A Strange Kind of Freedom

President Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old African American grandmother, for her involvement in a drug smuggling ring. Johnson had been sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent drug offense in 1996. This commutation is the work of a decades long campaign by Johnson’s friends and family, organizations such as CAN-DO and lobbying on the part of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian-West. Various news outlets are reporting on and bringing up Trump’s pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio for Criminal Contempt of Court, Dinesh D’Souza for Campaign Finance violations and Jack Johnson’s posthumous pardon for violating the Mann Act. In addition, Mr. Trump has pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby for Perjury and Obstruction of Justice (though Libby never served his sentence as that was commuted by then President George W. Bush) and Kristian Saucier for Unauthorized Possession & Retention of National Defense Information. 

Donald Trump is a racist and an unreconstructed white supremacist. We all know this and we have known this for years. He infamously called for the execution of the Central Park Five in a full page ad in the New York Times. The Central Park Five were all innocent; they quite literally did nothing wrong. They just had the misfortune of being not white and near Central Park when the NYPD swept the area. Trump was the poster boy for Birtherism, the racist conspiracy that President Barack Obama was illegitimate because he was secretly born in Kenya. He picked Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man named after two famous racist traitors, to lead his Justice Department. And Sessions has decreed that the Justice Department will pursue the maximum penalties in all drug cases. “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense… This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences.” What was done to Alice Johnson, the injustice of being sentenced to die in prison for a non-violent drug offense, currently is and will be inflicted upon black and brown Americans today and tomorrow under this administration. It is usually too much to ask for consistency from most human beings – and especially so from Mr. Trump – but is it not troubling that Trump blithely commutes Alice Johnson’s sentence while his administration is pursuing similarly harsh and unjust sentences today?

The key difference between what Trump has done for Alice Johnson and what he has done for the other five is that Johnson is still a felon. A commutation does not expunge the conviction from a criminal record. As a felon Johnson will not be able to vote in Tennessee, she is ineligible for certain jobs and professional licenses, she cannot serve on a jury and cannot claim any welfare benefits including federally funded housing. Tennessee does not ban employers from asking on applications about criminal history and felony convictions. 

Arpaio, by contrast, was running an illegal concentration camp in Arizona and willfully ignoring a lawful order by the judiciary. For this he was pardoned before he was even sentenced. He will die a free, old and hate-filled man; having faced no real consequences for his horrifying crimes, including the deaths of 160 people over his 24 years a sheriff. 

D’Souza was convicted and pled guilty to making illegal campaign contributions in 2014. But he is wealthy and a man, so the only serious consequence he faced as a convicted felon was disenfranchisement. And as he only became a naturalized citizen in 1991, having moved to the US in 1978, in some ways his loss of the right to vote returned him to the 1980s. Losing the right to vote is a serious reduction in a person’s rights, but less immediately life threatening than facing precarious employment and housing.

Jack Johnson died four days before Donald Trump was born in 1946. While a historic injustice was committed against him, his conviction for the violation of the Mann Act was specious; there’s almost no chance Mr. Trump pardoned him because of the injustice of the conviction. The more likely answer is because former President Obama refused to posthumously pardon Johnson. And nothing motivates Mr. Trump more than sticking it to Mr. Obama.

Alice Johnson is out of prison but is still a felon. She will face difficulty finding work; in addition to being black, a woman and elderly, she is a convicted felon. On the heels of Mr. Trump’s spree of pardons, it is telling that she was only granted a commutation, only his second; the other being Sholom Rubaskin in 2017 who was convicted for bank fraud and sentenced to 27 years in 2010. But we should not delude ourselves that it is an unambiguous victory for justice. Alice Johnson is free from prison but now lives in a state that may as well be an open air prison. She cannot vote, she cannot claim welfare benefits (something that any 63-year old may need) and she will struggle to find work. It is good that she is out of prison; but if our justice system was more fair she would not have been sentenced to life and would have been released by now anyway. What Trump has done, while positive, is not some great act of mercy. While it is impolitic to do this, we have to ask: why only a commutation? Why does Alice Johnson only get the slight reprieve of not dying in a federal penitentiary while a man who ran his own lethal version of Manzanar is unconditionally free? Is it not interesting to note that the only African American Trump has exercised his right to pardon has been dead since before he was born? 

Mr. Trump is now mooting a pardon for Muhammad Ali’s convict for draft evasion; despite the fact that convict was quashed in 1971 and was included in President Jimmy Carter’s blanket amnesty and pardon 1973 for all Vietnam era draft evasion crimes. So the current tally for Trump’s acts of mercy towards black people is one pardon for a dead man, a possible and pointless pardon for another dead man and a commutation for a living woman. Seems to be a pattern of behavior here. For the wealthy, fair skinned and living it is full pardons. For African Americans you have to be dead to be granted a pardon, otherwise you are merely commuted and released into the open air prison that is being a convicted felon.

We should be thankful Alice Johnson will live her remaining years free. But it is a strange kind of freedom; one of struggle, official discrimination and further indignity, while others, with fairer skin and deeper bank accounts, who have done far worse things are unencumbered.

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