In the wake of the horrific Covenant School shooting in Nashville that left three 9-year-olds and three caregivers dead, Tennessee lawmakers said their thoughts and prayers. They tried to move on, doing little about guns despite moving swiftly in the weeks before using their power to ban drag queens and abortions. Young people were outraged. So we took action ourselves.
In a flurry of texts, Nashville March For Our Lives organizers Brynn Jones and Ezri Tyler reached out to young people across the Nashville area—at Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Hume Fogg High School, and other schools. The consensus was clear: We needed to walk out.
So that Monday, thousands walked out of classes across Nashville and led one of the largest rallies in Tennessee’s history.
With backpacks slung over their shoulders and signs held high, they marched from their schools to the State Capitol.
At the front of the crowd, with megaphones in hand, stood Brynn and Ezri shouting, “Stop fighting culture wars and start regulating weapons of war.”
But instead of standing tall and taking action, Tennessee’s leaders cowered and leaned into fascism. Just minutes before State Rep. Justin Jones was set to speak at the walkout, he received a summons that stripped his committee assignments and threatened him with expulsion. All because the day before, he and two other lawmakers, Reps. Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson had joined youth in the State Capitol to demand action.
It was an unprecedented action and an egregious attempt at state censorship. Their crime had been to shout too loudly, too boldly, about the deaths of three children and three caregivers.
“Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton had the power to ensure no more Tennessee children have to die because of a bullet,” said Ezri. “But instead, he chose to play political games by pushing for expulsion. Really, the only ‘action’ he’s taken has been a racist expulsion, banning books, and banning drag. He’s bargaining with our lives, and we call BS.”
Three days after the walkout, Brynn and Ezri led students, drag queens, and musicians to the Capitol once again, this time on the morning of the planned vote by Speaker Sexton to expel Reps. Jones, Pearson, and Johnson, dubbed as the Tennessee Three.
After twelve long hours in the Capitol, the votes were in:
Rep. Justin Jones: expelled.
Rep. Justin Pearson: expelled.
Rep. Gloria Johnson: the only white lawmaker of the three, retained her seat by a single vote.
It’s no coincidence that two Black lawmakers were expelled while a white lawmaker was saved. Tennessee’s history is rooted in white supremacy, and the state legislature proved that there is far more to go to eradicate it.
“This was anti-democratic and a threat to the young people of Tennessee and across the country,” said Brynn. Months later, that expulsion paved the way for more expulsions across the country, all while children’s lives continued to be threatened.
The Long Fight
But while our allies were egregiously expelled, March For Our Lives’ protests had also clearly captured the attention of the powerful. A month later, Governor Bill Lee called a special session to address gun violence. So, Brynn and Ezri led three weeks of continuous action with vigils for the lives lost at The Covenant School, rallies supporting the Tennessee Three to ensure they were reinstated, and community healing events. They met with Governor Lee, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Vice President Kamala Harris to voice young people’s demand for gun safety. And they spoke to a national audience on the threat of fascism.
Young people organized a lobby day ahead of the special session to demand action and demand it now. As Tennessee moms flooded the Capitol, so did the young people who were weeks away from the start of school.
Despite intense pressure, Speaker Sexton cowardly ended the special session early without passing anything on gun violence prevention. Even Governor Lee’s proposal for a bill that would allow firearms to be taken away from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others failed. But to this day, students and activists continue to protest to say, “We’re still watching, and we won’t stand for inaction.”
A Movement, Not a Moment
We were clear-eyed from the beginning that the journey to change would be a long, uphill climb. With a failed special session, there’s still more to do. So, MFOL founded and led a coalition of 70+ leaders and organizations working in concert to fight for a Tennessee where gun violence doesn’t exist. With partners like Inclusion Tennessee, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, The Equity Alliance, Planned Parenthood, Memphis For All and more, the group continues to show up and remind legislators that inaction is inexcusable.
Outrage from The Covenant School shooting sparked a moment of mass mobilization, and youth leaders like Brynn and Ezri turned that moment into a movement. The fight for gun safety in Tennessee is anything but over, but the chokehold that leaders like Speaker Sexton have on the future of Tennessee is over.
Young leaders like Brynn and Ezri and countless other young people across the state have proven that another, safer Tennessee is possible.