Detroit Democratic state Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson didn’t hold back when asked about the findings of an Advance investigation into how her personal Facebook live video was edited and moved through the right-wing mediasphere.
“It was a public lynching,” she said. “It was a digital lynching is what it was. And it was accepted by the Republican leadership. And it was spread by the Republican leadership. And I was publicly berated by my own colleagues, by people who I thought knew me, by people who I thought knew that there was no way I would do anything to harm anyone.”
On Tuesday, the Black lawmaker spent the day revealing and sharing racist taunts and threats of violence — including a lynching threat from a woman who called her the n-word — left on her voicemail in reaction to her work during the House Oversight Committee hearing. That hearing happened Dec. 2 and included a parade of witnesses foisting untruthful claims about voter fraud in Detroit on the committee. Former New York Mayor and current President Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was a star witness at the hearing who led the proceedings.
Johnson sat down and did a video thanking her supporters, encouraging them to respond to threats against her “in the right way,” which she defined as withholding their dollars from people responsible for the threats. She noted that one of the callers had been identified by law enforcement and then launched into a cautioning of Trump supporters who might continue harassment that law enforcement could find them.
That video was edited into a standalone 38-second clip slapped with the label “a message from a domestic terrorist” and circulated through the right-wing social media, including Parler, Disclose.tv, Twitter and YouTube.
Johnson is standing by her entire video. And explaining the context.
“For instance, when my community says ‘soldiers,’ we’re talking about people rising up against racism, domestic violence, domestic terrorism,” she told the Advance on Thursday. “When we say ‘rise up,’ I’m saying rise up and vote, give people your money who care about you. Don’t give them not one penny of your money and make them pay. That’s how you make them pay.”
And she said her “threat” was not a threat, but a “promise.”
“It was a promise that we will take dollars away from you,” she said.
Johnson said she sees “Trumpers” as victims of the misinformation campaigns and exploitation.
“Not Republicans, mind you. Trumpers,” she said. “They’re different.”
“We’re saying to this society, this racially systemic country, this stuff didn’t just happen with Trump,” she added. “This is long before Trump. It’s just been old. He opens the door for them and say, ‘Come on in, do whatever you want to do. I don’t care how many lies you tell. I’ll help you get out of trouble. It doesn’t matter.’ And we’re letting these people know they’re not going to take away our votes. You’re not going to continue to disenfranchise us because we’re going to call you out every single time.”
By Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) issued a joint statement: “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.”
On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic that the punishment by House leadership had gone too far. She announced she had sent a letter to Wentworth to “reconsider” the action.
But Johnson’s own leadership, outgoing Minority Leader Christine Grieg (D-Farmington Hills) and newly minted Minority Leader Donna Lasinki (D-Scio Twp.), issued a statement Wednesday calling her comments “regrettable,” and noted that those comments added to the political tensions roiling the nation.
Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for Chatfield and Wentworth, did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment. Renee Walker, spokeswoman for Grieg and Lasinski, also did not respond to emails.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), however, weighed in Thursday on Twitter on Whitmer’s calls for sympathy for Johnson.
“The threats against Rep. Johnson were ABHORRENT,” he wrote. “I put the people making them in the same class as those I denounced earlier this year – jackasses. But she was wrong to respond to threats with threats @GovWhitmer and Democrats need to denounce threats regardless of the source.”
He had not weighed in on the controversy until Whitmer spoke up Thursday.
Johnson said she knew nothing about the 38-second clip until early Thursday morning when she spoke with the Advance.
“So, now, it just makes all sense now,” she said of the video clip. “Everybody was in an uproar … all these million people getting in an uproar, I’ve gotten thousands of death threats and complaints. All because some one person took what I said and took it out of context. And then my leadership said, ‘She’s guilty.’”
She said the incident reminded her of the systemic racism that has allowed law enforcement to harm young men of color because “they look guilty.”
“‘We’re going to punish her for talking,’” she said of the actions of the Republican leadership. “‘How dare this Black woman talk to us like that and challenge us? How dare she do her job?’”
Asked if the edited video was in retaliation for her releasing the threatening voicemails, her response was emphatic.
“It was a way the threats came in, supported by the Republican leadership, to tell me to shut up and sit down and be quiet, be a good little n-word,” she said.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, took Republican leadership to task for their punishment of Johnson.
“There are plenty of egregious things that have happened that had been perpetrated by white men that don’t get the same reaction,” Scott said. “And the fact that the only African-American Detroit representative on the Oversight Committee was removed while they continue to debate and discuss non-existent fraud and issues in Detroit’s elections is absurd and they know it.”
He said the video manipulation and the echo chamber effect Johnson fell victim to was continuing to roil the country, creating more and more danger of division and violence based on conspiracy theories.
“I think they’re cowards, but I also think that they are politically beholden, right? They feel they are so craving for power, that they feel that the only way that they can maintain their power is to actually give these folks what they want, right?” Scott said. “And so it is a vicious cycle of promoting misinformation, which continues to fan those flames, and then having to kowtow to those people because you have fanned the flames. And so until someone breaks that cycle and stops being such a coward and stands up and says, “I don’t care if this costs me the political seat, this has to end.”
Johnson said the leaders who condemned her need to apologize — but that apology should not be just to her.
“They owe not only me an apology; they owe all of the city of Detroit an apology, they owe every Black and Brown person in America an apology; they owe every woman of goodwill an apology,” she said. “Those are the people that they owe an apology to.”