I watched something absolutely extraordinary yesterday, and I feel compelled to share it with you.
Imagine, if you will, playing on a school playground as you might have done in your youth. You notice that another child nearby is being bullied by someone menacing. Calmly, you walk over and confront the bully. You stand your ground and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he must stop this abuse.
Then, after your actions stop the bully’s affront, the powers that be decide to permanently EXPEL you from the school grounds for what you did, while the bully remains and is left to his own devices.
This is essentially the scenario that played out in the last few days at the Nashville state capitol building here in Tennessee where the Republicans of this legislature hold a super-majority.
Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Justin Pearson, and Rep. Gloria Johnson are members in the minority Democrat Party, and each represent roughly 70,000 constituents in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville, respectively.
These three colleagues broke the rules of decorum on the floor of the legislature by protesting against gun violence. The horrific mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville was the catalyst that spurred this on. Three adults and three nine-year-old students were shot and killed by a gun-wielding assailant. In response to this massacre, thousands of student protesters gathered at the state capitol on Thursday, March 30, and occupied seats inside to protest the government’s lack of substantive gun control measures.
That day, amid the loud chants of the crowds seated inside and swarming the outer grounds, the Justins and Gloria, now known as the Tennessee Three, basically took over the floor for a few minutes, and with the use of a small bullhorn, spoke out about the injustices of gun violence and the immediate need for government to take bold action. The two Justins actively spoke out while Gloria Johnson stood firmly by their side.
As a result of their defiance, majority Republican members of this legislature, Bud Hulsey, Gino Bulso, Andrew Farmer, and Johnny Garrett, put forth three separate resolutions to expel each of the Tennessee Three from the legislature effective immediately. The Republican Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton subsequently made an appearance on FOX News and called them and the students and families who protested that day “insurrectionists.” This sequence of events incited a fire storm of attention from thousands of students, other activists, and media.
Yesterday, April 6, was the day of reckoning for the Tennessee Three. They were each given time to state their cases and answer questions, and one by one, votes were cast to decide their fates.
I viewed these proceedings at home through the TN legislature’s live feed, and it was incredibly riveting. (I attended a massive student-led demonstration at the legislature earlier this week, and many of my queer friends and community members have been actively protesting against anti-trans and anti-drag bills over several weeks now.)
Whatever the Republicans were expecting to happen, they could never have been prepared for the masterful, inspired oratory of both of the Justins. They spoke with thoughtful, nuanced, and powerful conviction. The Republicans hurled every argument they could muster at them, and these two valiant young men spoke with grace, intelligence, and fiery defiance. They were skilled and methodical as they refuted every false claim.
It was spellbinding. I was in complete awe.
Here are snippets of their speeches. My body, my spirit, and my heart were not ready.
I am immensely proud of the brilliance that they displayed in front of the world. If there are more young leaders of their caliber and self-possession rising up, there is much hope for our future and for the world.
In the end, Gloria Johnson was spared from expulsion by one vote. She gave a strong testimony and shed a few tears that would tip the balance in her favor.
The Justins, on the other hand, were both effectively expelled along party lines.
It must be noted that the Justins only started their first terms in the state legislature this year (Jones in January and Pearson sworn in last February). They are both Black and in their twenties, and Jones is half Filipino. Gloria Johnson is white and has served as a representative off and on since 2012.
It was clear to me, after seeing the shell-shocked faces of the Republican representatives who were interviewed after the proceedings, that they massively underestimated what Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were capable of. They may have unintentionally started a powerful youth and activist movement against fascist, authoritarian government and gun violence.
Such an unintended consequence never felt as good as this.
Bullies of the world beware. There is power and might behind the eyes of the quiet and unassuming. Though they may be stripped of their power and disenfranchised, there is a soulful volume and depth to the compassion and courage in their words. History has shown that tyranny and corruption have quivered and toppled at the sound of such voices.
May justice for the Justins prevail.
And may thousands, and dare I say millions, of youth and adults alike heed their call.
As of this posting, every major news outlet across the US, from NPR to CNN to the New York Times, has reported on this story, making it the top headline in the current news cycle for their audiences to devour. An increasing number of them are interviewing the Justins about what happened.
Where Pianos Roam is my reader-supported labor of love. To receive new issues every Friday and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Excellent writing, Roque. I generally avoid politics on Substack, but this outrage was too big to ignore and I definitely tweeted about it! Authoritarian abuse of power with a racist twist.