Tennessee Republicans expelled two Democratic politicians from the state Legislature for their role in a protest calling for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. A third Democrat was narrowly spared by a one-vote margin.
The split votes drew accusations of racism, with politicians ousting representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are both black, while representative Gloria Johnson, who is white, survived the vote on her expulsion. Republican leadership denied that race was a factor, however.
The visitors’ gallery exploded in screams and boos following the final vote. After sitting quietly for hours and hushing anyone who cried out during the proceedings, people broke into chants of “Shame!” and “Fascists!”
Banishment is a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures have the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for politicians accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.
GOP leaders said Thursday’s actions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that politicians’ disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Republican Gino Bulso said the three Democrats had “effectively conducted a mutiny”.
At an evening rally, Mr Jones and Mr Pearson pledged to be back at the Capitol next week advocating for change.
“Rather than pass laws that will address red flags and banning assault weapons and universal background checks, they passed resolutions to expel their colleagues,” Mr Jones said.
“And they think that the issue is over. We’ll see you on Monday.”
Mr Jones, Mr Pearson and Ms Johnson joined in protesting last week as hundreds of demonstrators packed the Capitol to call for passage of gun-control measures.
As the protesters filled galleries, the three approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant.
The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville where six people were killed, including three children.
Mr Pearson told reporters on Thursday that in carrying out the protest, the three had broken “a House rule because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities”.
Ms Johnson, a retired teacher, said her concern about school shootings was personal, recalling a day in 2008 when students came running toward her out of a cafeteria because a student had just been shot and killed.
“The trauma on those faces, you will never, ever forget,” she said.
Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol to support Mr Jones, Mr Pearson and Ms Johnson on Thursday, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber loudly enough to drown out the proceedings.
The trio held hands as they walked onto the floor and Mr Pearson raised a fist during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Offered a chance to defend himself before the vote, Mr Jones said the GOP responded to the shooting with a different kind of attack.
“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” he said.
Mr Jones vowed that even if expelled, he would continue pressing for action on guns.
“I’ll be out there with the people every week, demanding that you act,” he said.
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