As the sentencing for former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson loomed, I began wondering how his closest family and friends are feeling. I imagine they are sad to see him suffer, even if he did it to himself. I wondered whether they tried to stop him from taking the wrong path.
Johnson was not born in Prince George’s, but residents loved him. He championed their cries against police brutality. He worshipped with them. He danced the electric slide at their backyard cookouts. He privately promised jobs to their children, and found money for their community projects. He wielded power the way so many wished they could.
One elderly fellow in the county told me years ago, “If I was in office, all my friends would have jobs!” He laughed heartily, and I understood that he and so many others were living vicariously through Johnson.
But now what?
His arrest was embarrassing to those who voted for him and stood by him through early investigations by the media.
They must have felt disappointment, betrayal, fury at those who brought him down and, even more, outrage over his stupidity. With sentencing scheduled for Jack and Leslie Johnson next week, I asked one of my aunts who lives in the county for her take on the matter. Did she sympathize with him, another black man stung by the system?
“So, what do you think about the Johnsons going to jail?” I asked. She reminded me of how my Granddad had dealt with his wayward sons: If you do the crime, you’ll do the time. Simple as that.
“Honey, when the police came to get your uncle… your grandfather told them, ‘He’s upstairs. Go on up there and get him. Second room at the top of the stairs. He’s the one in the top bunk.’”
“No way!” I laughed.
My grandmother was miffed, according to my aunt. She wanted to save her sons from a criminal justice system she believed was more corrupt than her sons. A generation later, my father was the one in our family who would get my teenage brother out of jail while my mother argued that he should pay the consequences for his actions.
Seeing Johnson face his sentencing will feel to many like seeing a beloved son, a big brother, a favorite uncle going under, felled by “The Man.” For me, it will be like watching the community pimp finally get pulled off the streets. If he hadn’t been found out, he would have continued to exert influence through his wife on the County Council. His bad behavior would have persisted — to the detriment of the community he claimed to serve.
My maternal grandmother put it aptly when she said, “You got kids out there starving and she’s walking around with all that money in her butt!”
The $80,000 that Johnson told his wife to stuff in her panties could have gone a long way at a food pantry, if community service really was his mission. He was not shaking down wealthy developers to help out Prince George’s residents, but his community loved him. Or maybe looked the other way, as we tend to do with our sons.
As the case closes, I feel both vindicated and compelled to compassion. My article, from Nov. 6, 2003, alerted: “County Gives $8 Million in No-Bid Contracts.” My reporting partner and I had followed leads, combed through stacks of documents and interviewed numerous individuals that made the case against Johnson for corruption before it got out of control.
Follow-up articles also questioned Johnson’s practices. His flacks succeeded in convincing my supervisor’s supervisor, then finally the publisher, that I should be taken off the beat – off his case. What followed was not pretty.
But eight years later, it’s clear that I was on to something. Still, I hate to see a brother go out in handcuffs. He’s somebody’s father, a county’s beloved son.
I asked friends on Facebook whether they would surrender their son to law enforcement. Their answers were as conflicted as my family’s - as conflicted as any random group polled in the county, perhaps.
Karen: “Hmm. I always tell my kids if they do something they will face the repercussions of their actions.”
I laughed out loud at the comment from LaShawn, my BFF since childhood: “I’m with the grandfather, he’s upstairs in the top bunk! There are consequences to everything that we do or do not do.”
Monique : “My love for my kids is unconditional, but I am certainly teaching them to be accountable for their actions. It’s a tough question to answer because it would depend on the circumstances. If my son was guilty, I would encourage him to turn himself in, help him get the best legal representation he could and be there for support.” Monique added, “I don’t envy any parent in that situation.”
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