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Supermajority podcast explores life after the Covenant School mass shooting

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In March 2023, a shooter opened fire at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., killing three children and three adults. A new series from NPR's documentary podcast Embedded follows three mothers of students who survived that shooting over the next year of their lives. The moms get angry, decide to take action at their state legislature, and then they witness a major news-making event in the state capital that changes everything for them. Podcast host Meribah Knight of member station WPLN begins the series with one of those moms.

MERIBAH KNIGHT, BYLINE: Sarah Shoop Neumann had been avoiding crowds, so she spent much of the week hunkered down at home, an upscale red brick house tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac right on the edge of Nashville. She'd been trying to comfort her two boys, Noah (ph), 5 years old, and Judah (ph), who's 2. But her mind was all over the place.

SARAH SHOOP NEUMANN: I just found myself saying, how? How did this happen? How did we get here?

KNIGHT: It was late spring of 2023, and she'd been glued to her phone most nights watching and reading the news after the boys went to sleep. There had been a mass shooting days before. It was deeply personal to Sarah. The shooting had happened at her son Noah's school, a small, private Christian school in Nashville called the Covenant School. Someone armed with two assault-style rifles and a pistol walked the hallways and unloaded 152 rounds, killing three 9-year-old children and three adults, including the school's headmaster. Noah was OK. His preschool class hadn't met that day. But Sarah was reeling.

NEUMANN: I have a hard time even describing what it was like to live that week. I mean, I did not feel like I was in my own body. Like, it just - you feel like you are detached and looking in on someone else's life.

KNIGHT: She began dashing off notes to herself on her iPhone. I grew up in rural Ohio, where guns were a part of my upbringing, she wrote. I've shot an AR-15. I know its power. My dad used to be a member of the NRA. Then she took to Twitter, calling out her congressman, Republican Andy Ogles. Tell the Covenant community your action plan. My 5-year-old is waiting, she wrote to him. No reply.

NEUMANN: I probably voted for most of these people. What do they think is going to fix this?

KNIGHT: Other people were feeling the same way. The state capitol had erupted in protests, more than a thousand people marching, flooding the halls of the capitol and into the viewing areas, calling for gun control. And then three Democratic lawmakers took to the Republican dominated House floor. You might have heard of them, the so-called Tennessee Three.

NEUMANN: Seeing on the news, I saw pictures of Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson had, you know, walked up to the well. And one of them was holding a picture that a kid had drawn. One of them had their bullhorn or megaphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN PEARSON: Our constituents are asking us to act today, and we're here passing laws that have nothing to do with the crisis at hand.

KNIGHT: Sarah learned, along with the rest of the world, that these Democrats would face expulsion hearings, that they might actually be kicked out of the legislature for calling for gun control.

NEUMANN: So why are we only singling out the three people that I saw speak up for the kids that were slaughtered and the teachers slaughtered at my school?

KNIGHT: It was all so unsettling to Sarah. She'd never heard of anyone getting expelled from the legislature. In fact, it had only happened three times since the Civil War.

NEUMANN: I mean, I was really upset. So I wanted to go to the expulsion hearings.

KNIGHT: At 37 years old, Sarah had never been to her state capitol. She'd never been very politically active. She'd grown up conservative, Republican, and largely still considered herself a Republican. But she decided that she needed to watch in person what was about to happen to these three Democratic lawmakers.

NEUMANN: I had decided then, like, if they're going to do this, I'm going to wear a Covenant shirt. And I'm going to have a Covenant mom sign. But if they're really going to expel these people over this, then they're going to do it knowing somebody from Covenant is watching them and seeing them do this.

KNIGHT: That morning, Sarah, who's petite with big, round glasses, dressed in jeans, a red Covenant shirt and a covenant baseball hat, and she headed to the Tennessee state capitol. It was raining. And as she walked up the hill, she said she heard a gun rights supporter yell Nazi at her. These people think I'm their enemy, she thought to herself. She kept walking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMERON SEXTON: Mr. Sergeant of Arms, invite the members into the chamber, and close the doors. I hereby declare the House of Representatives of the 113th General Assembly now in session.

KNIGHT: Sitting in the gallery, she looked down on the House chamber as one by one, the three Democratic lawmakers are questioned by the Republicans who want to expel them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEXTON: Representative Farmer.

ANDREW FARMER: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

KNIGHT: Like Andrew Farmer, who questioned Justin Pearson, a 28-year-old Black lawmaker from Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARMER: You know, as I'm listening, I'm thinking to myself, you don't understand. You don't truly understand why you're standing there today. You don't truly understand why I authored that resolution.

KNIGHT: Pearson stood at the lectern, ramrod straight, wearing a dashiki under his suit jacket, carefully listening to Farmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARMER: Just because you don't get your way, you can't come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn. It doesn't give you the...

NEUMANN: The way that they were spoken to was incredibly disrespectful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FARMER: That's why you're standing there because of that temper tantrum that day, for that yearning to have attention. That's what you wanted. But you're getting it now.

NEUMANN: To see that that's what they will sit on the House floor and say and treat in front of people with media and everyone around, that they don't care, like they think that that's acceptable behavior.

KNIGHT: Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were both expelled that day. Gloria Johnson, the white lawmaker, kept her seat by a single vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEXTON: ...State of Tennessee, I hereby declare Representative Justin J. Pearson of the 86th Representative District expelled from the House of Representatives of the 113th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee. Next order, Mr. Clerk.

UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Announcements.

SEXTON: Announcements.

KNIGHT: The ousting was all over the news and talk shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Two House lawmakers expelled, the compelling drama playing out live here...

KNIGHT: And for more than a brief moment, it caught the attention of the entire nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: This morning, growing outrage after Tennessee's Republican-controlled House voted to...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: A Republican supermajority vowing to punish them.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton even linked their peaceful protest...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: One of those lawmakers who's now ousted brought up white supremacy.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: Gloria, why do you feel like there was a difference in the outcome between you and your colleague?

GLORIA JOHNSON: It might have to do with the color of our skin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON ZACHARY: (Inaudible) the foundation of who we are and what we preserve. There's never been a more important time for us to be unified. There is 75 of us. (Inaudible) brought the racism into it because you...

KNIGHT: State Representative Jason Zachary. A few days after the expulsions and the backlash, a recording of Tennessee's House Republican caucus meeting was leaked to a local liberal news outlet, The Tennessee Holler. The audio was apparently edited and doesn't capture the voices of everyone in the meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT CEPICKY: We are fighting for the republic of our country right now.

KNIGHT: We are fighting for the Republic of our country right now, Representative Scott Cepicky tells the group.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CEPICKY: And the world is staring at us. Are we going to stand our ground? You've got to do what's right. Even if you think it might be wrong, you got to do what's right.

KNIGHT: Cepicky and others in the meeting declined to comment on the audio after it was leaked, but they didn't deny the authenticity of the tape. The Tennessee GOP released a statement saying it had no comment about private conversations. And then a few months after the expulsions of Pearson and Jones and the leaked audio, an article began to circulate. It was called "Is Tennessee A Democracy"? I sent it to people. People sent it to me. It was by the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #7: Anne Applebaum, in your latest article for The Atlantic entitled "Is Tennessee A Democracy?" you discuss what happens after one party wins everything but still wants more.

KNIGHT: And it created such buzz that she went on cable news to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE APPLEBAUM: One of the effects of having a supermajority, which the Republicans have in Tennessee, is that they don't really have to listen to anybody. They don't have to listen to the public. They don't have to listen to the Democrats. They don't have to listen to political opponents.

KNIGHT: Part of why the piece struck me so is because Applebaum has spent her entire career writing about authoritarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. And what's happening in Tennessee, she says, it reminds her of those places.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APPLEBAUM: And, of course, you know, I picked on Tennessee, but there are a number of other states I could have been to where you have almost the same phenomenon.

KNIGHT: The phenomenon she's talking about are these politically lopsided legislatures like Tennessee. There are now 29 states, more than ever before, with legislative supermajorities. Twenty of those are Republican. And to clarify, having a supermajority generally means one party has a steep advantage over the other. In Tennessee, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the legislature 3-1. And as the world witnessed in the spring of 2023, they seem to be wielding their power mightily. Sarah Shoop Neumann didn't know what to make of it.

NEUMANN: I just felt like they were trying to silence the people speaking out. And I get that there's decorum, and there's rules in all of this. But the attitudes of the legislatures, it just seemed like there was very much this environment of we can say and do what we please - really just outraged me.

KNIGHT: Sarah was seeing for the first time how her Republican-dominated state legislature was acting, and she didn't like it. But could a regular citizen like Sarah, someone worried about the future of her party and her state, actually push back?

Within weeks of the Covenant shooting, Sarah would join two other moms who launched themselves into the political arena with such determination and vigor that I couldn't help but take notice. Never before was politics a factor in their lives, but now it seemed to occupy every free moment they had, for better or for worse. So I decided to follow them, these three political newcomers over the next year, because their presence here surprises me, and in many ways, it surprises them too.

NEUMANN: Maybe we need to speak out a little bit bolder. Maybe we need to do something to get people's attention.

KNIGHT: What would they accomplish? How would the work change them? And what might it all reveal about the fragility of our democracy?

FLORIDO: Supermajority is a special series from NPR's Embedded podcast. The first episode is out now. Listen by searching Embedded wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.