Gregory Lee Johnson

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Gregory Lee "Joey" Johnson
William Kunstler and Gregory Lee Johnson.jpg
Johnson (on right) with attorney William Kunstler, circa 1989
Born 1956 (age 57–58)
Richmond, Indiana, United States
Occupation Communist activist
Known for Defendant in Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Gregory Lee "Joey" Johnson (born 1956) is an American revolutionary Communist activist[1][2] whose burning of the flag of the United States in a political demonstration during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, in violation of a Texas law prohibiting flag desecration, led to his role as defendant in the landmark United States Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson (1989).[3]

Early life[edit]

Gregory Johnson was born in Richmond, Indiana. His father spent several years of Gregory's childhood in prison. His mother, Sally, was a supporter of the American civil rights movement who married a staff sergeant in the United States Army. Johnson grew up in a racially mixed, low-income neighborhood of Richmond. In 1969, he moved with his family to an American military base in West Germany, where he was influenced by growing radicalism and opposition to the Vietnam War among Vietnam War draftees.[4]

His family returned to the United States in 1971. In 1973, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Merchant Marine, which took him to Panama and Mexico, where he observed American sociopolitical and economic influence. After moving to Tampa, Florida in 1976, he joined the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, the youth arm of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.[4]

At the time of his arrest for flag desecration in Dallas, Johnson was a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, and had traveled to Dallas to protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention.[5][6]

Role as defendant in Texas v. Johnson[edit]

Main article: Texas v. Johnson

On 22 August 1984, Johnson participated in a political demonstration called the "Republican War Chest Tour" in Dallas, Texas to protest the policies of several Dallas-area businesses and of the Ronald Reagan presidential administration.[7][8] The demonstration was timed to coincide with the 1984 Republican National Convention being held in downtown Dallas. During the demonstration, approximately one hundred protestors marched in the streets, chanted slogans, and staged anti-nuclear weapons and anti-war die-ins at various corporate offices. Some protestors vandalized businesses by spray-painting building walls and knocking over potted plants and ashtrays.[4][7] Johnson did not take part in the vandalism, but took an American flag that had been seized from a flagpole at one of the buildings by another protestor.

At the culmination of the protest outside Dallas City Hall, Johnson poured kerosene on the flag and set it on fire. While the flag burned, he chanted political slogans, including "Reagan, Mondale which will it be? Either one means World War III;" "Ronald Reagan, killer of the hour, Perfect example of U.S. power;" and "red, white and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you will go under."[9] Some witnesses testified that they were seriously offended. No one was hurt or threatened with injury during the protest.

Johnson was the only protestor to be charged with a crime.[8] He was convicted of the desecration of a venerated object in violation of Texas Penal Code Annotated § 42.09(a)(3),[10] sentenced to one year in prison, and fined $2,000.

Johnson appealed his conviction to the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas, but lost. He next petitioned the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review the decision. That court overturned his conviction, saying that the State of Texas could not punish Johnson for burning the flag because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects such activity as symbolic speech. The court also concluded that the flag burning in this case did not cause or threaten to cause a breach of the peace.[7]

The State of Texas asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case. Attorneys David D. Cole and radical civil rights activist William Kunstler acted as Johnson's lawyers. In 1989, the Supreme Court handed down a controversial 5-4 decision in favor of Gregory Johnson, holding that Johnson's conviction for flag desecration was inconsistent with the First Amendment. The Court's decision invalidated laws against flag desecration in force in forty-eight of the fifty states.

Second flag burning[edit]

In response to the Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Johnson, the United States Congress enacted legislation outlawing the desecration of the flag, which then-President George H. W. Bush allowed to pass into law without his signature. The Flag Protection Act of 1989 went into effect at midnight on 28 October 1989.

On 30 October, Gregory Johnson joined Shawn Eichman, David Blalock, and Scott Tyler on the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., where they set fire to three American flags while chanting "burn, baby, burn." The four men were arrested and spent the night in jail. The next day, Eichman, Blalock, and Tyler were charged with violating the Flag Protection Act of 1989, demonstrating without a permit, and disorderly conduct.[11][12] However, the United States Attorney's Office declined to file charges against Johnson, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. Johnson declared that the government's decision not to charge him was an "act of cowardice" and a "miscarriage of justice," and stated that he was outraged.[13]

The consolidated cases of Shawn Eichman, David Blalock, and Scott Tyler eventually reached the Supreme Court with Eichman as the named respondent in United States v. Eichman (1990), which was argued together with the case United States v. Haggerty (1990). Mark Haggerty, Jennifer Campbell, Darius Strong and Carlos Garza were also charged with having violated the Flag Protection Act of 1989 outside a Seattle, Washington post office just a few minutes after the law went into effect on 28 October.[14] The Supreme Court handed down its decision on United States v. Eichman on 11 June 1990, ruling 5-4 in favor of Eichman, Haggerty, and the other respondents, and striking down the Flag Protection Act of 1989.[15]

The failed federal legislation triggered many unsuccessful efforts to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution banning flag desecration, including one attempt during the two weeks in October 1989 between the passage of the Flag Protection Act of 1989 and its taking effect,[16] and another just eleven days after the United States v. Eichman ruling.[17] The most recent attempt to adopt a flag desecration amendment failed in the United States Senate by one vote on 27 June 2006.[18]

Later years[edit]

Johnson lived in Houston for four years after his arrest for flag desecration, during which he worked in a warehouse while his attorneys worked on his case.[4][19] He was described by a contemporaneous Houston activist, Geov Parrish, as an "obnoxious young transplanted New Yorker" who would show up at "every local demonstration with a bloody, severed pig's head (tendrils still trailing along) that he'd drag along on a leash and collar while shouting anti-imperialist slogans; the pig, of course, was the United States."[20]

Afterwards, Johnson moved to the South Bronx in New York, then to San Francisco[21] and Los Angeles, where he remained active with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, in time becoming the Youth Brigade's national spokesperson. He continued to speak out against legislation targeting flag desecration.[22] He also became a Los Angeles organizer for the October 22 Coalition against police brutality[23] and for Not in Our Name, an antiwar foreign policy organization.[24][25]

Throughout 2009, Johnson, who during his Supreme Court case was a client of American civil rights attorney William Kunstler,[26] helped to promote the film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a documentary about the late attorney that premiered at the 25th Sundance Film Festival.[27][28]

On 14 October 2011, Johnson was arrested after he and two others chained themselves to the front doors of the headquarters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Sacramento, California. The three were protesting in support of a hunger strike being conducted by Pelican Bay State Prison inmates.[1][29][30]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Everest, Larry (23 October 2011). "Nonviolent Civil Disobedience in Sacramento: Protesting the Torture of Prisoners". Revolution (248). Retrieved 15 December 2011. 
  2. ^ Johnson, Gregory (24 July 2005). "Flag Amendment and the Assault on Political Dissent". Revolution (009). Retrieved 15 December 2011. 
  3. ^ "Texas v. Johnson (1989)". The First Amendment Library. First Amendment Center. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d Grogan, David; Demaret, Kent; Stewart, Bob (10 July 1989). "Unimpressed by the Freedom to Burn Old Glory, Joey Johnson Still Wants a Revolution". People 32 (2): 98. Retrieved 15 December 2011. 
  5. ^ Harlan, Christi (25 August 1984). "City to Close Tent City 2 Days Early". The Dallas Morning News. 
  6. ^ Coffey, Robyn (March 2006). "Desecrating the Flag: The flag amendment, free speech and provocation using stars and bars". F Newsmagazine (University of Chicago). Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c "Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)". FindLaw. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Brennan, Jr., William J. (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States) (21 June 1989). "Opinion of the Court". Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  9. ^ Rehnquist, William H. (Chief Justice of the United States) (21 June 1989). "Dissenting opinion". Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  10. ^ "Footnote #1 (Texas Penal Code Annotated § 42.09(a)(3))". Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). FindLaw. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  11. ^ "'Burn, baby, burn': Four defy desecration law, set fire to U.S. flag at Capitol". Houston Chronicle. Associated Press. 31 October 1989. pp. A3. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  12. ^ Ross, Michael (31 October 1989). "Protesters Burn U.S. Flags at Capitol; 4 Are Arrested". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  13. ^ Yost, Pete (1 November 1989). "Left out and angry over action". The Free Lance-Star. Associated Press. p. 8. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  14. ^ "Judge Rules Flag Protection Act Unconstitutional". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 22 February 1990. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  15. ^ Greenhouse, Linda (12 June 1990). "Supreme Court Voids Flag Law; Stage Set for Amendment Battle". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  16. ^ Toner, Robin (20 October 1989). "Senate Rejects Amendment Outlawing Flag Desecration". The New York Times. pp. A1, A16. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  17. ^ Holmes, Steven A. (22 June 1990). "Amendment to Bar Flag Desecration Fails in the House". The New York Times. pp. A1. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  18. ^ Hulse, Carl (28 June 2006). "Flag Amendment Narrowly Fails in Senate Vote". The New York Times. pp. A1, A16. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  19. ^ Wiessler, Judy (22 June 1989). "High court sanctions flag-burning". Houston Chronicle. pp. A1, A2. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  20. ^ Parrish, Geov (28 June 2006). "Me and Joey". Seattle Weekly. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  21. ^ Slonaker, Larry (5 May 1991). "Die-Hard Communists Find Haven at Berkeley Bookstore". San Jose Mercury News. Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  22. ^ "Notorious Flagburner Joey Johnson Denounces Fascist Flag Amendment". The Flag Burning Page. Warren S. Apel. 4 July 1995. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  23. ^ Kim, Philip; Simpson, Monique (19 November 2000). "LAPD targeted in legal action". Daily Bruin (University of California, Los Angeles). Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  24. ^ Lagos, Marisa (10 October 2002). "War on Iraq: Not in Their Name". Daily Nexus (University of California, Santa Barbara). Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  25. ^ "Press Conference 8/16/04". San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (Indybay). 16 August 2004. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  26. ^ "Disturbing the Universe: Cases Featured in the Film". POV (TV series). 2010. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  27. ^ "Join Us as Disturbing the Universe Tours the Country!". 26 November 2009. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  28. ^ "Reason.tv at Sundance: The Most Famous Flag Burner of All Time!". reason.tv (Reason Foundation). 26 January 2009. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  29. ^ "Coalition Opposes Retaliation on Strikers & Supporters". Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity. 25 October 2011. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  30. ^ Revolution Books (15 October 2011). "CALIFORNIA PRISONERS HUNGER STRIKE - CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AT CDCR SACRAMENTO 10-14-11". YouTube. Retrieved 16 December 2011.