By Heather McDonald
Following a school shooting in Nashville last month, hundreds of protesters gathered in the Tennessee capital demanding lawmakers act to address the out of control gun violence that once again unnecessarily took innocent lives.
In response, the Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state House took the historic and extraordinary action of expelling two Black Democratic lawmakers for joining their constituents in demanding justice. This egregious overreaction not only gave us permission to drop the “theory” from critical race theory, it also gave us a masterclass in the dying efficacy of respectability politics.
The lawmakers in question, state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled for “breach of decorum,” and a third lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, narrowly survived expulsion by a single vote. On Monday, the Metro Nashville Council voted to reappoint Jones to his seat, the Tennessee Lookout, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, reported.
In the lead up to the vote, Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer did little to disguise his haughty disdain saying, “Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn.”
Respectability politics rely on the idea that that process and procedure are paramount in all scenarios. Those in power create invisible hierarchies to label their behavior as proper and the behavior of their foes as problematic. It is historically a tool of those in power as a way to slow progress, disparage the marginalized, and justify harm. As have many shameful lawmakers before them, Tennessee Republicans weaponized the rules of conduct to punish elected officials who disagree with them.
The contrived cloak of dignified decorum starts to seriously fray when the subject at hand is children gunned down at school. Protests led by students erupted through the capital doors, while lawmakers, shielded by police, hung their heads as they maneuvered through the crowds.
The typical heartless platitudes post-mass shooting did nothing but fan the flames of discontent. Republican leaders nationwide mindlessly tweeted out their classic slap-in-the-face response of thoughts and prayers, and they were met with unflinchingly honest chants from hundreds of students: Shame! Enough! Do your job! You ban books, you ban drag, kids are still in body bags!
Kids are still in body bags
In case it was not abundantly clear: respectability politics mean nothing to GenZ. Rehearsing dodging bullets in your classroom will do that to you.
If such glaring issues as gun violence, healthcare, and climate change were not enough to engage the youth, watching racism and inequality so blatantly on display certainly did the job.
Jones said as much on his way out, “Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up.”
Consider the numbers:
- 63% of 18-29 year olds believe gun laws should be stricter
- 70% of 18-29 year olds voted for U.S. John Fetterman, D-Pa., (That was similar to the numbers for Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro)
- 77% of GenZ voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2022
- And just last week, 87% of students voted for the Democrat in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race
Guns are now the leading cause of death for children, and until lawmakers address the issue head-on, GenZ will never vote Republican. Republican rhetoric sounds old and lame to a generation taught how to play dead just in case they become one of the 19,000 kids per year that will be shot.
Gun-obsessed Republican lawmakers should stop hiding behind 2nd Amendment rhetoric and tell GenZ point blank that some of them will have to die so they can keep their hobby, that they would rather build schools with curved hallways to stop bullets rather than try to keep them safe.
Decorum being front and center in the same week that a former President Donald Trump was indicted on 34 felonies including paying a porn star hush money shows how painfully out of touch Republican messaging really is.
Even more stunningly tone deaf, one Tennessee lawmaker compared the student led protest to an insurrection. Another asked the children gathered in the capital which gun they preferred being shot with. The Tennessee GOP has been fundraising boasting that they were just getting started.
While egregious, this authoritarian behavior is yet more proof that the right has run out of ideas. This hideous attempt to silence dissent has the potential to become a cultural touchstone for years to come.
When Tennessee Republicans inadvertently grabbed the national spotlight, it was the chants of the protestors that were amplified, the speeches of the subverted that were canonized, and “the Tennessee 3” who embodied the often-cited “Good Trouble” credo of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., an icon of the civil rights movement.
They used their power and their social capital to pour into a city in grief, and in the end, they paid a high price for being the only leaders in a room full of cowards.
Leaving our nation’s youth to protest alone is not an option, and they recognize genuine governance when they see it. The small men hiding behind their wagging fingers of decorum will be remembered only for their proximity to the voices they tried to silence.
History will celebrate the good not the evil, the response not the accusation, the comeback not the dismissal.
Heather MacDonald is a co-founder of The Good Trouble Project, a central Pennsylvania real estate agent, and a former Democratic candidate for the 103rd House District. This column was first published by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network, which includes the Florida Phoenix.