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Justin J. Pearson: Tennessee Republicans tried to silence us. It didn’t work.

We won’t be ordered to ignore the hearts and minds of the people who elected us

We will never be silenced. 

We will never stop fighting for freedom from gun violence. We will never stop fighting for freedom from the political choices that deny us housing, health care, nutritious food, quality public education, living wages, bodily autonomy and equal rights.

Last week, the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee state Assembly expelled me and my colleague Justin Jones from our positions as representatives, as retaliation for our demonstration for gun safety. In doing so, they shunned the parents and children of Tennessee that we represent — and all Tennesseans who fear gun violence and want action.  

Our movement is the new Tennessee. The new South. The new America.

On Monday, Jones’ district sent him back to the state House. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted Wednesday to reinstate me as well. We won’t be bent, we won’t be bowed, and we won’t be ordered to ignore the hearts and minds of the people who elected us, demanding commonsense gun safety in a state that has nearly none.

The GOP of the Tennessee House of Representatives attempted to obstruct me and my colleagues from these goals and to shred our democracy. Instead, Republicans have only fanned the flames of hope that illuminate our movement, helping it to grow more powerful and glow more brightly.

Our movement is the new Tennessee. The new South. The new America.

This is why they are “enraged.

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Former Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Gloria Johnson, and former Rep. Justin Pearson after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature, on Thursday.George Walker IV / AP

On March 27, our districts, our state and our nation mourned the deaths of three young children and three adults who were killed at The Covenant School in Nashville by a shooter wielding three guns, including an AR-15. It was the latest mass murder of children in our state and nation. There have been far more mass shootings in 2023 than there have been days.

Thousands gathered outside the state House to demand action, mostly youth. My colleagues and I prayed with and listened to those grieving and frightened who wanted action to stop the killing. Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle hurried past the traumatized children, averting their eyes.

Our people were ignored. Our people were pushed back. So we spoke up. We stepped forward.

Gun violence has touched each of us personally. There are few in this state and nation who have not been touched by the stunning absence of commonsense gun safety laws. Just this week, another mass shooting took at least five innocent lives in neighboring Kentucky.

The deaths won’t stop until the powerful National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies lose control of conservative lawmakers. We refuse to sacrifice more of our children at the altar of the NRA’s money.

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm homicides and we’re the only industrialized country in the world where gun violence is the leading cause of death for children. 

In perhaps the greatest moral assault against the good people of Tennessee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton falsely equated the peacefully protesting children and parents, grieving and exercising nothing other than their First Amendment rights, to the insurrectionists of Jan. 6, 2021.  

The insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol violently broke laws, windows and doors, assaulted law enforcement and attempted to breach the House and Senate chambers by force. They smeared feces on the walls of the Capitol and hunted the vice president of the United States with a stated intent to kill. They attempted to overthrow the free and fair election of the president of the United States.

No, the children peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights, demanding an end to their No. 1 killer, are not insurrectionists. They are patriots and they deserve to be heard.

So yes, we decided to break decorum. But we broke no law, committed no violence. We did nothing but follow the mandate to represent our constituents and object to policies that endanger our people.

Our people were ignored. Our people were pushed back. So we spoke up. We stepped forward. 

Because 60 years ago, nearly to the day, Dr. Martin Luther King taught us, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and when they fail in this purpose, they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” 

In a move that reminds us that Jim Crow is alive and well, the outraged purveyors of a deeply anti-democratic and racist ideology expelled us from the People’s House.

But you can’t expel a movement. You can’t silence the voice of the people. You can’t deny justice. 

We meet their hatred with love. We meet their oppression with liberation. Our numbers are greater, our voices are more powerful.

As our ancestors remind us, our Movement for Justice will always overcome.