💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Listen to an audio version of this story here.
Jamal Johnson’s granddaughter was 17 when she was shot in the leg. He was out of town.
“I came home and saw her laid up in bed,” Johnson recalled on a cold March evening, five years later. “I remember looking at her and just not believing this — because it happens to everybody else. It doesn’t happen to you.”
When it did happen, the activist had been traveling the country to protest police violence and other human rights violations. Though his granddaughter’s encounter wasn’t fatal, it confirmed for him another cause.
“It reinforced to me that I got an obligation to try to do what I can about this,” said Johnson, a Philly native and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
He watched in horror last year as the city’s gun violence crisis deepened. Philadelphia saw nearly 500 homicides in 2020, the highest in decades.
So in mid-January, Johnson became a fixture on City Hall’s apron. No matter what cold or snow blew past, he would post up daily for four hours or more. He had his megaphone, a pair of electric warming gloves he’d purchased just for the occasion, and his signs. “Enough is enough,” they read. “We demand action on gun violence! Adopt resolution #200447.”
To hammer home the point, Johnson went on hunger strike. He starved himself for 26 days, waiting for Mayor Jim Kenney to acknowledge a City Council resolution declaring gun violence a citywide emergency.
His nearly month-long demonstration ended in mid-February when PQRADIO1 owner and show host Saj “Purple Queen” Blackwell facilitated an impromptu meeting with the mayor.
During that meeting, Kenney pledged to work to fulfill the resolution, so Johnson called off the protest. And last Thursday, almost one month to the day later, Kenney announced the city would begin to hold “regular public briefings” about gun violence efforts, satisfying one of the resolution’s main asks.
Compared to some other gun violence hunger strikes, Johnson’s was unprecedented in its effectiveness when it comes to impact and turnaround time.
In the closest similar example, Pastor Anthony Williams in Chicago stopped eating for about three weeks to urge the state of Illinois to adopt a bill declaring gun and other forms of violence a public health crisis. He started in September 2020. To date, the bill he was advocating for has not been passed by the House or signed into law, said Marlon Watson, President of ADOS Chicago, which organized with Williams.
Miami in 2019 had just over 50 murders (Philadelphia had 356 that year). A group of residents engaged in a three-week hunger strike to bring awareness and action to the issue in the city’s particularly troubled Liberty City neighborhood. They weren’t pushing for any specific legislation.
And in Brooklyn, one teacher turned down food for 73 days. She began eating again only after the Supreme Court ruled in Nov. 2019 that the families and victims of the Sandy Hook shooting could proceed with their suit against Remington, the manufacturer who made the gun used in the attack.
For Johnson, the hunger strikes and the publicity that came with them capped a whirlwind eight years. Now a career activist, his tumultuous early life led him to hard-working teen parenthood, low-level crime, anti-gang community organizing, a decade-long career in the Marines, and seeing his dreams for a travel-filled retirement cut short by tragedy.
A teen father’s choice: Military or prison
Johnson’s childhood was spent between foster homes, stints of homelessness, and gang activity. “I just wanted to get off the street,” he said.
Born March 10, 1957, and raised in North Philly around 6th and Oxford streets, Johnson said his childhood neighborhood is now unrecognizable because of gentrification. “Nothing’s there that was there when I was growing up, believe me.”
As he bounced from foster family to foster family, the list of schools he can remember attending were all over town — Barratt Junior High in South Philly, Fitz-Simons in Strawberry Mansion, Edison High in Franklinville.
When he was around 14 his grandmother took custody of him and his siblings. The glimmer of hope he felt was dashed when she died soon thereafter. Hoping to avoid reentering the system, an adolescent Johnson chose homelessness.
When he finally got tired of living on the street, he went back to children’s services. “I’m turning myself back in, to go back in,” he told his caseworker. There was no sympathy forthcoming. “He gave me a quarter, dime, and a nickel…and told me to get out of his office. So I left his office, nowhere to go. I was crying.”
A different caseworker spotted a tearful Johnson and took him to House of Umoja, a place that would change his life. The lessons he learned during his four years there, he said, guide his principled activist work nearly five decades later.
At the time, most who ended up at the West Philly home for boys were seeking to escape gang violence. Johnson lamented his own involvement in a fair share of that during the 1970s, but he wasn’t necessarily seeking an escape from that life when he ended up at Umoja. He went there “just to have some place to live.”
Along with his housemates, the teenager assumed his duty in helping facilitate peace pacts between rival neighborhood gangs — pacts that have been credited with drastic reductions in homicides. While helping Umoja co-founder David Fattah mediate real-time crises, Johnson learned the importance of being on the ground, “365 days a year,” he said.
“I’m always trying to encourage people to come on back out, especially when it’s snowing, when it’s raining,” Johnson said. “Murders happen all the time.”
Umoja also instilled in him a sense of responsibility to the community. The boys were charged with seeking employment, completing household chores and peacefully mediating conflict in-house.
At the same time, Johnson, now a father of nine with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had his first child when he was a middle school student too young to work legally. He lied about his age and worked two jobs to support his baby. “That’s how I bought the pampers and everything else.” It was rough, he said, but his 48-year-old eldest daughter is “good now.”
House of Umoja had a no crime rule. But Johnson slipped through the cracks.
Weeks before he turned 18, he was caught by police for stealing and stripping cars for parts with a friend. A judge told him to either clean it up, or go to prison. In a moment of rashness, he decided the answer was to join the Marines.
“Next thing I knew,” Johnson said, “I was at Parris Island.”
A commitment to activism supplants a taste for travel
Growing up in what he called Philadelphia’s “Rizzo and Black Panther era,” Johnson faced his fair share of racist police violence. That bled into his time in the Marine Corps, which had only fully racially integrated less than two decades before he joined in 1975.
He did give credit to the USMC, saying it “helped me to become more rigid… It allows me to stay on the path to whatever I’m doing when I’m doing it, regardless of what might be distracting.”
Johnson’s service began just months after the conclusion as the Vietnam War and lasted without any major conflict. Still, he spent years in parts of Asia — Okinawa and Korea — and even picked up a bit of Japanese. He adored it, and longed to extend his residency in that part of the word.
It was not to be. After about 10 years, his military career was cut short when he sustained a disability from drinking contaminated water on base — an environmental injury that affected around a million Marines.
Johnson returned to Philly, where he’s lived his entire stateside life. He joined the United State Post Office, where he met his wife, Bernice. The couple had three children before Johnson became a widower in 1995. One of Johnson’s sons is well-known and controversial pan-African speaker Dr. Umar Johnson.
After 22 years at Philly’s post office Johnson planned to retire and chill out to travel the world. But you know what they say about plans.
Johnson started taking trips to places that interested him. He was visiting friends in Phoenix in 2013 when he saw a newsflash: unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Florida. The incident caught his attention.
“I really felt obligated that I had to at least do something,” he said.
Cheri Honkala remembers the first time she met Johnson, at Mugshot Diner in Fishtown in around 2018. Her organization, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, was retracing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s March to D.C. and Johnson wanted to join.
“Here he was, this African American Marine joining the Poor People’s Army,” she said. “And that seemed very intriguing and interesting to me.”
After the march, Johnson became part of her organization. “When he commits on something, he commits 100%,” Honkala said from her home in Kensington. “Jamal’s got some bad knees. And so every single night, he’d ice up his knees and then he’d be ready to walk again in the morning.”
March on Harrisburg Executive Director Michael Pollack knows this trait well. Johnson is a board member of the pro-democracy, anti-corruption nonprofit working to get money out of politics.
“He’s just an incredible human being,” Pollack said. “I remember just being pretty impressed with Jamal and how he seemed to combine the firmness of being a drill instructor with just a lot of heart and a lot of compassion.”
West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who introduced the resolution that spurred Johnson’s most recent hunger strike, has kept in touch with him.
“He’s one of the most committed, passionate activists I’ve ever come across,” Gauthier said in January. “I respect his activism. And I respect his passion around this issue and the many years that he’s put into doing activism around gun violence.”
From Philly to Ferguson, a new career in anti-violence
It’s hard to say Jamal Johnson is a retired man at all, in the traditional sense.
Just days after ending his month-long hunger strike, he was in Houston providing water, pampers and food for families affected by the crippling ice storm. Over the last several years, he’s touched down in cities all over the country, including:
- Selma, Alabama for a March to Washington,
- Ferguson, Missouri for the Michael Brown protests,
- Florida for the trial of George Zimmerman, the white neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin,
- To Standing Rock, twice: “I felt really good to be able to provide support for the Indigenous people who were standing up,” he said.
Locally, Johnson founded the Stop Killing Us March in 2017, an annual event wherein he, and those who join him along the way, walks from Philly to D.C. to call for change around the issues of police brutality and violence. The walk ends with a visit to the Congressional Black Caucus for a presentation of ideas about how to combat police violence, and a demand that the legislators do something about it.
It hasn’t been all praise for Johnson’s efforts. He took heat on social media and in some circles for protesting gun violence at the political level when others expressed the fight should be on the community streets.
Saj Blackwell, the radio host who brought Kenney to meet Johnson, is one who came to hold this sentiment. When Johnson underwent a brief, second hunger strike after he believed Mayor Kenney didn’t work fast enough to fulfill the emergency declaration resolution, Blackwell felt strongly that Johnson was unfair to the mayor and moved the goal post.
She added, “The problem is, we don’t have a citywide gun emergency. We have a ‘hood gun emergency in our Black neighborhoods.
“His fight needs to be in the hood where the shootings are happening… let’s do the real work, which is not in front of City Hall,” she said.
Johnson ceased his second strike after one week, before the city formally announced its first violence briefing, because of a “perceived lack of community support for holding the mayor accountable,” he said. But Johnson perseveres, because he feels like he’s making a difference.
“I think that now, definitely, we have had some impact,” he said. “I never even think about, you know, how much time and effort I must have put in over the years. It takes a long time to get there, but we got there,” he said. “So that makes it all worth it.”