You have certainly seen lots of coverage of the expulsion of Tennessee lawmakers Justin Jones (D) and Justin Pearson (D) yesterday from the Tennessee state house. One particular encounter caught my attention from the debate prior to the votes. It’s the moment when Rep. Andrew Farmer (R), a sponsor of the expulsion resolution, lectured Pearson about his behavior, saying that Pearson just wants attention and doesn’t know how to behave. It’s worth watching it to get the flavor of the comments and Pearson’s response. Someone else said Farmer seemed to be like the caricature of the racist white lawyer from a 1990s-era movie. And that captures it. It’s demeaning. He’s talking to Pearson like a child who simply doesn’t belong in the state capitol and doesn’t understand the work being done there. You can see the interchange here.
But the whole saga that unfolded in recent days is much richer and more wide-ranging when you know some of backstory from the last half dozen years. Both men, but especially Jones, have been jousting with these grandees of the state capitol from outside its doors for years.
Back in late 2018, for instance, Jones was arrested for refusing to leave a rally for now-Senator Marsha Blackburn (R). Later he was a leader of a series of protests demanding a bust of Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest be removed from the state capitol. Jones was arrested during those protests in 2019 and charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault for allegedly flipping a paper cup of ice tea into an elevator on to then-Speaker Glen Casada (R) and Rep. Debra Moody (R). This led to a whole series of charges and counter-charges and a restraining order against Jones.
That controversy eventually became moot a couple months later when Casada was engulfed in a texting scandal involving racist texts and sexting which led to his resignation in May of 2019.
Then in 2020, Jones led a 62 day sit-in outside the capitol tied to the murder of George Floyd. This led to more charges against Jones which were later dropped.
Pearson has also been involved in various kinds of community activism in Memphis, though from what I can tell less directly involved with lawmakers at the state capital in Nashville. But on his first day in the body back in early February of this year he chose to wear a dashiki in the chamber, which drew criticism from Republican lawmaker Rep. David Hawk who said Pearson was dressed inappropriately. After that interchange, House Republicans went on Twitter to tell Pearson that “if you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”
That Republican lawmaker, Hawk, was in hot water a decade ago for allegedly hitting his ex-wife, spending a night in jail and eventually getting convicted of reckless endangerment.
Suffice it to say that, before this week, there was already a fairly intense conflict here centered on these two young legislators in their 20s which is, yes, definitely racial, but also generational. In the case of Jones, the GOP grandees who run the House — a surprising number of whom have some history of sexual, pecuniary or violence-related scandals — clearly already viewed him as a troublemaker literally and figuratively trying to breach the boundaries of their preserve. Now he’s a member of the House itself. There’s a very similar dynamic with Pearson.
As in so many other states, Tennessee Republicans — whose power comes from the exurbs and rural parts of the state — have used gerrymandering to turbo-charge their already very real power and push through a host of new laws circumscribing the power of the younger, more diverse and more liberal cities. Then you have the school massacre in Nashville, a surge of protests at the capitol featuring large numbers of school-age kids. It all builds to Pearson, Jones and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) having the temerity to briefly join those protesters’ chants on the House floor last week.
The deeper look at the story isn’t that different in its broad strokes from the impression you get just watching the combustible events of the last week: a comfortable and entitled white GOP majority facing off against recently elected, young, black activist leaders that the GOP old-timers don’t think deserve to be there at all. Indeed, it’s a belief they make little effort to hide.