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Representative Pearson and David Hogg discuss gun reform at Harvard

Tanisha Bhat
Representative Pearson and David Hogg discuss gun reform at Harvard
Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson talks with gun reform advocate David Hogg. PHOTO: BETHANY VERSOY

State Rep. Justin Pearson, who was expelled from the Tennessee Legislature then quickly reinstated, returned to the Boston area last week to participate in a Harvard forum on democracy, race and gun violence.

Pearson, 28, briefly lived in Boston after graduating from Bowdoin College in 2017. He worked for Year Up, a nonprofit that provided young people free job training. He moved to Memphis at the start of the pandemic, but still virtually attends services at the Union United Methodist Church in the South End.

This Saturday will mark a month since Pearson was expelled from the Tennessee House, along with Rep. Justin Jones, for protesting alongside thousands of gun reform activists after the March 27 school shooting in Nashville that killed three students and three staff members. Since then, both have been reinstated by county officials in their districts and have visited the White House to talk with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris about gun reform legislation.

Pearson sat down April 26 with March for Our Lives co-founder David Hogg for a discussion about state politics, the future of gun reform and the involvement of young people in politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Harvard Professor Archon Fung moderated the forum.

“We are working to be triumphant, which means continuing on our road of progress by continuing to talk about the issues of justice that matter to our communities that are being oppressed, that matter to our communities that are too often being pushed to the margins and to the periphery by a system and an institution that cares way more about supporting and propping up (the) white supremacy of patriarchy than protecting kids and people,” Pearson told reporters before the forum.

Pearson and Jones are both Black men, and their expulsion has been characterized by many observers as having racial motivations. Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman who protested alongside them, was not expelled, with the move against her failing by a single vote.

“It’s very telling that the first act of the Tennessee Republican Party after the shooting at Covenant School was not to pass legislation related to banning assault weapons or ensuring we have universal background checks or red flag laws. It was to expel the two youngest Black lawmakers in the state. That recognition is really important for us to have,” Pearson said during the forum. Jones is 27.

Pearson added that while the shooting in Nashville and other mass shootings that have occurred this year might seem like a “Groundhog Day,” he is hopeful that change will happen because more young people are coming of age to vote.

“There’s a change in perspective. This generation of young people, Generation Z and Millennials, are no longer accepting the status quo, are demanding for it to change and are risking a whole lot for it to,” he said.

Fung asked Pearson about the future of gun reform in Tennessee after the events that transpired and whether it’s less or more likely that legislation will be enacted.

“I don’t think the legislation that will get passed in a special session only because Representatives Jones, Johnson and Pearson went to the well. I think it will be because . . . tens of thousands of people across our state have risen up and said now is the moment in time [when] we must do something differently. The Republican Party in Tennessee is seeing the vision of the future,” he said. The well is the front of the House’s chamber.

Hogg emphasized throughout the forum the importance of young people getting involved in state politics and running for office.

“If you’re a college student at Harvard, we have enough investment bankers and consultants. We need more people in state legislatures. We really, really need that,” Hogg said. “What everybody I have met in this fight needs [are] more Justins in state office and not at Goldman Sachs.”

Pearson also touched upon the slow erosion of democracy and democratic values in some state legislatures.

“What we have [are] . . . super majority Republican legislatures that are working to silence and eliminate the voice of dissent and people that they disagree with, (which) is an abuse of power and the turning of our democracy into their ‘mob-ocracy’ — where their mob rules instead of people,” he said.

A first-year student at Harvard asked Hogg and Pearson about their opinion on arming teachers and how public education can serve as grounds for the fight against gun violence.

“We need to realize that our schools, which are too often becoming the places for fomenting cultural wars, are also still the places of education,” he said. “Every teacher has the opportunity to become the angelic dissenter to a status quo that is not supportive of the types of beliefs that really just ensure a more beloved community is possible.”

After another student at Harvard asked how young people, especially in the South, can overcome barriers put in place to prevent them from voting, Hogg predicted that the next wave of legislation will most likely be aimed at suppressing voting by young people.

“Vote anyway,” Pearson said. “Despite the hurdles that are being put up, we have to overcome them … regardless of what they do, we can’t stop moving forward, we can’t stop fighting.”

David Hogg, gun reform, Harvard Kennedy School, Tennessee lawmakers