Tennessee Republicans' use of a large majority in the state House to oust two young black lawmakers for unethical behavior has unleashed a wave of political forces reshaping mainstream American politics.
After leading an armed protest in the House last week in response to the school shooting in Nashville, the lawmakers' actions painted a picture of the two halves of an increasingly diverse and alienated nation.
Tensions rose inside and outside the state House of Representatives a day before a mass shooting that killed six people, including three 9-year-old children, in a political emergency code that drew the attention of state volunteers.
The drama showed deep frustration among some voters over the lack of push for gun reform, as well as a growing clash between liberal urban Democrats and Republicans who want to use their rural conservative power base to limit democracy. With nationwide attention, the contest could affect the Republican Party as voters reject his extreme turn. And it turned two lawmakers most Americans had never heard of into unlikely heroes of the progressive movement.
The Democrats — Justin Pearson and Justin Jones — were thrown out of their seats for violating House rules that effectively voided the votes of tens of thousands of voters, a punishment almost unheard of nationally.
But a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, a white woman who has joined the gun control protests, failed to get the two-thirds majority required by Republicans and was dropped. The controversy sparked rumors of racial discrimination and made an ugly day even uglier.
Republicans argued that the Democrats' objections undermined citizens' jobs, arguing that democracy could not function if lawmakers refused to follow the rules. But Democrats have long warned that their voices are being silenced by the hardline GOP majority, and have accused Republicans of undermining their rights to free speech and dissent.
"We called on everyone to ban assault weapons, and you responded by attacking democracy," Jones told Republican lawmakers Thursday while defending the House.
The conflict has underscored the sharp polarization between Republicans and Democrats over how to respond to mass shootings that continue without doing much to prevent such endless tragedies at a fundamental level.
Despite a measure to increase school safety, the Tennessee House decided to use its nearly unbridled power to enforce its own code of conduct instead of taking steps to make it harder for mass murderers to use deadly weapons. In a deep red state like Tennessee, that's not surprising. But the anger, even frustration, of lawmakers like Pearson and Jones, and the hundreds of protesters outside the state Capitol, reflect that of most Americans who want tighter gun restrictions but feel their hopes have been dashed by Republican lawmakers.
In Tennessee, this frustration over the endless deaths of innocent people has spilled over into activism.
One protester, teacher Kevin Foster, said it was "deeply, deeply painful" after the Nashville school shooting.
And she tearfully pleaded with Tennessee lawmakers to do something to stop more school shootings. “Listen to us, there is absolutely no reason to show rifles in public. It's completely unnecessary and it brings death and destruction to children," Foster told CNN's Ryan Young.
Tougher sentences passed by Congress for crimes not involving violence or incitement also underscored another growing trend of radicalization in the Republican Party under Donald Trump. Critics view the Republican Party's use of its majority in the legislature as an abuse of power that threatens the democratic rights of millions of Americans.
The Tennessee House of Representatives rarely indicts its own members, and when it does, it is for crimes such as bribery or sexual harassment, so the handling of Pearson and Jones, who have already been removed from the committee, was considered too harsh by Democrats. . .
The exceptions appeared to be parties that sidelined opponents and dissenters, Pearson said as he accused the Republican Party of stifling opinions it chooses not to listen to and asking questions it won't answer. .
"You just banned a member for exercising their first amendment rights!" He said
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Jeremy Faison told CNN that his members have always been determined to exclude Democratic lawmakers and rule out an alternative route through the House Ethics Committee. "The vast majority, the heartbeat of this group, is saying, 'It's not on the House floor, it's not,'" Faison said, adding, "We can't move forward the way they're running the committee and the House. There must be some kind of peace."
Democrats broke the rules last week — they admitted — and their actions, if passed by all members of the House, would make it impossible to maintain order and hold free debate. For example, Jones used a crane to direct the chanting of protesters in the public gallery. But the question is whether the sanctions are enough, or whether the majority of the Republican Party has gone too far.
Republican, Republican. Gene Bulls said Jones — in his dramatic self-defense at the well Thursday — argued to be fired because he accused House of wrongdoing.
"He and two other representatives rioted in this very hall on March 30, 2023," Bulso said. House Speaker Cameron Sexton previously compared the armed protest to the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
But that seemed like an inappropriate analogy. Although the Tennessee Hall protest disrupted normal order, it was not anti-democratic, nor was it intended to disrupt the transfer of power from one president to another, as was the riot at the Capitol. While the behavior of the three Democratic lawmakers was erratic, it was not unusual in a turbulent political era. For example, the Republic of the United States. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia and other Republicans chided President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address this year. And Trump this week attacked a New York judge as a partisan and singled out his family after becoming the first former president to be charged with a crime.
The meaning of race
Thursday's racially charged vote could not be ruled out after Johnson delayed the vote. He told CNN's Alisyn Camerota that he thinks race helps explain the disparate results.
"I think it's very clear. I'm a 60-year-old white woman, and they're two young black men," Johnson said, adding that he found Republicans' questioning of Jones and Pearson insulting.
Steve Cohen, a Democrat from the US state of Tennessee, ruled out discrimination, rejecting Jones and Pearson, not Johnson.
"I'm not saying race wasn't (a factor), but I didn't look at the numbers to see if gender played a role, maybe some seniority and some of the people on the board with it," CNN's Bianca Galadriza said.
The issue is especially important because Pearson and Jones argue that their voices, and those of hundreds of thousands of black Americans in cities across the state, are largely being silenced by white Republicans.
"I represent 78,000 people, and when I got to the well that day, I didn't defend myself," Jones said. “I stood up for those young people…many of them still can't vote, most of them have the right to vote. But the trend of mass shootings in which our people live and continue to live terrifies everyone."
Jones of Nashville and Pearson of Memphis represent a new generation of politically active Americans. Their activist backgrounds and persuasive rhetorical styles suggest confrontational politics rather than the soft-but-hard-working power plays favored by some key Republican members of the legislature.
At times, the two lawmakers' speeches sparked a civil rights climate and could herald a new kind of youth activism, such as the multiracial crowd of protesters who cheered Pearson and Jones as heroes as they left the council chamber.
The subject of the debate—the inadequacy of the state's House of Representatives—also had unsettling racial overtones, suggesting that two young black Americans did not understand how to properly behave in public life, either intentionally or unintentionally. .
"People are very afraid to see what is happening here. I didn't know it was happening to me, I would have thought it was 1963, not 2023,” Jones told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
The trend of clashes between cities and towns is increasing
More broadly, Pearson and Jones describe the entrenched reality of America's political map, where increasingly liberal and racially diverse cities and suburbs are pitted against increasingly rural Republican-dominated legislatures.
This dynamic is reflected in many issues, including abortion, crime, and voting rights in states like Georgia and Texas. Meanwhile in Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his re-election victory and control of both houses of the state legislature to promote a radical conservative America First agenda, which he is using as a platform for a potential presidential campaign. . Some Republicans see similar trends in California's Democratic majority.
In Tennessee, according to House Democrat Joe Townes, the Republican party has gone nuclear to use its supermajority to stifle the ability of minority Democrats to make their voices heard.
"You never use a hammer to kill mosquitoes," Townes said. "We should not go so far as to reject our members because many citizens are fighting for what they want, whether they agree or not.
Pearson, in particular, saw his blockade as little more than a protest against gun control.
"We are losing our democracy to white supremacy, to patriarchy, to people who want to maintain the status quo that condemns all of us, our children and the unborn," she said. . . he said.
The political crisis in Tennessee quickly gained national attention.
Biden called the exemptions "shocking, undemocratic and unprecedented" and blamed Republicans for not doing more to prevent school shootings.
"Americans want lawmakers to act on common-sense gun safety reforms that we know will save lives. But instead, Republican officials across America continue to double down on dangerous bills that make our schools, places of worship and communities safer," the statement said.
Tennessee Republicans had their own political reasons for opposing the trio of Democratic lawmakers. But their efforts may backfire by making Pearson and Jones national figures and giving the White House a new example of GOP extremism.
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