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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.
The arraignment of former President Donald Trump on 34 felony charges on Tuesday was a historic spectacle. But, in terms of political action that warrants immediate alarm, this week’s events in Tennessee deserve as much attention as Trump’s time in a New York City courtroom.
In an unprecedented move, two Democratic Tennessee lawmakers were expelled from the state Legislature, not for crimes but for speaking up — out of turn, so to speak — for constituents who felt they were not being heard on the issue of gun violence.
On Thursday, nearly every Republican in the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis. Both men are Black. Pearson is a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick. The vote to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville fell one vote short of the required two-thirds for passage. Johnson is white.
All three were accused of inciting an insurrection, which is ridiculous. The events in the Tennessee Capitol were not in any way equivalent to the events of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
On March 30, hundreds of people, including students from numerous local colleges, universities and schools, marched to the state house in Nashville. They didn’t violently storm the capitol. They didn’t break windows and smash doors. They didn’t assault police officers with flag poles. They didn’t seek to overturn legitimate election results or call for illegal or unconstitutional actions.
Instead, they asked their elected representatives to do something to quell the gun violence that left six people dead at a Nashville school just days earlier. Some shouted from the gallery and disrupted the Tennessee General Assembly. That was inappropriate, but in no way similar to what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
As the Tennessean reported, the protests at the capitol on March 30 were loud but peaceful. Those who entered the capitol went through security. Many gathered in hallways where they questioned lawmakers arriving for the day’s session about measures to increase school safety, including restrictions on firearms.
No arrests were made and no property was damaged.
Jones, Pearson and Johnson took to the floor of the House that day and, using a bullhorn, joined the crowd gathered in the House gallery in chants in support of reforms to the state’s gun laws. This violated Tennessee General Assembly rules, but it was not in any way akin to the hostile takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Still, Republicans, who have a strong majority in the House, moved to expel the three members from the House, accusing them of using the flimsy (and false) excuse of inciting an insurrection.
“[W]hat they did today was equivalent — at least equivalent, maybe worse, depending on how you look at it — of doing an insurrection in the Capitol,” Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, a Republican, said during a talk radio interview last week.
He later backtracked a bit on this characterization but moved ahead with the expulsion proceedings.
The expulsion of the two of the three lawmakers leaves more than 100,000 people without representation in the Tennessee House. Not just any people, but the residents of portions of Memphis and Nashville, the state’s two largest cities, which have larger Black populations than many other areas of the state.
It is hard to ignore the racial overtones of the extreme punishment and disempowerment of these lawmakers.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the Georgia Legislature’s refusal to seat civil rights leader Julian Bond in 1966. Bond won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, but lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to bar Bond from his seat because he had supported a statement expressing opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Bond took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that he should be seated. Although his district was frequently remade, Bond served four terms in George House and six terms in the state Senate.
Needless to say, reducing gun violence — the reason that thousands of people flocked to the state house in Nashville in recent days — wasn’t a priority for Republican leaders in the Tennessee Legislature. Instead they advanced a bill to arm teachers, to the boos and jeers of those in the audience on Wednesday.
These retaliatory events in Tennessee are an affront to democracy, and to the people who showed up at the state house in Nashville hoping to be heard by their representatives. This partisan retribution against these lawmakers should alarm all of us.