Justin Pearson, one of two Democrats expelled from the Republican-led Tennessee House Thursday after halting proceedings to join protesters in demanding action on gun control, is a Bowdoin graduate who has “devoted himself to serving the common good,” said Clayton Rose, president of the college, in a letter to alumni and students.
Following his expulsion, Pearson said he would keep fighting for the same values he championed as a student at the Maine university, where he majored in government and legal studies and minored in education.
“We’re going to keep fighting for our communities because the status quo is not working — it’s hurting people, it’s killing people, and they’re treating things like this is normal,” he said.
Pearson and fellow Democratic Representatives Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson, received swift condemnation from Republicans after they took part in protests led by activists who descended on the Tennessee capitol after a mass shooting that killed three students and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville March 27.
The lawmakers were accused of violating the legislative body’s rules of decorum, and House leadership likened their involvement to an “insurrection.” The trio was dubbed the “Tennessee Three” amid the escalation in partisan rancor.
Tennessee State Rep. Justin Pearson speaks after vote to expel him from the House over participating in gun protests: “Our lives are at stake. And we’re going to fight for our lives, just like they’re fighting for the NRA.” #TenneseeThree
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) April 7, 2023
Pearson and Jones were ousted, but Republicans lacked the votes to expel Johnson.
The outcome has left many nationwide reeling. Senator Elizabeth Warren called what happened in Tennessee “infuriating” and the steps taken by Republicans “anti-democratic, extremist, shameful, and downright racist.”
With special election set to be held soon to fill their seats — Pearson and Jones can, and plan to, run again — Warren called on supporters in an e-mail to donate money to their campaigns, saying this “is not what democracy looks like — and we must fight back.”
“Instead of responding to a mass shooting with meaningful action that will protect our children and our communities, they’re focused on silencing and expelling two Black men who are rightfully sounding the alarm on this issue — and silencing the people of Tennessee, too,” she said.
President Biden also denounced the ousting of Pearson and Jones, calling it “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” while former president Barack Obama said it is “the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Harris is schedule to meet privately with the trio Friday in Tennessee, along with lawmakers and the young people pushing for gun reform.
Pearson, a community organizer and environmental campaigner, vowed to return to his position in the House. He highlighted the “racial dynamic” of his ousting, and asserted that “this institution has to change.”
County commissioners in the part of Memphis he represents plan to call a special meeting regarding his expulsion and subsequent replacement, local media reported.
“We need to fight for democracy in the state of Tennessee, and we need people not just to vote, but to show up and speak out so that we can end the gun violence epidemic that’s happening in our state,” he said. “This is wrong, this is unjust, and this is not the way that it has to be. There is a better way for us to live.”
During his time at Bowdoin, Rose said Pearson was a standout student and leader on campus. He was a Mellon Mays Fellow who was awarded a Princeton Policy Fellowship and was also a co-recipient of the President’s Award, presented annually in recognition of a student’s exceptional personal achievements and uncommon contributions to the school. He graduated in 2017.
“Over the last several years he has devoted himself to furthering social, racial, and environmental justice in his home state. He recently ran in a special election for the seat he held until last night, prevailing over a field of ten other candidates,” Rose said. “He is making a difference.”
Pearson said his fight in politics is far from over.
“Our lives are at stake, and we are going to fight for our lives just like they are fighting for the [National Rifle Association],” he said after the vote. “We’re going to keep fighting for people in Nashville, in Memphis, across the state of Tennessee, and across the United States of America who want justice. We deserve it.”
Shannon Larson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.