On April 6, Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives upped the ante on political repression in the United States. Tennessee Democratic Party representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled by the Republican-controlled legislature. This is one of only a handful of times since the Civil War that such measures have been taken, and most of those cases involved bribery or scandal, rather than the political actions of the members of the House of Representatives.
What sparked the representatives’ expulsions? They had taken part in a protest demanding gun control, after the deadly shooting at a private school in Nashville on March 27. On March 30, demonstrators flooded the state capitol demanding action. Some representatives, including Jones and Pearson, spoke to the rally in support. This was the pretext for their expulsion. These representatives are Black, and their white colleague, who also spoke at the rally, was not expelled, but only by one vote.
It’s already tough to call Tennessee anything like a democracy. According to studies, 21 percent of the Black population of Tennessee is disenfranchised due to voting restrictions on those with legal problems, such as a failure to pay child support after being convicted of a felony. This is the highest such rate among all 50 states, and has been an explicit policy of the Republican Party to disenfranchise poor, Black voters.
The two sitting members of the House of Representatives have little power in a statehouse dominated by the Republican Party. Why go to such lengths to punish them? The Republican Party is showing its willingness to stop any dissent. It is a show of force to anyone questioning their policies. The expulsion of two Black members of the House of Representatives also feeds into the racism of the right wing, with its war on “woke” culture. Authoritarian political measures and racism are a dangerous cocktail that the right wing in this country is mixing, and testing out for the future.
The Tennessee representatives have been removed from office, but are back again, appointed by their counties as interim representatives for the seats they lost. They will now, however, face new elections in the coming year. Tens of thousands of voters have still had their choice at the ballot box overturned. This whole episode shows how little confidence poor and working people can put in the governmental system that rules over us. The Tennessee legislature has shown what it is willing to do to dissenting voices, and the Republicans are fully in control. Imagine if their control was really challenged? In the fight to get what we need and defend ourselves from racism, gun violence, or any of the attacks we face, we need to understand that the so-called democracy of their system can be pulled out from under our feet at any moment.