For the first time in 21 years, Alice Marie Johnson was riding in a vehicle without wearing handcuffs. After leaping out and stopping suddenly to look for oncoming traffic – the story can’t end that way – the great-grandmother who once made a terrible and desperate choice had her arms and hands available to explode wide open as she ran towards her loved ones. The subject of a viral video, “Miss Alice” was now free. Joy incarnate, the scene Wednesday afternoon was intoxicating to watch.
Johnson’s freedom is, 100 percent, a good thing. I am glad that Donald Trump commuted her life-without-parole sentence for nonviolent drug crimes, including cocaine distribution and money laundering. This also ended up being a good look for Kim Kardashian West, pivoting from her recent attack on former Kanye collaborator Rhymefest over the Chicago charity that her husband abandoned. By approaching Trump, perhaps the most receptive person alive to the allure of celebrity, Kardashian West helped win Johnson’s freedom.
Both she and Trump did the right thing. Aren’t people supposed to do the right thing?
On Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert conceded that Trump “did somethin’ good,” but worried that he merely did it for a fellow celebrity: “So executive clemency is now just a reality TV show,” Colbert wondered. There is every reason to be suspicious. When someone has been a public bigot for as long as Trump has, it is not only worth asking why he did something like this, but necessary. Trump reportedly mentioned to Kardashian West that both her visit and her husband’s recent outspoken support of the president were boosting his popularity with African Americans, exaggerating one weekly tracking poll of fewer than 200 black men to make his case.
The president has apparently become obsessed with his pardon power, and its ability to communicate. When Trump isn’t using pardons to absolve villains like Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza, signaling to potential Robert Mueller targets not to snitch, he is apparently seeking to clear the record for selected black people, all of whom so far are either celebrities or are championed by them. Trump adviser Roger Stone has reportedly been pushing him for a year to pardon the late black nationalist hero Marcus Garvey, perhaps as timely public relations. In late May, he posthumously vacated boxer Jack Johnson’s 1913 conviction for transporting a white woman across state lines after an appeal from actor Sylvester Stallone. Then, two days after Alice Johnson’s commutation and in advance of his departure for the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump blurted out that he was considering vacating the late Muhammad Ali’s conviction for evading the draft, which he didn’t need. “We appreciate President Trump’s sentiment,” said Ali’s attorney, Ron Tweel, in a statement, “But a pardon is unnecessary. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Muhammad Ali in a unanimous decision in 1971. There is no conviction from which a pardon is needed.”
A man with no ostensible celebrity ties, Matthew Charles, could also use a pardon, and right quick. On the same day that Alice Johnson was running across an Alabama road towards her family and a bouquet of flowers, the Nashville man sat in a jail cell, awaiting transfer to federal prison. It is not where he is supposed to be, in the moral sense. Since the laws of this country are still infected with the toxin of systemic racism, Charles was back behind bars because the U.S. Attorney’s office – part of that Department of Justice that Trump and his allies would have us believe he rules with an iron fist – put him there.
Charles was convicted in 1996 of selling crack cocaine to an informant and sentenced to 35 years in prison. That was only 10 years after President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the morally criminal 100-to-1 cocaine-to-crack sentencing disparity: doling out the same prison term for selling one gram of crack as you’d get for 100 grams of powder cocaine. It disproportionately targeted black dealers like Charles, and was key to the dramatic rise of the United States prison population. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity to 18-to-1—something even mass incarceration proponent Jeff Sessions supported. The Attorney General, who was then an Alabama senator allowed: “I definitely believe that the current system is not fair and that we are not able to defend the sentences that are required to be imposed under the law today.” However, Obama staffer Christopher Kang blogged a month after Trump’s election that Sessions actually kept the disparity from being reduced to 10-to-1. Kang wrote, “Even more troubling than his insistence on an 18:1 disparity has been his strident opposition to applying the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively.”
In other words, Sessions was apparently opposed to the very thing that got Charles out of prison. Under the Fair Sentencing Act, Charles was one of 231 nonviolent drug offenders who received clemency in December of 2016 – the same clemency for which Alice Johnson unsuccessfully appealed to Obama. Since Charles’ release, it seems like he has lived like a saint. He got a steady job. He volunteered every weekend. A churchgoing man, Charles also reconnected with his family. While when he was in prison, he got his GED and later worked as a law clerk aiding fellow inmates with their appeals.
Charles’ two years out proves that he is a living testament to reformation, but none of that mattered to the U.S. Attorney’s office. To them, he wasn’t a volunteer, Christian or even a normal man – just a “career offender.” That is the legal classification for Charles, since he did a prior stint in state prison before his 35-year crack sentence. The U.S. Attorney’s office noted that the Obama law didn’t apply to him because it wasn’t his first offense. A Court of Appeals judge reluctantly agreed that he should never have been released, and now Charles is headed back to prison to finish the remaining 14 years of his sentence. He’ll be locked up at a medium security facility in South Carolina, nine hours from his home. “Here’s a man who’s changed, right?” he told WPLN in an interview prior to his re-incarceration. “Some see the changes and others don’t want to see [them]. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to change back. I didn’t do it for the U.S. Attorney’s office to say ‘Charles has been a good boy, let’s give him a break.’ No, I’m going to continue to live out this new life. It is a great life.”
I understand why Charles would want to approach his suddenly recurring nightmare with that kind of positivity, but it’s a sentiment I can’t summon myself. A strict application of the law does not mean that justice has been served, and it shouldn’t require a celebrity kowtowing to the president in order for him to recognize that fact. I say that knowing that Trump is still the same man who published the 1989 ad calling for five black and brown teenage boys to be murdered by the state, and continued to assert their guilt after they were exonerated and freed from prison. He ran for office on a platform of prison as a solution, and more explicitly, white safety. Johnson’s commutation is no proof that Trump has pivoted one inch from his commitment to the carceral state, one that undergirds the system that put people like her and Charles in prison in the first place.
Trump does signal the occasional virtue, as he did on Friday when he said that he’d likely support the bipartisan bill that would end the federal ban on marijuana, a major cog in the mass incarceration machine. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would also stem the threat of federal prosecution for states seeking to legalize. Trump is impossible to believe, so we will see if he follows through. But he has been feuding openly with Sessions since his recusal from the investigation into Russian election interference and his campaign’s involvement with it, so perhaps he is doing this to spite the pot-phobic Attorney General. Maybe the marijuana announcement is about his hatred for Sessions. The president is a narcissist, so it seems natural that flattery from famous people or his own spite could be led to even chip away at his beloved systemic racism.
An attorney for Charles told CBS News that Alice Johnson’s commutation greatly encouraged him, saying in a statement, “Like Alice, Matthew Charles has also proven worthy of a second chance.” We unfortunately live in this pathetic reality with a president whose commitment to justice, such that one could conceive of the idea applying to him, is contingent purely upon who is willing to kiss the ring. If Charles is ever pardoned, it will require more than appeals from conservative writers and the liberal one you’re reading now. Perhaps if enough celebrities flatter the president, Charles will be free. None, outside of a few scattered tweets from Kardashian West and others, have stepped up as an advocate for Charles. Johnson, with her newfound renown, might be up for the job. She has indicated that she wanted to help others in her situation, and the president probably hasn’t forgotten her name yet. I guess that there is a chance that he’ll invite her to the White House and listen to what she has to say about Charles, and the thousands of other women and men who remain imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses. Or does she need to get her own television show first?