Commentary

Roth: Time for parole board to set ‘The Dancing Man’ free

October 15, 2013 

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“Oh yeah! Here they go! Yeah, baby!” shouts Bruce “The Dancing Man” Thomas Johnson of Chapel Hill during the 2011 Chapel Hill-Carrboro Holiday Parade. He was sentenced at 17 to 90 years in prison in Florida for a botched armed robbery. He served 17 years and was released for good behavior to restricted parole – until 2069.

MARK SCHULTZ — mschultz@newsobserver.com

Bruce Thomas (Johnson), a Chapel Hill resident known by many as “The Dancing Man,” was incarcerated for armed robbery in 1978 when he was 17 years old. He was the youngest of a small gang of boys. The failed attempt was a mockery that did not go anywhere, and no one was hurt.

This is just a fact. I point that out not to minimize in any way his involvement, nor to exonerate him, since he has taken full responsibility for his actions from the beginning. He was sentenced to a prison term of 90 years. That’s not a misprint – 90 years. Bruce served 17 years behind bars and in December 1997 was given parole for good behavior (with a release date of 2069) when he was enrolled in a training program here in North Carolina. That was 16 years ago.

I had the privilege of meeting Bruce soon after graduation from that program and have been friends with him ever since. Now 53 years old, Bruce remains in the thralls of the Florida parole board. He must get written permission to travel. When doing so, he must maintain contact with his parole officer. He must notify the parole board when he returns.

Despite the fact that Bruce, for a total of 35 years, has been a model prisoner and the most exemplary of parolees, the Florida parole board has passed, year after year, on granting full release to Bruce – “subject status is to remain the same” printed boldly each year on his rejected application.

Bruce is part of a system revealed in the 2012 book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander that powerfully and disturbingly contradicts the notion of a racially transformative United States, one that is colorblind (as many would like you to believe on the basis of the twice-elected President Barack Obama).

Instead, Alexander paints a dark and bleak picture of a system that targets black Americans (and Hispanics), using the cover of the “War on Drugs,” to incarcerate black males in hugely outsized numbers to both population and actual illegal activity or severity of crime.

These systemic practices have decimated black communities, further entrenched a rock-solid racial caste system, profiled blacks in terms of both police enforcement and social attitudes, and has, literally, relegated millions of black males to second-class status and permanent discrimination.

This is a fact: There are more black males in prison today than there were slaves at any time during the height of slavery.

Bruce is still infantilized by a system that fails to complete its mission. Maybe Bruce is simply lost in the system. Maybe consideration of freeing Bruce is subject to institutional fears of being perceived as soft on crime as a result of the current political partisanship and polarization. Whatever the failure, what I know is this: Although we we may not be able to change the system, we may be able to hold it accountable and have it act fairly, responsibly and justly on behalf of one person: Bruce Thomas Johnson.

Bruce has recently been advised of an upcoming hearing and supervision review by the Florida Parole Commission between December and February, during which time he will appear on his own behalf. It has been recommended that letters and petitions on Bruce’s behalf (please refer your petition to BRUCE JOHNSON, Thomas being his middle name) be sent in advance so they can be placed on file as part of the record. Would those of you who know, respect and love Bruce please write a letter and send originals with signatures addressed to each of the commissioners below at the following address:

Chair Tena M. Pate

Commissioner Melinda N. Coonrod

Commissioner Bernard R. Cohen Sr.

Florida Parole Commission

4070 Esplanade Way

Tallahassee, FL 32399-2450

Finally, would you send a copy to Bruce:

Bruce Thomas Johnson in c/o Chapel Hill News, 505 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

Editor’s note: This column was written and published with permission from Bruce Thomas Johnson.

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