It was not the first video that Alice Johnson had seen of a black man dying at the hands of a white police officer. But this one, a video of George Floyd pinned to the ground, was different.
“To get such a visual of someone putting their knee on a black man’s neck while he’s saying he can’t breathe. That hurt. We took it very personal,” she told the Washington Examiner. “It’s like a metaphor for the way we feel. Our criminal justice system is just too heavy.”
Johnson, who describes herself as a daughter of Jim Crow Mississippi, would know. She became a grandmother and great-grandmother while serving life without parole for her role in drug rings that distributed cocaine ixn Memphis.
Her sentence was commuted two years ago after the reality television star Kim Kardashian West brought her case to the attention of President Trump. Since then, the 65-year-old has become the face of the president’s work on criminal justice reform, such as the First Step Act, which allows judges the discretion to ignore minimum sentencing guidelines, among other things, arguing for further changes to a system that disproportionately incarcerates African Americans, appearing as a guest at last year’s State of the Union address and this year in a Super Bowl advertisement.
With cities in flames and anger boiling into the streets after the death of Floyd, Johnson is among those calling on the White House to seize the initiative and move ahead with a second step act.
She said, “I really believe that criminal justice reform would really go a long way towards healing and hope.”
Healing and hope have been in short supply during a week when authorities focused on a law and order response. Trump promised to send troops into cities if governors and mayors were unable to quell violent protests.
He and his officials have been focused on sending a signal to an anxious public that its leaders remain in control, culminating in images of the president striding from the White House to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been set ablaze by protesters.
Now, officials are beginning to think about what comes next. Criminal justice reform remains a work in progress, according to Dr. Ben Carson, the most prominent black member of the Trump administration.
He said the administration was working hard on using technology to monitor prisoners at home and has had success persuading employers to take on convicts, easing their reentry into society.
And he said that he was talking to the president about a listening tour designed to canvass opinions on easing tensions — or a new task force to develop proposals into policy.
“I think you also have to make the point that you understand the violence and the anger that is going on, but let’s try a better way,” he told the Washington Examiner.
“We need to use this opportunity to engage in more positive dialogue about the things that are causing people to feel like they are victimized.”
Another idea being floated (but with less traction so far) is restoring federal oversight of police departments. Obama-era legislation that empowered judges to oversee long-term reform plans for abusive police departments was neutered by a Department of Justice memo signed by Jeff Sessions on his final day as attorney general.
But any steps will have to navigate a White House divided between those who see the issue as a way to chisel away black votes from Democrats in November and those who want to remain loyal to the law and order voters who in part helped Trump win in 2016.
Those tensions were laid bare by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson as he lambasted the role of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and favorite whipping boy of the MAGA base.
“No one has more contempt for Donald Trump’s voters than Jared Kushner, and no one expresses it more frequently,” he said. To think of releasing prisoners early at a time of unrest, he continued, was “reckless” and “insane.”
On the other side of the debate are Stephen Miller, a senior adviser best known for his hard-line stance on immigration, and chief of staff Mark Meadows, according to a source familiar with the contours.
For now, the White House is publicly steering clear of the issue other than to trumpet existing achievements.
“President Trump and his White House continue to engage with African American leaders across America on issues ranging from improving police-community relations to empowering minorities for economic development,” said Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to the president. “This president has delivered funding for HBCUs, school choice, criminal justice reform, and is only getting started.”
According to Johnson, getting started has to mean learning the lessons of the protests.
“You got to see where people are coming from,” she said. “Sometimes, we think we know, but I think we really have to listen to the different parties involves — that means law enforcement and that means our voices.”
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