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“Rising Tide of Fascism”: Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones Warns of GOP’s Growing Embrace of Authoritarianism

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Earlier this month, the largely white Tennessee House of Representatives, with its heavily gerrymandered Republican supermajority, expelled two members, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, the two youngest Black representatives in the House. They stood accused of breaching House “decorum” for nonviolently protesting the chamber’s inaction on gun violence in the wake of a mass school shooting in Nashville. Days after their expulsion, both Jones and Pearson were temporarily reinstated to their seats by local authorities. Justin Jones joins us again on Democracy Now! and says there is a “rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism that’s taken hold of our nation,” linking the expulsions of state lawmakers to the January 6 attack on Congress.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

From Montana to Tennessee, we’re speaking to lawmakers who have been expelled or silenced by their Republican colleagues. Joining us now in Washington, D.C., is Justin Jones. Earlier this month, the largely white Tennessee House of Representatives, with its heavily gerrymandered Republican supermajority, expelled Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, the two youngest Black representatives in the Tennessee House. They stood accused of breaching House decorum for nonviolently protesting the chamber’s inaction on gun violence in the wake of the March 27th mass school shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed. Days after being expelled, both Jones and Pearson were temporarily reinstated to their seats by local authorities. Earlier this week, the two Justins, along with Gloria Johnson, a white lawmaker who narrowly escaped being expelled, met with President Biden at the White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: What the Republican Legislature did was shocking, it was undemocratic, and it was without any precedent. But you turned it around very quickly. And, look, we’ve passed the most significant gun laws that have been passed in 30 years, but there’s more to do. … Now, you understand exactly what it’s like. It’s just tragic to see what’s happening in your state, in particular, in your city, but also across the country. And, you know, nothing is guaranteed about democracy. Every generation has to fight for it. And you all are doing just that.

AMY GOODMAN: After their meeting with the president, state Representative Justin Jones spoke outside the White House.

REP. JUSTIN JONES: We lifted this issue above the partisan divide, that this is not left or right, but we talked to the president about how this is a moral issue, an issue of conscience, an issue in the South, where we are trying to build a multiracial democracy and challenge these extreme forces that rather than passing an assault weapons ban, they assaulted our democracy, as we saw when we were expelled from the state Legislature. And so we talked to the president and vice president about why it’s so critical for us to continue to lift up these movements in the South, to continue to lift up this multiracial movement of reconstruction that we’re experiencing right now. …

We come here to say that the South will rise anew. We represent a new South, a new South that is rising, and that if we can transform the South, we can transform this nation. If we can get commonsense gun laws passed in the South, we can get them passed in this nation. And so we hope that the national media will lift up what’s happening in the South, because our people are pushing forward a new vision. And I think it’s going to be a point where we are on the right side of history, and those who stand against us are not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tennessee lawmaker Justin Jones is still in Washington, D.C., and is joining us from there now.

We last spoke to you in Nashville, the city that you represent — actually still represent, even though you were expelled. Can you talk, Justin Jones — it’s so great to have you back with us — about what it meant to be reinstated, and then what it meant to meet with President Biden, with Bernie Sanders, with the Black Caucus and others, and what you’re calling for now?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yes. Well, it’s so good to be here again, Amy.

And what it means is that the movement continues, is that, as we saw in Tennessee, Tennessee has set a very dangerous precedent for the nation, with what happened to my friend here, Representative Zephyr, in Montana, what’s going on in Nebraska, and what’s going to continue to happen as we see this rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism that’s taken hold of our nation. And we see this weaponization of decorum to silence dissent, to silence voices that make people uncomfortable. And that’s really what they’re doing, is silencing any voice of divergence from their dominant narrative.

And so, you know, to be here in D.C., we’re continuing to lift up this struggle, to nationalize what is going on, because it’s not just going to impact us in Tennessee and in Montana, but it’s really going to impact our nation, that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. And so, you know, we continue to push the White House. And I’ve been grateful to meet with many members here in the capital to let them know that from our statehouses to the U.S. Capitol, we are facing some very dangerous trends in our democracy, I mean, connecting what happened to us to January 6, which was an attempt to stop an election, to stop democracy. And so we have to stand together, and we must show that we are not going to be divided and conquered, that we’re united in our struggle for multiracial democracy and uplifting voices that have been often pushed to the margins.

AMY GOODMAN: Justin Jones, you were elected to be state representative in November, but before that you were well known in Nashville, a Black Lives Matter activist. In fact, you had taken on the House speaker before. You’re now calling for Cameron Sexton’s resignation. But you had pushed, and successfully pushed, for the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol Rotunda — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the Ku Klux Klan born in Tennessee. You ultimately won your battle, but Cameron Sexton voted against removing the founding grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan’s bust from the state Capitol. Is that right? Were you able to hear that question, Justin?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: I just missed the last part.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, I was just asking — you won the removal of the bust of the founding grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, from the state Capitol Rotunda. The House speaker, whose resignation you continue to call for, voted against removing his bust, Ku Klux Klan born in Tennessee. Is that right?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: That’s correct. And what we’re seeing in Tennessee is this battle of us representing a new South, you know, the South that does not worship symbols to white supremacy and the Confederacy and racial terror. But we were trying to represent a new South that represents multiracial democracy and human rights, a South that affirms human dignity across race, across sexuality, across immigration status. You know, we want to say that — you know, the Southern segregationists had a saying that the South will rise again. We stand as a new generation to say that the South will rise anew and that the South is a frontline in this battle for democracy and in this battle against white supremacy and transphobia and homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny and economic exploitation. We represent this new voice.

And that’s really what they were trying to expel, Amy, was not just us as individual lawmakers but what we represent and this vision of the future that they’re so fearful of, because it means one in which all of our voices are heard and all of our people are treated with respect and protected, and not just the voices of a small white power structure, of men of a particular religion and particular economic status who have dominated our politics for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the state Legislature trying to give immunity to the gun manufacturers, this vote right after the mass shooting in Nashville — the city you represent — that killed three 9-year-olds and three adults?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: I mean, it is immoral that the only gun law that we passed in the light of a shooting that took the lives of three 9-year-olds and three adults — and was not the first mass shooting in Nashville, as well. We had the shooting five years ago last week at the Waffle House in Nashville. And so, what they decided to do was say, “Let’s not protect kids,” as we’ve been asking, “but let’s protect firearms manufacturers from lawsuits.” This is how immoral it is, that we’re dealing with people who care more about the profits of the gun industry than they do the lives of our children, than they do the safety of our community. And it’s immoral, and it shows where their allegiance is to, to these special interests. It shows the corruption of money in our political system, that that’s the first action they take in light of a mass shooting, was to pass that law, and also to expel the two youngest Black lawmakers. This is the way that they are moving.

And so, it’s not democracy. It is a mobocracy. It is terror for our communities. And it is insulting to the victims of this mass shooting and their families that that is the step forward that they’re taking, and also to arm teachers, as well. That was the other proposal they had. And it’s just — it is so hurtful for our people, who are grieving still and demanding that we pass commonsense gun laws. And the majority of Tennesseans across the political spectrum support red flag laws, a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and safe storage. That’s what we should be passing.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we bring Representative Zephyr back into the conversation, I wanted to ask you now about what’s happening with you and Justin Pearson. You’re back in as state representatives, defying the Republican supermajority. But you now have to go through an election, both in Nashville and in Memphis, the two of you, to — because you were expelled? How much does this cost? When is this going to happen?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yeah, so, we have two elections. We have a primary in a month, and we have a general in August. And it’s all being, you know, at the expense of the taxpayer to run again. And I know a Republican just announced that they’re running against me. And so we’re going to be pushing, and we’re going to be running an active campaign, because we know that this is not just about us, but it’s a referendum on democracy, Amy. And that’s what we’re going to be fighting for and pushing for, is that their attempt to expel us was an attempt to make a spectacle of authoritarianism, that if you dare dissent, if you dare challenge the dominant power structure, this is what will happen to you.

What I also want to say, too, is that though Representative Pearson and myself are back, we’re still not being allowed to speak on the House floor. We’re being shut down on the House floor. We still have not been given committees again, so they’ve stripped our committees from us. And so they’re doing everything they can to make us feel like second-class members, though our communities sent us back there, after being expelled, to represent them, unanimously in the Memphis Council and in the Nashville City Council. And so, it is extreme, what’s going on. You know, we’re still unwelcome in the People’s House.

But like I told somebody, we’re not there to make friends with them. These are our colleagues. We’re there to represent the voices of our constituents, you know, some of the most diverse districts in the state of Tennessee, who deserve to be heard. And every time they silence us, they silence our constituents. And that’s why we must fight so hard against these authoritarians and these fascists who have taken hold of our state government.

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“Courage Is Contagious”: Zooey Zephyr & Justin Jones on the GOP’s Silencing of State Lawmakers

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