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Front Page - Friday, April 14, 2023

Rogers column: GOP legislators who wanted a show sure got one

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, left, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, at Fisk University after hearing Vice President Kamala Harris speak Friday. - Photo by George Walker IV | AP

In case there was ever any doubt, it’s now obvious that being perceived as uppity is still a lynching offense in Tennessee.

The method of punishment might have changed to a less-lethal form. But the basic intent and the motive driving it remain the same: Teaching a lesson. Keeping people in their place.

Lawmakers in any body considering an action ought to ask themselves two questions. The first: Can we do this? Republican Tennessee state representatives, seeking last week to boot three Democratic members from their ranks for exhibiting insufficient deference, cited the state constitution as an affirmative answer:

“Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”

Unfortunately, they did not seem to entertain the equally crucial second question – Should we do this? – because the proper and prudent answer would have been no. No, no, no.

In a series of whereas clauses, three nearly identical resolutions laid out the case against the offenders, including that they: “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House. They “shouted, pounded on the podium, led chants with citizens in the gallery” and “used a bullhorn to amplify their protestations.”

In separate proceedings, one after the other, each of the three – Justin Jones of Nashville, Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Justin Pearson of Memphis – was given the opportunity to defend his or her actions.

Each offered basically the same defense: In the same week that three children and three adults were shot down in a Nashville school, they sought to give voice to the multitude of people who had come to the Capitol calling for some measure of sanity on the issue of gun violence.

“I say that what we did was act in our responsibility as legislators to serve and to give voice to grievances of people who have been silenced,” Jones said to his juror colleagues. “We had no other choice but to get our dissent marked.”

The proceedings went on for hours, with Democratic colleagues raising technical defenses (What about due process?), fairness issues (We didn’t kick out the guy who peed on somebody’s office chair) and biblical appeals for compassion (Let he who is without sin).

Republicans were having none of it. Woe be it to the likes of those who fail to bend the knee at the throne of the supermajority.

Andrew Farmer of Sevierville, who sponsored the resolution to expel Pearson, seethed as he rebuked his target for his supposed transgressions.

“As I’m listening, I’m thinking to myself, ‘You don’t understand. You don’t truly understand why you’re standing there today,’” Farmer said. “Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn. ... That’s why you’re 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.”

I’ve heard that kind of lecture from older white men directed at younger Black men before. But usually, it ended with the word “boy.”

In some respects, what came about could be seen as inevitable. Johnson, a former teacher and unrepentant progressive, has long been a burr under the Republican saddle. After declining to vote for Cameron Sexton as speaker in 2021, she found herself assigned office space in a closet.

Pearson, newly elected last month to replace a legislator who died, quickly came under fire from the decorum police for wearing a traditional West African dashiki on the House floor instead of a coat and tie.

And Jones, also a freshman, first made his mark as a firebrand back in 2015 when he led protests against the presence of a Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the Capitol. He was at one point barred from the Capitol and has faced a variety of charges for his assorted protests.

The only surprise, perhaps, was that Johnson survived – by a single vote – the ouster effort. Perhaps it was her assertion that the resolution against her charged actions she did not engage in. Perhaps, as has also been suggested and as she alluded to in a post-vote interview, it had something to do with her significantly lighter skin tone.

Jones was reinstated by unanimous Metro Council vote Monday. Pearson was expected to be reinstated by the Memphis City Council Wednesday. Both will have run in special elections to retain their seats.

In any event, no one needed to be expelled. They’d already been stripped of committee assignments, their ID badges inactivated. And as Pearson pointed out to the body, the House Rules of Order provide for the far lesser punishment of censure in the case of a rules violation.

“None of us believed we were doing anything that deserved expulsion from this House,” he said.

More than five dozen Republicans believe otherwise. Now it’s for the public to decide who did the greater dishonor to the Tennessee House, and to the people of this state.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.