Tennessee State Representative Justin J. Pearson discusses the movement toward justice
Joe Donahue: Six weeks ago, Tennessee lawmaker Justin Pearson was expelled from his seat representing House District 86. Yesterday, he was in New York State’s Capital as he works with legislators across the nation in the fight to end gun violence and environmental injustices.
In early April, Tennessee Republican House members, largely white and male, employed a disciplinary tool little used since the 1800s to expel Pearson and another Black Democrat, Rep. Justin Jones, while sparing Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white. Both men have since been reinstated by their respective County Boards of Commissioners.
I spoke with Pearson on Wednesday about his realization that he was being silenced by an opposing political party and not by the people who elected him.
Justin Pearson: It was a terrible day for democracy when myself Representative Jones, were expelled and Representative Johnson was put on trial, but was really put on trial is whether or not we believe in the ideals of democracy -- and whether or not those ideas can truly be translated into policies and practices. It is unconscionable, still, to me, that duly elected representatives can be expelled by members of the majority party at a whim, not for any crimes being had or anything like that. In fact, in Tennessee, there was a member who committed sexual assault against a 19-year-old at the speaker knew about at the same time that we were being persecuted, and he was never expelled. They offered him the opportunity to resign after they became public. And so, there's a double standard that goes on when you're dealing with institutions whose systems are depending upon white supremacy, or patriarchy or misogyny, that we have to be intentional about uprooting if we're going to get just practices toward each other as legislators and just resolutions towards the people that we care about through legislation.
Joe Donahue: While I was watching what was going on in Tennessee, and it was unfolding in real time, the one thing that I thought about were the people who came to the capitol and wanted to be heard, and, and those are the people that you're ultimately speaking to, but they're closed out too, right?
Justin Pearson: Right. The disenfranchisement that happens to the tens of thousands of people when lawmakers are expelled, or as we saw in Montana, where lawmakers are censured is harmful for our democracy because it is silencing the voices of dissent, it’s silencing the voices of advocacy -- and oftentimes of reason -- for the moral issues that we are talking about. Because it isn't an issue about politics being a Democrat or Republican. When it comes to the issue of gun violence, it is about what is right and wrong. And we should all believe that it is right for a 9-year-old to go to school. And for a parent to expect to see that child come home. It is right for us to say that everyone deserves clean air and clean water and clean soil. It is right for us to say that people deserve a living wage and a minimum wage in order that they can live the lives more fully without working 80 and 90 hours a week just to make ends meet. It's right for us to ensure that people have housing and are forced to sleep outside because we refuse to have rents at a reasonable rate. These issues are about morality and when we silence the voices of dissent, when we silence people in our state houses which really are the frontlines of our democracy, we disenfranchise people in a really systematic and a harmful way, using the weight of the government to do so. What happened in Tennessee was that disenfranchisement would hurt all 70,000 of the people that I represent in a majority black district because the majority white Republican supermajority didn't like that we were standing up against the National Rifle Association, the Tennessee Firearms Association, and the American Firearms Association. And that is wrong.
Joe Donahue: This is days, just hours, after you have a bloody tragedy and adults and children die. What was your hope before any of this happened? What was your hope that you could achieve?
Justin Pearson: We shouldn't have to have tragedies in order for us to do the right thing. And oftentimes in the wake of tragedies, we hear people offer thoughts and prayers. But when you are an elected official, in particular, thoughts and prayers are very weak and cowardice response to the problems that you see, as a legislator, you have a job that allows you to do something about the problems. So, my expectation was not that representatives would just offer thoughts and prayers, but that they would actually come to the table with legislation that addresses the problem, that ensures that people don't have weapons of war, that makes sure that we have gun storage safety laws that ensures we have red flag laws, sensible things that have even been passed in red and Republican states in the wake of tragedy. That was my expectation for what would happen, but instead of dealing with assault weapons, the Republican Party in Tennessee assaulted democracy, disenfranchise the voters of District 52 in District 86, Representative Jones and myself, because they did not want to systematically and intentionally address the problems as it relates to gun violence.
Joe Donahue: So you get expelled, and then you are returned. What was that like? That day when you go back, and you're walking amongst your colleagues.
Justin Pearson: I remained determined to represent District 86. Because that's what I was elected to do. That is all -- that's all I wanted to do. I didn't want to get expelled, and neither did any of my colleagues. That was not our goal, to be expelled, it was to raise the issue, and to raise up the voices of our community, particularly 1000s of children. 7000 children showed up to the Capitol that Thursday, where we went to the well, advocating that we do something that we pass some law to protect them in their schools, and in their communities. And so going back I remained as determined as ever with several hundreds of people with us in the galleries, who were very supportive. And even to this day, it is remaining focused on the mission of elevating the issue in our community so that we can do something differently.
Joe Donahue: They kept on saying the Republicans -- and I want to talk to you about a supermajority in a second -- but they kept on saying, the Republicans, that they had to focus on other work, and a lot of that was laws regarding trans students, right? [Pearson nods] So, how big of a problem is that in Tennessee?
Justin Pearson: It's not a problem. But we have these red herrings that Republicans put forward to distract us from real issues. Tennessee has the lowest voter participation of any state in the union, it has one of the lowest literacy rates, it has some of the highest poverty, it has 17 rural hospitals that have closed down because we refuse to do Medicaid expansion. We've got real issues that need addressing, but instead of dealing with issues that could actually improve people's quality of life, we create laws, without having real problems in order that a fomenting of a culture war can exist. And we can't get distracted by that, because it is also very dangerous because it's creating a narrative of othering. And when that happens, it becomes much more easy for people to legislate differences as “bad” and give a signal to people who are not particularly sane, to do things against those communities and violate other people's rights. And so, these red herrings that they do create, they're also a shot across the bow to extremists that they can other gay people or LGBTQIA people or transgender people in a way that is dangerous for all of us. And so, when we think about what are real issues that impact people, whether or not they have food on the table, whether or not they have good housing -- those are real issues that we have in Tennessee. But instead of addressing those the Republican Party foments culture wars to distract away from that. And for the Democrats, for people who care about progress, for people who care about the lives of those who have been most marginalized and oppressed - our responsibility is to continue to keep a moral eye on the issues that we know matter and to tell the truth about this legislation, whether it be banning books or banning transgender affirming care for LGBTQIA youth, we have a responsibility to tell the truth about what is going on and to push back in all the ways that we can.
Joe Donahue: What does it say about a supermajority just by that name alone? It says to me anyway, that it's going to be an unlevel playing field. What do we do about that in state legislatures across this country?
Justin Pearson: I mean, there's a supermajority in New York, right? How are they using power? That is the question we have to ask ourselves, “How is power being used?” Is it being used to bludgeon the voice of the minority party? Is it silencing people? Is it expelling members? There is an abuse of power that we are experiencing in the supermajority in Tennessee. And I don't think that is the way that power has to operate, having a super majority for good reasons, because you elevate the issues of the poor, because you're expanding the social safety net, because you are valuing the life of individuals and respecting people. That is one thing, but to have a supermajority because you gerrymandered yourself into that possibility, because you stopped black folks from having representation, or Latino folks, or people of color, or poor folks – right? If you're getting a supermajority because you are bending the rules and bending the law to your favor in order that you never have to compromise. You never have to see for different perspectives, that is what's harmful and dangerous. And the Republican Party in Tennessee really is a snake eating its own tail, because our democracy is not built that way and the people, Republican and Democrat, progressives, more conservative people -- are rising up in this moment, in this movement.
Joe Donahue: Is that where your optimism lies, then?
Justin Pearson: Always, I’m eternally optimistic and hopeful that the majority of people, over 70% in our state, want to see sensible gun laws and that's across race, that's across demographics. Because the things that not only unite us, but the things that we want our elected officials to fight for -- they are very similar, regardless of where you are in the state of Tennessee. But what we have are people who are not proximate even to the folks they're supposed to serve, and that's why pushing for more democracy to elevate the people in our communities to the polls, so that they also are engaged beyond the polls on issues like gun violence on issues like environmental and climate justice is so important.
Joe Donahue: So, for you as a lawmaker, what do you think you have accomplished over the last several weeks or months?
Justin Pearson: I don't think about what I have accomplished as an individual or Representative Jones, Representative Johnson -- I think about what we, as a movement, have accomplished. Because you have to remember that right? There's the tens of thousands of people who marched and who protested, who spoke up even for our own reinstatement that got us to this point in this place. There are governors passing laws related to gun violence that didn't pass those laws last year or the year before that, that in this moment are passing those laws, because the movement of people across the country to do something is what is growing. And it is a voice of younger people, is a voice that is intergenerational, that is multiracial, that is showing that for us to have the democracy that we want, it is going to require all of us to participate fully and more meaningfully. And so, when I look at the landscape of what has happened in recent weeks, despite the tragedy at Nashville Covenant School, and the tragedy in my own community with Larry Thorn, my classmate, dying from gun violence, there are people who are choosing to be triumphant. And that is inspiring, and that is motivating me and so many others to do more.
Joe Donahue: We keep on wondering what it's going to be what it's going to take to move the needle on this issue. And it wasn't Uvalde and it wasn't Newtown, and it wasn't Las Vegas, and it wasn't the shooting in Tennessee. It scares me as to what it could be.
Justin Pearson: The reality is we are in a different moment each time these tragedies happen. The perspective, the amount of people who are engaged, the age of people is different. And the awareness is different. Every time these mass shootings happen -- every time the shootings happened in our community. And so, while for me, I thought that threshold in our countries, particularly at the federal level was going to be the Sandy Hook shooting, that obviously does not become the case. What we are seeing is each year people are becoming more aware, people are growing in their ability to vote -- turn 18 and participate in our process, that I am still optimistic that we are in a movement that is continuing to see change happen because more people are being more responsive. Now, have we had the watershed amount of legislation that I think we need, particularly in Republican places, a Republican controlled legislature's? No. And the reality is the litmus test for American democracy. It isn't a number of progressive places in our country is actually in the South. It's in the places where you have the most descendant of enslaved people. It's where you have white supremacy and patriarchy at its zenith that we have to say, if it's not happening there, then the country is not where it ought to be.
Joe Donahue: My final question for you is one that you from your experience perhaps can help with -- I'm 55 years old, I am more than a middle-aged white guy. How do we get more people like you running for office in this country?
Justin Pearson: I think more people will run for office as they realize the power that politics has on all of our lives. Even being a state lawmaker, running for the state legislature, I hadn't realized how much of our democracy and our rights are happening at the state level. So, I think as we have more awareness as people realize the power of being in a position of power, and what that has, I think that's one thing. As Generation Z grows up, I think that's going to be extremely helpful, because the issue of gun violence, the issue of climate change, are real and prescient. But I think there's has to be an intergenerational push that we need older folks and elders in the movement to encourage young people to provide pathways for them to engage as well.
Joe Donahue: Is that what happened to you?
Justin Pearson: Yes, Representative Dr. Barbara Cooper, she was 93 years old when she passed away in Iran in the special election in her seat. But when I got involved in social justice, it was because she had called a meeting with the pipeline company that we ultimately defeated. to Memphis and I attended that meeting, which helped to launch my participation in environmental justice and she and I are working together over the years to advance a lot more legislation, but a lot more community activity on these issues.
Joe Donahue: But you see people a lot of young people that are sort of shunning -- and they have their lives and then they're trying to figure out what to do just to just to start a family and live, right, exactly. And yet you can you saw it as something that you wanted to do and needed to do.
Justin Pearson: We can't separate the privilege also of being in public service in the way that I am in Tennessee, which is a part time legislature, I'm able to do other work, such as consulting on environmental justice issues. Whereas other folks really might have a family might have tons of school debt, I was fortunate not to have school debt. And people have so many other barriers to entry running for office cost a lot of money. If you don't have the social network to run for office, or raise money, what support do you have? We have to realize that to be in an elected official is not just like an easy path, and everyone can do it. Even though I think the civic mindedness of our country is everyone should be able to run everyone should do it. The institution has very often been set up so that only wealthy white people, and wealthy white men in particular, would be able to participate. And in Memphis, and in Shelby County, and in Tennessee, overwhelmingly, that's who's able to participate, because it's the entrepreneurs who are business owners -- it's the people who have generational family wealth, it's the attorneys who can take the “time off,” to be able to serve in the legislature, not so much the teachers, not the plumber, not the general contractors who are able to do this job. And so we got to think about how we reduce the barriers to entry for people to run for office and serve long term throughout the year, in addition to engage more people in the political process to hold elected officials accountable.
Joe Donahue: You're a great inspiration. I thank you very much for speaking with us.
Justin Pearson: I am inspired by you and inspired by so many people here in Albany and in New York who are committed themselves to the cause of justice. And we're not in this for a short campaign or a few months. This is a lifetime commitment that we get to renew every day that we get the good fortune from God to wake up in the morning.
Joe Donahue: Justin Pearson represents House District 86 in Memphis, Tennessee. We spoke with him at the NYS Capital on Tuesday. You’re listening to the RT on WAMC.