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Former Tennessee House Democrat discusses 'unconscionable' expulsion

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We begin tonight's program in Tennessee, where this week, the state's Republican-led House of Representatives voted to expel two Democrats, stripping them of their membership in the state's legislature. The expulsion was a response to protests the two lawmakers held in the well of the House floor - that's the speaking area up at the front - along with a third Democrat. They were calling for gun safety laws in the wake of a mass shooting in a Nashville school that left three children and three adults dead.

We're joined now by one of the people who was expelled, former Tennessee State Representative Justin J. Pearson. He's a Democrat from Memphis. Welcome, Representative Pearson.

JUSTIN PEARSON: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate being here.

DETROW: To start off with, you met with Vice President Harris yesterday. You spoke on the phone with President Biden. What did they tell you?

PEARSON: I think the president and the vice president showed solidarity with the families who were mourning and who were grieving the shooting at Covenant, and also spoke in solidarity with the Tennessee three, myself, Representative Johnson and Representative Jones. They were both very supportive and encouraging to us to not give up on this movement and not give up on democracy, because that's what's at stake here, in the erosion of our democracy by the Republican-led Tennessee State House.

DETROW: And before we get to some of these broader questions, I do want to ask specifically about what comes next, because the Shelby County Commission will meet soon to make an interim appointment to this empty seat. Do you want them to appoint you?

PEARSON: Yes. I do want to serve District 86.

DETROW: Do you think the lawmakers who voted to expel you would allow you to return?

PEARSON: I don't know what they're going to do. It is unbelievable and unconscionable that they would go so far as to expel us for saying that we need to do something about gun violence, for saying that we need to listen to the people's voice and not the NRA's. It's unbelievable that they would rather throw the Constitution away than actually hear opinions that are different from their own at a time when we are mourning and grieving the loss of six people who were killed at the Covenant school.

DETROW: There's certainly been a lot of attention on the fact that you and your fellow Black male colleague, former Representative Justin Jones, were expelled, but your white colleague, Democratic Representative Gloria Johnson, was not. And we talked to one of your former colleagues yesterday, and that's Republican Jody Barrett, who voted to expel you and Jones but did not vote to expel Johnson. And my colleague Mary Louise Kelly asked him if race was a factor. Here's what he had to say.

JODY BARRETT: It had absolutely nothing to do with race.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: But you did not vote to expel, as you say, Representative Johnson. Why not? What was the difference?

BARRETT: Well, I'm an attorney, and Ms. Johnson was the only representative that showed up with legal counsel, and their legal counsel made an opening statement pointing out deficiencies in the resolution that had been filed that we were voting on. And once those deficiencies were pointed out, in my view as an attorney, then it was incumbent upon the debate to present evidence to correct that and to establish clearly what it was that Ms. Johnson did to rise to the level of expulsion. I just don't think that we established that during the debate.

DETROW: What's your response to that?

PEARSON: Look, we all know the differences between Representative Jones, myself and Representative Johnson, and we listened to the way that the Tennessee state Republican House majority spoke to us during our persecution during this process. What we were expelled for was because we decided that it was time for the state of Tennessee Republicans to stop listening to the NRA and start listening to the thousands of children and teens and grandmothers and siblings who are mourning because of the effects of gun violence. We spoke up against their status quo, which says be silent even when people are dying, even when people are asking for you to do something, even when people want to see change, and the speaker and the governor and everyone in the Republican Party said, you all saying that is too extreme for this House, despite the fact that thousands, millions of Tennesseans want to see change and they want to see it now.

DETROW: But just to follow up specifically, you said we know the difference. Are you - do you think it entirely came out the fact that the two of you are young Black men and she is a white woman?

PEARSON: No. I think we need to interrogate why this process was started in the first place. Why did the Republican Party of the state of Tennessee decide that it was time to persecute people who were saying we need to end gun violence?

DETROW: You suddenly have a national platform. There is now a lot of attention and energy focused on not only what happened to you, but on the issue of gun laws. What specifically do you want to do next?

PEARSON: Yes. I will continue to advocate for District 86, our people in Memphis, Millington, Shelby County, in the state of Tennessee to pass sensible gun legislation. Red flag laws, gun safety laws, background checks are not things that are extreme. They are things that most of the people in the state, most of the people in the country, even, want to see happen. And there is an opportunity for us to make sure that the victims at Covenant school, the victims like my classmate Larry Thorn and so many others who are suffering from the effects of gun violence, that we help to create systems and policies and processes in our state that make this a safer place to be. And I'm going to continue to do that advocacy and convene people toward that work.

DETROW: I want to end with a big-picture question for you, because you actually spoke to us earlier this year. You're from Memphis. Of course, Tyre Nichols was beaten by Memphis police and later died. And shortly after that, you spoke with my colleague Michel Martin, and in that conversation, you talked about how you would just lost a high school classmate to gun violence.

PEARSON: Yeah.

DETROW: All of that happened. You're now dealing with the aftermath of another mass shooting in your state. You've now been expelled from the legislature and have this national attention thrust upon you. I mean, that's all a lot to process, especially for someone in their 20s.

PEARSON: Yeah. This is a difficult time for a lot of people in our country who are tired of the proliferation of guns and who are tired of the gun violence that meets us every single day in our communities. And you're afraid that it is your classmate, like Larry. You're afraid that it's your aunt. You're afraid that is your mentor, like Dr. Yvonne Nelson, my mentor who was killed last year by gun violence. And those worries too often come to our front doors, and they meet us at funeral after funeral after funeral, and we're tired. And to have the Republican Party in Tennessee say that because we exercised our First Amendment rights to speak for people who will never be able to speak and to listen to people who are exercising their First Amendment rights in the galleries, who had come to protest and come to be heard, to say that we deserve expulsion for doing what this American democracy was built on, that is wrong, and that is undemocratic. And that is our surest way to lose our democracy.

DETROW: That was former, and as we just heard, potentially future Tennessee State Representative Justin J. Pearson. Representative Pearson, thanks for being with us.

PEARSON: Thank you so much. We're going to keep fighting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.