Independence Day 2020 was a milestone for Justin Jones. The full-time revolutionary had finally achieved the sustained press attention that had thus far remained sporadic in his activist career. “The People’s Plaza” protests for which he became the poster child, were just a week shy of lasting a full month. But more importantly, the Capitol Commission was about to vote to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the hallowed halls of a building dedicated to democracy.
As Jones writes in his memoir, The People’s Plaza: Sixty-Two Days of Nonviolent Resistance (published by Vanderbilt University Press last year), the occupation of Legislative Plaza dragged on endless days and nights, but “A dozen or so of us always remained.” The whole world was watching. Or at least most Nashvillians, since Mayor John Cooper had ordered the closure of Broadway’s bars due to COVID just in time to celebrate the country’s liberty.
But curiously, after painting himself as an unmovable and vital pillar of the protest, Jones makes clear he never limited his action items to the demonstration that rocketed him into the sphere of political celebrity. “I left Tennessee for the July 4th holiday weekend–to demonstrate for a couple of days in Washington, DC–but planned to be back in time for the commission meeting,” Jones writes. “It was my first time being physically away from the Plaza protests for a substantial period, but we were a ‘leader-ful’ movement.”
As we remain mired in press coverage of the “Tennessee Three” and the expulsion vote that launched them into the national spotlight, no image captures the political moment better than rogue academic James Lindsay’s tweet last Monday shortly after the trio’s appearance on Good Morning America. In the post, Lindsay has superimposed a candid shot of Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson grinning ear to ear from the show’s green room over the familiar meme of a headstone now reading, “Dead Christian Kids.”
The image works because it takes direct aim at how the group has exploited the deaths of three students at Covenant for fame, all the while skirting that Audrey Hale’s violence was the logical outcome of the ideology the trio propagates. But whether it intends to or not, Lindsay’s joke reveals a deeper truth about the two expelled representatives: The Justins are not political forces who sprang up organically to do their civic duty; they are a carefully cultivated product best bought and sold on the airwaves of morning TV. And until their detractors begin treating Jones and Pearson as manufactured opposition, they are doomed to lose.
Anyone who watched state representatives seal the Justins’ fate on April 6th and the ensuing press blitz Republicans undertook to justify their decision should have seen their stunt for what it was: a trap. Republicans had no choice but to expel the representatives for violating House rules; both Pearson and Jones admitted to doing so during the lead-up to the vote. Representative Bryan Richey (R-Maryville) even divulged that Jones asked him to support the expulsion.
Letting them off the hook would seem an endorsement of their brand of disruptive activism. Going through with it as they did has led to inevitable headlines such as the Associated Press’ “Tennessee’s House expels 2 of 3 Democrats over guns protest.” The implication is that House Republicans suppress all dissent, authoritarians with no interest in the will of the people. And as the leaked audio from private meetings among Republican legislators demonstrates, they realized the pitfalls of this strategy from the get-go.
To their credit, both state Republicans and the national conservative press knew there was something off about the Justins, which explains why they immediately latched on to a 2016 campaign video of Pearson running for class president at the tony, Lillywhite Bowdoin College and compared it to his Jesse Jackson cosplay in public appearances after the expulsion vote. The video was supposed to be a smoking gun that exposed the performativity of Pearson’s activism. Yet, it, too, was a setup. If Pearson didn’t want the national conservative political class to uncover his past, the video would have bitten the dust long before he announced his candidacy.
Of course, the Justins speak differently at black community institutions and religious gatherings. It’s a textbook example of what James Paul Gee deems primary and secondary discourses, in which the latter are by definition “interaction[s] with people with whom one is either not ‘intimate’, with whom one cannot assume lots of shared knowledge and experience, or they involve interactions where one is being ‘formal’, that is, taking on an identity that transcends the family or primary social group.”
The concept spans beyond African-American communities as anyone from Appalachia or another region where strong accents are innate knows when trying to conform to the conventions of an institution like academia or the media. General Assembly members from rural areas get authenticity points for laying on the accents thick. The same certainly doesn’t apply to a Southern black kid trying to make his name in New England. Everyone from Tucker to local politics junkies on Twitter desperately fell for the video’s low-hanging fruit, and they deserved the beatdown MSNBC and other outlets gave them.
The hilarity of Lindsay’s tweet aside, combating the Justins’ noxious influence is not something one can achieve with soundbites and video mashups. It requires a sustained analysis that shows what outliers they are within the context of local and national politics.
From its inception, the Tennessee legislature was never meant to be a full-time job. The idea was to attract citizens with established professional lives to sacrifice time and treasure so they could proudly execute their civic duty. Such is why legislators make a paltry $24,316 a year for four months of work (excluding mileage and per diems).
Consequently, legislators in both parties tend to join the Assembly from other professions. While many are attorneys, some like Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) and Sabi “Doc” Kumar (R-Springfield)–whom Jones called “the brown face of white supremacy”–come to the office as surgeons. Others, such as surviving “Tennessee Three” member Gloria Johnson and Delishia Porterfield–the primary opponent and Metro Councilmember Jones bested for his seat–spent years as public school teachers. Likewise former representative and state Republican Party Chair Ryan Haynes worked in banking for two years before becoming one of the youngest General Assembly members in the state’s history in 2009 at age 24.
Tennessee politics was never intended to be an occupation. But the Justins are different. They were seamlessly built as political forces, quite literally made for moments like this. In post-Obama politics, a candidate rising from the ranks of community organizing isn’t an anomaly. However, even a politician as talented as the 44th President took years to find his political footing, a dabbler with a law degree and a slew of failed local elections before he tapped into the zeitgeist in his 40s.
In contrast, Pearson is a LinkedIn radical who has intentionally never held a job outside of nonprofits devoted to his causes. As his résumé suggests, he began interning in Congressional offices in high school before stints with Year Up and Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, organizations working to close the economic disparity in minority communities. Additionally, Pearson includes summer economics and policy programs at Princeton and Davidson under his educational experience, but, unlike Congressman Andy Ogles, escaped the wrath of investigative journalists of the Phil Williams ilk for padding his credentials.
Beyond never leaving a carefully coiffed political bubble, nothing in Pearson’s work history raises any immediate red flags. One cannot say the same for Jones. If all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an amorphous local and national cultural elite has done the same for Jones. A native of Oakland, California, Jones made his way to Nashville to earn an undergraduate degree from Fisk on the John R. Lewis Scholarship for Social Activism before dropping out of divinity school at Vanderbilt. The closest to a résumé one can find for him is his rap sheet of “Good Trouble” arrests or the About section of his campaign website, which heralds his role in the revolution. As he writes in his memoir, he met Vanderbilt editor Zachary Gresham on the front lines of the People’s Plaza occupation, where the editor of an academic press known for the rigor of its peer review handed a dropout from its parent institution a book contract, perhaps the clearest indicator of social protest as networking.
Despite writing an entire book about himself and his movement, Jones’ memoir is intentionally vague about the organizations he works with and the details of how he cobbles together a living. In his own words, Jones relies on the support of his “elders,” including NAACP veteran Rev. Venita Lewis, who invited him to the People’s Plaza in the first place. In contrast to the “wealthy white millionaires who give campaign donations to racist Republicans” who Jones claims own most of Broadway’s bars, he comes from humble means.
Nevertheless, as a former grad student whose first real job earns him a little over $24,000, he has maintained quite an impressive standard of living. Throughout his memoir, he chronicles his jet setting to protests across the country. He often mentions his house and his need for a dog sitter. He refers to former councilmember Nick Leonardo as “my lawyer.” While most students rack up debt just paying for tuition and making monthly Aldi runs, Jones somehow maintained a lifestyle barely affordable for those making a six-figure income, especially considering his claim to fame is not working at all for two months while squatting on the Plaza.
As Scoop Nashville’s release of footage from Jones’ alleged nonviolent protest indicates, cracks had already begun emerging in his narrative shortly after his election. Other organizers of the People’s Plaza revealed to Scoop and additional outlets that they felt Jones hijacked the movement to buoy his political career by only showing up when he could get positive media coverage. There were as-of-yet unsubstantiated rumblings that key figures in the movement often spent nights during the protests in cushy hotel rooms paid for by an unknown benefactor instead of on the Plaza’s warm concrete with the rabble.
Jones’ characterization of the occupation in the memoir does him no favors either. A cursory read reveals that the protests consisted of little more than professional activists like himself and cultural elites like Gresham culling together a critical mass of “unhoused” people and “some from outside Nashville.” In a book running 182 pages, the best defense he can muster against his various charges is that they are “false.” Somehow a cup of cold tea spilled itself on former Speaker Glen Casada during a protest in 2019. He just threw a traffic cone at a car. He didn’t shove that officer. It was the police who made him out to be the face of a movement, not the years of official nonprofit training and media coaching.
But after the events of April 6th, how much these contradictions matter is unclear. Post-expulsion, any local or state Democrats with a previously established beef have united behind “The Tennessee Three.” Few remark that just four days after Pearson’s swearing-in to the House, the Justins conveniently did what they are programmed to. With a bullhorn and Twitter, Jones and Pearson have managed to successfully elide the fact that they’re somehow able to thrive in the state’s two largest and least affordable metro areas as they devote themselves to the activist life. They are better trained, better educated, and more media savvy than their opponents in the legislature. The work of exposing them won’t be glamorous or easily digestible, but someone has to do it.