Movita Johnson-Harrell

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When Movita Johnson-Harrell was offered the chance to become interim supervisor of Victim Services in Philly’s District Attorney’s Office, her first instinct was to say no.

At the time, Johnson-Harrell was running her own business, comfortably enough that she was also able to run the foundation she’d launched in 2011 in memory of her son, Charles Andre Johnson, a victim of gun violence.

The CHARLES Foundation, Johnson-Harrell said, “allowed me to be an advocate for victims, and an activist to help raise the voices of the victims.”

She didn’t want to give that up.

But after speaking with her husband and other activists, Johnson-Harrell began to change her mind. Her close circle pointed out that the position was unique, she said, and that it would speak volumes to the work she’d already been doing at her nonprofit.

The main question she had for District Attorney Larry Krasner: If she accepted a position in his office, would she be required to silence her activist voice? Quite the contrary. Krasner answered. The activist voice was the reason he wanted her.

“What that told me was that my passion to help people that have been harmed was not going to be squashed,” Johnson-Harrell said. “He encouraged me to hold his feet to the fire. To make sure that this office included the voice of the victims in the work that we do.”

She decided to accept the offer to join the staff.

A perfect life, until ‘something broke’

For more than two decades, Johnson-Harrell has been advocating for marginalized communities looking to light a fire across the country’s poorest major city.

Before her son was gunned down, she was the mother of two children, had two grandchildren on the way and lived in a six bedroom, six bathroom, mini-mansion in Landsdowne.

Basically, she toid Billy Penn, her life was perfect.

Charles Johnson was killed by two men who walked up to his car, where he was waiting for his sister, and opened fire. At the time, he was only 18 years old. Police later discovered the killing due to a mistaken identity, by perpetrators who had previous criminal arrest records.

“Something broke inside of me,” Johnson-Harrell said.

“I went from being a woman who had absolutely everything she ever wanted, to not being able to have the one thing that I want most in this world. Nothing else mattered anymore,” she continued, tearing up. “He was my baby in every sense of the world.”

Johnson-Harrell at a press conference with District Attorney Larry Krasner Credit: Phillip Jackson / Billy Penn

On either side of the gun

Her son’s murder thrust Johnson-Harrell’s activism into high gear when it came to advocating against gun violence. But she had dealt with it her whole life — both her father and brother had been homicide victims.

Philadelphia has has long struggled to reduce a high murder rate.

As of April 30 of this year, the 90 homicide victims recorded represented a 13 percent drop compared to the same period in 2017. But the direction of the trend is uncertain. Last year, there were 312 year-end homicide victims, 35 more victims than there were in 2016, ranking it as the fourth highest of all years since 2007.

Johnson-Harrell had pressed the city to take a more empathetic approach to dealing with the problem for years, she said, but she really “got her legs” when she lost Charles — it allowed her to see and address people on both sides of the violence.

While she is an activist who gives voice to victims, Johnson-Harrell said, she also fights for the person on the other side of the gun.

“I’m not just fighting for the kids that have been murdered,” she explained, “I’m also fighting for the kids pulling the trigger. Because in many respects we failed them as a community, we failed them as a society.”

That dual understanding is part of what made a position in Krasner’s office suitable.

Watching the ‘entire’ system

Johnson-Harrell believes that under Krasner, the DAO is finally coming out of its “ivory tower” when it comes to interacting with the surrounding community.

“What I want to do,” she explained, “is use all the voices to help make the decision” for any particular case.

Last month, the DAO created the first-ever Crime Victims’ Advisory Committee (CVAC). The committee will specifically look to address victims of crimes, and help guide how the office interacts with those individuals.

Although her office will oversee the CVAC, Johnson-Harrell will not personally be choosing who sits on it. Instead, coordinators who work under her will make the selections.

Original plans called for a panel of around 15 or 16 people, but after more than 80 expressed interest in joining, a DAO spokesperson told Billy Penn, the office now expects to select around 20 individuals.

The field of potential interested citizens was very heavy with people who knew or had dealt with homicide victims, but Johnson-Harrell didn’t want to limit the panel to just crimes of murder. Emails indicating interest were also received from domestic violence victims, and people who had been carjacked.

“We don’t want to just gear this to homicide because people experience different types of crimes every single day,” said Johnson-Harrell. “We want to make sure that we look at the entire system.”

The makeup of the advisory panel could be finalized as soon as this week. The DAO expects the CVAC to have its first meeting in June.