Nobel Laureate Albert Camus once said, “Insurrection is certainly not the sum total of human experience but … it is our historic reality.” Those words came to mind this week when Tennessee’s House of Representatives expelled two members accused of disrupting legislative proceedings in what some called an “insurrection” or a “mutiny.”
The scene on the floor of the Tennessee House perfectly captured our “age of rage.” Protesters filled the capitol building to protest the failure to pass gun-control legislation. However, they were in the minority in both the state and its legislature. Three Democratic state representatives — Justin Jones from Nashville, Justin Pearson from Memphis, and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville — were unwilling to yield to the majority. They disrupted the floor proceedings with a bullhorn and screaming at their colleagues.
It is a scene familiar to many of us in academia, where events are regularly canceled by those who shout down others. The three members yelled “No action, no peace” and “Power to the people” as their colleagues objected to their stopping the legislative process. Undeterred, the three refused to allow “business as usual” to continue.
Nothing says deliberative debate like a bullhorn. American politics, it seems, has become a matter of simple amplification.
Many on the left lionized the three for their disruption of the legislature. President Biden denounced the sanctioning of their “peaceful protest” as “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”
There was little criticism of the members for obstructing the legislative business or refusing to accept the democratic process that rejected their gun-control demands.
Today, for many, there is no room for nuance. Instead, they live in a world occupied only by “fascists” and “insurrectionists.”
I have long been critical of the media declaring the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill as an “insurrection” in spite of my criticism of Trump’s speech on that day and the riot that desecrated our constitutional process. Many in the public agree. Despite the efforts of the House’s Jan. 6 committee and the media referring to the riot as an insurrection, some polls show that 76 percent of the public view it as a protest that went too far. Likewise, a Harvard study showed more citizens viewed Jan. 6 as motivated by loyalty to Trump than a desire for a national insurrection.
The public sees these distinctions. Most of us are supportive of the prosecution of rioters while recognizing that most of the protesters that day did not participate in any violation of law. Likewise, most citizens are able to denounce members for taking a bullhorn to a legislative debate while rejecting calls for their expulsion.
What these Tennessee House members did was wrong — but it was no insurrection. Nor was it worthy of expulsion, as opposed to censure or other sanctions.
Yet, every controversy is now repackaged to amplify talking points, even when they cannot withstand the most cursory examination.
Take Rep. Johnson’s insistence that, as the only white member of the three, she was spared expulsion due to racism. That ignored distinctions raised by Johnson and her supporters during the debate that, unlike Jones and Pearson, she did not use a bullhorn; her counsel also insisted that she separated herself from the protesters. Johnson’s distinctions swayed one member to defeat expulsion, but Johnson then declared the result was evidence of sexism and racism: “pretty clear I’m a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men. I was talked down to as a woman, man-splained to.”
The media was also captured perfectly in this controversy. For example, it was difficult to distinguish between CNN reporter Sara Sidner and protesters. Sidner corrected Republican Caucus Chair Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) as he tried to explain why the members were expelled for “riling up” the crowd. Sidner insisted that the crowd already was “riled up” by the failure to protect them from guns. She then explained that the public was “extremely upset that your legislature wasn’t trying to deal with the issue of keeping children safe.”
House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) praised the protest as “good trouble,” a reference to the words of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ guiding principal on civil disobedience.
This is now our “historic reality.” Liberals and the media, long criticized for downplaying violence from the left, are now rationalizing a disruption of legislative procedure as “good trouble” because the cause is considered to be correct. Conservatives are equally quick to declare protests by those on the left to be “insurrections,” or to declare their opponents to be (in the words of Donald Trump) “enemies of the state.”
Only a few days before the Tennessee House floor fight, a confrontation occurred off the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington which captured perfectly this new political reality.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) was shown on videotape screaming about gun control in the Capitol as his colleagues left the floor following a vote. Various Democratic members, including former House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), tried to calm Bowman. However, when Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) asked Bowman to stop yelling, Bowman shouted back: “I was screaming before you interrupted me” — which could go down as the epitaph for our age.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at The George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.