Is Tennessee a turning point? We hope so.
Rep. Donna Bullock April 12, 2023
The endless cycle of mass shootings, collective grief and debate continues to divide our nation. As Black legislators, we navigate this cycle looking for the right moment to highlight the oft-ignored daily gun violence in our communities, and to offer solutions. We look for allies. We stand in the gap for others. We carefully express justified outrage that doesn’t fit neatly in the box of decorum or culture of the legislature. It is a delicate balance -- a skill set many Black legislators have learned in state capitols across our nation.
The latest school shooting started another cycle with no solutions, another opportunity for Black legislators to lead. It resulted in the expulsion of two young, Black Tennessee lawmakers who dared to help the people of their state be seen and heard in the one place that holds the power to help.
Tennessee Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Democrats in a legislature controlled by Republicans, took a peaceful stand in their chamber after six children and staff at a Nashville school were slaughtered by an assault weapon in the hands of an ordinary citizen.
Instead of acknowledging the issue staring them in the face – gun violence and the senseless murder of innocent people – the Republican majority in the Tennessee House focused their outrage on decorum and likened the demonstration to the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a mob of more than 2,500 people incited by former President Trump stormed their way into the Capitol Complex to wreak havoc on our democracy.
And while the retaliation by the Tennessee Republican majority was extreme, and certainly undemocratic, it is not surprising. Their response is consistent with the actions of Republican-led legislatures across the country that use rules and institutional procedure to silence Black legislators on voting rights, women on abortion rights, and others to score political points. Our mics have been turned off, our floor remarks ruled ungermane, and our bills die in committee.
Members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus found ourselves in a similar situation in 2020 – looking to pass police reform bills in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. We held a peaceful protest in the House chamber. Rather than listen to us, the Republican majority focused on member decorum.
We had several bills that would have addressed police transparency and accountability, but the Republican majority refused to even discuss the issue. They used their rules and procedures to keep those bills bottled up. Our unexpected stand in the chamber that day eventually led to a few reforms, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.
The same can be said for commonsense gun safety legislation. The danger of gun violence is real and overwhelming. Gun violence exists not just in Philadelphia. It exists in every town in Pennsylvania – whether by accident when a child gets hold of his parents’ gun, death by suicide, an angry gunman firing at a government building, a drive-by shooting or a violent attack at a synagogue…the list goes on.
Last year, when Democrats in the PA House finally convinced enough reasonable Republican lawmakers to act and pass gun safety reforms, the extreme members of their party used their oppressive rules and procedures to make sure the commonsense bills put forward never saw the light of day.
Similar stories abound in states across the nation.
The fragility of American democracy has never been more exposed.
Is Tennessee a turning point? We hope so. And we call on all Pennsylvanians and all Americans to call out and vote out the extremists who are devoted to governing by silencing others and prioritizing profits over people, politics over justice and power above all else.