Cheryl Townsend Gilkes: Good evening. Welcome to Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs here at Colby College. It is my privilege to welcome all of you and thank each and every one of you for joining us. My name is Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, and I am the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African-American Studies in Sociology here at Colby College, and it is a privilege and an honor to participate with the center this evening.
We are pursuing this event to talk about the annual policy theme for the Goldfarb Center. This year, it is on criminal justice on the United States Criminal Justice System and the issues of racial inequities. I come from a community where I remember getting the talk when I was about 10 or 11 years old sitting in the back of my church as my father, who was the director of the Baptist Youth Fellowship at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, was explaining to the teenagers — especially the boys — that they should always carry their dime. If the police stop you and try to arrest you, I remember his saying to us, “Don’t even snatch your hand away. You have committed an arrestable offense. Carry your dime, go with the police officer, call your parents, call the pastor or call the youth director — my dad — and let us handle it, but don’t even snatch your hand away.” That was around 1957-1958 and here we are in 2000 – 2020 still talking and still talking about the talk.
So tonight’s program is especially important program. Tonight’s program will be moderated — via moderated conversation hosted by our executive director of the Goldfarb Center, Kimberly Flowers as well as two student moderators; Reagan Dennis, class of 2023 and Halle Carroll, also of class of 2023. They will be taking live questions during this program. Some of you may have expected to see of the Honorable Karen Bass, Congresswoman Karen Bass. Um, she unfortunately had an unexpected conflict arise, and she personally asked Congressman Hank Johnson to speak in her place. We are grateful to Congresswoman Bass to – for finding such a wonderful, qualified alternative, and we are very thankful to Congressman Rep. Johnson who was also here and joined us on short notice.
It is my – uh, as I address my assignment to introduce Congressman Johnson in – in this era of Black Lives Matter, I say the names tonight of Breonna Taylor and Eurie Stamps, whose deaths at the hands of police with so-called No-Knock Warrants, challenge us to explore and address the racial inequities and the militarization in law enforcement and criminal justice. It is a privilege to introduce and present Congressman Hank Johnson. Now completing his seventh term — wow — in the United States House of Representatives from Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District which encompasses parts of DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Newton Counties and all of Rockdale County, Congressman Hank Johnson has distinguished himself as a substantive, effective lawmaker, and a leading national progressive voice. Named one of the most effective democrats in Congress by the University of Virginia and the – and Vanderbilt University study, Representative Johnson has an ability to get things done.
From his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Johnson has introduced co-sponsored, and passed legislation to level the playing field for everyday Americans — and that’s all Americans. His bills that protect consumer’s and citizen’s civil liberties include the Fair Act and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, SMLEA. SMLEA is part of the historic George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was the con- congressional black Caucasus response to police and vigilante violence against African-Americans across the country. As a champion for digital inclusion and an open Internet, representative Johnson has pushed to empower low income and minority communities through digital rights, broadband access, and equality of opportunity online as the ranking member of the subcommittee on regulatory reform commercial and antitrust laws. And in this time of COVID where students are learning at home, this is particularly important.
In 2019, Representative Johnson was elected by his peers to lead the judiciary subcommittees, courts, intellectual property, and the Internet. The subcommittee has jurisdiction over administration of U.S. Courts; Federal Rules of Evidence; Civil and Ap- Appellate Procedure; judicial ethics; patent, copyright, and trademark law; information technology; and the Internet. In 2017, at the launch of the 115th Congress, Representative Johnson landed coveted seat on the transportation and infrastructure committee. As a former member of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Johnson became a leading national voice for demilitarization of local law enforcement agencies in 2014 after police donned camouflaged tactical gear and climbed aboard heavily armored vehicles to confront peaceful protestors in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of an unarmed teenager. To help restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, he filed the Police Accountability Act and the Grand Jury Reform Act in the wake of police shooting deaths of unarmed black men across the country.
In 2010 – 2010, Representative Johnson was a member of the prosecution team in the impeachment trial of New Orleans U.S. District Judge, G. Thomas Porteous Jr., resulting in the first impeachment and conviction of a federal judge in more than two decades. In 2016, Representative Johnson earned an honorary degree from his beloved alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. Therefore, he is also Dr. Johnson. And prior to taking his seat in Congress in 2006, Representative Johnson practice criminal defense law in Georgia for 27 years. He served 12 years as a magistrate judge and five years as a county commissioner. He brings tremendous gifts to the national stage. Congressman Johnson is also married to DeKalb County Commissioner, Mareda Davis Johnson, and they have two wonderful children. It is my privilege to ask the first question and to get us started in this wonderful event. Representative Johnson, thank you so much for coming, and I ask this question: what and who inspired you to start on this pathway to significant national leadership in the area of criminal justice reform? Thank you. Congressman Johnson.
Congressman Hank Johnson: Thank you, uh, Dr. Gilkes, for, um, hosting and moderating this discussion. I also want to thank, um, Kimberly Flowers, the Executive Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College, for sponsoring this event; and I’m proud to be on this event along with Ms. Reagan Dennis and also Ms. Halle Carroll. I thank you all for having me today. And, um, to answer your question, Dr. Gilkes, it was my cousin. His name was Archibald Hill. And Archibald Hill was about 22 years older than myself and so – he’s my – my cousin — my first cousin — and I met him when I was probably 2 or 3 years old, and he was just so impressive to me. Uh, when he graduated from law school, I was about 4 years old, and I decided when I heard that he was graduating from law school that I wanted to be a lawyer just like him. And, uh, he began a practice of criminal defense law. And when that happened, I decided that I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer just like my cousin, Archibald. We call him Toki (phonetic).
And then Toki, when I was about 11 years old, won a sit on the, uh, Oklahoma – in the Oklahoma legislature, and he rose to become the number 5 – number 4 most powerful legislator in the, um, Oklahoma House of Representatives. And when he became – when he won that seat when I was about 11 years old, I determined that I was going to become a legislator also just like Toki. But I grew up in Washington, D.C., and the only legislature that I knew was the United States Congress, the – the federal legislature. So at that time, a – the idea that I would one day serve in Congress was implanted in my mind and as I proceeded on, on that single-minded plan to become a lawyer – to become a criminal defense lawyer and then to become a federal legislator, it all – everything ended up going according to, uh, my trajectory. And so here I am, uh, seven terms later, uh, you know, being a member of Congress, so I’m very happy to – to be a member of Congress and to be in position. But I would ask, uh, the audience members, uh, to, uh, react to this phrase: Black Lives Matter. When I say those words, how does it make you feel if – if – if you could describe your feelings in what – in one word, what would that be? Pride? Would be it annoyance? Would it be disagreement? Would it be approval? Would it be compassion? Or would it be anger?
I think all of those, um, conditions are triggered when you say that because people don’t really understand what – a lot of people don’t understand what Black Lives Matter really means. But I’ll tell you, the great intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk proclaimed that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line, and that was 117 years ago — over a century. And one would wonder, how would Du Bois react to the reality that the problem of the 21st century continues to be the problem of the color line. In fact, I wonder how would W.E.B. Du Bois react to the words “Black Lives Matter.” That racism continues to be the dominant problem of the 21st century is self-evident. How could endemic systemic racism not be self-evident today? Just look at our current reality in America; black and brown people are disproportionately infected, get sick, and die from COVID-19. Now, there is no data supporting a theory that from a physiological perspective black and brown people are more susceptible to contracting, getting sick, and dying from COVID-19 than, uh, others. So why in America are we contracting, getting sick, and dying from COVID-19 disproportionately to white people? Why is it that black and brown people have sustained a disproportionate share of the job losses due to the pandemic? It couldn’t be because we are lazy and don’t want to work. We were working, but yet we were the last hired and the first fired. Why is that? Why is it that black and brown businesses have gone out of businesses or have gone out of business at disproportionately higher rates than white businesses due to the pandemic? And why is it, ladies and gentlemen, that our political discourse is as it is?
President Trump deepen — demonized and dehumanized Barack Obama as being from an s-hole country and got elected via a racist legacy institution — the electoral college — by promising to make America white again. Why is it that the President of the United States seems – is embraced by white supremacist groups, and the President openly returns the embrace with the plea to standby – stand back and standby? Of course, there is race in the criminal justice system of America. Racism is a part of the soil from which sprouted this great nation, and the history of America has been anchored in racism premised upon the notion that black people are subhuman. When the first European settlers arrived on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1607, it was racism and slavery that undergirded the development of this country. And so from 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to this planet – or brought to this country to work in the fields as slaves, s- racism has been the law of the land. It’s endemic in the soil of our country. And it had to be enforced, and it was enforced by, uh, brute force and also by, uh, the understanding by – by teaching people that either they were superior, or they were inferior. And so that thinking persists with us today. And I’m moving through my speech — my prepared remarks — so that I can really get to, uh, to our questions and answers period, so if you all would bear with me.
But, um, even apportionment in the United States House of Representatives during the constitutional convention, when this nation was founded formally which was 170 years after 2019. Well actually, it was, uh, gosh, 167 years later after we arrived on this continent that we had the Constitutional Convention, and there were more slaves in the south than there were white people. And white people wan- wanted, uh, to have representation, uh, that would reflect their power. And so they had to rise up from dehumanizing black folks into declaring, “Okay, we want them to be counted as three-fifths of a person.” And so, therefore, the racist concept of, uh, three-fifths – of the three-fifths comprom- compromise was enshrined in the nation’s founding document. So it cannot be said that racism is not in the soil of America.
It began before America became America, and then it was enshrined in the Constitution and thereafter, for another period of a 100 – another 160 plus years, uh, between, uh, 1776 and 1863, which was when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, you had slavery. And then after a couple of years of civil war, you had a period of maybe 13 years of reconstruction, and you had the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments that guaranteed freedom and some equal protection and equality. Uh, but because we had a reactionary U.S. Supreme Court, we did not, uh, and – and also, we had a, uh, executive that wrote out, uh, that abolished, uh, reconstruction — that was Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 — that was just a little short period of reconstruction, and then we went right back into Jim Grow – Jim Crow apartheid from ’77 – 1877 until really 1964, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act.
And then we had a period of, uh, of, uh, those rights being granted, uh, and enforced, but then we got to 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon. And then we started a – another period of retrenchment that continues to this day. And so black folks have had a foot on their necks and had a knee on their necks like George Floyd, uh, for most of the time that we’ve been in this country, uh, just really about 70 years or so of so-called freedom. And so to think that this racism, which is endemic and systemic in this country, does not pervade the criminal justice system and also the, um, the system of law enforcement is to be naive and to not be, uh, willing to accept reality. And so given the nation’s history and given the state of affairs that we are in, uh, that brings us to this moment where we look to do police reform, we look to do criminal justice reform, we look to do it through the legislative branch at a time when we see the judicial branch being overcome with right wing extremism once again. Uh, it has been that way for – for decades now, but with a 6-3 majority, a super majority on the Supreme Court of federalist society selected judges. We don’t have the courts to look to. Now we have to look to the legislative branch, but I would caution you that the Supreme Court is the final word on whether or not an act is constitutional or not.
And so we are dealing with, uh, with a reality that existed back in the 1800s when despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the law as laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court deprived black and brown people of our rights. Now, how do we deal with this in terms of criminal justice and police reform is through the legislative branch, and there had been legislation – there has been legislation that’s been passed — most notably the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. It’s been blocked by the Senate. And, of course, it takes the House and the Senate to – to move something and send it to the President. And the President can either sign it, veto it or leave it alone. It becomes law ten days after he fails to take action on it, but if he vetoes it, then it would take a two-thirds majority of each body of the Congress — House and Senate — in over- in order to override the veto. So we really need a U.S. Senate that will pass legislation that is productive towards criminal justice and police reform, and we need a President who will sign it. And, uh, we will need to have a court that will, uh, be susceptible to ruling these matters constitutional. So that’s where we stand at this point. And, uh, with that, I will, uh – uh, as we say in the House, I’ll yield back to, uh, our moderator, Dr. Gilkes.
Kimberly Flowers: Thank you very much, Congressman Johnson. Um, as – as you mentioned, my name is Kimberly Flowers, and, um, I’ll be leading off, uh, from here, and then we’ll turn to our student moderators. But first, I just want to say a huge thank you to Professor Gilkes for opening tonight. Uh, we’re so glad that you’re at Colby and that you can be with us. Um, you know, I – first, I – I just want to say thank you, uh, Congressman Johnson for that important historical context about our nation’s history and some reminders of how we got here today. I’m from Oklahoma, actually, originally, so I have no doubt that your cousin, Archibald “Toki”, is very proud of where you have – where you have taken your career and especially the things that you’ve been able to do as a policymaker. And that’s kind of where I want us to start in the questioning. You talked about — especially related to the new Supreme Court justice and make up — that the importance of the legislative branch. So I would like for you to talk a little bit more about that role of public policy and of policymakers in terms of en- ensuring justice for all, of keeping police accountable, of equalizing these racial inequalities. And talk to us a little bit, uh, more about the federal laws and regulations that both have created these moments of justice, um, as well as injustice. And just tell us about where the legislation, um, stands right now and – and sort of the political landscape at the moment. Thank you.
Congressman Hank Johnson: Well, thank you, um, uh, um, Ms. Flowers. And, um, I’ll – I’ll take us back, uh, for – for – for a modern reference point to 1971 when Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. It’s been the war on drugs that has been the facilitator of criminal justice and police activity as relates to black and brown people. The criminalis– the criminalization of drugs and the criminalization of drug abuse, uh, is the predicate for the relationship between police, law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and black and brown people. What we have seen since the declaration of the war on drugs and then a legislation that has been passed that criminalizes drug use, drug abuse, the defunding or the lack of funding of treatment and education, and the, uh, just the sustained effort to crack down on the supply of, uh, of narcotics and even marijuana, which everybody knows how, um, safe or unsafe marijuana might be, but there’s not a whole lot of dispute about whether or not it should be classified with, uh, heroin and cocaine as a schedule one drug that meats out the harshest penalties for conviction, uh, for possession, for sale, for, uh, possession with intent to distribute, for trafficking.
So all of these, um, all of these drugs that are classified according to federal schedules and also in state laws, um, enforcement of laws having to do with possession and sale are what has created the criminal in- indus- or the, uh, prison industrial complex which Dwight Eisenhower, when he left the Presidency in 1959, warned us about. Well, he warned us about the – the military industrial complex, but he should have warned us about the prison industrial complex because it has ensued from the war on drugs. And so policies in state legislatures and in the federal legislature that have criminalized, um, you know, sale and use and possession of, uh, these illegal substances has led to the prison industrial complex as a privatization of – and profiteering of, um, criminal justice. And it has been at the expense of blacks and brown people largely in the inner cities but, um, also in the suburban areas and rural areas of the nation.
And so we have mass numbers of people who were locked up, and once you get a felony conviction, then that disqualifies you from many of the resources that would be available to you even in terms of education, even in terms of getting, uh, student loans, uh, even in terms of bec- getting a barber’s license or beautician’s license, uh, public housing. Uh, these kinds of disqualify – these kinds of benefits one can be disqualified from, from hav- because they have a conviction. And so this has led to the, um, subservience of black and brown people, uh, to other people in America. It has resulted in an underclass, I will say. And, um, and it has not served us well that we are now the wealthiest, most, uh, advanced nation, but yet we lock up our people at, uh, phenomenal rates. We – we – we’re number one in terms of having our, uh – uh, percentage of our people under some kind of restraint by the criminal justice system. And it – this war on drugs is what has propagated it or allowed it to propagate. And it’s the war on drugs that we really need to end, uh, in order to stop the voracious appetite of this, uh, prison industrial complex as relates to black and brown people in America.
And, uh, so with the criminal justice reform, we also have police reform because police have become more militarized, less protect and serve, and more occupy and, um, and oppress and, um, oc- and, um, dominate, uh, that style of gladiator policing as opposed to a good guy protect and serve, uh, method of policing. So we’ve now mixed militarization with weapons and also thought processes into the law enforcement domain, and that has hurt relationships between the people and the law enforcement community that we need to protect us. And so that has to change as well. And all of that is subject to, uh, legislation — various pieces of legislation — that – that have been filed. Some has been passed, but none has become law.
Reagan Dennis: Um, I’m Reagan Dennis, uh, a sophomore at Colby College and one of the student moderators. And in your opening remarks, you mentioned, um, like, the systemic nature of racism in the United States which brings me to my question of, um, many activist have been calling for the defunding or, um, abolition of the police force, um, as a whole. And defunding meaning to divest and reallocate funds into the community resources and to take a more proactive, um, method, um, to criminality versus, um, abolition which considers like all of the historical roots of racism in the United States and calls for, like I said, the complete abolishment of the police force and policing as a whole. So I was wondering, what are your thoughts on alternative methods to policing and to what extent could we, like, implore a rabbit hole thought process to reimagining these structures of policing that have been so harmful to black and brown people in the United States?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Well, one thing is – is a given. Human beings, if left to their own devices, will tend to try to overpower and subject the weaker to the will of the strong. And, uh, so you’re gonna have to have a system of laws, and you’re gonna have to have a mechanism to enforce those laws. That creates the domestic tranquility that, uh, all people deserve to live in. And so we’re gonna have to have law enforcement. We won’t be able to abolish, uh, the police as an institution, but we certainly can, uh, repurpose some of the funding that goes to hardcore policing into areas such as, uh, social work and, uh, mental health and also drug treatment. Um, you know, there was a, uh, young man, 27 years old or 29, who was killed on Monday in Philadelphia by two police officers. This young man, 29 or 27, — however old — um, had a history of mental health issues. He was at his home. Someone had called the police because he stepped outside on the porch and had a, uh, knife.
And his mother came out to the porch to, uh, try to get him to drop the knife. Meanwhile, the police showed up; the crowd was out there. Everybody was telling the police that we know him. You know, the police were hollering, “Drop the knife. Drop the knife.” The mother was in the background saying, “My son is – has mental health problems.” You know, “Don’t hurt him.” And the son took some steps towards the police officers, and they fired 8 to 10 shots at him, each of which hit him, not, uh, you know, he was killed. They were not armed with, uh, tasers or apparently, uh, you know, some other form of, um, like a Billy Club or something. They just – it was their training that caused them to overreact and kill him. He’s just one in a continuing saga of black men killed by law enforcement officers, uh, in America using excessive force. And so if when that 911 call was made, instead of the police showing up with guns, if – if a social worker or a, uh, mental health professional had arrived — either alone or with them — and taken control of the situation, that could have resulted in that young man not being killed. And so it’s – it’s changes like that, that, um, that we’re talking about. When you talk about defund the police, it’s actually repurposing funding away from just simply guns and, uh, bullets into a more humane way of taking care of people and guaranteeing public safety. And so, uh, that’s what we need to be talking about in this country, and it’s long overdue.
Halle Carroll: Thank you, Congressman Johnson. I am Halle Carroll, another student moderator tonight, and I’m gonna be taking the next question. I just want to remind the audience, feel free to put any questions, um, in the chat that you’re interested in Congressman Johnson answering. So my question is, you know, you talk about, as Reagan brought up, some of the, you know, social movements towards transforming policing today. And for the potential outcomes of this election, on one side, we have President Trump who notoriously takes up the War on Drugs Era Rhetoric of Law and Order. And on the other side, we have Biden with his history of the 1994 Federal Crime Bill. We have Harris’s background as a DA in California. So my question is: what outcomes do you see either side being able to provide in response to these social movements for criminal justice reform? Thank you.
Congressman Hank Johnson: Yes. Uh, the 1994 Crime Bill which Joe Biden introduced and passed was an anti-drug, anti-crack cocaine, get tough on crack cocaine, um, piece of legislation. It was supported by the majority of black, uh, people in America including, uh, members of the congressional black caucus. And it was felt like that was the right thing to do at that time. I might also add that included in the, uh, that Crime Bill was the Violence Against Women’s Act, which has done a whole lot to address, um, crimes against women. And so that 1994 Crime Bill was not all bad, but it did have the result of causing a lot of black people to – to get locked up — a lot of white folks, too — and it was the wrong thing to – it was the wrong thing, but it was thought at the time to be the right thing. Times have changed, and Joe Biden has evolved, and, um, and he will tell you now that he regrets, uh, certain aspects of the, uh, 1994 Crime Bill, which was 25 years ago. A lot has happened since then, and we should not equate Joe Biden with, uh, Donald Trump who this – to this very day, uh, appeals blatantly to the, uh, racist instincts within, uh – uh, the people of America, and that’s why he has the support that he has. And so, you know, Kamala Harris was a prosecutor. You know, lawyers are taught to – that you can represent both sides of an issue, and oftentimes, they’re more than two sides of an issue.
So we don’t blame lawyers for being lawyers and taking on what may be an unpopular cause. She was a prosecutor. She did her job. Did it well. In fact, she brought a lot of, um, reform-mindedness to her job as, uh, the District Attorney of San Francisco and as Attorney General of the, uh, state of California. So her career has been, um, one of professional, uh, excellence, and she’s well qualified as, uh, Vice President. Her heart is in the right place. Uh, we know she can get the job done, and we know that, uh, Vice President Biden who served under the first African-American President — his number two — and was the best Vice President, uh, in modern history. And, uh, so there’s really no equivocating between, uh, those two. Biden-Harris and Trump-Pence, uh, just two different, uh – uh, pieces of fruit. Uh, no – no question about it.
Kimberly Flowers: Thank you, Congressman Johnson. You know, I – I was gonna ask you a question, um, around the demilitarizing of police. but I think you’ve actually answered most of what I was gonna ask. But we have a question, um, that was given to me before – before tonight’s, um, event from, uh, Professor of Sociology, Neil Gross. He’s a professor here — a former cop himself — and he’s writing a book right now and doing research related to criminal justice reform. And his question for you is that among police officers, less so chiefs, but among officers, there’s some skeptic- skepticism towards the democratic party and its efforts for criminal justice reform. Um, he knows from his research and other research that police reform is only gonna be successful if you have that officer buy-in, right? Um, and that cops can be intent on subvert- subverting reform, um, if they so choose and often find a way to do so. So his question for you is how did democrats move forward with police reform legislation at the federal and state level in order to avoid this problem? So how do you get the buy-in from police officers themselves?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Well, I think it – it, um, it comes with, um, training of police, um, an enhanced training. A better understanding of the proper relationship between officer and the community that they serve. Bias training – inherent bias is – is a issue that many people have to overcome. Um, fear and mental, um, health among law enforcement officers is another issue that needs to be addressed. Pay for police officers because we put so much on the backs of police officers without paying them commensurate with, uh, the duties that they perform, and we force them to have to work two and three odd jobs, uh, after they get off work just to make ends meet. Uh, we don’t pay our officers enough. So there – there is a number of things that we can do to make their job easier a- and to make their job better, but it’s going to take effort on beh- on behalf of the police themselves to come to the table and, uh, negotiate with policymakers about the best policies to put in place. But if police officers take the attitude that democrats are soft on crime and they just want to let socialism run rampant and let everybody do whatever they want to do, and we’re not going to allow that to happen and so therefore, we’re – we’re going to vote republican.
And if the republicans are law and order, old fashioned, uh, you know, uh, war on crime, uh, mentality that it has been shown to not be effective since 1971, it has led us to this point. If that’s the attitude that is taken, then it’s gonna be a – a difficult battle. But the time to do police reform has arrived. We can no longer, as a society, tolerate and permit law enforcement officers to, uh, to kill innocent people and unarmed people without any kind of accountability. And if it takes putting into place accountability measures like I have filed, uh, the, uh, Police Accountability Act which would give federal prosecutors the ability to charge local and state law enforcement officers with murder because state law and, uh, state prosecutors failed to do so — Exhibit A, Breonna Taylor. I’m not saying that the officers involved in that case should be facing murder charges, but I’m saying when the local prosecutor does not present evidence to the grand jury that could enable them to decide for themselves to indict an officer – to issue an indictment, uh, of an officer for homicide. When we have local prosecutors, who fail to hold police accountable, uh, that’s why we have the situation where we have now. And so I would, uh, I would tender to the professor, your – your – your colleague that, uh, there has to be some movement on the – on the part of, uh, the law enforcement, um, lobby, uh, mo- most, uh, notably the, uh, fraternal order of police and other police unions. They have to – instead of just wanting to protect the officers regardless of what that officer has done, uh, they need to come to the table willing to weed out those few who are the ones who caused the problems.
Most law enforcement officers never fire their weapon, never get charged with an excessive use of force complaint by the public. They are loved, uh, by the public. Uh, you know, I mean that – that’s the bottom line. Most people – most people want police officers to be there to protect them. But it’s only the few who make it more difficult for the – the overwhelming number of police who are trying to do the right thing, and police themselves have to weed those out. And so, let’s come to the table. Let’s talk about it. Let’s not get caught up in party – party affiliation. We need to get back to a two-party system in this country where republicans are not, uh, extreme right wing and are willing to meet somewhere in the middle. And, uh, and don’t give me the crap about democrats on the left are just as extreme as republicans on the right. That’s just a false, uh, equivalency right there. That’s just not – not true.
Reagan Dennis: Thank you, Congressman Johnson. Um, we have a question from the chat. Um, what can Congress do revise maximum sentencing requirements for non-violent offense – offenses and ensure fair sentences?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Yeah. Congress can, uh, make changes to the law. And, uh, one of the things that has happened, uh, in the recent past is the lowering of the discrepancy, uh, between crack and powder c- cocaine, the disparity in sentencing, uh, from a 100 to 1 disparity down to an 18 to 1 disparity. It means that if you have five grams of, uh, of, uh, crack cocaine, then that equates to you having 18 grams of powder cocaine. Now everybody knows that powder cocaine is more – is stronger and more pure than crack cocaine. Crack cocaine contains a fraction of the cocaine that you will find in powder cocaine, but yet crack, which is ingested, uh, primarily through, uh, a crack pipe and smoking it versus snorting it in your noise or putting it in your veins – intravenous drug use, um, I mean and so it goes to the brain quicker and it wears off quicker also. But then you got people who inject or snort powder cocaine. The high last longer, it’s more expensive, but yet it takes 18 grams to net what one gram of crack cocaine would net you in terms of a federal sentence. Well, that doesn’t make sense, and it’s also unfair. And when you consider that crack cocaine is the cocaine of choice for poor inner-city people who don’t have regular powder cocaine at their disposal can’t afford it and so you settle for crack cocaine, and you’re mostly black, then you end up serving 18 times that which your white counterpart who gets hit with, uh, a possession charge of the same amount gets sentenced, too. And so that’s racism in the system that we can weed out with legislation to reduce that disparity down to a zero disparity and save many people from, uh, from those harsh mandatory minimum sentences. So we can do that. Uh, and as I said, it takes a, uh, a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate and a President to sign it.
Halle Carroll: Thank you, Congressman Johnson. Uh, we have another question from the audience, and we encourage anyone else who has questions to keep them coming. So this question is thinking about how engrained in our country and institutions racism is, to what extent to do you think education is effective in changing, um, on the problem of systemic racism in this country?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Well, I think it – it is the, um, I mean education is the key. With education comes knowledge and realization, and with realization comes a change in – in the heart. The head, uh, governs the heart. The heart governs the head, too. The heart tells the head that something is wrong. And so, you get that when you reach that realization that comes from within, and realization comes with education. And education is not always what you pick up from reading a book, but it can come from just having discourse with your neighbor. Just having a heart to heart conversation with someone who does not look like you, uh, someone who can share their experience with you. And if you are, uh, and if they are effective in sh- in, uh, sharing their experience, and if your ears and eyes and heart are open, you can learn something from that experience that removes perhaps some of your, uh, false thinking. We all have, uh, have negative thoughts about each other.
Some of us are racist. Some of this – some of us think that we are better than others because of our race. Others think that, “Well, I’m smarter than this person,” or “I deserve more because I’m self-centered, and I’m not concerned about anybody. They might be equal to me, but I’m still not concerned about him. I’m more concerned about myself and what I can get out of the deal.” And so, you don’t even – you’re not concern with other people and, uh, particularly, those who don’t look like you. So, there’s something that we all can gain from talking with each other. We all can grow as people. We all have to take the plunge of, uh, deciding, “I’m gonna become a better person.” And, um, and education helps to bring about that kind of realization, uh, in the people’s mindset. So education is – is key.
Reagan Dennis: Thank you, Congressman Johnson. Um, we have another question from the chat that kind of ties in with this other question that we were going to ask you. So the first part is can you address the history of policing and how it has led to the current social injustices? And off of that, um, beyond police reform, are there other policies you believe need – we need to change and address systemic racism in the United States?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Yeah. I have, um, endeavored to, uh, kind of give a historical context for why we have the current state of affairs, uh, as relates to the criminal justice system and as relates to, uh, the relationship between law enforcement and black and brown communities. Um, and, uh, so I don’t want to repeat myself, but I – I – and – and so the remaining part of your question, could you repeat it again?
Reagan Dennis: Uh, it was beyond police reform, are there other policies you believe we need to change and address, [Yeah.] um, systemic racism in United States?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Yeah. Being that racism exists in education, it rears its ugly head in terms of funding for, um, education. Uh, we know that primarily in America, education is funded locally, and local funding usually is based on property taxes. And when education is based on property taxes, then people in areas where property values are lowest tend to get squeezed out of the benefits of – of a quality education. And so we’re gonna have to find a way of making sure that every child in the country, regardless of, uh, income level, is able to receive a quality education, and that means, uh, revenue. That means, uh, from those who have much, much is required. In this country, for the last, uh, four or five decades, we’ve been on a binge of tax cutting. There is a group of people who believe in – in what’s called the free market economy.
And in that economy, the federal government and government itself, state and local government also is – is very small and reduced. And you depend on the free market system to provide the benefits of living in America, and that would include education. So we see the movement away from public schools to private schools with a intervening factor being charter schools, uh, where public money is used to fund, uh, semi-private institution. So you have a withdrawal of funding for the public school system that would educate all of the kids. And so that’s where we’ve been headed, uh, in the last 50 years, defunding our public school system. That needs to change. We need to increase revenues and – and find other pots or streams of revenue, uh, to put into education. Education is a – is for the common good, and we need to invest in the common good. So education is one way where we can, uh, create better lives for people because people are stronger and more productive in their learning and in their use of that learning to benefit the economy.
Second is, uh, healthcare. Second, but not very far behind, if at all — maybe equal — is healthcare. A healthy populous is a productive populous. And so healthcare in a country like America being wealthy, being free, healthcare should be a right and not a privilege for only the few who can afford it because those few who can afford it will invariably end up having to pay for healthcare for those who can’t afford it, but they pay on the backend instead of on the frontend. They pay through the emergency room as opposed to preventive care and, um, and predictive care. And so, uh, society needs to realign its values, uh, towards education, funding for education, and funding for healthcare for people. And then, um, we’ll see a lot of improvement in our condition as a nation, as a collective body, with our investment in those two key areas: education and healthcare. And o- of course, lots of other things, uh, can be done to, uh, to create a fairer, more just, more equitable society; but those two are – are the main ones.
Housing is, uh, is important. Infrastructure, uh, including Broadband. Uh, you know, those are things, and – but you can’t s- you can’t separate people from the environment, from the air and the water quality. I mean if we – if we as a people only concern ourselves with education and healthcare but we let our environment go to pot, then all of us on, uh, on this planet, uh, are, uh, due to be extinguished. And – and – and that will happen regardless of, uh, skin color or economic, uh, prow- prowess. Um, so we all have to be concerned about our environment, and, um, we have to be concerned about the common good in this country. That’s – we have to realign ourselves away from selfishness and consumption — me – me – me — into a us for the future for our children, and for our grandchildren and for their grandchildren. We have to realign ourselves for the long term, and, um – um, education is so important.
Kimberly Flowers: I couldn’t agree more. So many good points in – in that last comment. Um, Congressman Johnson, because we have to wrap up — time went by so fast — and I just want to end, um, on a little bit of a different note. Um, you know, this is such an important conversation, but it’s also heavy and it’s hard. And, you know, uh, my question – my final question to you is what still gives you hope? You know, we’re in a really divided country right now. This is a difficult week, uh, no matter what happens, whichever way the election goes. It’s been a hard year because of the pandemic, and I would just to like to – for your final thoughts tonight and just your final remarks — I know we have to wrap up — but I’d just love to hear a little bit about what – what gives you hope?
Congressman Hank Johnson: Yeah. In America, despite her warts and despite her, uh, ugly history, there’ve been so many accomplishments in this country that we can all be proud of. Exhibit A, Barack Obama, first African-American – first black President. That happened, uh, he was elected in 2008. It was 1965, the Voting Rights Act. So 53 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, America elects the first black President. Shows you how far we have come. Before that, we went to the moon. The people of this country put a man on the moon. We’ve explored the outer reaches of our universe. We continue to expand our – the depths of our knowledge. Uh, it’s all based on freedom, and the freedom was guaranteed under the constitution that was laid down by those, uh, fallible human beings — white males — but they saw, uh, what could be a great place — America — and they laid down the structure for that, uh, vision in the Constitution. And that Constitution has lasted this long and has resulted in America becoming the most free and prosperous nation on earth.
That’s a lot of, um, stuff that we have to work with as a people. So, you know we’ve made tremendous progress as a people. Uh, we’ve taken some steps back. There’s been a backlash. We know after you take a couple of steps back. There’s been a backlash, but we know after you take a couple of steps backward, then it’s gonna be three steps forward. So two steps back, three steps forward. That’s where we are right now. We have the ability to change course in this country in one short week, less than a week now. S- five days – coming up on five days in election, and we ha- we can cast that vote and, uh, change the course and direction of our country with just our vote. And I look forward to – uh, I’m – I feel good about the numbers of people who are voting this time. Uh, people are voting like their lives depend on it and like John Lewis wanted us to do. He said, “Vote as if your life depends on it.”
And people are standing in line for hours and hours and hours to cast that vote. One person was asked in Georgia a few days ago, “You’ve been standing in line for four hours; you know, how much longer are you going to stand in line?” And the guy said, “Look, I’ve been standing in – I’ve been waiting to vote for four years, so I can stand in line for a little longer.” And, uh, that’s what’s happening throughout America. We do have to remain vili- vigilant that this election is not stolen from us. And, uh, that can happen in any number of ways, so we must remain diligent about that. But the fact is it’s up to us, and I’m very confident and optimistic about what the American people can do. And so I look forward to meaningful change that, uh, creates a fair, just, equitable and prosperous and free society. And, uh, hopefully, America can lead the world, uh, into that realization from a global standpoint.
Halle Carroll: Congressman Johnson, on behalf of the Goldfarb Center and of Colby College, thank you so much for joining us tonight. To our audience, thank you for listening. Remember to keep these important conversations going. And to everyone, have a great night. Thank you.
Congressman Hank Johnson: Thank you.