Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones urges students: Disrupt, dismantle, discover

In an address by turns haunting and uplifting, Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, recalled his campaign against white supremacy and systemic racism in his home state of Tennessee - and nationwide.

Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones urged students at a recent UC Berkeley commencement ceremony to commit themselves to social justice and to challenge the power structures that have been hostile to people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ communities and other long-marginalized groups.

In an impassioned Mother’s Day address on May 14 to 160 graduates of the Goldman School of Public Policy , Jones called on a new generation of young people to disrupt oppressive systems, dismantle unjust laws and policies, and discover new ways of living in which all people in a multicultural society can thrive.

"We know we have the moral platform that our movement is multiracial and multifaith and multigenerational," Jones said. "And that is what makes them so afraid. If they were not afraid of our power, they would not be calculating and conniving in such ways to silence our generation. They would not take such extreme measures to try and silence our movements."

Just last month, Jones and fellow lawmakers Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson helped to lead an angry protest of students and others who came to the state capitol in Nashville to demand action against gun violence. The protest came just days after a mass shooting at a private school in the city left six dead, three of them 9-year-olds.

Jones and Pearson, both Black men, were expelled from the House by the chamber’s Republican majority. Both were reinstated by local political authorities and reappointed to their positions - but with new moral authority and international visibility.

Jones, 27, was born in Oakland. He is a graduate of Fisk University, a historically Black school in Tennessee, and is now a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. During his visit to UC Berkeley, he first spoke Friday (May 12) in conversation with Angela Glover Blackwell, a Goldman School professor who founded PolicyLink in 1999 to advance racial and economic equity.

Then on Sunday, in his 20-minute address at Zellerbach Hall, he described the conditions of political hostility in Tennessee that led up to the student protest and the expulsion vote, and focused on the struggle for civil rights and renewal of the democratic spirit. His words were sharp-edged, but ultimately hopeful - and he was interrupted repeatedly by applause.

Below are excerpts from Jones’ commencement address, lightly edited for clarity:

Recognizing the importance of mothers

"I just want to first by start by recognizing my lineage. My mom is here, my Lola, my grandma on my Filipino side is here. My grandmother Harriet is here with the ancestors. And I just want to recognize all the mothers.

"I also want to recognize those who lost their mothers, and I want to recognize the mothers who’ve lost their children. I know this is a difficult time and particularly for my city, as we have parents who’ve lost their 9-year-old children because of the proliferation of militarized guns in our community.

"I just want to lift up that truth in this moment."

The urgent need for disruption

"I’ll start by saying this - it is a quote by Frantz Fanon: ’Each generation, out of relative obscurity, must discover its mission. It must fulfill it, or it must betray it.’

"They call us the Tennessee Three, so I have three points to leave you with as you leave this institution of the Goldman School, with a mandate of going out into this world that desperately needs your voice.

"And those three points are to disrupt, to dismantle and to discover.

From left: Retiring UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich, Rep. Justin Jones, and David C. Wilson, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy.

"We are at a moment where we need disruption. In 2020, I was arrested 14 times for sleeping in the plaza outside the (Tennessee state) Capitol, trying to meet with our elected officials about the crisis of police brutality and the crisis of white supremacy in our nation.

"I come from a state where our capitol had a statue of monument to white supremacy and the statue of a KKK grand wizard that stood in our capitol rotunda. I was one of those who climbed up and covered that statue and said that this symbol must be removed because if we cannot remove the symbol of white supremacy, of white nationalism, of white terror and violence, then how will we remove the more subtle and sophisticated policies of white supremacy that this symbol represents?

"We were able to get that statue removed. But as I told the governor, and as I told my new colleagues, ’We’re not just trying to remove a statue. We’re trying to remove the statues, the laws, the policies.’

"That’s what led me to run for office as the youngest Black lawmaker in our state.

"I work in a building that has been controlled by plantation politics. I work in a building in which my first week in the Legislature, state Sen. Jack Johnson - I will say his name because you’ve got to call him out sometimes. I was on the elevator. And my first week, he said, ’You are worthless, and you don’t belong here.’

"But what I knew was that I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make change. We are here to disrupt. I come as the first nonwhite member to represent my district. I come as the youngest member. ... They said, ’You cannot come with long hair and hoop earrings.’ But you see, I’m my full self."

What was he thinking as he was being expelled?

"This was just another day at the Tennessee General Assembly, another day where the nation in the world could see what we’re fighting against. Where just two weeks prior, we had a member say that we should bring back hanging by a tree as a form of capital punishment. Where three weeks prior... [Tennessee became] the first state to ban drag shows. I stood on that floor three weeks to the day before the mass shooting and said, ’Drag shows are not a threat to our youth. Mass shootings are.’

"These extremists went after fake crises and ignored the crisis that was on our doorstep.

"And as we had thousands of students, middle school, high school, college students, many of whom couldn’t even vote, many of whom felt disenfranchised. They came to the Capitol saying, ’We’re in fear of our lives.’ I knew that we could not be silenced."

The need to dismantle systems of injustice

"We know that it’s a policy decision to choose to bow down to the contributions of gun manufacturers, and extreme interests like the NRA (National Rifle Association). ... We know that it’s a policy decision to protect white supremacy by banning books and banning history and then banning Black lawmakers.

Reflecting on recent mass shootings in Nashville and other U.S. communities, Jones said: "I’m studying theology. I know that thoughts and prayers are not what’s needed. We need a system of public policy... that is rooted in transformation."

"You’ll get frustrated, because what we’re up against seems so comprehensive. It seems so rooted in the very foundation of this nation. But what I do believe - and what I’ve seen as I’ve traveled this nation since I’ve been expelled - is that our power is creating a reckoning in this nation that is having global repercussions.

"We are in a state of emergency that requires a response, ... a response that sometimes will break decorum and break the comfort of institutions and force them to see that we cannot do things the way we’ve always done them.

"We are building up a new world for our children and our grandchildren and those generations yet to come. And that’s what, for me, removes all fear. That’s what reminds me that this legacy of liberation - we are a part of that, this truth, that we are a people of progress, that this recognition that we don’t have to wait our turn, that you don’t have to accept permission, that you don’t allow people to co-opt you or your movement.

"These are the truths that we must bring forward with us in our movement."

For the graduates, words of encouragement

"No one comes to these graduate programs if you’re trying to make money. ... Something troubled your spirit, something troubled you deep down, something disturbed you. Something that said, ’There’s an issue that is so pressing right now that I’m going to take this brief break to equip myself to do battle against systems and not be absorbed by the system... to do something for my community, for my lineage, that will bring honor and bring purpose to this journey that I’m on.’

"I’m so proud to stand with you all and to see you all. I’m so proud to be in a space where this is what multiracial democracy looks like. This is who will fill our chambers and fill our nonprofits and fill our streets - this is what we look like. There comes a time where time itself is ready for a change, and that time has come here.

"The time has come. It’s our time now. It’s our time now - we’re going forward together, and we’re not going one step back.

"Power to you all, my friends. Power to our communities - power to bring down these systems, to rise up as a generation. Power to stand up in the face of our opponents and say, ’We shall not bow down anymore.’

"Power to you, beloved. Thanks, y’all."

Topics: commencement , graduation2023 , law and justice , public policy , racial justice

By Edward Lempinen

View all articles by Edward Lempinen