Wednesday, June 12, 2024

President Biden, Vice President Harris welcome Tennessee Three to the White House

The White House on Monday welcomed the Tennessee Three, the Democratic lawmakers who faced expulsions by their supermajority Republican colleagues in the Tennessee State House of Representatives for protesting gun violence there.

State Reps. Justin J. Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris inside the Oval Office to discuss the nation’s gun violence epidemic.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 24: (L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, state Rep. Justin Jones, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. President Joe Biden and state Rep. Justin Pearson meet at the White House April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Pearson, Jones and Johnson were brought up on a vote to be expelled from their district seats in the Tennessee House after they took to the floor to join thousands of demonstrators at the state capitol building to protest gun violence after a mass school shooting in Nashville.

Jones and Pearson, both Black men in their 20s, were voted out of the legislative body, while Johnson, a 60-year-old white woman, was spared by just one vote. Hours after the controversial votes, Biden met virtually with the lawmakers, now known as the Tennessee Three.

“He thanked them for speaking out and standing their ground and being very clear about what’s needed … to protect their communities,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week ahead of Monday’s meeting.

The presidential spokesperson said Biden invited the lawmakers to continue their conversation in person about combating the gun violence crisis. 

After their hour-and-a-half-long meeting, Rep. Pearson told reporters outside the West Wing that the group discussed with the president and vice president “the need to have more gun violence prevention and the work that can be done potentially federally but also at the state level.”

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 24: (L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Pearson depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Pearson called the issue of gun violence a “moral issue.”

“It is about our children. It is about our schools and not turning them into war zones … it’s also about communities that are experiencing gun violence every single day,” he added.

Rep. Johnson shared that specific gun legislation was discussed in the Oval Office meeting, including red flag laws, safe storage laws, banning assault weapons, universal background checks, and “what that would look like.”

During an interview with CNN’s Abby Phillip, Jones said he planned to raise the possibility of the president declaring gun violence a national public health emergency. 

“We need an emergency response,” Jones told her, “because we’re facing a crisis situation.”

However, Rep. Jones was coy when asked by a reporter whether he raised up the issue of a public health emergency and what, if any, response he received from President Biden. Jones instead said the fight for gun reform “is not a moment; it is a movement.”

He went even further by referring to what happened in Tennessee as “our Selma moment.”

The legislators got early support from the White House after their expulsion votes made national news. In addition to the Tennessee Three’s virtual call with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris unexpectedly traveled to Tennessee to meet with the lawmakers and the state’s Democratic caucus. She also delivered a rousing speech at Fisk University. 

In a previous interview with theGrio, Pearson said he and his Tennessee colleagues are appreciative of the White House’s swift support. 

“What they are showing is that this attack on our democracy is a true threat to our country … But also, this issue of ending gun violence is really important,” said Pearson.

“And if we don’t act,” he continued, “if we allow this to persist, and we allow statehouses across the country to continue to operate in this way, we will continue to see a very terrible erosion of our democracy.”

The Tennessee Three (from left), state Reps. Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones, stand together April 12 before marching to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting in Memphis, where Pearson was reinstated to his position in the Tennessee House. (Photo: Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal via AP)

Pearson also recalled something the vice president said to the Democratic lawmakers that “continues to stick with [him].”

“She [said], it’s really important that people realize the status quo is not static. It’s actually quite dynamic. It does a lot of things that will force it to cling onto itself,” shared the Memphis leader. “The status quo is quite dynamic in how it seeks to retain itself, and we have a responsibility of fighting against that with all that we have because there has to be a new creation, a different status quo that we built together.”

Johnson also recalled the Tennessee Three’s private conversation with Harris, telling theGrio, “We talked about how you build a movement and grow a movement and keep it strong and maintain it.”

“She understood what we were doing,” added Johnson. “She was lifting all of us up.”

On Monday, Rep. Jones acknowledged that what started out as a state issue has morphed into a national moment that has the ability to make an impact in the fight against gun violence beyond the borders of Tennessee.

“We’re here at the White House discussing this on the national platform because what happens in Tennessee … is going to have national implications,” said Jones. “Tennessee is going to set up a model for the nation about transforming this conversation around guns and moving forward into a society where we value the lives of children over the campaign contributions of the NRA.”

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 24: (L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Jones depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden met with the three state representatives known as the “Tennessee Three” to discuss ongoing efforts to ban assault weapons. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

All three lawmakers emphasized the outsized impact of young people in the movement for gun reform from Tennessee and beyond.

Jones said he believes Generation Z is going to “transform 2024” and that “a backlash from these young people who are going to transform the political paradigm and the political possibilities of America.”

He added, “The South is going to set the tone for the rest of nation.”

Ahead of Monday’s White House meeting, Jean-Pierre said the president was “proud and very appreciative” of their fight for gun reform in the state. 

The press secretary said the White House sees the Tennessee Three visit as another step in the president’s commitment to addressing the epidemic of gun violence.

“It was undemocratic when they were expelled … And it was also an attack on our democracy,” Jean-Pierre contended.

“What you’ll see is the president sitting down with these three legislators,” she maintained, “having a conversation … on how to move forward with commonsense gun reform; how to move forward on protecting our communities, our kids [and] our churches.”

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