Criminal justice reform advocate Alice Johnson is refuting accusations that she is a “pawn” for President Trump, after receiving backlash for speaking at the. Johnson’s life sentence by the president, having served nearly 22 years for a nonviolent drug offense, and he issued her a full pardon just hours after her speech.
“I’m 65 years old, Gayle. And don’t no one tell me what to do. I got my own mind. I do what I want to do,” she told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King. “And since I got my pardon papers, I put those pardon papers in my back pocket. And I’m free totally to do whatever I want to do”
Outside the White House after her speech, Johnson said she was “followed” by protesters who said “really awful things.”
“We could have a dialogue together. But when you’re screaming at me and saying ugly things, that’s not really getting the message through,” she said.
Johnson said she supported the message of themovement as a Black woman, but said she hoped the message could be communicated in a way that “won’t be mixed up.”
As for herself, Johnson plans to communicate at the ballot box — after more than two decades, she is eager to exercise her right to vote, but declined to say who she would be voting for.
“You can be assured I will be voting my conscience, Gayle. And I would suggest that everyone vote their conscience,” she said.
Read a portion of their conversation below:
Gayle King: Alice Marie Johnson joins us now after that speech. Alice, good morning. It’s really good to see you.
Alice Johnson: Good morning, Gayle. It’s great to see you again.
King: Let me just say you got rave reviews after that convention, after your speech at the RNC. What was that moment like for you?
Johnson: It felt so surreal to me at first to be speaking before the nation about criminal justice reform and really fulfilling the promise that I made to the women and men I left behind. That was a dream come true for me.
King: You know, because Alice, this is the thing. People felt your heart. They felt your sincerity. They felt your passion and your commitment… You started off by saying, “I was told that the only way I would leave this prison was as a corpse.”
Johnson: That is exactly what I was told. I was given a life plus 25-year sentence without the possibility of parole. So my situation seemed like a hopeless situation… and I’m not alone, Gayle… There are so many people who are just like me who are serving draconian sentences that don’t make sense…
King: Okay, so you have this high at the speech. You deliver the speech. Everybody says, “Alice Marie Johnson, well done.” You leave the speech. And then what happens to you?
Johnson: Well, as I was leaving the White House, there were protesters. Some started following me. And they were saying really awful things. It was shocking that I was going to actually experience that… We could have a dialogue together. But when you’re screaming at me and saying ugly things, that’s not really getting the message through. So as I walked away and they had dispersed, I thought to myself, “What disrespect.” And if these were my grandchildren acting like that — ’cause these were young people.
King: Oh, it was young people.
Johnson: I would be so upset to have young people acting like that. But… I don’t wanna paint all protesters with a broad brush and say that everyone acts like that. There were some bad actors… But I’m putting that behind me… Because this criminal justice reform is my mission.
King: I have heard you say that you want that to be the focus. But you know how this goes, Alice, in the world of politics. People look at you. They see you as a woman of color. There is a lot of conversation about Donald Trump’s position when it comes to the Black community. And some — I’ve heard this, and I know you’ve heard it too — that you’re being used. That you’re a pawn. What is she doing? What do you say to those kind of voices?
Johnson: I’m gonna say to those voices, I’m 65 years old, Gayle. And don’t no one tell me what to do. I got my own mind. I do what I want to do. And since I got my pardon papers, I put those pardon papers in my back pocket. And I’m free totally to do whatever I want to do…
King: I’ll never forget the picture, Alice, of when you first got out and you got to see your children and your grandchildren, when you came running out of the prison. I’ll never forget that scene. So what’s the difference for you personally between the commutation and then he recently gave you a full pardon?
Johnson: Well, the commutation meant that I could rejoin my family. But I was still under the supervision of the government. I still had to report to a probation officer. I still had travel restrictions… So now a pardon means that I’m free to register to vote. I’m free to travel without checking in with anyone else. I am totally free. A pardon means just that. I’ve got my whole life back now.
King: …I want to get your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement. Because really, stories like yours is what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. You know, the injustice in the criminal system. What is your take on the Black Lives Matter movement today?
Johnson: Well my take on it — we — I’m — as a Black woman, I also want justice. I also want justice, but I also want to feel safe… But at the very core of myself as a Black woman, as other Black Americans, we want justice. We want to be heard. But I just hope that we can be heard in a way that the messaging won’t be mixed up.
King: Will you be able to vote in this —
Johnson: As soon as —
King: — election?
Johnson: — I get home, I’m hoping that I will be… As soon as I go back home, I am going to find out if I can. And I am going to register ASAP. I’ve been waiting for this day for 20 some years to be fully restored, to be the citizen that I want to be. To be able to exercise my right to vote.
King: I know it’s a personal question. But will you be voting for Donald Trump?
Johnson: You can be assured I will be voting my conscience, Gayle. And I would suggest that everyone vote their conscience.
King: Thank you, Alice Marie Johnson.
King: Thank you for taking the time, cheering you on always. It’s really good to see you.
Johnson: Thank you, Gayle, good to see you too.