The fallout from Tennessee’s mini-Jan. 6

Gun Rights

THE FALLOUT FROM TENNESSEE’S MINI-JAN. 6. The Tennessee House of Representatives spent Thursday debating the expulsion of three members, all Democrats, who hijacked the House floor for nearly an hour on March 30, using a bullhorn to shout at and harangue their fellow legislators in tandem with noisy anti-gun protesters who filled the galleries. House Republicans, who hold a huge 75-24 majority in the chamber, filed a resolution to expel state Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson for “knowingly and intentionally bring[ing] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.” Thursday, they debated and voted.

There is absolutely no doubt that the three brought disorder to the House. It started a little before 11 a.m. on March 30, when noisy protesters filled the gallery that looks down on the House chamber. They were demanding gun control in the wake of the March 27 Covenant School killings, committed by an emotionally disturbed, apparently transgender shooter armed with an AR-15 rifle and a 9 mm pistol.

“An estimated 1,000 students, parents, and others, galvanized by the shooting deaths, crammed House and Senate galleries,” the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported. “State lawmakers at the time were debating a bill expanding the state’s school voucher program when the chamber erupted in havoc. That began when Jones, a freshman longtime community activist and organizer, complained to [House Speaker Cameron] Sexton his microphone had been turned off. Sexton called him out of order, declared a five-minute recess and summoned Republicans to the dais to consult. Jones; Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and teacher; and another freshman and social activist, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, then marched to the podium with a megaphone and led attendees in the balcony in chants.”

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It would be nice to have a complete video record of what Johnson, Jones, and Pearson, now known as the “Tennessee Three,” did, but the Tennessee House’s version of C-Span went to a silent screen saying “RECESS” when their protest started at 10:50 a.m. and did not return to video until 11:42 a.m., when the speaker regained control of the chamber and proceedings resumed. We do have short videos made by people in the galleries, and here is one, about a minute and a half, from the early part of the takeover. At the proceedings on Thursday, House Republicans played a longer video made on the floor by a House member.

When the three took over the lectern in the House, Jones, who had sneaked a megaphone into the House chamber, held it to his mouth and led the crowd in chanting, “No action, no peace! No action, no peace!” He complained that the House was wasting its time on issues “that have nothing to do with the crisis at hand.” Then Pearson took the megaphone and began denouncing Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and other defenders of the Second Amendment. “We are demanding that enough is enough!” Pearson yelled. He led the protesters in a chant: “Enough is enough! Enough is enough! Enough is enough!” Then Pearson broke into “Power to the people! Power to the People! Power to the people!”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders were huddling nearby, discussing how to restore order to the House. This is how Sexton, the House speaker, described what happened:

We had protesters that had been vocal about things … and were out in front of chambers being very vocal and yelling and screaming, which we’re used to. And [Jones, Johnson, and Pearson] took at one point during session to come up out of order and tried to take over the House floor, started pulling out a megaphone and shouting at members to incite riot or violence. … You had people outside the chamber who rushed the state troopers to try to get inside the chamber. They weren’t successful. … Now we have multiple violations by those three. They’re protesting guns and shootings, saying they don’t have a voice, which is ridiculous because they talk on almost every bill anyway.

The takeover went on for about 50 minutes. That afternoon, Jones tweeted, “There comes a time when you have to do something out of the ordinary. We occupied the House floor today after repeatedly being silenced from talking about the crisis of mass shooting. We could not go about business as usual as thousands were protesting outside demanding action.”

Democrats bristle when anyone compares what happened that day to Jan. 6. Nobody died at the Tennessee protest, they say. No windows were broken. There were no battles with police. That is all true. So in that sense, no, March 30 in Nashville was not Jan. 6 in Washington.

Instead, call it a small-scale variation on Jan. 6. Imagine if, on Jan. 6, three members of the House had actually joined the protesters, bringing a bullhorn to commandeer the House floor, working in tandem with protesters in the House gallery. Their demand was that there would be no business as usual, no certifying of the 2020 election results until the House addressed “the crisis at hand.” There would be consequences for that, most likely serious consequences.

In their defense, the Tennessee Three cited Article 2, Section 27 of the Tennessee Constitution, which says, “Any member of either House of the General Assembly shall have liberty to dissent from and protest against, any act or resolve which he may think injurious to the public or to any individual, and to have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals.”

Now, the question is: Is what happened on March 30 within the bounds of what the authors of the Tennessee Constitution envisioned as dissent and protest? Did they foresee lawmakers with bullhorns taking over the House chamber to bring its business to a halt? Looked at another way, did they take “liberty” to mean simply that a lawmaker would not be imprisoned for registering dissent? And did they see dissent and protest more as the registration of disagreement with a particular proposal?

The answer is most certainly the latter. The “liberty to dissent” clause is found in several state constitutions and does not confer a general right for lawmakers to impose mayhem on a legislative body. In addition, the right “to have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals” suggests that the authors of the state constitutions intended for the dissent to follow a regular procedure — exactly the opposite of what happened in the Tennessee House on March 30.

There simply seems no possibility that the authors of the state constitution intended to justify the events of March 30. So what to do? Another part of the Tennessee Constitution says, “Each House may … punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” With that authority, some House Republicans pushed for the Tennessee Three to be expelled from the House, an action that has been very rarely taken in the past, and when it was, was imposed when a member had been judged guilty of some criminal act. In any event, it happened after due process.

The House also had the option of censuring Jones, Johnson, and Pearson, which would have the advantage of disciplining them, showing their actions were unacceptable but not turning them into martyrs and inviting future expulsions.

On Thursday morning, the Tennessee Three walked into the chamber for the session that would determine their future. Jones raised his fist in a classic power gesture; Johnson and Pearson locked hands above their head as if in triumph. What followed was a mess.

First, Democrats tried to turn the proceedings into a circus. When Republicans proposed to play a seven-minute video of the March 30 occupation, a video made on the floor by a member, Democrats argued that the video was made in violation of House rules and that the representative who made it, and any Republicans who even knew about it, should be expelled. Then they wanted to know the video’s provenance, whether it was edited or doctored, and, in general, everything about it.

They did not prevail. Then Jones was the first to appear in the well for the consideration of his expulsion resolution. A community organizer, Jones gave a masterful updated rendition of 1960s agitprop. He accused Republicans of racism, suggesting that the real reason they wanted to expel him was because he had been “uppity.” He also thanked Republicans for showing the video that moments before Democrats had tried to suppress, saying it showed him standing up for the young people who were protesting. When it was over, the House voted to expel him.

Later, the House voted to expel Pearson but failed by one vote in the effort to expel Johnson, who in the videos appeared to play a much less active role in the events of March 30. Protesters have already descended on Nashville again for what is likely to be an extended media circus. It was an odd spectacle in which Democrats defended the obstruction of an official proceeding, not by protesters who rushed into the House but by members themselves.

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