The “Tennessee Three” were right: Screw decorum, it’s time to rush the well

Two Democratic state representatives in Tennessee, both of them Black men, were expelled from the legislature on Thursday for breaking the chamber’s supposed rules of decorum. A third representative, a white woman, was not expelled, although all three of them had done exactly the same thing: After another school shooting led to hours of go-nowhere gun-reform debate, they had brought floor action to a halt with protest chants and walked up to the speaker’s well at the front of the chamber.

Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville was expelled on a 72-25 vote and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis, was expelled 69-26. The vote to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville failed at 65-30, one vote short of the necessary two-thirds. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, led the charge for their expulsion. He said the three had “rushed the well.” 

Well, good on them. It’s about damn time someone rushed the well. Every ragtag band of Democratic lawmakers who are effectively powerless in Republican-dominated trifecta states — that is, states where the GOP controls both houses of the legislature and the governorship — should strongly consider rushing the well too. 

When the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling unleashes a tidal wave of political dark money so massive that in less than 12 months it causes at least 20 statehouse chambers across 16 states — and at least 680 seats across the country — to turn from blue to red, rigging the field for the long term in favor of the wealthiest candidates, it’s time to rush the well. 

When the red wave brings the GOP an ironclad supermajority trifecta in the Tennessee Capitol, which then gerrymanders the state so deeply that the number of Democrats is halved in the state House and slashed from 13 to 6 in the senate, and then punishes protesters by stripping their right to vote, it is time to rush the well.

When a political duopoly sidelines national and state-level reform candidates out of elections and forces progressives in conservative states to beg national Democratic leadership not to keep abandoning them, and when so many state Democratic lawmakers who are vastly outnumbered in their chamber choose to sit on their hands and collect checks rather than raise their voices and fight, it is time to rush the well. 

When a shooter opens fire in a Nashville school and kills six people, including three children under the age of 10, and students across Nashville march on the Tennessee Capitol building calling for a literal ceasefire, only to be dismissed by the only lawmakers who could end this shootings given the deadlocked in Congress, it is most definitely time to rush the well. 

“Enough is enough,” the children chanted in Nashville. Enough is enough, their lawmakers agreed.

Yes, the kids have had enough. At least, the ones that are still alive. Those are the ones who avoided being locked in cages at the border, survived the fastest-rising child mortality rate in 50 years, an unprecedented spike in child suicides and a homicide rate that recently became the leading cause of death among American kids.

All over the U.S., they’re dodging literal bullets, armed with nothing more than bullhorns and backpacks. They’re being shoved back into the closet in conservative states where LGBTQ-targeted book-banning bills are being passed faster than the food-assistance programs they rely on. And they’re watching the clock tick on climate change as state and federal lawmakers argue about banning TikTok

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It’s hard to tally the exact number of school walkouts but reports have exploded across news outlets and social media platforms since with the resurgence of student activism that followed the 2018 tmass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers. In 2019, thousands of students walked out of U.S. schools to protest anti-LGBTQ legislation, and millions of students worldwide participated in climate marches that September. 

Since then, the kids haven’t stopped. And they won’t. 

Not in Tennessee. And not in Nebraska. 

“About 40-60 students at Lincoln Southeast are currently staging a walkout outside the school’s football stadium in support of trans rights,”  reported the Lincoln Journal-Star’s Zach Hammack. “LPS closed the campus, so I’m only able to watch from afar. Students are waving LGBTQ flags and giving speeches with a megaphone.” 

Not in Texas. 

“Uvalde Flores Elementary … girls protesting against school violence. They began walkout during lunch. It’s been three hours. It’s hot and they haven’t eaten, reported Nancy Johnson of the Express News. “‘Enough is enough! Stop school shootings!,’ they chant. One said she wants [Gov.] Greg Abbott to see this.” 

Not in Illinois. 

“Students at Little Village High School held a walkout today before spring break. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of LVHS, the school was built after a 19-day hunger strike by community members demanding a school. [Mayoral candidate Paul] Vallas was CEO of (Chicago Public Schools) at the time of the strike in 2001,” notes Lynda Lopez.

Not in Louisiana. 

“Big crowd of students at a walkout at Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans, where students are protesting anti-LGBTQ bills in the legislature,” wrote the Illuminator’s Piper Hutchinson. 

And not in Virginia where, even in towns as small as Falls Church and in schools as small as Meridian High, students have to ask themselves what other tools they possess to make anything change at all. 

In supermajority red states like Tennessee, no amount of these kids’ thoughts, prayers, speeches, voting, petitions, lobbying, fundraising, organizing, volunteering, letter-writing, phone-banking or begging for their lives has worked. Nor will it. Because in a GOP trifecta grip, their dwindling number of Democratic lawmakers have been largely written off by national party leadership, and rendered almost entirely powerless. 

In supermajority red states like Tennessee, no amount of thoughts, prayers, speeches, voting, petitions, lobbying, fundraising, organizing, volunteering, letter-writing, phone-banking or begging for their lives is going to work.

These Democrats’ unheard floor speeches, voted-down bills, overridden objections, blocked parliamentary maneuvers and kneecapped committee placements didn’t stop any kids from getting shot to death and won’t stop it from happening again. Nothing these marginalized legislators have done commands respect or serves to galvanize their base — at least, not until now.

Those beaten-down normie Democrats weren’t the reason that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris woke up Friday to a world where suddenly their party’s top priority was to get out a statement and schedule a trip to Tennessee. That happened because three individual lawmakers who understood they had no real ability to protect kids from getting murdered had the courage of their convictions, stopped being civil and playing by the rules and freaking rushed the well.

These kids are backed into a corner and fighting for their lives. At least these three lawmakers are fighting too. You don’t always win the good fight; indeed, by its nature, you very often lose, which doesn’t make the fight less good. We live in a time when good fights are the only ones left to fight, and there’s nowhere for Democratic lawmakers in red trifecta states to hide. They will no longer look savvy to their own party’s leaders, or be forgiven over and over again by their constituents, if they shirk the duties of conscience and quail in face of political defeat, censure or expulsion. 

If you want national funding and press attention; if you want Kamala on the plane; if you want every Democratic voter in your state out in the streets with you, marching and knocking doors and showing up at the polls next time around; if you want the entire world to see how single-party control has shattered America’s state governments; and if you want to force both the GOP and Democrats to reckon with the fallout of allowing plutocratic authoritarianism to dominate these statehouses — well, it turns out there’s a way to do that.

Raise some hell. Rush the well. 

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