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‘Tennessee Three’ representative talks recent protest for gun control at state House

Ava Pitruzzello | Staff Photographer
Rep. Gloria Johnson, who Tennessee House Republicans attempted to oust after a protest for gun reform on the House floor in March, said advocates must vote for candidates who support “common sense gun laws.”

A member of the Tennessee House of Representatives discussed her involvement in a demonstration for gun control that interrupted legislative proceedings on the chamber’s floor at the University Student Center Monday.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said Tennessee House Republicans have suppressed Democratic opposition in the state’s legislature by voting to expel two lawmakers who joined her in protesting for gun reform on the House floor earlier this month following a shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville that killed three children and three school officials in March. The event was hosted by Swing Left GWU, a left-leaning political advocacy group, and March For Our Lives GW, a gun violence prevention student organization.

John Fine, logistics and operations director of Swing Left GWU, and Helen Newell, financial officer for March For Our Lives GW, moderated the event. 

The Tennessee House – where Republicans hold 74 of the body’s 99 seats – voted to expel Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, for breaking House decorum rules in their protest on April 6 after their protest on March 30, which halted legislative action on the floor. Johnson said she and the two lawmakers, dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” led chants in the chamber with a bullhorn to “lift up” the voices of protestors rallying for gun control outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville that day.

In resolutions to expel Johnson, Pearson and Jones, House Republicans said the three lawmakers “generally engaged in disorderly and disruptive conduct.” Johnson, who was spared expulsion in a 65-30 vote – falling short of the required two-thirds majority by one vote – said “the racism was very clear” regarding the House’s decision to expel Jones and Pearson because of the difference in criticism posed by House Republicans toward her, a white person, compared to Jones and Pearson, who are Black.

“If you listen to the questioning, the way they talk to the two young men, young Black men, was completely different than how they talked to me,” Johnson said. “They were demeaning to me, but for him, it was, ‘Well you need to dress like us and you need to speak like us.’”

The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones to his House seat on April 10, who the House swore back in the same day, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to reinstate Pearson on April 12, who was sworn in the following day.

Both representatives said they will seek reelection in their respective special elections triggered by the expulsions on Aug. 3.

Johnson said she hears racist statements “pretty much every day” in committee meetings or on the Tennessee House floor. She said it was “horrific” when Rep. Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta, suggested adding “hanging on a tree” as an execution method for death row inmates in an amendment to a bill giving death row inmates the choice to die by firing squad rather than lethal injection or electrocution on March 1. She compared his suggestion – which Sherrell apologized for on March 2 – to “lynching.” 

“I was just in shock,” Johnson said. “The man just advocated for a hate crime. He didn’t say a gallows, he said hanging by a tree, and we all know what that is.”

She said House Republicans, have recently been “silencing any dissenting voice,” shutting off Democratic lawmakers’ mics, refraining from calling on representatives to speak and refusing to hear some of the amendments they proposed this year.

“This is not how a healthy democracy behaves,” Johnson said. “It’s really scary that they are so terrified of an opposition view that they cut our debate time to five minutes.”

Johnson said advocates must vote for candidates who support “common sense gun laws” and help organize events that raise awareness for gun control when asked what organizations like Swing Left GWU and March For Our Lives GW can do to help support the fight against gun violence in states like Tennessee.

“We’re counting on you all,” Johnson said. “We really, really are.”

Johnson said she received “overwhelming” support from people outside the legislature following her protest on the House floor, when asked how she maintains “optimism and motivation” in the Republican-led House.  

“That’s something that my colleagues across the aisle miss, is that the majority of the people – even their folks – are with us and respect what we did,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the percentage of women in the legislature dropped since she was elected in 2012, citing “hideous” attack campaigns ads during the state’s elections as the reason for this decrease.

“I’m running for office, and there’s mail going out, there’s TV commercials, there’s digital, a picture of me covered in blood spatter and saying that all my friends are violent criminals,” Johnson said. 

Women comprise 51 percent of Tennessee’s population as of July 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 11 of the state’s 99 representatives are women and eight of the state’s 33 senators are women, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Johnson said it is “critical” that Tennessee works to make the gender demographics of the state legislature similar to that of the state’s population. She said women do an “excellent job” representing their districts.

“I do believe that we change the conversation when there are more women in office, and we just desperately, desperately need that,” Johnson said. “So I will tell you, ignore the bullies, ignore the noise, step up, be real, do what’s in your heart.”

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