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Michigan lawmakers, groups condemn Republican leaders for punishing state rep. over Facebook video

Groups call out Michigan lawmakers for not supporting Rep. Cynthia Johnson amid death threats

Michigan state Rep. Cynthia Johnson

Several Michigan legislators and groups are speaking out in support of state Representative Cynthia Johnson, who has been criticized and disciplined this week for a video she shared to social media after receiving death threats.

Rep. Johnson has received several death threats regarding the 2020 election, particularly following her participation on the Michigan House Oversight Committee that questioned President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in Lansing on Dec. 2. After the hearing, Rep. Johnson received death threats in several voicemails, with one even calling for her lynching.

In response, Johnson posted a video to Facebook this week to condemn the racist, violent and vulgar threats that she has received.

“Enough is enough,” Johnson said of the threats against her at one point in the video. “For those of you who are soldiers, you know how to do it, do it right. Be in order, make them pay.”

Though Rep. Johnson says she was not inciting violence with her message, Republican Michigan leaders and lawmakers whole heartedly disagreed. Johnson was removed from the oversight committee and an investigation has been opened into the incident.

Threats to either Democrats or Republicans are unacceptable and un-American. They’re even more unbecoming of an elected official. Rep. Johnson has been removed from her committee assignments, and we are looking into further disciplinary action as the proper authorities conduct their own investigations.

We have been consistent in our position on this – violence and intimidation is never appropriate in politics. We have said that about threats against Gov. Whitmer, Secretary Benson, Rep. Johnson herself, and others. That applies to threats made toward public officials, and it must also apply when the threats come from public officials. Behavior like this will not be tolerated this term or next.

Joint statement issued by Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield and Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth

Rep. Johnson said she could not believe leaders’ reaction to her video, saying she never meant to encourage violence of any kind.

“My soldiers, they are soldiers for Christ, soldiers against racism, soldiers against domestic violence, soldiers against domestic terrorism,” Johnson told Local 4.

Some local groups have issued statements in support of Johnson, while also calling out Michigan Republican leaders and lawmakers for not supporting their fellow representative.

The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus (MLBC) is specifically calling for Speaker Chatfield and the Michigan House of Representatives to apologize to Rep. Johnson and reinstate her to her committee assignments immediately.

“We are appalled that Republican leadership would choose to further victimize Representative C. A. Johnson during these times of partisan vitriol and outright threats of violence against a member of the House Chamber,” MLBC’s press release reads. “It is the responsibility of the Speaker to protect and defend the entirety of House Members, not just those of his party.”

  • You can read the MLBC’s entire statement below.

Members of nonprofit social justice organization Michigan United shared a similar sentiment to the MLBC, arguing that Johnson’s comments were taken out of context, and that Republican Michigan lawmakers should have taken steps to protect the representative, not punish her.

“Why condemn Rep. Johnson for, of all things, calling for law and order but not those who make actual threats which they are prepared to carry out? The last person to receive a reprimand as harsh as Rep. Johnson’s had already been indicted on federal charges,” reads a statement from Michigan United. “It is nothing more than gaslighting. This move sends a clear signal to Black people and especially to Black women: ‘We don’t acknowledge Black voices, least of all yours, and when you are threatened, you will take it and like it.’

“Rather than continue this futile effort to silence Black voices, lawmakers should instead unite to confront our common enemy, the virus. With no help from Washington on the horizon, Lansing needs to focus now on how they will respond to the current wave of COVID deaths and the many ways the pandemic impacts our state. Rep. Johnson must be reinstated so that the voices of Black women like her can be part of that conversation,” Michigan United added.

  • You can read Michigan United’s entire statement below.

Members from community-based organization Detroit Action also expressed their support for Rep. Johnson this week, claiming the Legislature is being hypocritical in their punishment of the Democrat.

“Regardless of what was said in the video, the Legislature is attempting to punish a Black woman for receiving threats that many of them have, quite literally, emboldened over the course of their careers. The call for civility from the Michigan Democratic Party is woefully insufficient as it fails to adequately support Rep. Johnson, fails to address how Rep. Johnson’s treatment is steeped in misogynoir, and fails to address the actual pain that representatives of color are dealing with when faced with actual death threats.”

Giuliani’s hearing with Rep. Johnson and the remainder of the oversight committee in Lansing was parodied on “Saturday Night Live” on Dec. 6. After both Democratic and Republican representatives have received threats of violence over the election, Michigan Assistant Minority Floor Leader Laurie Pohutsky showed concern for committee members in a tweet about the SNL sketch.

Watch: ‘SNL’ spoofs Giuliani’s Michigan election hearing in cold open

It is unclear exactly what will come of investigations into Rep. Johnson and her video.

On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the threats against Rep. Johnson are “deeply disturbing,” but so was Johnson’s response to those messages. However, Nessel says that it’s time for the state to move forward together “instead of engaging in -- or celebrating -- actions of hate and divisiveness.”

Read the full statements from Michigan groups supporting Johnson below.

Full statement from the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus:

We, the members of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus (MLBC), demand that the Speaker Lee Chatfield, of the Michigan House of Representatives, apologize and reinstate Representative Cynthia A. Johnson to her Committee assignments immediately. We are appalled that Republican leadership would choose to further victimize Representative C. A. Johnson during these times of partisan vitriol and outright threats of violence against a member of the House Chamber. It is the responsibility of the Speaker to protect and defend the entirety of House Members, not just those of his party.

While some people may disagree with Representative C. A. Johnson’s approach, what they may not do is question her commitment to the good works of government and her dedication to her constituents. It was her performance in her duty as Democratic Vice Chair of the House Oversight committee that led to her receiving threats of racial violence and death that began during the committee hearing held on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, No one in leadership thought it important enough to rally to her side or offer her solace or protection. The failure by Speaker Chatfield to speak out against or offer protection and guidance is a testament to the Speaker’s inability to be responsive in matters of racial justice and unwillingness to protect all members of his chamber. We have seen this behavior from the Speaker, when earlier this year only members of the Speaker’s caucus were notified that they could receive escorts from Capitol Police when there were armed protestors visiting the Capitol.

The approach used to discipline Representative C. A. Johnson is short-sighted and discounts the context of her statements. In the beginning of her remarks she clearly states that things “must be done decently and in order,” she later states, “that in order to make them pay, you have to make them pay in the pocketbook” which to the uninformed is another way of stating that economic impact is the right way to make them pay. To be swept up in the frenzy of a 30-second clip of a longer three-minute video, in which Representative C. A. Johnson is speaking out to protect and defend herself, is irresponsible and beneath the position of being Speaker of the House.

To stand silently by while a devoted member of the House chamber is threatened and harassed by anonymous callers, hateful and vile social media, and historically racially insensitive rhetoric. Leaving a member to protect themselves is worse. To strip away committee assignments as the penalty for speaking out and fending for herself, demonstrates the double standard being employed especially when behavior or statements from the Speaker’s own party worthy of condemnation has not resulted in this same action. When one remains silent, by word or deed, it makes one complicit in the actions and reactions of those one leads.

The MLBC is on record condemning all acts of violence, threats, racist rhetoric toward any citizen of this great state. Our record of civility and justice for all can be traced back to the founding of our organization as a caucus. We will continue to stand for what is right and just. Speaker Chatfield’s heavy-handed approach to Representative C.A. Johnson is a testament to either a fundamental misunderstanding, or a willful and intentional misapplication of appropriate action. Either way, Speaker Chatfield must apologize, reverse his decision and reinstate Representative C.A. Johnson’s committee assignments, if he seeks to be just and do what is right, not solely what he believes is popular and expedient.

Michigan Legislative Black Caucus

Full statement from Michigan United:

Rather than standing up to defend a colleague, Republican leadership decided instead to punish Rep. Cynthia Johnson, ostensibly, for her reaction to threats made on her life. House Speaker, Lee Chatfield stripped her of her committee roles following the release of an edited version of a video she made.

The social media post stemmed from an oversight committee hearing on election results in which the Detroit Democrat dared to question accusations so comical that they translated to an SNL cold open with few revisions. As an armed mob gathered in front of the home of the Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, Johnson was receiving messages calling for her lynching. It is no coincidence that the imagery of the trauma inflicted upon Black people for centuries is being used now in an attempt to control the behavior of a Black woman in power.

After the shock of this overreaction had sunk in, Rep. Johnson decided to go to Facebook live to make an appeal for the “shenanigans” to end, to remind potential perpetrators that there would be financial repercussions and, awkwardly, to tell soldiers to “do it right” and “make them pay”.

This last part, taken out of context, was presented as evidence of a veiled threat. It isn’t the first time this tactic has been used. When making the point that a member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers from Grosse Pointe was silencing the voices of people from Detroit, then Rep.-Elect Abraham Aiyash was accused of exposing their children to danger. In Johnson’s case, Rep. Mary Whiteford chastised her for sharing the death threats made against her and, in the same breath, feared that asking a witness to spell their name would likewise target them for violence.These same critics were eerily silent when when white men with assault rifles glowered over lawmakers in and around their chambers as they tried to do their jobs. It’s as if their greatest fear is that one day others will behave like them.

Why condemn Rep. Johnson for, of all things, calling for law and order but not those who make actual threats which they are prepared to carry out? The last person to receive a reprimand as harsh as Rep. Johnson’s had already been indicted on federal charges. It is nothing more than gaslighting. This move sends a clear signal to Black people and especially to Black women: “We don’t acknowledge Black voices, least of all yours, and when you are threatened, you will take it and like it.”

But here’s where misogyny and white supremacy hurt everyone, regardless of whether or not they oppose them: While Republicans struggle to prop up the illusion of an electoral threat, they are ignoring the actual threat of COVID-19 even as its death toll climbs faster in areas of Michigan that were earlier spared.

We at Michigan United believe that it is time to end these deadly shenanigans. Democracies do not function well at gunpoint either in the capitol nor at the homes of public officials. The people have spoken and the voters decided on a new path for the country. This has been confirmed at every level from the city clerk to the Supreme Court of the United States. Any other path that does not lead to a smooth transfer of power can only lead us into very dark places.

Rather than continue this futile effort to silence Black voices, lawmakers should instead unite to confront our common enemy, the virus. With no help from Washington on the horizon, Lansing needs to focus now on how they will respond to the current wave of COVID deaths and the many ways the pandemic impacts our state. Rep. Johnson must be reinstated so that the voices of Black women like her can be part of that conversation.

Michigan United

Full statement from Detroit Action:

Detroit Action’s mission has always been to build power for Black and Brown Detroiters to dismantle white supremacy and create an equitable world. Unfortunately, Rep. Cynthia Johnson has been on the receiving end of countless messages rooted in racism and violence for the work that she’s done on the House Oversight Committee. Rep. Johnson released a video this week, where she discussed these spiteful messages and as a result, she’s been stripped of her committee assignments.

“We stand firmly behind Rep. Johnson as she has been unfairly stripped of her committee assignments,” said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action. “It’s a travesty that Speaker Chatfield and Chairman Hall hold such minuscule value for Black women to the point of punishing her response to the racist and sexist messages that she’s received yet have done next to nothing to quell the violent rhetoric from their supports and others within the Michigan Republican Caucus. Detroit Action has and will always stand by Black women, like Rep. Johnson, in the face of bullying and white supremacy.”

Regardless of what was said in the video, the legislature is attempting to punish a Black woman for receiving threats that many of them have, quite literally, emboldened over the course of their careers. The call for civility from the Michigan Democratic Party is woefully insufficient as it fails to adequately support Rep. Johnson, fails to address how Rep. Johnson’s treatment is steeped in misogynoir, and fails to address the actual pain that representatives of color are dealing with when faced with actual death threats. For centuries, Black women have been used as props to advance this country’s political agenda with little to no regard on how to show up for them in return. This attempt at eviscerating Rep. Johnson professionally and personally at the hands of her colleagues and their constituents is symbolic of this country’s treatment of Black women.

Detroit Action

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