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Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson and March For Our Lives co-founder David M. Hogg ’23 discussed the dynamics of state politics, gun reform, and right-wing criticism at a Wednesday evening Harvard Institute of Politics forum.
Wednesday’s event comes three weeks after Pearson and Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones, both Democrats, were expelled from and later reappointed to the Tennessee House of Representatives after leading gun reform protests on the house floor in violation of the body’s decorum rules.
Following the expulsions of Pearson and Jones, who are both Black men, multiple members of the Tennessee House of Representatives characterized the moves as racist, noting that Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was not expelled after participating in the protests on the floor.
Pearson said during media availability prior to the event that expulsions of Democratic lawmakers are emblematic of a larger trend of silencing political opposition in the United States.
“That’s exactly what we’re seeing, and it’s terrifying,” Pearson said in response to a Crimson reporter’s question. “It is to the detriment of democracy where we have duly elected representatives being silenced by people in positions of power, who are abusing their authority and using it as a bludgeon to silence the voices of people they disagree with.”
Pearson said the situation in Tennessee is “a signal to other states about how to destroy democracy.” Following the expulsion votes in Tennessee, Republicans in Montana moved to silence State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat, after she advocated for medical care for trans youth.
“This attempt to silence people is a part of a trend, but it’s really a part of the culture of the Republican party in this country right now,” Pearson said.
Pearson said he believes the “silencing” of elected representatives can be attributed both to legislative leadership and procedures, adding that he believes there should be an “arbiter” who decides the validity of objections made by representatives.
“The abuse of the rules can lead to the silencing of people — I’ve experienced this and Rep. Jones has as well — where we say something that people disagree with and then they can object and then the House members can vote on whether or not we continue speaking or not,” he said.
“That’s really terrifying, because again it’s silencing the voices of people who’ve been duly elected to represent their constituents,” he added, noting that no one is required to confirm whether an objection is legitimate before it proceeds to a vote.
During the forum, Pearson and Hogg discussed progress in gun reform after the March 27 shooting at the Covenant School, a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. The forum was moderated by Harvard Kennedy School professor Archon Fung, director of the school’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
“There have been, in our country, more mass shootings than there have been days this year,” Pearson said. “And so Groundhog Day is existing in perpetuity in America.”
“I understand people’s apprehension and fear that enough is not changing quickly but the NRA-endorsed governor did sign an executive order expanding universal background checks, is seeking to do a special session in relation to gun violence,” he added.
Hogg highlighted election trends among younger voters, arguing that increasing youth turnout in each election will result in gradual change in gun reform.
“The movement is growing because our generation is coming in power. Young people are not being indoctrinated by their teachers to vote a certain way, they’re being indoctrinated by the fact that they have feared for their lives every single day in their schools in a state that systemically failed to protect them,” he said.
An early release of the IOP’s biannual poll of young Americans released following the Nashville shooting showed that 63 percent of youth in the U.S. support stricter gun laws.
During media availability, Pearson was asked by a Crimson reporter about criticism from right-wing outlets surrounding his authenticity and public persona.
“Yeah, I don’t typically respond to racists and the racist who said that, I think he just got fired,” Pearson said.
“What we are about, and what we are fighting for is really something more powerful,” Pearson said during the forum.
Hogg and Pearson both called on students in the audience to run for elected positions and get involved in activism at all levels on issues ranging from gun control to voter rights.
“I’m here to tell you this revolution is not gonna come from the Big Three, Goldman Sachs, or any other investment bank,” Hogg said, referring to the “Big Three” consulting firms McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, and Boston Consulting Group.
“We have enough investment bankers and consultants,” he added.
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