One activist won’t eat until Mayor Kenney takes action on gun violence ‘emergency’

Jamal Johnson began his hunger strike on MLK Day in hopes of connecting the city’s homicide crisis to the historic struggles Black people have overcome.

A passerby photographs activist Jamal Johnson who began his hunger strike Monday. (Layla Jones/WHYY)

A passerby photographs activist Jamal Johnson who began his hunger strike Monday. (Layla Jones/WHYY)

The first hour of Jamal Johnson’s hunger strike against gun violence and government inaction drew a small, diverse and drifting crowd. Those who gathered to see and join the one-man protest called on everyone from Mayor Jim Kenney to everyday Philadelphians to work to end the city’s gun violence epidemic.

Johnson is specifically calling on Kenney to acknowledge a September 2020 City Council resolution that urges him to declare gun violence a citywide emergency through executive order.

“All I’m pleading for him to do is to let us know that, not only does he know the resolution exists, but that he seriously intends to do something either way for or against,” Johnson, 63, said Monday.

A city spokesperson said Mayor Kenney respects Johnson’s right to protest, and touted a 2018 call from the mayor to treat gun violence as a public health emergency.

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“Instead of arguing over semantics,” the spokesperson said, “the city is interested in working together with all stakeholders to address our gun violence epidemic.”

Mayor Kenney’s COVID-19 emergency declaration let relevant city departments overstep bureaucratic red tape and stream resources toward fighting the deadly pandemic. City Council wants Kenney to take a similar approach to address the pandemic of gun violence.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier introduced the resolution, which was cosponsored by 14 other councilmembers. If Kenney declared gun violence a citywide emergency, Gauthier said she thinks it could help departments bypass time-consuming governmental procedures and funnel more resources toward the issue more quickly.

“If the mayor were to say that this should be a number one priority for every agency in this city,” she said, “then they would be empowered to act in a way.”

Gauthier visited Johnson at the start of his action, and said she respects the activist, but wouldn’t urge anyone to put their health in danger.

Jamal Johnson began his hunger strike outside of City Hall on Monday. (Layla Jones/WHYY)

Kicked off on the Martin Luther King Jr. annual Day of Service, Johnson will be camping outside the north side of City Hall in a tent. He’ll consume only liquids and plans to stick around indefinitely until Kenney recognizes that council resolution.

Cheltenham resident Dirk Parker, president of the Ivy Hill Youth Association, dropped by to leave Johnson a 24-pack of water bottles. He said part of the responsibility of curbing gun violence falls on the communities most affected.

“When I grew up in Mt. Airy… elders would go through the community, and would talk about violence, and they would call people out,” Parker, 49, said. Things are different in neighborhoods today, he said.

“Now, we say mind your business and all that.”

Rachel Murphy is a 25-year-old South Philly resident who works at an anti-corruption organization. She met Johnson through his anti-violence advocacy. Corruption and pervasive gun violence are interconnected, Murphy said.

“With Philly’s gun violence just raging rampant in 2020, and 2021 so far,” Murphy said, “I feel it’s important that our city actively does something… and really examines the issue.”

Johnson began his hunger strike on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a means to connect the city’s homicide crisis to the historic struggles Black people have faced and overcome.

“Even though we’ve called it a day of service, I think it’s also a day of remembrance of everything that we’ve been through as Black people in this country,” Johnson said of the holiday. “I think it’s pathetic, that we have self genocide going on in the street… I think this is paramount right now.”

Gauthier’s resolution pitched a number of stratagem the city could undertake to help curb its violence epidemic, including:

  • Creating a juvenile gun violence intervention program with the departments of probation and parole, DHS, the School District and the courts,
  • Requiring the police department, violence reduction office and other agencies to adhere to the Kenney administration’s 2019 safety roadmap,
  • Requiring those departments to report to council on their progress weekly,
  • Tap into a community of private and nonprofit funders to provide a well of anti-gun violence resources.

While Johnson is a dedicated anti-violence activist, this is his first hunger strike. It’s a departure from his normal anti-violence action — an annual, more-than-150-mile march to Washington D.C., which he started in 2017.

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That self-funded, three-week “Stop Killing Us” march draws walkers in each state — Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland — and was launched to address police violence. It culminates with a visit to the Congressional Black Caucus, where Johnson and his cohort “present our standards of law enforcement solutions to prevent further police brutality.”

Johnson said that he is now setting his sights on influencing city government to reduce shootings, which in 2020 killed 499 people in the city and injured more than 2,000. More than 17 people have been killed so far this year, according to city data.

“I’m sure if Martin Luther King was alive today,” Johnson said, “he would make this one of his priorities.”

Rowena Faulk, 57, stopped by to take to her Instagram Live and broadcast what Johnson was doing. She was disappointed there weren’t more people out protesting.

“If this place was flooded,” she said of the action, which drew about a dozen people in an hour, “you would obviously get more people to pay attention.”

Still, Faulk believes Johnson can make a difference all on his own.

“Mr. Jamal is a one-man army,” she said. “Don’t tell me what one man can’t do. We’re living proof, 50 years later, of some of the things Martin Luther King did.”

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