What the Tennessee GOP did is legislative terrorism

Expelling two young Black lawmakers was intended to instill fear, but it backfired.

Former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, waves to his supporters in the gallery as he delivers his final remarks on the floor of the House chamber as he is expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Republicans ousted two of three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

(RNS) — The point and goal of terrorism is not merely to harm specific targets but to instill fear in everyone else.

An act of terrorism is only truly effective if it intimidates others into silence, passivity and unhesitant obedience.

If the goal of terrorism is fear, then what members of the Tennessee GOP did to two representatives — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — is an act of legislative terrorism.

The two lawmakers — both of whom are members of the Democratic Party and are young Black men, and another representative, Gloria Johnson — staged a protest during a session by using a bullhorn to lead chants in support of changing gun laws.

Their demonstration came days after yet another school shooter, this time at an elementary school in Nashville, killed six people, including three adults and three 9-year-old children.

While Tennessee Republican lawmakers failed to enact any gun control measures, they did initiate proceedings to remove their three Democratic colleagues from office.

Lawmakers voted to expel Pearson and Jones, while Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, kept her seat by a margin of one vote.

The racial dynamics of the two Black men losing their seats while the lone white woman kept hers are obvious. How this act of political terrorism mirrors historic acts of racial terrorism, where white supremacists attempted to foment fear among the Black populace, is almost too glaring to be believed.

Expulsion is the most serious consequence a member of the House of Representatives can incur. Prior to the actions taken in retaliation against Jones and Pearson, just three people had been expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives since the Civil War. No members of the House had ever been expelled for violations of decorum.

The severe and disproportionate response from the GOP members of the House was meant to do far more than punish two people; it was designed to send a message.

The message was clear: Do not cross us. Do not dare to publicly oppose our power. Do not be young, Black, male and outspoken. We will strike you down with the full might of our office and make sure everyone knows what happens to uppity … people.

If the goal was fear, however, the Tennessee GOP made an embarrassingly foolish miscalculation.

Far from cowing Jones or Pearson into silence, these young men demonstrated an exceptional ability to combine oratorical lyricism, righteous passion and incisive logic in a way that recalls leaders from the Civil Rights Movement.

During his defense on the floor, Jones invoked a passage from Scripture, Jeremiah 6:10, to respond to a GOP lawmaker’s question about the phrase, “No justice, no peace.”

“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”

After his expulsion, Pearson spoke to members of the press in rousing terms.

“If you want to fight to make this place a better place, you have to use your voice. You have to use your power. And, yes, sometimes you have to get expelled,” Pearson said.

The Republicans in the Tennessee House failed in their attempt at fear but successfully raised the profile of these two men and their cause to national attention.

The expulsions also galvanized Tennesseans and supporters across the country to fight even more vigorously not just for a change in gun laws but to defeat a morally anemic and power-drunk Republican Party.

Despite the colossal backfire their actions caused, the fact remains that Republicans in the Tennessee House intended to use their office for fear, intimidation and retribution.

No matter how they might try to sanitize their actions, by expelling Representatives Jones and Pearson, lawmakers in Tennessee demonstrated their willingness to resort to legislative terrorism.

Yet, if anything is terrifying about the actions of Republicans in the Tennessee House, it is their gutlessness, lack of integrity and disregard for democracy.

(Jemar Tisby, a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky, is the author of the books “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism.” He writes frequently at JemarTisby.Substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!