In the roughly week and a half since Tennessee Republicans voted to expel two Black Democratic members who halted House proceedings while participating in a protest for gun control, the state’s GOP has fallen into apparent chaos. The two Democrats, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, have been reinstated to their seats, defying their Republican colleagues. State Republicans have stalled in their efforts to pass legislation allowing teachers to carry arms, seemingly in response to public pressure. The national outrage over Jones and Pearson—and the Covenant School shooting, which left six individuals dead, including three children—appears to have also motivated Tennessee’s Republican governor to come around to the red flag laws state Republican leaders have resisted instituting.
And on top of it all, leaked audio of a private meeting of Republican lawmakers has revealed deep tensions in the party over the decision to oust Jones and Pearson. “Man, you hung us out to dry,” Republican representative Jason Zachary is heard telling Representative Jody Barrett for not voting to expel Democratic lawmaker Gloria Johnson (Republicans did not muster enough votes to carry through with it, an outcome Johnson herself said was because she was white). “This would’ve been bad anyway, but good God, we were called—it brought the racism into it,” Zachary said. In the audio recording, other Republican lawmakers can be heard fanning the flames. One describes the episode as part of a “war for our Republic,” while another, Scott Cepicky, referenced Jones specifically: “I’ve been called a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist…more in the last two months of my life than I have my entire life,” he said. “I’m going to have to swallow this seeing Mr. Jones back up here, walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in, and watch them disrespect this state that I chose to move to.”
As all this unfolds, I caught up with Jones about his expulsion, how it feels to be a national figure, and what it’s like to be back among the Republicans who attempted to oust him; at least one of whom he said has told him they didn’t agree with the decision to expel him but were forced to do so by their leadership.
“That was an interesting revelation, that even though the majority of them voted to expel us, leadership really whipped their votes to force them to do it,” Jones says. “They had already taken steps to punish us, but then expulsion was just this ultimate spectacle…. It was meant to humiliate, it was meant to break down, but instead it built up a movement and raised up a movement that they can’t control.”
Despite everything, Jones remains hopeful largely because of the young people calling for change, and getting representation in halls of power.
“It’s a feeling that I can’t describe; to become this representation of challenging autocracy,” he tells me. “My Republican colleagues are not used to the sustained pressure. It’s making them act in ways that I think show that this movement is having an impact, because if this movement was not having an impact, they wouldn’t have expelled us to try and distract from the conversation.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
*__Vanity Fair: __*Now that a little time has passed since the vote on your expulsion from the Tennessee state House, can you share what it was like for you to go through that moment?
Representative Justin Jones: It was a very alarming time to see the unprecedented step that was taken here in Tennessee by the Republican super majority to expel the two youngest black members because they disagreed with us and they wanted to silence voices of dissent. I don’t think they even would have guessed the national, international response to their attack on democracy.
But the truth be told, what they did on that Thursday was just a manifestation of what we’ve been fighting all session. I am 27 years old, I’m the youngest black lawmaker. Rep. Justin Pearson is 28 years old. Voices like ours are not welcome there. In committee, our microphones are shut off; we’re not allowed to speak on the floor usually. That’s why we went to the well, to be heard.
That expulsion hearing was a very emotional time, because it wasn’t just about us, but it was really [Tennessee Republicans] trying to kill democracy in our state; to kill this vision of multiracial democracy. But then even after being expelled, I talked to so many people outside [of the statehouse] who were crying and who said, “This is a dark day for Tennessee.”
Almost overnight, everybody knew your name. People were really paying attention to what you said, paying attention to the Tennessee state House. You were a hero among so many, even as others on the right tried to villainize you. What has being thrust into this sudden spotlight been like for you?
I mean, it’s a feeling that I can’t describe; to become this representation of challenging autocracy.
And again, I’m 27. It was a lot to process. I think one thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that this session we have been isolated and we felt lonely at the Capitol fighting these forces, these anti-democratic forces, these forces of systemic racism and these forces of proliferating guns in our communities and denying people’s healthcare. So that moment when people stood with us, when President Joe Biden called on Zoom, when Vice President Kamala Harris showed up the next day and said, “We stand with you all,” to have people across the world sending messages of solidarity and support—it gave me hope.It was not about us, but it was about this movement saying that we are not gonna allow democracy to be killed and attacked in the comfort of silence. It was a movement to say that the death of six people—including three nine-year-olds—is not going to happen without us continuing to challenge and call for common sense gun laws, which is what our protest was in the beginning.