Residents can’t afford to look away from the issues afflicting Tennessee, even though national media coverage has dwindled since April, when state Reps. Justin J. Pearson and Justin Jones, both Democrats, returned to the General Assembly’s lower house.
Too much is at stake, especially for those in Pearson’s city of Memphis, in Shelby County, which has the largest Black population in the state.
“While we were celebratory in that moment [when Pearson and Jones were reinstated], we had to regroup,” said Tikeila Rucker, a political organizer with the progressive coalition Memphis for All. “We couldn’t get lost in the mood. We’re still fighting on all sides.”
The challenges facing the city are legion:
- Earlier this month, SB 0591 went to Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s desk. Introduced mere weeks after 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was killed by officers in Memphis, the bill would abolish civilian oversight of law enforcement there and in Nashville and undermine efforts to rein in police violence against Black Americans.
- In April, politics watchers told Capital B that, in response to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ reappointing Pearson, the GOP will “enact a level of revenge that will be vicious.” Now, many are waiting to see what, precisely, that retribution will look like.
- Via a 2021 redistricting plan, Republicans got rid of a state House district in Memphis-Shelby County, eroding the political power of residents in Tennessee’s Blackest city.
These problems, on top of a whole host of others, are keeping advocates and Democratic leaders on the alert.
“There’s a lot,” noted Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford, who represents District 9, which includes Southwest Memphis. “But I listen to my constituents every single day, and follow their lead on what issues to focus on, from criminal justice reform to reparations.”
Rucker said that the expulsion crisis has galvanized Black Memphians. People are ready to show up and not only hold themselves accountable, but also call on elected officials to better reflect the will of the community. The movement for racial justice is growing, she continued, and Pearson, who carries on a long tradition of resistance among Black Tennessee lawmakers, has injected a kind of momentum that she hasn’t seen in a while.
Currently, Pearson is an interim representative for District 86, which sprawls along the Mississippi River and runs from Southwest Memphis through sections of downtown, and he must compete in a special primary election on June 15; a special general election will be held on Aug. 3.
Ahead of next month’s contest, Capital B caught up with 28-year-old Pearson. We discussed the importance of keeping our focus on Tennessee, some of the issues animating him, and his turn from activist to politician, among other things.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Since you and Rep. Justin Jones were reinstated, national media coverage of Tennessee has been woefully limited. Why should we keep our eyes on the state?
The reality is: What happens in the South is a litmus test for the state of our country’s democracy, for the state of our country’s culture. The reality is: America can go only as far as the South goes. And what we’ve seen in Tennessee is that there’s a lot of antidemocratic behavior, institutional racism, white supremacy, and patriarchy in the way it operates.
If we ignore what’s happening in Tennessee or Mississippi or Alabama, we, as a country, are going to continue to suffer. And the millions of people in those states are going to continue to suffer in what many people will think is silence, even though folks are yelling for justice.
You’re running in a special primary election next month. Could you talk a bit about some of the biggest issues confronting Black Memphians?
The biggest issues impacting our community haven’t changed. Gun violence and crime rooted in poverty, environmental injustice, educational inequity — these are some of the prominent issues. If we have polluters destroying our air and water and we have people in our community who have access to guns and weapons of war, we’re suffering under the fear of dying in way too many ways.
Our democracy and our rights are under siege in the Tennessee state legislature — and in Republican-controlled legislatures across the country. Because of the proliferation of very bad, harmful legislation, it’s becoming more difficult for us to participate in our democracy.
We’re about to lose civilian oversight boards in places such as Shelby County, because people in the state legislature don’t want to have accountability for police, especially when there’s police brutality. We have legislation being passed that harms transgender children, that prevents them from getting gender-affirming care. We have legislation being passed that ties teachers’ pay increases to reducing their right to unionize.
We’re told very often to put our faith in democracy. But every step of the way, people in the state legislature are weakening our ability to engage in that democracy.
What inspired you to go from organizer to legislator? And how have you navigated any hurdles you’ve faced making this pivot?
The reason I’m in the justice movement is because I believe that the vision we have for our future is possible. I believe that the life we’re living right now isn’t freedom, that it’s not the best things can be, and that all of us have an opportunity and a responsibility to help transform the current situation with the gifts we have.
Barbara Cooper, who served District 86 as a state representative for 26 years, was the most amazing public servant I’ve ever had the chance to meet. Even at 93 years old, just about two months before she passed away, she was on the phone with me, talking about an environmental justice issue with the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s in her spirit that I seek to serve in public office. And also in the spirit of my grandmothers, who died from pollution and cancer, and my parents, a teacher and a preacher, who’ve instilled in me the importance of being of service to our communities.
And look, this [move] has had its challenges. There are always challenges when there are people within an institution who don’t want to see change happen — who are afraid of a multiracial democracy. They’re afraid of young people’s voices and young people’s perspectives being heard. They’re afraid because they have a zero-sum-game ideology as it relates to justice.
But what I hold to is what Heather McGhee talks about, the solidarity dividend, and the power of elevating every person. I believe that if we legislate not from the people with the most privilege but from the people with the least, we create communities that are more just, that are more equitable, and that everyone benefits from.
Some Democratic lawmakers worry that the expulsions in Tennessee might preview a new Republican tactic — recall how, in April, Montana Republicans silenced state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Democrat, for criticizing their efforts to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Do you share this concern?
Yes, I’m deeply concerned that we’re losing our democracy, because people in positions of power are abusing their power, and turning our democracy into a mobocracy, where the mob rules, where they abuse their authority and censure and expel voices they disagree with rather than do the hard work of creating more just legislation that reflects the interests of the people most impacted by policies.
If [Republican] legislators’ ideas are so good and so righteous, why are they silencing voices of dissent? It’s because they know that these issues are moral, and that they’re on the wrong side of history when they ban gender-affirming care, when they protect guns more than they protect kids. They know that they’re morally wrong. But instead of addressing their actions, they’re seeking to silence voices. That’s not a democracy. That’s how we lose democracy.
How do you stay motivated to do the work you do?
I have a deep faith in God and in people power. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched and protested for gun reform and voting rights and environmental justice and so many other causes. I believe in people’s ability to advocate and speak up and demand more from their government.
We can’t underestimate what’s at stake in every single election. We can’t underestimate the threats to our democracy, and the threats to our way of life. If we don’t pay attention, people in positions of authority are going to continue to abuse their power — abuse people they view as expendable. We can’t yield in our pursuit of justice for everybody.