After a school shooting in Nashville left six people dead, Vice President Kamala Harris made a last-minute trip to Tennessee on Friday to call for stricter firearm laws and criticize the Republican-controlled state House, which had expelled two Black Democratic lawmakers the day before for their participation in a protest calling for more gun control.
While speaking to an audience at Nashville’s historically Black Fisk University, Harris was met with thunderous acclaim and many standing ovations after claiming that the so-called Tennessee Three — voted out Reps.
She said that two Democrats, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson, were being muzzled for advocating for the safety of students and that a third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, was only saved from expulsion by a single vote.
“Let’s understand the underlying issue is about fighting for the safety of our children,” Harris said.
“It’s been years now where they are taught to read and write and hide in a closet and be quiet if there’s a mass shooter at their school, where our children, who have God’s capacity to learn and lead, who go to school in fear.”
She advocated for stricter regulations on assault guns, red flag laws, and background checks.
“Let’s not fall for the false choice — either you’re in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws,” Harris said. “We can and should do both.”
Jones, Pearson, and Johnson, together with other government officials and young people calling for stricter gun control measures, met privately with Harris. There was a block-long line of students and others waiting to get into the school’s Memorial Chapel earlier for the ceremony.
Some young Black ladies inside sported sweaters bearing the letters of Harris’s Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. “It’s exciting to see someone from my organization doing great and amazing things,” said one of them, Jasmyn Thrash.
The expulsions “tell us exactly what we need to know about how the state views young Black men” who stand up for what they believe, Nashville Metro Councilperson Zulfat Suara said before Harris arrived. She referred to local civil rights heroes John Lewis and Diane Nash, saying, “Just like John Lewis and Diane Nash did many years ago, we too will resist.”
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The entire congregation stood as Pearson, Johnson, and Jones entered. The White House stated that in a conference conversation with the three leaders before their meeting, Vice President Biden “thanked them for their leadership in seeking to ban assault weapons and standing up for our democratic values.” It said that he has asked them to visit the White House in the near future.
Mr. Biden had described the expulsions as “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent” in a statement released on Thursday. “Rather than debating the merits of the issue [of gun control], these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee,” the president said.
Racism allegations surfaced after Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were fired. Since Johnson is White, he was allowed to keep his seat in the legislature. The top Republicans in the party said racism wasn’t an issue.
Republican leaders said Thursday’s steps, which have been taken only a handful of times since the Civil War, were required to prevent the appearance that disruptions of House proceedings by protest would be condoned by the majority party.
The three Democrats “essentially conducted a mutiny,” Republican state Rep. Gino Bulso claimed. Most state legislatures still have the option to eject lawmakers who have committed major wrongdoing, though this is rarely done.
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