Berkeley Talks transcript: Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones: ‘The world needs your imagination’

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #168: Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones: ‘The world needs your imagination.’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

David C. Wilson: It’s now my privilege and my honor to introduce our commencement speaker Representative Justin Jones. This year’s commencement speaker is Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones. Representative Jones is an activist, currently a graduate student, a community organizer in Nashville. He graduated from Fisk University with his B.A. in political science and is currently completing his Master’s of Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. I don’t know how you do that, not just complete your degree, but everything else that’s going on is brilliant.

He was born in Oakland, California and he grew up in the East Bay where he attended public school and learned at an early age the importance of speaking up for equality and justice. His mother, Christine… Is Christine in the house? Stand up, Christine. Where are you? It is Mother’s Day. Good job.

Christine raised Justin and his sister while putting herself through nursing school. He is a grandson of Black working class grandparents from the south side of Chicago and Filipino immigrants who migrated to California. His family, especially his two grandmothers, taught him the importance of community involvement, care for the environment and spirituality.

Justin came to Fisk University in 2013 when he received that John R. Lewis scholarship for social activism. Inspired by his legacy of the student led movement for civil rights, Justin spent his four years at Fisk University organizing student campaigns for the expansion of healthcare in Tennessee. He also spent time working on the repeal of restrictive voter IDs in the state, and community accountability in cases of police brutality. He served on the board of directors for the Tennessee Healthcare Campaign and has led actions at the state legislature and across the south for the expansion of Medicaid.

In true spirit of John Lewis, he’s committed to making good trouble. Justin has been arrested over a dozen times for nonviolent protests, he is the recipient of awards from the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, ACLU in Tennessee, the Tennessee Alliance for Progress, Fisk University’s Alumni Association, the Vanderbilt Organization for Black graduate students and the Nashville NAACP.

We’ve seen Representative Jones in the well of the Tennessee State legislature, in his chamber, we’ve seen him online, we’ve seen him on TV, and now we get to see him here on the GSPP stage with us today. Please show Representative Jones how much we appreciate his courage and his presence with us today.

Justin Jones: I just want to 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. In the words of Tupac, you are appreciated. I also want to recognize those who lost their mothers, and I want to recognize the mothers who’ve lost their children. I know that this is a difficult time, 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, so I just want to lift up that truth in this moment as well.

I am honored to stand here with you all today, even though this robe is hot and we’re under these lights and that’s why you saw me drinking all that water. I was about to pass out up here. But I’m grateful to be here in this moment of rebirth, of release, of recognition of your achievements. I know it’s not easy, that’s why I’m on leave from graduate school because I needed a break to do other work. But I think that this is a very important moment and it’s so encouraging to hear the student speakers in particular. I won’t blame you brother for taking my speech, but I think it just shows that we’re on the right path because a lot of what you said was what I was going to say, so I got to think of something new to say.

But I’ll start by saying this. It is a quote by Frantz Fanon that each generation out of relative obscurity must discover its mission. It must fulfill it or it must betray it. And so I’m just going to leave you with three Ds. They call us the Tennessee Three, so I have three points to leave you with as you leave this institution of the Goldman School of 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.

First disrupt. We are at a moment where we need disruption. It is what led me into the State House from the jailhouse of Tennessee when I got tired of begging these politicians to hear us, got tired of trying to get into the door. In 2020, I was arrested 14 times for sleeping in the plaza outside the 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 state capitol had a statue, a monument to white supremacy in 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 this symbol of white supremacy, of white nationalism, of white terror, of violence, then how will we remove the more subtle and sophisticated policies of white supremacy that this symbol represents? So, after 62 days of staying in the plaza, of facing state violence from the same troopers who I see every day I walk into the capitol building, we were able to get that statue removed. Thank you all.

As I told the governor and as I told my new colleagues, we are not just trying to remove a statue, we’re trying to remove the statutes, the laws, the policies. It’s what led me to run for office as the youngest Black lawmaker in our state to run. You all have so much love here. I appreciate it. I appreciate it, because it is very different from the body that I represent. I work in a building that is controlled by plantation politics. I work in a building in which my first week in the legislature, state Senator Jack Johnson, I’m going to say his name because you got to call them out sometimes, was on the elevator. In 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, not just in word, but with our very presence. I come standing with my ancestry. I come in a building as a first non-white member to represent my district. I come as the youngest member. I come as somebody who they said, “You cannot come with long hair and hoop earrings,” but you can see I’m my full self because we have to disrupt these systems of white supremacy and a patriarchy in a plantation capitalism that have hijacked our nation and that for too long have been the dominant voice.

So, as we disrupt, of course you heard about the most recent story, but I wanted to tell you what led us to that point because a lot of people think that that was just the introduction. A lot of people said, “What were you thinking when you were expelled from the legislature? What was going through your mind?” I said, “Well, this was just another day at the Tennessee General Assembly.”

Another day where the nation and 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 just three weeks prior I stood on the House floor fighting Tennessee shamefully becoming the first state to ban drag shows and stood on that floor three weeks to the date of a mass shooting in Nashville and said, “Drag shows are not a threat to our youth, mass shootings are. Gun violence is the number one cause of death of those age 0 to 17. Let’s talk about real issues instead of manufacturing crises of division and a fear mongering and trying to erase a community. Let’s be truthful about what we’re up against.” But instead we saw what happened.

These extremists went after fake crises and ignored the very real crisis that was on our doorstep. So we must disrupt. As we had thousands of students — middle school, high school, college students — many of whom couldn’t even vote, many of whom felt disenfranchised, but all of whom came to the capitol saying, “We’re in fear of our lives,” I knew that we could not be silenced.

This title of being a representative is good, but the purpose of what sent us there is even better. The purpose of what sent us there is what matters the most. So, if we had to lose a title, we would break the quorum because the quorum for them was just a cover of silencing any voice of dissent, of silencing any narrative that challenged theirs. So, we went to the House floor and as you saw, I brought a megaphone because unlike here, they shut off the microphone. We went to the front of the building with my brother Representative Justin Pearson and my sister Gloria Johnson. We went to the front of the well because our people were being pushed to the back.

The truth be told is that when they decided to take that extreme step to expel us, it wasn’t about us, but it was about expelling the voice of our movement. It was about expelling this resistance that had taken over our capitol that they were so fearful of. They were so fearful of this movement that’s happening in Tennessee that they ended session early. That’s why I’m able to be here. They ended session early because they were so threatened by the non-violent movement, the radical, non-violent movement that took over our state capital and shut that building down. Shut it down. If we don’t get it, shut it down. If we don’t get it, shut it down. That is what disruption looks like.

We, as lawmakers, as movement lawmakers, have an obligation to stand with our people despite the cost, despite the consequence. Those children who came to our state legislature should not have to beg for their lives. That is the greatest insult and the greatest offense, and they deserve better.

So, I want to talk about the second point as dismantle. But these issues that we’re facing, as you know, you all have more education than me in this subject, we have all these masters of public policy, but we know it’s a policy decision. 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. In my state, the Tennessee Arms Association.

We know that it’s a policy decision to protect this hoarding of wealth that we see in our nation. We know that it’s a policy decision to protect white supremacy by banning books and banning history and then banning Black lawmakers. We know that it is a policy decision to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. We know that it’s a policy decision to enact policies of erasure that are targeting our LGBTQ community. We know that it’s a policy decision that led Jordan Neely to be murdered and allowed him to suffer a mental health crisis and allowed a vigilante to take his life. We know that it’s a policy decision that allowed not just Nashville, but Allen, Texas and all these cities that we keep seeing time and time again, mass shooting after mass shooting, that is a policy decision.

While, yes, I’m studying theology, I know that thoughts and prayers are not the answer. Action is. Action is the answer. We need a policy. We need a system of public policy that’s not rooted in transaction, but that is rooted in transformation of this society and of this world.

We were at the White House a couple weeks ago and I told the president, I said, “I don’t come here as a political leader today. I come here lifting up the voice of a movement. I come here lifting up beyond this partisan division that this is a moral issue that requires proportionate response.” Because what we saw in my state was three photos. It was a collision of the issue of gun violence, of the issue of authoritarianism and this real threat of fascism that we are facing, and then it was a issue of systemic racism where they expelled the two youngest Black lawmakers, but not my dear sister who’s white simply because they’re so fearful of the vision of multiracial democracy in a state that was the birthplace of the KKK.

That’s the collision we saw in Tennessee. But what they did not realize is that it would create a flashpoint for this nation that their abuse of power would galvanize people across the nation to stand with us. They thought they would just abuse power and be like every other day in the legislature. They would shut off the microphone, they would silence us, but instead they saw a community rise up. That’s why three days later I was able to walk back with thousands of my constituents from the city hall back to be a member of the Tennessee General Assembly because of movement. Because of movement.

As you go into these places of political power, I just want to leave this advice as well. When we were expelled, there’s two things that they said. They said, “How dare you desecrate this sacred place with your protest. You broke decorum and this is a sacred place and you disturbed that.” As I told my colleagues, this is not a sacred place. Legislative chambers are not sacred, but they’re arenas where we should battle and wrestle for democracy. They are places where we should disrupt and where we should bring conviction and passion because these are very personal issues.

If you’re proximate to these issues, they are personal for you. If you can have this distant thought of, “Oh, this is something I’m separate from. We can put your humanity up for debate and then you’ll just come play golf with us.” I mean, that is not the politics that I want to be a part of or that we should be a part of. We must model a new politic and we must model a politic that sometimes finds a way to get in the way, that as John Lewis gets a necessary trouble or as I’m saying today, you are in the find-out portion of our movement. This is a place of academia, so I’ll just leave it at that. But if you mess around, you’re going to find out.

But also finding out is about that mission, that third point I want to make about discovery. We must find new models by which to live. Carrie May Weave said, “I knew not through memory but through hope that there are better models by which to live.” So it’s something we haven’t even seen yet, but it’s something that we know that’s bone deep within us that we know that there is something beyond this madness. It’s something beyond these systems that have for so long tried to evolve and maintain their oppression of our people, that have even put faces that look like mine in positions to try and distract us from the root cause of these issues, that have tried this identity politic and tribes who put, as I told one of my colleagues there, a brown face on white supremacy that have tried to divide and conquer us, that have tried to use religion to manipulate us around the moral conversation when we know we have the moral platform. That our movement is multiracial and multi-faith and multi-generational, 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 to take such extreme measures to try and silence our movements. Every time these extreme politicians pass these laws like they did in Tennessee to make our protests a felony, every time they passed these extreme decisions to expel lawmakers, a part of me says, we are getting closer to victory.

In the South, we have a saying that says a dying mule kicks the hardest. A dying mule kicks the hardest. And this mule of white supremacy, this mule that has for so long controlled politics, this mule that has attacked our trans siblings, this mule that has attacked women so that my state has the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the nation, this mule that has made it so that one in five Black men in my state cannot vote, this mule that has made it easier to get a gun than it is to get healthcare, this mule that we are up against is dying. I see it every day. We enter that chamber, they are fearful of our voices, they are fearful of our movement, and they know that their time is coming. You are in the find out portion of our movement.

So my friends in Berkeley, I mean you don’t understand what it means to see you all today, to be here and to see this, because the truth is this work it will take a toll on you. I’m going to be real. I shared this a few nights ago, but I want to share it with you all here, is that this work will take a toll on your mental health, that we are facing systems that are trying to break us, that will try and destroy your mind and your body and your spirit.

The only thing that has sustained me is community. The only thing that will sustain us is community. The opposite of oppression is community. So if we remain rooted, if we are authentic in this work and are real, that there are no messiahs in this work, that there are no superheroes, but we are all people just trying to figure it out. There’ll be times in this work when you enter into these places where not just your colleagues, you’ll get frustrated with them and their microaggressions and their macroaggressions, but you’ll get frustrated because what we’re up against seems so comprehensive. It seems so rooted in the very foundation of this nation and it is.

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, that we are creating an earthquake from Berkeley to Nashville. I was just in New York protesting for Jordan Neely. I’m going to Los Angeles. There is an earthquake happening here. It is an earthquake that I believe that will not stop anytime soon because we are in a state of emergency.

We are in a state of emergency that requires a response that sometimes is not stopped at the stoplight, like when there’s an emergency, a response that sometimes has to do something out of the ordinary, a response that sometimes will break decorum and break the comfort of institutions and of nonprofits and force them to see that we cannot do things as we’ve always done them. That we are building up a new world for our children and our grandchildren and those generations yet to come. That’s what for me, removes all fear. That’s what for me reminds me that this legacy of liberation that we are 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.

The last one of those is vulnerability. We have to be honest about the toll this work takes on our people and our communities and lift that up and let them know that we have to do this together. So, my friends, the world needs your prophetic imagination. The world needs you to disrupt, to dismantle. The world needs you to discover and fulfill the legacy and purpose of our generation.

You are entering a moment of rebirth and I know that no one comes to these graduate programs if you are trying to keep money, because I know if it’s like Vanderbilt, I know this is not a place to make money, but it’s a place that led you here because something troubled your spirit, something troubled you deep down, something disturbed you, something 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, but to battle systems and 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 what those who will fill our chambers and fill our nonprofits and fill our streets. This is what it will 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. It is our time now. It’s our time now.

It is our time now and we’re moving forward together and we’re not going one step back. Power to you all, my friends, power to the people of our community, power to bring down these systems and to rise up as a generation, power to do something new in a time where all around us has collapsed, power to lift up the rising generation, power to stand in the face of our opponents and say, “We shall not bow down anymore. We shall not bow down and we shall not be moved.” Power to you beloved. Thank you all.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.