On Thursday, a group of almost entirely white Republicans in the Tennessee State House expelled Reps. Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones, two young Black men, for breaking with decorum to stand with their constituents and demand action on gun control.
They attempted to silence these men and erase representation for the thousands of Tennesseans who voted for them. They attempted to silence the voices of thousands of students who showed up to protest loudly for safety measures following the murder of three 9-year-olds and three adults at The Covenant School in Nashville.
These representatives shocked the entire nation with their breathtaking audacity and anti-democratic power play, bringing national attention and embarrassment to Tennessee yet again.
The way white members of this GOP supermajority spoke to their Black colleagues during sessions is stunning. Speaker Cameron Sexton shut off Pearson and Jones’s mics when they attempted to speak on gun control. Rep. Justin Lafferty of Knoxville forcefully shoved Rep. Jones on the House floor before voting to expel Jones for a lack of decorum.
Several members of the house compared the non-violent protests of students calling for gun control to the riots by supporters of a former U.S. president who violently assaulted police officers while attempting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
The expulsions of Pearson and Jones – and the near-expulsion of Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson – were an addendum to a clumsy and misguided legislative agenda.
This session alone, the supermajority has passed a law allowing a “person” to refuse to “solemnize” a marriage, a vague measure that has caused mass confusion.
They have attempted to criminalize performances by “male or female impersonators” in public, striking fear in members of the LGBTQ community who wonder if they will face charges for being out in public.
While children slept in Department of Children’s Services offices and our state sees dismal outcomes for education and healthcare, they prohibited local governments from banning natural gas stoves, even though no local government had attempted to do so.
Their laws affect us at UT. They have provided a pathway for students to sue professors who teach a list of ideas they deem “divisive,” many of which challenge conservative understandings of race. They have moved to privatize public education in Tennessee and model it after a conservative Christian college hundreds of miles away in another state.
These representatives do not represent the whole state of Tennessee. They represent the people who show up to vote on Election Day. So wake up, Vols.
How could it be that UT students are known for their progressivism and yet we are represented by these people? It’s because most of us do not vote.
The representatives who expelled Justin Jones and Justin Pearson count on us not knowing their names. They count on us not reading the legislation they produce, much of which is poorly written. They count on us not tracking their votes. Above all, they count on us not exercising our hard-fought right by showing up to vote on Election Day.
The five Republican representatives from Knox County — Dave Wright, Michele Carringer, Justin Lafferty, Jason Zachary, and Elaine Davis — voted not only to expel Jones and Pearson, but to expel their fellow Knoxvillian Gloria Johnson, an alumna of UT who has stood by the least powerful faculty, staff and students.
They, along with every house representative, are up for reelection next year. If you are registered to vote in Knox County, vote them out. They want to shut down student voices that call for change. They have attempted to crush dissent through unprecedented means.
Know this: if we are shot and killed on our campus, they will have done nothing actionable to prevent our violent deaths. In fact, they might receive more donations from the gun lobby if students in their districts are murdered.
If we thought that children being murdered at a private Christian school in the state’s capital was enough to spur Republicans towards increased gun safety measures, we were wrong.
As editor of a college paper, I have had to think these last few weeks about which of our staff would be most likely to be killed in a shooting given the position of our desks. UTPD has informed us in the past that our space would be difficult to navigate in an active shooter situation. I have wondered if we should conduct an active shooter drill to prepare to fight for our lives.
I have also spent much time thinking about how little my representatives are doing to keep us safe. I know others have walked across campus these last few weeks and felt that it may only be a matter of time before tragedy strikes here.
Meanwhile, I watched as our U.S. Representative Tim Burchett, aggressive on Twitter but weak in the House chamber, said “We’re not gonna fix it.” When asked by a reporter what he would do to keep kids like his daughter safe, Burchett said, “Well, we homeschool her.”
Keep your eyes on these people. Learn your state representatives’ names. If they are Republican, they almost certainly voted to expel Pearson and Jones, Black men whose rousing calls for justice place them in the lineage of Martin Luther King Jr. If the thought of removing democratically elected representatives for a small infraction made in pursuit of saving lives seems wrong to you, make your voice heard.
UT leaders cannot speak out publicly against these anti-democratic acts, because the university relies on state funding. So it is up to us as students to speak out and to vote, but mostly to vote. We can have a state legislature that represents us. Perhaps one day, they will not embarrass us on the national stage. But in order to be represented, we must vote.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial stated that rioters on Jan. 6 "beat a police officer to death," referring to the death of Officer Brian Sicknick. A report of the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner's office later determined Sicknick had died of two strokes suffered after he was assaulted by rioters.
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