothers and children and grandmothers and parents and concerned citizens, clergy, lie on them and say that they were violent insurrectionists. And I think that he owes the people of Tennessee an apology, because at no point was there violence. At no point did we encourage violence. In fact, what we were doing was calling for the end of gun violence, that is terrorizing our children day after day after day, and all we offer are moments of silence.
It is in that spirit of speaking for my constituents, of being a representative of the people, that I approached this well on last Thursday, breaking a House rule but exercising moral obedience to my constitutional responsibility to be a voice for my people, to be a voice for the Tennesseeans who you choose not to listen to because of those NRA checks that are so hefty in your campaign funds. There comes a time where people get sick and tired of being sick and tired.
REP. RYAN WILLIAMS: One of the questions that keeps coming back to my mind, that I hope maybe you can answer, is when you say, “No action, no peace,” what do you mean? What does Representative Jones mean by “no peace”? Thank you.
SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON: Representative Jones?
REP. JUSTIN JONES: Thank you. I would invite my colleague from Putnam County to join any protest, where that is a very familiar chant, that it usually goes, “No justice, no peace.” And I believe the roots of it are — lie in something that Martin Luther King stated, that true peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice. That’s what I was saying, is that until we act, there will be no peace in our communities.
In addition, I would like to read some context about that chant, that comes from Jeremiah 6:14. I’ll read the New Living Translation. It says, “They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.” I’ll go to the New International Version: “They dressed the wound of my people as though it was not serious. ‘Peace, peace, peace,’ they say, where there is no peace.”
That’s what the chant means, is that we have no peace, and that until we act, there will be no peace for the thousands of children who came here demanding that we act, who are afraid that if they’re in school, they will be gunned down, because you have passed laws to make it easier to get a gun than it is to get healthcare in this state. You’ve passed laws to make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote in this state. And so that there will be no peace in Tennessee until we act on this proliferation of weapons of war in our community. That is the peace I was talking about. That is what I was saying, Representative Williams. Thank you for your question.
AMY GOODMAN: After his questioning by Republican Ryan Williams, Tennessee Republican lawmakers gave Representative Justin Jones five minutes before their vote. This is how he concluded.
REP. JUSTIN JONES: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. To my colleagues on the others out of the aisle, I want to say that you have the votes to do what you’re going to do today. But I want to let you know that when I came to this well, I was fighting for your children and grandchildren, too. And to those who here will cast a vote for expulsion, I was fighting for your children, too, to live free from the terror of school shootings and mass shootings.
When I walked up to this well on last Thursday, I was thinking about the thousands of students who are outside demanding that we do something. In fact, many of their signs said, “Do something,” “Do something,” “Do something.” That was their only ask of us, is to respond to their grief, to respond to a traumatized community. But in response to that, the first action of this body is to expel members for calling for commonsense gun legislation. We were calling for a ban of assault weapons, and the response of this body is to assault democracy.
This is a historic day for Tennessee, but it is — it may mark a very dark day for Tennessee, because it will signal to the nation that there is no democracy in this state. It will signal to the nation that if it can happen here in Tennessee, it’s coming to your state next. And that is why the nation is watching us, what we do here. My prayer to you is that even if you expel me, that you still act to address the crisis of mass shootings, because if I’m expelled from here, I’ll be back out there with the people every week demanding that you act. … I pray that we uphold our oath on this floor, because, colleagues, the world is watching.
SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON: Pursuant to Article II, Section 12, of the Constitution of the state of Tennessee, I hereby declare Representative Justin Jones of the 52nd Representative District expelled from the House of Representatives of the 113th Assembly of the state of Tennessee.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Speaker Cameron Sexton announcing the expulsion of Tennessee state Representative Justin Jones from the state House Thursday in a party-line vote. Republicans also voted to expel his fellow freshman, another 27-year-old, Black Democratic Representative Justin Pearson, who also faced questions as he defended himself. This is part of Representative Pearson’s exchange with Republican Representative Andrew Farmer.
REP. ANDREW FARMER: That’s why you’re standing there, because of that temper tantrum that day, for that yearning to have attention. That’s what you wanted. Well, you’re getting it now. So I just advise you, if you want to conduct business in this House, file a bill. Be recognized, stand there and present it, and pass it. All you’ve got to do is pass a bill.
SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON: Representative Pearson?
REP. JUSTIN PEARSON: Now, you all heard that. How many of you would want to be spoken to that way? How many of you would want to be spoken to that way? We’re not talking about politics. We’re not talking about even gun violence. How many of you would want to be spoken to that way? The reason that I believe the sponsor of this legislation, of this resolution, spoke that way is because he’s comfortable doing it, because there’s a decorum that allows it. There’s a decorum that allows you to belittle people.
We didn’t belittle nobody. What we said was that we cannot be beholden to gun lobbyists, to the NRA. We can’t be beholden to organizations that don’t want to see us make progress on gun violence. We can’t be beholden to folks who don’t want to see us help save our communities and protect them.
But there’s something — there’s something else I think that the sponsor of this resolution has alluded to, and there were a few things here that you said that I want to address. He called a peaceful protest a “temper tantrum.” Is what’s happening outside these doors by Tennesseans who want to see change a temper tantrum? Is Sarah, whose son Noah was at The Covenant School — he survived. He’s 5 years old. And she showed up here demanding that we do something about gun violence. Is that a temper tantrum? Is elevating our voices for justice or change a temper tantrum?
But there’s something in the decorum of this body that makes it OK to say that folks who are exercising their First Amendment right to speak up for the hundreds of thousands of people collectively that we represent, that there’s something in the decorum of this body that says it’s OK to call that a temper tantrum, to call people we disagree with on the issues — to say that all they wanted is attention.
But I’ll tell you what: I don’t personally want attention. What I want is attention on the issue of gun violence. But instead, we’re here with a resolution you put up talking about expelling me for advocating for ending gun violence in the state of Tennessee. I’d much rather be talking with you about legislation to protect Shelby County and to protect our communities than talking about why we don’t deserve to have our representation lost because we came to the House saying we’ve got to do something. That’s what I would like to be doing.
And so you brought attention or tried to bring attention to me, but I want to turn the attention to the people, the people who will never be able to throw a temper tantrum for gun violence — you know, the Larry Thorns, the Katherine Koonces, the Mike Hills, the Cynthia Peaks, the Evelyn Dieckhauses, the Hallie Scruggs, the William Kinneys, who will never have a chance to throw what you call a temper tantrum, for justice, for gun reform, for the ending of gun violence. They will never have a chance, because we haven’t taken our oath seriously, because we don’t take people who we disagree with seriously. We tell them, “You just are throwing a temper tantrum.”
AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, Tennessee Republicans voted to expel Democratic Representative Justin Pearson from the House, as well. At one point during his final remarks, the official TV feed for the Tennessee House continued to wrongly identify him as his colleague Justin Jones as he was giving his final statement. Pearson ended by saying the struggle had just begun.
REP. JUSTIN PEARSON: Oh, we have good news, folks! We’ve got good news that Sunday always comes. Resurrection is a promise, and it is a prophecy. It’s a prophecy that came out of the cotton fields. It’s a prophecy that came out of the lynching tree. It’s a prophecy that still lives in each and every one of us in order to make the state of Tennessee the place that it ought to be. And so I’ve still got hope, because I know we are still here, and we will never quit!
SPEAKER CAMERON SEXTON: Out of order.
AMY GOODMAN: During the votes, thousands of supporters rallied in the halls of the state Capitol and outside. When a reporter asked Democratic Representative Gloria Johnson why she thought there was a difference between her outcome — she was not expelled, but her colleagues were — this was her response.
REP. GLORIA JOHNSON: I will answer your question. It might have to do with the color of our skin.
AMY GOODMAN: Representative Gloria Johnson was a teacher at Central High School in Knoxville, that faced a school shooting more than a decade ago. At the end of the night, the lawmakers, now known as the Tennessee Three, stood together again, and Johnson vowed to work to get her expelled colleagues back in the House.
REP. GLORIA JOHNSON: And I just cannot say enough about how proud I am, always and forever, to stand with these two brilliant young men, who connect with their community, who really listen and understand the voters in their districts and across this state, who can tell everybody in the most powerful way — they speak — they spoke to our members. They won’t admit it, I don’t think, but they spoke to those hearts. I could see it on faces. But still, what’s the difference, where I made it through and these two young men did not make it through?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: We know!
REP. GLORIA JOHNSON: I think you’re right: We know.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: We know why!
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Racists!
REP. GLORIA JOHNSON: We know. But here’s the difference. I think we might have these two young men back very soon. And it is my — it is my promise to fight like hell to get both of them back.
AMY GOODMAN: Representative Gloria Johnson, standing next to the Justins, Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, who had just been expelled by the Tennessee state Legislature. Well, we’re joined right now by Justin Jones, expelled Democratic Tennessee state representative of Nashville.
Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us again after this marathon day. Your feelings yesterday as you stood with such passion, yet composure, dressing down your colleagues who were questioning you, then expelling you, Justin Jones?
JUSTIN JONES: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me again, Amy. It’s good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your feelings right now? How is that possible? I mean, it’s not like you were hired to work at a store, and then you were fired. You were elected by the people of Nashville. So, how is it that a Republican supermajority can fire you, can expel you?
JUSTIN JONES: Got you. Sorry, I couldn’t hear your other question. But, I mean, I’m feeling — you know, when it happened, it didn’t feel real. I didn’t — you know, it I didn’t know what happened to me, I would think it was 1963, not 2023, that a predominantly, almost entirely white Republican caucus expelled the two youngest Black lawmakers, not for any unethical or criminal behavior, but for our First Amendment activity and for standing and doing our job to speak up for our constituents, and to speak up particularly for young people who are terrified of these weapons of war on our streets. And so, I’m feeling I’m tired, but more so I’m tired of the injustice that rules the state Capitol.
But I think that what they’ve done, though, is the complete opposite, that they may have won yesterday, but they have not won the moral narrative as we go forward, that they thought by expelling us they would silence us, they would silence our movements that we’re part of, but in fact they’ve amplified it, because the nation can see how racist they are. The nation can see how retaliatory and absurd and authoritarian they are. And so I think that is what gives me hope, is that they tried to kick us out, but, instead, they’ve put a spotlight on themselves for their shameful policies, that made it easier to get a gun than it is to get healthcare in this state.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, we spoke to you a few days ago. I was going to say “Representative Jones.” But you are Representative Jones. The question is: Will you be just immediately reinstated next week? They’re talking about your behavior as you spoke out from the well of the House of Representatives in Tennessee. But I wanted to ask you about Republican state Representative Justin Lafferty — we showed this a few days ago, as well — of Knoxville, who pushed you and grabbed your phone as you filmed the interaction. He attacked you. Can you talk about — was he disciplined for violent behavior?
JUSTIN JONES: Not at all. I mean, Representative Lafferty, the same representative who tried to justify the three-fifths compromise in the Constitution a couple years ago, I mean, he can act, you know, out of decorum, out of rules, act violently, and he’s welcome within his party. I mean, that’s what we brought up yesterday, is that we’ve had so many instances of behavior. You had the Republican Caucus chairman get upset at his son’s basketball game and pull down the pants of the referee. That, you know, does not merit any type of sanction. You had a member who admitted to being a child molester, Representative David Byrd. He sat there without being expelled. You have David Hawk, you know, who was guilty of domestic violence. I mean, these things happened, and there was no accountability.
But, for us, for exercising our First Amendment activity, for saying that, you know, we took our oath seriously to protest against and dissent from any legislation that is injurious to the people — Article II, Section 27, of the state Constitution, we took that seriously — they expelled us, the most serious measure taken against us. And it’s wrong. It’s shameful. And what it really was about was about trying to silence the voices of the 78,000 people each of us represent, in the most diverse districts in the state.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us — and this is an absolutely key point. You represent the largest and most diverse cities in Tennessee. The local governing bodies, for example, of Metro Nashville, could reappoint you immediately?
JUSTIN JONES: That’s what we’re hearing. The question will be: Will the Republican supermajority seat us? And so, I mean, we would have to still run in a special election. And will the speaker seat us back in the body, or will this be a legal battle, just like Julian Bond? You know, they refused to seat him in Georgia when he was a young man who ran for the Legislature during the civil rights movement. And so, we don’t know what to expect.
I mean, I don’t think the nation — what happened yesterday was unprecedented, and it should alarm us all, that if it can happen in Tennessee, it can happen anywhere. And so I hope that people are paying attention. I hope that people realize that this is authoritarianism, that this is ousting of opposition voices from a legislative body, and it’s authoritarianism. This is not democracy. I know I’m on Democracy Now!, but this is definitely not what democracy looks like. And we’re on a very scary path toward fascism, toward authoritarianism, toward autocracy in Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s remember the significance of this week. I mean, this is the week of April 4th. April 4th, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. And we’re also here talking about gun violence, that began this protest —
JUSTIN JONES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — you were involved with, Justin Jones. But so, there was the Tennessee Three: you, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson. You both are 27; she’s 60 years old. You are both Black; she is white. She made no bones about this. She said the reason she is — was not expelled, and you two were, was the color of your skin. At the end, I was watching — walking through the streets of New York, watching on my phone what was happening. And when Justin Pearson gave his final comments, the Tennessee feed from the House of Representatives called him Justin Pearson, like they couldn’t tell the difference between the two of you.
JUSTIN JONES: Yeah, they called him — they confused his name — Justin Jones — with mine, Amy. That’s the thing —
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, sorry, called him Justin — called him Justin Jones, your name.
JUSTIN JONES: Yeah. I mean, that is it, is that they just — they saw two young Black men who speak up on the House floor, you know, speak up in committees, and challenge this dominant narrative of white supremacy, of plantation capitalism, of patriarchy. And that terrified them, that we were the two youngest lawmakers — I’m 27, Pearson is 28 — and that, you know, we represent the future of the state. And that is what they’re trying to stop, is that they want to hold on to this old South, and we’re trying to bring a renewed South that uplifts human rights and democracy, multiracial democracy, and social justice.
And so, what we saw yesterday was a public lynching, let’s be real, and it was meant to set an example. But we did not bow down. And that’s what I think has them, you know, really upset, is that we didn’t — you know, we didn’t break. We didn’t bow down. They want us, you know, to feel broken, but we left with our fists up in the air, because we knew that this was not the end, that they may expel us, but they can’t expel our movements. And that’s what terrifies them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Justin Jones, I want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow this. A major protest is planned for Monday, I know. Will you be out there?
JUSTIN JONES: I definitely will. I’ll be outside of that chamber with these young people, showing up every week until we take action to take these weapons of war off our street, and until we honor the victims of Covenant elementary school by acting.
AMY GOODMAN: Justin Jones, expelled Democratic Tennessee state representative, representing Nashville, author of The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance, with a foreword Bishop William Barber, thanks so much for being with us.
Coming up, we go to the Middle East. Israel has bombed southern Lebanon and Gaza as tensions soar in the region after Israeli forces repeatedly raid the Al-Aqsa Mosque, beating and tear-gassing Palestinian worshipers during Ramadan. Stay with us.