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NASHVILLE — The Tennessee House voted on Thursday to expel two Democrats one week after they interrupted debate by leading protesters in a call for stricter gun laws in the wake of a shooting that left six dead at a Christian school.
The extraordinary punitive action against the Democrats — Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson — for an act of protest marks just the third time since the Civil War era that the Tennessee House has expelled a lawmaker from its ranks and threatens to further inflame the partisan rancor within a bitterly divided state.
An effort to expel a third Democrat, Representative Gloria Johnson, who had stood by the two men in the front of the chamber and joined in the chants during the protest, fell short by one vote.
The expulsions of two of the state’s youngest Black representatives, carried out before lawmakers were scheduled to leave for the Easter weekend, were a stunning culmination to a week that saw the conclusion of the funerals for the six killed in the shooting, hundreds of students and teachers walk out of school to protest at the General Assembly and a vitriolic debate about democracy in the state.
As protesters flooded the Capitol again on Thursday, their chants of “Gun control now” and “Not one more” were deafening outside the House chamber. After the final vote, the crowds in the galleries burst into angry yells and cries of “Shame on you,” with fists held high above their heads.
Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the expulsion of Ms. Johnson. Asked why she thought she had survived the expulsion vote, Ms. Johnson, who is white, said, “It might have to do with the color of my skin.”
Mr. Pearson, crowded by supporters after he was ejected and yelling over the sound of demonstrators, said: “You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today — two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not.”
Republican leaders, speaking to reporters afterward, denied that race played a factor in the decision and pointedly noted that the majority of their conference was still in favor of expelling Ms. Johnson.
The ousted lawmakers could run again for their seats. But their expulsions temporarily leave thousands of residents in Memphis and Nashville without representation in the House of Representatives in the final weeks of a legislative session in which increasingly hard-line Republicans from rural districts have used the power of their supermajority to clamp down on the state’s more liberal cities and muscle through conservative priorities.
“The world is watching Tennessee,” Mr. Jones said. “And what is happening here today is a farce of democracy.”
The votes against Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson passed largely along on party lines after hours of deeply personal, angry and at times condescending debate.
The Republican supermajority voted overwhelmingly to provide the two-thirds majority necessary to push the votes against the two men through, despite Democratic opposition.
The lawmakers who were expelled readily acknowledged that the outburst violated the House’s rules of conduct, but many in their party questioned why Republicans decided to take the drastic step of moving to expel members of the minority party. Republicans have decried the behavior and invoked the violence of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol to describe the gun control protest, which was peaceful.
As he questioned Mr. Jones on the House floor, Representative Gino Bulso, a Republican, declared that refusing to expel him “would simply invite him and his colleagues to continue to engage in mutiny on the House floor.”
The expulsions come as national political divisions have continued to seep into local politics. In Tennessee, the General Assembly has carved up the state’s more Democratic-leaning cities and all but guaranteed that the majority of political representation is determined in Republican primaries instead of in general elections, leaving lawmakers more responsive to a far-right base.
But after the attack at the private Covenant School last week, hundreds of residents began marching toward the State Capitol to demand that the legislature restrict access to guns. Republicans, led by Gov. Bill Lee, have largely focused their response on toughening school security, including passing a measure through the House on Thursday that would require schools to develop a safety plan and implement stricter security measures.
The frustration and grief in the aftermath of the attack have remained raw in Nashville. Students have flanked the entrance to the House chamber, waving hand-drawn sketches and signs, while teachers and parents have pushed back against efforts to pour billions of dollars into hardening schools.
“American students are angry, we are scared and we demand change,” Lochlan Cook, 16, a student at Nashville School of the Arts, told a crowd of students and teachers outside the State Capitol on Thursday. “You will hear our voices loud and clear until we see that change.”
Those emotions spilled into the chamber a week ago when three Democrats, including Ms. Johnson, brought proceedings to a halt as Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson led chants from the floor of the House with a bullhorn. The disruption came, the three lawmakers said, after they felt Republicans had largely sidestepped the question of gun reform and turned off their microphones during debate.
The disruption infuriated Republicans, who pledged immediate punishment. Despite the lack of arrests and the largely peaceful, if raucous, crowd, Speaker Cameron Sexton, along with other rank-and-file Republicans, has compared the actions to those of the Jan. 6 mob.
Within days of the protest, Mr. Sexton stripped two of the lawmakers — Ms. Johnson and Mr. Jones — of their committee assignments and revoked their legislative access. Mr. Pearson, who won a special election in late January to represent his Memphis district, had not yet received committee assignments.
Monday afternoon, Republicans had filed the three resolutions of expulsion, saying that the lawmakers had sought to “knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House.
“What happened one week ago was that members that shut the order of this institution down silenced seven million people,” said State Representative Johnny Garrett, a Republican who began a series of prosecutorial-style questions pressing the three lawmakers about their actions.
In impassioned, defiant speeches, punctuated by cheers and chants from outside, Mr. Jones, Mr. Pearson and Ms. Johnson took turns arguing against expulsion, framing the protest as a response to Republican inaction, rattling through a list of transgressions on the House floor that never prompted expulsion and warning that their removal was a repudiation of democratic values.
“How can you bring dishonor to an already dishonorable House?” Mr. Jones asked.
Mr. Pearson, who noted that he had just been formally sworn in last month to represent part of Memphis, declared, “I’d much rather be talking with you about legislation to protect Shelby County than talking about why we deserve to have our representation lost because we came to the well of this House saying, ‘We have to do something.’”
“The solution isn’t expulsion,” he added. “The solution is doing something to pass meaningful gun violence prevention.”
Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson, who are in their late 20s, represent a wave of young Black activists elevated by voters from sit-ins and protests to legislatures across the country. Mr. Jones was a well-known presence on the legislative plaza in the summer of 2020 as he led a 61-day protest against racial injustice outside the State Capitol. And in Memphis, Mr. Pearson and his family helped lead protests against the construction of a crude oil pipeline through predominantly Black neighborhoods of the city, a project that has since been canceled.
The Democrats said their careers and activism had been shaped by gun violence, with Mr. Pearson reflecting on lost family members and mentors and Ms. Johnson recalling when a student was shot at a Knoxville school where she taught.
Ahead of the votes, as lawmakers discussed more than a dozen legislative measures, Mr. Pearson, Mr. Jones and Ms. Johnson all spoke up in a separate debate to criticize the Republican effort to toughen school security as ineffective, as protesters outside cheered their names. As debate continued, Republicans grew increasingly testy with the three Democrats, at times dismissing comments about mass shootings and gun restrictions as off topic.
At one point, Mr. Pearson walked through the gallery and thanked supporters, sharing an emotional hug with Sarah Neumann, whose 5-year-old son, Noah, attends the Covenant School.
The votes have further rallied demonstrators to the lawmakers’ side, brought in thousands of fund-raising dollars and elevated the three Democrats to a national profile, with the White House and national Democrats weighing in on the representatives’ behalf. Several members of the Metro Council that governs Nashville pledged to reappoint Mr. Jones to fill the seat ahead of a special election, and Mr. Pearson said he would seek to run for the open seat again.
On Thursday, supporters of the three lawmakers crowded the Capitol’s plaza, carrying red roses and chanting “We stand with the Tennessee Three” in the driving rain. Some held pictures of the victims of the Covenant School shooting; others held signs with slogans like “Expel guns not the T3.”
Lily Barrie, 18, a student at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. High School, stood on the steps of the Capitol holding a cardboard sign that read “I turn 18 today. Hallie, William and Evelyn never will,” referring to the three 9-year-olds killed in the shooting.
Ms. Barrie said that she registered to vote that morning, before joining many of her classmates and teachers at the Capitol as they had on many other days in the past week. The threatened expulsion of the three Democratic lawmakers had angered her, she said.
“We’re not going to have any representation for however long those elections will take,” she said. “This is not democracy.”
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