Previously published in The Washington Post.
As the sentencing for former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson looms, I began wondering how his closest family and friends are feeling. I imagined they are sad to see him suffer (although he did it to himself). I wondered whether they tried to correct and rein him in when they could. I considered why his community loved him so.
Jack Johnson was not born in Prince George’s, but the County loved him dearly. He championed their cries against police brutality when he first campaigned for the office. Once elected, he continued to worship with them at their churches. He danced the electric slide with them at their backyard cookouts. He promised jobs to their children, and found money for some of 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 Jack. But now what?
His arrest was embarrassing to those who voted for him and stood by him through early investigations by the media. (I’ll discuss my personal part in this mess in a future blog. Promise.)
Disappointment, betrayal, anger, fury at those who brought him down, outrage at him for being so stupid. All those emotions must have swirled overhead in the County after his arrest and confession. All these emotions had like clouds when I lived in D.C. and my mayor Marion Barry was arrested, led away in handcuffs on TV.
For many of my relatives and friends who moved from the District to Prince George’s as they prospered, seeing their elected leader in an incriminating videos last week was a double-blow to the head. Jack’s arrest last year had been too painful to discuss. We mostly avoided the conversation for months. But with sentencing scheduled for Jack and his wife next week, I broached the subject.
“So, what do you think about the Johnson’s going to jail?” I asked one of my aunts who lives in the County. 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 even 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 Jack sentenced next week 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 taken off the streets. Without his arrest, he would have continued to exert influence through his wife on the County Council. His bad behavior would have continued – to the detriment of the community he claimed to serve.
My 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 Jack 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 prosper the community – but his community loved him. Or simply looked the other way as we tend to do with our sons.
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 said, “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’s response was most heartfelt: “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.”