The first thing you notice about Justin Jones and Justin Pearson is their hair. From the left-hand balcony above the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives in Nashville, there is an unobstructed view of their desks, where they are huddled in a far corner, surrounded by a sea of mostly gray-haired, hostile heads. , white or hot pink. Pearson's plump body is covered entirely in an afro, while Jones is covered in a black ponytail, graphic emblems of the lonely island that both men occupy here.
Facing them at the front of the courtroom is Cameron Sexton, the at-large speaker of the House of Representatives, whose push for further isolation this spring has failed. After Jones, Pearson and fellow white Democrat Gloria Johnson interrupted the meeting calling for gun reform in response to a mass school shooting in March that killed three children, Sexton and most of her Republican colleagues voted (but not) to leave. of two blacks. legislators. Johnson). ), an unprecedented move that turned their plight into a national issue. They eventually recovered, but not before Vice President Harris arrived in Nashville and declared the situation a crisis of democracy, and the media in the capital was buzzing and buzzing.
Across the street, in his fourth-floor office, 27-year-old Jones hasn't felt alone lately. In the middle of our conversation, he answers a knock on the door with an outstretched hand holding a silver thermos. "I didn't feel well," he explains, holding back a cough. "People give me tea." Jones says that while the vice president's visit is the biggest support he's received, his staunchest allies come from the community that raised him: friends; faculty members from nearby universities, primarily Black Fisk University; and the caretaker "grandmothers" who brought him cornbread and white bean soup during rehearsals to make sure he ate.
In Pearson's office, the familiar hugs upstairs seem even tighter. When I get off the elevator to meet him, the 28-year-old is accompanied by his two aunts. Gilliam, Ocean's co-worker, sits next to him as we sit at his desk, walking past a foyer filled with the art his mother picked out for him. "My brother ran our field operations," Pearson said of the office dynamic, reminiscent of a family who took their son to college and decided to stay. "My other brother made sure the microphones were turned off during our COVID rallies."
The Justins, as they are now affectionately known, soon became the face of a resurgent oppositional politics, fueled by the social justice protests of recent years. They're busy undermining activists while advocating a return to the norms of good government: In a viral video, Jones denounces the ethical corruption that has engulfed a Republican faction that refuses to do anything about gun violence and boasts a member accused of abuse of teenage girls. (and someone who just resigned due to workplace harassment). The Justins' attitude is also expressed in their look: a look that combines the radical glamor of the Black Power era with the buttoned-down respectability afforded by a down-home dress code. "People here are not used to seeing a young black man in an Afro and Dashiki with a tie at the State Capitol," Pearson says.
And not just their fans. Crossing the lines of TV racism and Fox News, Tucker Carlson Pearson compared the video of a politician's son with a shaved head and wearing a Barack Obama-style blazer during his time at Bowdoin College to his April 12 speech. floor of the State House as a legislator. In the first case, Pearson works for the student government and, according to Carlson, speaks like a "crypto white kid." In the latter, he took on the role of preacher in a black church, an institution he knew very well, having been raised by his pastor father in Memphis. To anyone listening to a priest from the pulpit and then talking to him, the contradiction would be trivial, but to Carlson, Pearson was the equivalent of Black con artist Rachel Dolezal, using her "generic" voice for convenience.
"It's easier to try to create a figure to attack than to attack the problem," Pearson bravely explains, "which is that six people were killed at a Covenant school in Nashville, and three of them were 9 years old. A rifle assault that should not be in the hands of anyone who walks our streets. Pearson's eyes pierce as he speaks and you feel guilty for breaking it. On his desk is a battered copy of the Bible, open to the 27th psalm— it, where it is written in part: "Do not betray the will of my enemies, for false witnesses have risen up against me, and how much cruelty blows."
Below, Jones wears a striking turquoise on his index finger. "Half of the participants told me to cut my hair, because I couldn't wear earrings," she says. "But I will not identify with them." The men see their rejection of domestic conventions as a statement of principle and a call to make our democratic institutions more democratic. Nashville's Capitol stands like a castle on a hill, with a memorial to the Daughters of the Confederacy in front. In general, the majority of the population of the republic speaks of the spirit of this monument. "They don't dominate," Jones tells me. "They rule."
"There's a culture here that I think was shaken last week," he says, "the culture of going along with the crumbs and saying this is all we can achieve by reducing people's struggle, reducing their resistance ," he says. Sexton's tactics against dissidents are legendary. During the difficult 2021 election, he offered Johnson a small windowless conference room to use as an office, and Johnson responded by moving his desk down the hall in protest. He suppressed any moderate impulses that might have existed within his party and responded to the March demonstrations by restricting the use of Jones' card, access to parking lots and the execution of committee duties.
At an afternoon legislative session I attended, Pearson and Jones rose to ask a Republican colleague about two bills they are supporting that would help parent activists speed up banning the books. Next session, the Republican majority will table a bill to Governor Bill Lee that further protects firearms manufacturers from legal liability. "We can't win until we pass common sense gun laws," Jones tells me, and as we watch right-wing bills so easily pass the House, the outlook looks bleaker than ever.
But that doesn't mean the Justins can't catch up to their opponents. Shortly after the restoration, he was approached by Mike Sparks, one of the Republicans who voted to remove Jones. "He tried to speak, I was silent," he says. – Justin, will you forgive me? Sparks asked, according to Jones. "You study at the theological school. The Bible says to forgive people."
Nashville's youngest lawmaker agreed, though not without reservations. "Sorry, Sparks," Jones replied. "But I want you to stand up for what you believe in and not let Cameron Sexton tell you how to vote."