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“Shameful”: Reelected Tenn. State Rep. Justin Jones on GOP Silencing of Critics on Gun Control

StoryAugust 25, 2023
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Image Credit: Cheney Orr/Reuters

Tennessee’s Republican-dominated state Legislature is still facing public outcry over the state’s permissive gun laws in the wake of Nashville’s Covenant School shooting, which killed three 9-year-old children and three adult staff members in March. Since then, the state House, under the control of Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, has censured its own representatives and deployed state troopers to crack down on public participation. Earlier this week, Republicans imposed new penalties on lawmakers believed to be too disruptive and banned visitors from carrying signs — a ban that has since been challenged by the ACLU for violating the First Amendment. Amid the new rules, visitors can still carry guns into the building. For more, we’re joined by Tennessee state Representative Justin Jones, one of three Democratic representatives expelled by the state Legislature earlier this year for joining gun violence protests on the House floor. We speak to him about his return to the Legislature after being reinstated in a special election last month, and his continued struggle in “the people’s house” against what he describes as “authoritarian” rule.

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StoryApr 28, 2023“Courage Is Contagious”: Zooey Zephyr & Justin Jones on the GOP’s Silencing of State Lawmakers
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show in Tennessee, where the Republican-dominated Legislature started a hectic special session this week on guns and public safety. This comes amidst mounting anger in the wake of the Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville in March, which killed three children and three adults.

As hundreds of protesters rallied at the state Capitol to demand lawmakers take action to stop gun violence, Republicans began the session Monday by imposing a ban on visitors from carrying signs, and adding new penalties on lawmakers considered disruptive. This led to a dramatic confrontation Tuesday, when a Republican lawmaker ordered state troopers to forcibly remove three gun control activists and mothers for holding signs at a House subcommittee hearing. Gun control advocate Shannon Watts shared this video of one of them being targeted and escorted out.

REP. LOWELL RUSSELL: And I will say this: If there’s an ongoing problem with these signs, we’ll just clear the whole room.

ALLISON POLIDOR: And deny our First Amendment rights?

GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 1: What about the ongoing problem with guns?

ALLISON POLIDOR: What about our First Amendment rights? We have rights to hold a sign. I’m not leaving.

GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 2: Are guns still allowed in here?

ALLISON POLIDOR: To hold a sign.

REP. LOWELL RUSSELL: Trooper, the third one back in the center needs to exit the room. The other one holding the sign needs to exit the room.


GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 3: Is this what democracy looks like?


UNIDENTIFIED: You’re wasting our time!

GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 3: Is this what democracy looks like?


GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 2: Over a sign? Y’all won’t do this for people who bring guns to school!

ALLISON POLIDOR: You’ll have to drag me.

REP. LOWELL RUSSELL: Trooper, there’s a lady back there holding a cellphone standing up [inaudible].

ALLISON POLIDOR: This is not what democracy looks like!

GUN CONTROL ACTIVIST 3: This is not what democracy looks like.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawmakers then ordered the removal of all members of the public from the hearing. A judge issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday on enforcing the new ban on signs, after the ACLU filed a lawsuit noting, quote, “assembling and expressing grievances at the site of the state government is the most pristine and classic form of exercising First Amendment freedoms,” unquote.

This all comes after Republican Governor Bill Lee called lawmakers back into session to pass his proposal to keep guns away from people who are judged to pose a threat to themselves or others. He lost two friends in the Covenant School shooting. There were people at the hearings also who are parents of students at Covenant School.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Democratic House member Justin Jones, one of the “Tennessee 3,” was cut off at a House session after accusing the Republican House speaker of racism over the rules. Justin Jones, along with Justin Pearson, was expelled earlier this year — then reelected by voters — for protesting gun violence at the Capitol.

For more, we go to Nashville, where we’re joined by state Representative Jones, a Democratic Tennessee state representative for Nashville.

It’s great to have you back with us for the first time since you were sworn back into office, reelected by Nashville to represent the city in the state Legislature, Justin. Congratulations on that. But tell us what happened this week. It almost seemed like a replay of what led to you being expelled after the massacre.

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yes. Well, thank you so much, Amy. It is great to be back here as a fully reinstated member of the Tennessee House, but it’s very unfortunate that the Republican House speaker still is acting as an authoritarian. It has been a very disturbing special session in which we have our own mini Trump, a man who violates constitutional rights, who tries to shut down dissent, who tried to overturn the election results in my district and Representative Pearson’s district by expelling us and ignoring the voices of our constituents.

The Tennessee Capitol does not look like the people’s house. It’s been shut down. There are cords, cordoned ropes, put around the rotunda so people cannot protest and exercise their First Amendment right fully. Half of the gallery has been shut down, is only open to lobbyists, and so people can only sit on one side and have to get there hours early just to make it to sit for session, and then are not allowed to properly go to even use the restroom.

As you saw, the speaker has instituted new rules where small paper signs are not allowed, but you can still bring a gun into committee. But you cannot bring in a small paper sign that says “Stop gun violence” — until the judge granted that temporary restraining order that the speaker is now challenging. And in his continued attempt to silence lawmakers, if we are ruled out of order, we can be silenced indefinitely on the House floor, under the new House rules that were instituted by the Republican supermajority.

AMY GOODMAN: Nashville’s News Channel 5 looked at whether state troopers should have been used to forcibly remove protesters from the Tennessee Assembly. Reporter Phil Williams spoke with Democratic state Rep. Jason Powell and others. This is the clip.

REP. JASON POWELL: What it says is that we have arrived in a very scary and sad place in the state of Tennessee.

PHIL WILLIAMS: In preparation for the special session, the Highway Patrol brought in an army of state troopers. Those troopers have been used to put the state Capitol on a virtual lockdown, limiting the number of Tennesseans who are allowed inside to witness the debate with their own eyes — that despite a state law that lays out just two basic duties for the Highway Patrol. They patrol state highways and enforce all laws regulating traffic on and use of those highways, and they assist the Department of Revenue and county clerks in the collection of all taxes and revenue going to the state.

NICK LEONARDO: Clearly, in the past few years, we’ve seen the state troopers become a militarized force on behalf of members of the General Assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: That, a News Channel 5 report. Can you respond to it, to explain to a national audience what is going on in Tennessee in the state House, Justin Jones?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Yes. Hundreds of state troopers have been deployed to the state Capitol, not to protect us from the Proud Boys, who were there on Monday, not to protect us from these fringe gun extremists who were outside the Capitol with AR-15s on Monday, but to stop nonviolent, peaceful protesters, predominantly mothers, who are saying, “We want our children to be safe in school.” These were mothers dragged out of the committee. These are mothers who were being told to leave the House gallery, because the speaker is so fragile and so afraid of the First Amendment and is doing everything in his power to make sure Tennesseans know that he feels that he is king. But really what it is, it’s false power.

They’re so fragile by having these troopers descending on mothers, on community members, on clergy, that it’s showing for the world that Tennessee is a very dangerous signal as to what will happen when these authoritarians are in power. I hope that people see what’s happening in Tennessee, because it can happen anywhere in this nation if we’re not careful.

And so, these troopers are being deployed. Some of them are even telling me that they don’t want to do this, but they have to follow the direction of the speaker. And so they’re being used as his private security force to silence citizens, to silence dissent, to silence democracy. And it’s unacceptable. And we’re spending thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to fund these troopers to be in the Capitol to act as this goon force to shut down protest, which is ridiculous — not even just protest, Amy, but people just sitting there in committee holding up a sign to have their voices heard. Just the most simple act of resistance is being met with harsh repression. It is shameful. It is immoral. It is unjust. And it is unconstitutional, as the judge has told us, that has granted a temporary restraining order against the speaker of the House.

He’s now appealing that, saying, well, it’s his power to do whatever he wants, basically, in the House. But Cameron needs to know — the speaker of the House, Cameron Sexton, needs to know that the Tennessee Capitol is not his fraternity house. It’s not a country club. It’s not his palace. It is the people’s house. And we’re going to resist his unjust rules and his unjust governance in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: You have had an ongoing battle, I think it’s fair to say, with the House speaker, Cameron Sexton, from before you were a state legislator. I mean, you were one of those who led the battle to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. You were fighting Cameron Sexton, who voted against the removal of that bust in the state Capitol. Can you talk about the significance of that to this day, where we’re on the eve, August 28th, of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, Justin?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: Definitely. I think that history is looking at this moment, because that march toward freedom and justice is continuing in a state like Tennessee. You know, we’re on the eve of that March on Washington. And we reside in the state where Dr. King was assassinated here, fighting for racial and economic justice. And these are the things that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially Speaker Sexton, are so afraid of, is that we come in the spirit of that tradition of civil disobedience, of civil rights, of good trouble, that is about showing to the world that we can be a better state and a better nation.

And so, when I look at Cameron Sexton, you know, he has lied on me on the radio. He’s had me arrested. I was banned from the Capitol before I was a lawmaker. But I want people like him to know that when we’re fighting for commonsense gun laws, we are fighting for their children, too, that what we’re doing is for generations who are yet unborn. It’s looking at our ancestors, the lineage of liberation of which we are part, but it’s also looking at the generations to come after us, to say that we are fighting for Tennessee. We’re fighting for a nation that is at peace with itself, that we can be voices of conscience in the midst of this chaos and confusion.

And so, Cameron Sexton is on the wrong side of history. He represents the spirit of Bull Connor, the spirit of George Wallace. And we saw what happened to them, Amy. And I think that the same will be said of Cameron Sexton. The same will be said of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, those who are authoritarians, who are abusers of their power, who are trying to maintain this white power structure, this plantation politics. It is collapsing. Their power is false. It’s weak. And that’s why we’re seeing such repression, because, as we say in the South, a dying mule kicks the hardest. And this mule of white supremacy and of exploitation of people is dying, and this new generation is rising up.

Today is my birthday, Amy. I’m turning 28. And as a young person, I’m so hopeful as to what this nation will be. I’m so hopeful for what America will be. And I say that on this show, that democracy now is democracy forward. And we’re going to do whatever we can, with the time that we have, to make sure that democracy sustains in this nation, multiracial democracy based on human rights and human dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: State Representative Justin Jones, repeat your age on your birthday today.

REP. JUSTIN JONES: I turn 28 today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, happy, happy birthday! I wanted to end by asking you if this state session was called by the Republican governor, Bill Lee, who lost dear friends in the Covenant School massacre — this was a conservative Christian school — if you feel that lines are actually breaking down? You’ve had people coming up to you from the school, thanking you for standing up against gun violence. Do you see hope for the future, on your 28th birthday?

REP. JUSTIN JONES: I see so much hope. As I’m sitting here right now, I’m thinking of Melissa, who was one of the Covenant mothers who came up yesterday and pinned a ribbon that they had made with the school colors on me and said that, you know, “I’m Republican, but you fought for our children. You fought for us. And that makes a difference.”

We’re seeing breakthroughs and fault lines breaking here. Their narratives and their facades of power are breaking. And it really is showing us that we can build a state that is multiracial, that transcends this issue of left and right, but talks about right and wrong. These mothers — so many of them are Republicans — are saying, “These men, like Cameron Sexton, do not care about our children.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

REP. JUSTIN JONES: “They don’t deserve to be in power.” And they’re transforming the state. They’re coming together. And we’re building a new coalition to transform Tennessee. And I believe it can be a model for the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic state Representative of Nashville Justin Jones, happy birthday! And happy birthday to our digital fellow, Eric Halvarson! I’m Amy Goodman.

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

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