"Congress placed marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and, as such, growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana in any capacity, other than as part of a federally authorized research program, is a violation of federal law regardless of state laws permitting such activities."
- Obama’s Justice Department
While the right-wing likes to pretend that Barack Obama was “the most liberal president in America's history”, the fact is that he governed from the corporate center. He may have campaigned on a stimulus package that would have created a $10 billion foreclosure prevention fund and a $60 billion infrastructure bank, but the end result was a package that relied more heavily on $288 billion in tax cuts. In the 2008 campaign, he opposed Clinton’s call to use the Republican idea of mandating the purchase of health insurance coverage, but this was a key part of the Obamacare system that was eventually passed. Candidate Obama expressed concern about “a system that locks away too many young, first-time, non-violent offenders for the better part of their lives”, but President Obama left office with many of those prisoners older and still behind bars.
Convicted drug conspirator Alice Johnson’s case is one that calls on Americans to decide what kind of nation we should be. Having been convicted of crimes that did not involve violence, how much of a debt did she owe to society? Under minimum mandatory sentencing designed to bring superpredators to heel, she was sent to prison for life. Obama’s Justice Department looked at her case and decided she was not worthy of having her sentence commuted. Despite recently stating that the federal government is "wasting our time" if it isn't willing to put some traffickers to death, Trump bypassed any kind of serious bureaucratic review and released Johnson at the request of Kim Kardashian.
As someone who agrees that the "penalties against possession of the drug should not be more damaging than the drug itself" and that the war on drugs has harmed the communities it was supposed to help, I was glad to see the news that Johnson was finally being released from jail after serving 20 years behind bars. At the same time, I knew that there are many other Alice Johnsons still sitting behind bars whose cases had not attracted the attention of celebrities. This made me reflect on the fact that they had been excluded from the change promised by Obama and resulted in my following Tweet:
A few seconds after releasing my thoughts my phone started buzzing with notifications of responses. As I write these words, there have been 440,502 impressions and the number is still growing. There have also been 869 responses giving me insight into the self-selected population of the Twitterverse. These are some of my takeaways:
Some Trump Fans Really Crave Approval
One of the first responses that I received complained that my comment had not given Trump credit for his action and others demanded that I thank the President. However, my thoughts had nothing to do with Trump; they were simply a critique of the Obama presidency.
Given that the president they support has confused North and South Korea and just this week accused Canada of burning down the White House, it is understandable that they want to ensure that he gets credit for every positive move that he makes. The problem is that Obama commuted more sentences than any other president in history, so Trump’s actions did no more than his predecessor. It was great for Johnson but maintained the status quo. If Trump’s fans want him to receive credit on the issue, have him work on a real criminal justice reform, one that does not involve killing drug dealers.
Some Trump Fans Seem to be Obsessed with Race
A significant proportion of Trump fans who responded to the Tweet were insistent that commuting Johnson’s sentence proved that liberals were wrong about branding Trump a bigot. They did not explain how this action negated his calls for a Muslim ban, his branding of most Mexicans as rapists and murderers or his assertion that the Central Park Five deserved the death penalty even after someone else admitted to committing the crimes for which they had been jailed. In any case, neither the statement announcing the commutation nor my Tweet mentioned race, so it is unclear how they could have reached that conclusion.
For eight years, voices on the right accused Obama of somehow damaging racial relations by daring to bring attention to realities faced by minorities in our country. That he made everything about race was a common refrain. I wonder how many of these are the same people who run every member of a minority up a flagpole for all to see because they support Trump’s policies. Projection is an interesting trait.
Too Many of my Fellow Americans are Living in a Binary World
Tweeting a criticism of Obama’s presidency does not mean that I am buying a ticket on the Trump Train. While the Obama administration failed miserably at reforming the system, his successor has done everything possible to overturn the incremental improvements that were made. His Attorney General has “made it easier for U.S. prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance” and rescinded an “Obama-era memo that told federal prosecutors to avoid charges for low-level drug offenders that could trigger lengthy mandatory minimums.” He also called for an expansion of the death penalty to cover drug dealers. Releasing Johnson from prison appears to be nothing but a publicity stunt done to appease the last celebrity who grabbed his ear. It is certainly not the badly-needed policy change that we require.
Obama supporters were not immune from this binary way of thinking since there were also examples of progressives who maintained that I had been fooled by the lifelong conman. Perhaps it was not clear within the 280 character limit imposed by Twitter, but I am more than willing to call balls and strikes for presidents of either party. Trump has earned the coverage of his presidency that is 62 percent negative, but Obama was not perfect. Isn’t it better to focus on the areas where he failed than fraudulent stories about his place of birth?