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Jamal Johnson is a disabled Marine Corps veteran, but it wasn’t until last week that the 63-year-old Germantown resident suffered a panic attack.
“It really took me off guard,” Johnson recalled as he was driving to his daily protest at City Hall, where he would stand for several hours, sleet and snow notwithstanding, and continue his hunger strike.
Johnson has not eaten since Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
He did not eat on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. And he will not eat, he said, until Mayor Jim Kenney publicly acknowledges City Council Resolution No. 200447, put forth by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and passed by 14 of 17 councilmembers in September, to declare gun violence a citywide emergency.
A chat with some of Johnson’s friends made over his years of anti-violence and human rights activism provided reassurance panic attacks are par for the course when during a hunger strike.
“I called my support system and they’ve told me that this is what you can expect,” he said of the incident that almost sent him to the hospital. “So, I’m okay.”
Around 1 p.m. Monday, a visibly gaunt Johnson stood alone on the north side of City Hall with a black hooded coat and a megaphone. “The numbers show we are not doing enough Mr. Mayor,” Johnson bellowed over the sound of falling sleet and a snow plow, “so come on out. Stop hiding behind COVID-19.”
Fifty people were killed in the first month of 2021, up 32% from last year to date. According to data published by the Institute for Better Gun Violence Reporting, 182 people this year have been shot, some non-fatally, compared to 155 in 2020.
For Johnson, part of the solution to Philly’s record crisis is simple: The city should do everything and anything it possibly can to help curb it.
Gauthier’s resolution outlines a number of action items the administration should take to improve and add transparency to the city’s gun violence response. They include:
- Weekly public briefings on city gun violence efforts and how residents can keep safe
- Further implementation of the administration’s own gun violence response plan
- Mobilization of every city department, with gun violence as their top priorities
- Leveraging private sector and nonprofit resources to help fund expanded anti-violence programming
If some of these things sound familiar, it’s because the city’s already doing them — but in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“With COVID-19, you see our mayor or [Health Commissioner] Dr. [Thomas] Farley on the TV every single day,” Gauthier said, referring to the city’s regular updates, once held daily and now held weekly. “With COVID-19 we see all of our city agencies working together and clear demonstrable ways… With COVID you saw a call out to the private sector and to the philanthropic community.”
Johnson is not asking Kenney to adopt Gauthier’s measure. Just to state his stance on the proposal either way. Neither he nor the councilmember have heard from the mayor, they told Billy Penn.
Initially, Johnson planned to camp out at City Hall 24/7 until Kenney acknowledged the resolution. But on his first day there, he said police told him he’d have to move. So he amended the action to an ongoing hunger strike plus several hours outside the mayor’s office each day.
In response to an inquiry about whether Kenney plans to acknowledge the resolution, a city spokesperson emailed a statement from Jan. 18 touting anti-violence work the city is doing.
“Instead of arguing over semantics, the City is interested in working together with all stakeholders to address our gun violence epidemic,” the statement reads.
The Philadelphia Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Johnson’s protest.
A public health ‘crisis,’ but not an ’emergency’?
Mayor Kenney in 2018 declared gun violence a public health crisis and called on his cabinet to establish a plan to curb violence in 100 days. At the top of 2019, his administration published its Roadmap to Safer Communities.
In late 2019, the city established $700k in grants for community-based anti-gun violence programs, the most recent round of which was announced in November.
The city’s last report on community-based violence initiatives was published at the end of 2018, more than two years ago. On New Year’s Eve, the mayor provided a brief written update on some anti-violence steps the city has taken.
In contrast, the pandemic has spurred a slew of executive orders and emergency declarations, which have allowed the city to do everything from shut down businesses to work with private enterprise groups and distribute monetary relief resources. Gauthier and Johnson, along with most members of City Council, are looking for the mayor to do the same with gun violence.
“You saw [Brian Roberts] putting $5 million on the table for laptops [for remote learning] and that was important, right, and I applaud that effort,” Gauthier said, “but why not do that with gun violence.”
In addition to his City Hall demonstrations and ongoing hunger strike, now two weeks in duration, Johnson said he spends every weekend outside of the mayor’s residences. More than 1k people have signed Johnson’s petition calling on Kenney to adopt the emergency declaration resolution.
He tracks his journey thoroughly on social media, where, in addition to calling out daily gun violence victim numbers and tagging the mayor, he takes time to shout out a vast array of pals in organizing.
He’s traveled as far away as Seattle and Chicago to help organize around everything from gun violence to environmental justice for indigenous peoples. Locally, he joined victims’ advocate Rozalind Pichardo for a camp out against violence on 11th and Tioga last weekend.
“I’m doing this to show to the mayor that this is an extreme importance, even as important as the COVID crisis in some communities,” Johnson said. “My request is very minimal. And since he insists on still not, at least, doing that, I will continue to stay on this until such time that he does.”