Democracy is under assault in Tennessee. In a stunning move Monday evening, Republican state lawmakers in Nashville—the site of America’s latest horrific school shooting—moved to expel three Democratic colleagues who led an anti-gun protest on the state House floor last week, claiming that they participated in an “insurrection” when they led chants of “gun reform now” in the chamber. The resolutions, which followed scenes of chaos in the chamber, constitute a virtually “unprecedented” attack on the constitutional right to free speech, as one of the “Tennessee Three,” Gloria Johnson, told the Tennessean. But with a 75-24 supermajority in Tennessee’s lower chamber, Republicans in a vote Thursday are all but certain to remove the members: Johnson, Justin Pearson, and Justin Jones, who said he has already been stripped of committee assignments and had his member ID shut off.
“This is a sad day for democracy,” wrote Jones, who said he was physically attacked on the House floor by Republican State Representative Justin Lafferty as Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton ordered the removal of protesters from the chamber Monday.
The madness Monday marked the convergence of two currents in the GOP: Its growing embrace of authoritarianism, and its long-running refusal to do anything at all to address the gun violence that plagues this country and claimed the lives of three nine-year-old children and three adults at Nashville’s Covenant school last week. That tragedy brought more than a thousand demonstrators to Tennessee’s capital Thursday, demanding that elected officials take action on gun safety. Three of those elected officials — Johnson, Jones, and Pearson — interrupted legislative business inside the chamber that day, leading protesters in the gallery with a call for gun control. There were no arrests, no injuries, and the demonstration was peaceful. But Sexton, the far-right Speaker, claimed the protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than the January 6 insurrection in 2021, in which armed Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Sexton somewhat walked back those comments on Twitter later, but nevertheless described the Democratic lawmakers actions — which broke procedural rules but no laws — as “unacceptable” violations of “decorum.”
As Johnson pointed out, though, those standards of “decorum” seem not to apply to Republicans, including former State Representative David Byrd — who was not expelled, despite accusations of sexual assault against underage girls — and current State Representative Glen Casada — who is under federal indictment for fraud. Among Casada’s other outrageous conduct as the former Tennessee House Speaker: using taxpayer money to cast doubt on Byrd’s accusers, participating in racist and sexist text conversations with his now-former chief of staff, and apparently attempting to frame Jones — a student activist at the time who had been temporarily barred from the Capitol after allegedly throwing a cup at him during a protest — for violating a judge’s no contact order. (Byrd has previously denied the allegations of “inappropriate” conduct. Casada claimed to “know nothing” of the apparent attempt to smear Jones, distanced himself from the effort to discredit the Byrd accusers, and said he was “sorry” to have engaged in “locker room talk” with his chief of staff, Cade Cothren, who resigned amid the scandal; he and Cothren pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges brought by the DOJ last year.)
“We had a child molester on the floor for years. They helped him get reelected and did nothing to expel him,” Johnson told the Tennessean, referring to Byrd. “We’ve had members pee in each other’s chairs. We’ve had members illegally prescribe drugs to their cousin-mistress, and nothing happened,” Johnson continued, referring to other scandals involving her GOP colleagues. “But talk on the floor without permission, and you’ll get expelled.”
But this is obviously not about “decorum.” It’s about a tyrannical Republican majority exercising power, simply because it can. That hasn’t quashed the gun control protests: Demonstrations, including school walkouts, have continued in Tennessee. “We will not be silent,” Johnson wrote Monday. (GOP lawmakers have responded to pleas for assault weapon restrictions and other reforms in typical fashion: “If there is a firearm out there that you’re comfortable being shot with, please show me which one it is,” Republican State Representative William Lamberth asked a group of student protesters Monday.) But the anticipated ouster of democratically-elected lawmakers for exercising their Constitutional right to protest has chilling implications for democracy, both in Tennessee and beyond.
“The House speaker should be leading a real, bipartisan discussion to generate reforms that could stop the next school shooting,” Democratic State Representative Sam McKenzie, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said in a statement Monday, calling the move “morally bankrupt” and noting that a significant portion of the three Democrats’ constituencies are Black. “Instead he’s using his power to silence people who are calling for solutions that he opposes.”