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“A democracy says you don’t silence the people.”
Public outrage was immediate and intense on Thursday following the Tennessee legislature’s Republican supermajority decision to expel two Black lawmakers for an act of protest. Fired-up demonstrators in the State Capitol rotunda welcomed Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Democrats, as fallen heroes with impassioned chants. Their anger was amplified from the highest office in the land, with President Joe Biden condemning the expulsions as “shocking, undemocratic, and unprecedented” in a Thursday statement. Former president Barack Obama tweeted that, “No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice—especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”
Following the mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School that killed six people, including three children, hundreds of students demanding gun reform marched on the State Capitol, where three supportive state representatives spoke on their behalf on the House floor with the help of a bullhorn. Republicans said they broke the rules of decorum and drew up resolutions to expel the members. The third lawmaker, Rep. Gloria Johnson, was also involved in the protest but was narrowly spared expulsion by one vote. (Find Mother Jones’ exclusive interview with Johnson here.)
In a surprise visit on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris met with the lawmakers and led an impassioned rally at Nashville’s historically Black Fisk University to condemn their ouster. “They understood the importance, these three, of standing to say the people will not be silenced, to say that a democracy hears the cries, hears the pleas, who hears the demands of its people who say that children should be able to live and be safe and go to school and not be in fear,” Harris said. “A democracy says you don’t silence the people, you don’t stifle the people, you don’t turn off their microphones when they are speaking about the importance of life and liberty.”
Now, local commissioners in Nashville and Shelby County, where the two vacated seats are located, must appoint interim representatives to the assembly. The New York Times reports that this could happen as early as next week, with some of the 13 Shelby County commissioners already indicating that they will expedite Pearson’s return to his seat. Members of Nashville’s Metropolitan Council have also expressed their support for immediately reappointing Jones.
This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 7, 2023
But Shelby County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon told a local FOX affiliate that she is concerned state government leaders will withhold millions of dollars in essential funding for significant projects in Memphis, including schools and stadiums, if they reappoint Pearson. “We are also being threatened by the state to take away funding, needed funding to run our schools, to run our municipalities,” she told FOX13. “Enough is enough. You know, we’ve got to stand for something or fall for everything. And we’ve been bullied by the state for too long now.” Cameron Sexton, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives, pushed back via a statement to FOX13, saying that while budget negotiations were still pending, funding for a Memphis stadium will remain in the final budget presentation.
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