A few days after suffering expulsion from the Tennessee House of Representatives, Justin Jones (again)
took the oath of office and reentered the legislative chamber. Rep. Gloria Johnson, the unexpelled member of the Three, enthusiastically accompanied him on his return to the floor, but many colleagues appeared less enthusiastic.
The Republican majority was certainly far less joyful than the cheering throngs of activists crowded into the gallery.
Just days ago, almost all of the Republican legislators had signed onto Speaker Cameron Sexton’s decision to execute an expedited expulsion of the Three for speaking out of turn. And now Rep. Jones was back, and Representative Justin Pearson was likely to return well before the end of the week.
Tennessee law allows local officials to fill a vacancy with a temporary appointment, and the Nashville’s Metro Council, in very short order, voted to appoint Jones to temporarily fill the vacancy his expulsion had created. The vote was 36-0. Later, Jones will have to run for the full term, with Nashville’s voters more committed than ever. The Memphis council is scheduled to vote on who will fill Pearson’s vacancy. (The smart bet is Pearson.)
It’s not just that efforts to purge the chamber of two young Black men were so clearly unsuccessful; even more important was the attention the Three generated nationally, and the solidarity and enthusiasm they tapped into in parts of Tennessee. Everyone in the state house will be back in the same seats they had a week ago, but it really won’t be the same.
Prior to the protest, the Three were part of a small and easily marginalized Democratic minority in a heavily gerrymandered state moving further to the right. They could not speak about guns on the floor (mics cut off when they tried), much less pass legislation.
Protest works when it alters the scope of a conflict and maybe even the balance of power, and it’s the losers in any battle who have an interest in bringing others into the fight (thanks, E.E. Schattschneider.)
When Tennesseans, especially young Tennesseans in the cities reacted to yet another horrible school shooting–this time at a Christian school in Nashville, the Three decided to amplify the calls from the marchers outdoors and take them indoors. Brandishing a megaphone, they came to the podium, and chanted for less than a minute until the Speaker ended the session. That’s not much of a win.
But the Republican majority overreacted, spotlighting its opposition and displaying its own, mostly unpopular, politics. The extremely unusual decision to expel members guilty of a breach in protocol won the Three national exposure, speaking invitations, and far more vigorous local support. Johnson, Jones, and Pearson proved to be more than ready for prime time, focusing on democracy, children, and public safety. The Justins, in particular, were adept at dropping in bits of Scripture at the just the right time. (Pearson’s father is a Christian minister, and Jones has started a divinity degree.) And they all kept coming back to gun violence, the issue they were silenced on.
The Republicans in the House made a tactical mistake, one bred of overconfidence that may come from living in an apparently safe and relatively homogenous supermajority. Sometimes effective advocacy is all about giving the opposition a chance to show itself–and make mistakes. The GOP rose to the bait and the Three mastered the moment. After years of trying a range of strategies to get attention, suddenly each enjoyed a national audience. They filled broadcast and social media, and engaged and mobilized political allies far from Tennessee. Coupled with an Easter break and news from yet another horrific mass shooting, this time in neighboring Kentucky, the Three had more support, and more attention to their issues and their efforts.
Nashville Newark* airport, Jones and Johnson even ran into–of all people–Joan Baez, who started singing for civil rights more than a half century ago. She sang with Justin Jones, and the videos went viral.
Meanwhile, the offended House majority was on the defensive. They’d hoped to teach insurgent legislators a lesson, and instead they were schooled.
Hundreds of Jones’s supporters surrounded the Nashville Metro Council when it met to decide to send him back to the House. And more supporters joined Rep. Jones as he walked to the state capitol and took the oath of office on its steps.
Now, think about the message clever and committed activists will take from the travails of the Tennessee Three. Standing up against what they saw as the arbitrary exercise of authority and the blatant neglect of an urgent public safety issue, they broke some rules, and irritated members of the party that controlled the legislative agenda. They returned with allies and attention.
Representative Jones showed that he’d learned his lesson. Upon his return, he took the mic and announced, “I want to thank you all. Not for what you did, but for awakening the people of this state, particularly the young people.” He then called upon the Speaker to resign.