After a grueling day in which she and two other Democratic state representatives faced tampered eviction votes, Rep. Gloria Johnson was asked why she was spared, while her fellow members of the “Tennessee Three” were eventually expelled from the State Assembly.
After all, they had united on the House floor to call for meaningful gun reform in the wake of the Covenant school shooting in Nashville.
“It might have to do with the color of our skin,” Johnson told reporters outside the chamber.
Johnson is white, while Rep. Justin Pearson and Rep. Justin Jones are black. But she had only been spared by one vote – and she would almost certainly have shared their fate had it not been for two other significant differences between her and her comrades.
First, the formal complaint that was filed against the trio contained several factual errors against it. The charging document said she shouted, used a megaphone, carried a political sign and pounded a barrel as she stood in the well with Pearson and Jones. But a video shown at the start of Thursday’s proceedings by the state’s Republican cabal made it clear that it had none of that.
Not that a few lies would necessarily have made a critical difference. The supermajority had gone ahead and expelled Pearson despite House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s false claims that the trio’s six-minute nonviolent protest represented an insurrection “at least equal, perhaps worse” than the storming of the US Capitol on January 1. 6. Pearson and Jones had only raised their voices above conversational volume and used a bullhorn after Sexton turned off the microphone at the podium and announced that the house was in recess.
What also set Johnson apart from Pearson and Jones was his direct encounter with a shooting at Central High School in Knoxville in 2008, the same one country singer Kelsea Ballerini tearfully recounted when she hosted the CMT Awards on Sunday. . Johnson had been a special education teacher there.
“I’ll just bet none of you have been in a classroom waiting for your class to come in when you see a door open in the cafeteria, kids running around…screaming, crying in terror,” Johnson told fellow lawmakers during the eviction proceedings. “Children that I didn’t even know, that I didn’t have in class, came to me for comfort. And I stood there trying to figure out what happened because they couldn’t even voice it for quite a while.
Then she heard sirens.
That’s when she “discovered that one of our students had been shot and killed in the cafeteria while everyone was there, including the police, including the principals, including our other security.”
The so-called protection Republican lawmakers proposed as school safety measures after the Covenant School horror was present at Central High 15 years prior and made no difference.
“We lost one of our special education students. Ryan McDonald, who was a cut-up,” she continued. “And I spent that day comforting those children who were waiting for their parents to pick them up. You are just in shock. You move in shock. The trauma on their faces you will never, ever forget. I don’t want to forget it.
She added: “Now if I’m in a school and I hear a siren, I jump every time. Because you never get that out of your head.
As she arrived at the Capitol after the Covenant school shooting, parents of children from other schools had approached her with tears in their eyes, telling her how difficult it had been to drop off their children. at school.
She continued in the House of Assembly determined to do something, but the ruling majority had imposed a perpetual lockdown preventing anyone from addressing this issue. A moment of silence can be unbearable when you are prevented from discussing the cause of the carnage. The parents and Jones shared his frustration.
“That’s why I went up the shaft, to stand with my other colleagues who were tired of having their voices cut off when we try to talk about the violence in our classrooms, the violence in our churches, violence in our restaurants and grocery stores,” she said. “It was in my heart. It drove me to come forward and address this issue. I stood with them because we all feel that our voices are silenced and something had to be said.
The ensuing eviction effort garnered so much media attention that the ruling cabal had to at least pretend they weren’t seeking to undo democracy. And when they had the chance to speak up in their own defense, the Tennessee Three finally got to speak out about gun violence.
“These cameras here across the country, we’re all allowed to talk and there’s a little more debate about the issues,” Johnson said. “And that’s great. If this is so [the leadership] behaved every day, maybe my colleagues could have spoken to our offices on an issue.
She had, in theory, done what a representative is supposed to do.
“My conduct was what I felt obligated to do for my constituents,” she said. “I may have broken a rule, but the words in this document are wrong – I spoke for the constituents of my constituency.”
And she could now say what she had wanted to say since that shoot in 2008.
“We can do something about it,” she said. “We are the only country in the world with this type of gun violence problem. We all know some of the solutions. We have seen, we have the data. There are things we can do. And my constituents sent me here to talk specifically about this issue because it was one of the things I heard on thousands of doorsteps for a year.
Johnsn was as passionate and moving as Belleirni had been at the CMT Awards, but she was only saved from expulsion by a single vote. Jones was kicked out by 7 votes, Pearson by 4, margins that may have something to do with them using a megaphone and holding a political sign. But it’s hard to believe race wasn’t a factor.
There also remains the question of why Jones and Pearson were only the second and third Teennesee lawmakers expelled in state history.
“Let’s talk about the expulsion,” Jones said in his defense. “For years, a colleague of yours who was a convicted child molester sat in this chamber, no eviction. A member sits in this chamber who was convicted of domestic violence, no eviction. We had a former president sitting in this chamber that is now under federal investigation, no deportation We have a member still under federal investigation, no deportation We had a member who peed in the chair of another member in this chamber, no expulsion.
He continued, “Since you’re trying to put us on trial, I’ll say what you’re really doing is the state of Tennessee.”
Pearson noted in his defense that they risked deportation “in a country that was built on protest. You who celebrate July 4, 1776, set off fireworks and eat hot dogs, say protest is bad. Because you spoke out of turn. Because you stood up for marginalized people. You spoke for the children who will never be able to speak again. You spoke for parents who don’t want to live in fear.
He further noted that America is “a country built on people talking, turning, speaking out, taking turns fighting to build a nation.”
He added: “I come from a long line of people who resisted.”
Vacancies left by the evictions will be filled by the appropriate county commissions, and there is no legal reason these bodies cannot simply return Pearson and Jones to their seats in some sort of post-Easter legislative uprising. Johnson will still be there, no doubt much to Sexton’s dismay. He had already made his feelings for her clear when she failed to support his election in 2019, as his predecessor resigned following sexist and racist texts.
“When I was the only one voting against the speaker, I was put in a closet for a year during COVID,” she noted in her defense. “There was no room for social distancing. I couldn’t even have people in my office.
Sexton was so quick to get rid of Johnson that he twice called for a vote on her expulsion before she was finished presenting her defense. He has now made her and her two fellow Tennessee Three heroes.
A lasting image was of a tearful Johnson embracing Jones outside the room from which he had been expelled.
“You are a rock star,” she told him.
The people around them started singing.
“Justin, Justin, Gloria! Justin, Justin, Gloria!