Philly activist marches to Washington hoping Congress can help fight gun violence at home

Jamal Johnson, Larry Krasner, Jamie Gauthier, and others march in a protest against gun violence

Jamal Johnson (left) kicks off a three-week march to Washington, D.C., on Monday. District Attorney Larry Krasner (center) and City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (right) joined Johnson for the first leg of the march. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

A Philadelphia activist calling on the mayor to do more to fight the gun violence epidemic is marching to Washington, D.C. to see if he’ll have more success getting support from congressional leaders.

“We continue to do just what we’re doing with the mayor. We’re doing it on a national level,” said Jamal Johnson in front of City Hall Monday before starting his trek with more than a dozen supporters cheering him on.

“We continue to cry out to those who are in positions to help us. We just don’t stop. That’s the simple strategy.”

Johnson is a former marine who went on a 26-day hunger strike this year in an attempt to get Mayor Jim Kenney to declare gun violence a citywide emergency.

The mayor met with Johnson over the winter, but the emergency declaration never came and from Johnson’s perspective, neither did a greater sense of urgency to stop the violence. This even as the city has recorded 324 homicides as of Sunday, and activists worry Philadelphia is on pace to exceed last year’s 499 murders — a three-decade high.

Johnson spoke to Kenney as recently as last week at a community event where once again, he felt the mayor was telling him he was doing all he could.

The activist hopes he’ll have better luck convincing the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington. After all, the surge in gun violence is not limited to Philadelphia.

For Johnson, the work in addressing violence in Philly and beyond begins with investing in communities hit hardest by shootings.

“We need to start building in the communities, making it safe for our children, build up our neighborhoods, get rid of the blight that’s going on, try to encourage children more about living and not dying,” said Johnson.

The city has invested an unprecedented $155 million in gun violence prevention efforts, including $20 million set aside for community groups working to reduce violence.

The funds have been lauded by anti-violence activists, although some have criticized the grant award process that won’t get the funds to organizations until September.

The Kenney administration has also faced criticism for touting a multi-faceted approach to dealing with violence, even though most Philadelphians have a hard time parsing what’s new, what’s ongoing, and more importantly, how it’s going.

All the while, the shootings and homicides continue to mount.

Before Johnson set off for his march to Washington, activists and other members of the public shared how they’ve been impacted by the violence.

In tears, Octavia Williams, a second-year law student described the despair she feels after losing her best friend Jamil Robert Henderson in June.

“Do I want to become a [district attorney], do I want to become a public defender?” she told the crowd. “Or do I just want to quit and give up because nobody love these Black men.”

Stanley Crawford, founder of the Black Male Community Council, lost his son William Crawford in September 2018. Looking around, he echoed what many other activists have long argued: The violence in Philadelphia is a racial justice issue.

Crawford wondered if the nonstop rallies asking the Kenney administration to do more would be necessary if the majority of shooting victims were another race. Would more than two dozen people have shown up to Monday’s rally?

“We had the coronavirus and it stays in the news all day every day to alert people how to stop it,” said Crawford. “We need the same attention and urgency on this violence that’s taking place.”

Johnson, who originally started his annual journey to D.C. five years ago to demand national police reforms, incorporated demands to curb violence two years ago as shootings began to rise.

On Monday, Johnson stepped off on his journey joined by City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, one of Kenney’s most outspoken critics on the issue of gun violence, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and more than a dozen children.

For the first day of the trek, Johnson planned to walk six miles to 70th Street and Woodland Avenue. He estimates his journey to Washington will take three weeks. At his final destination, he and whoever else makes it with him will also ask Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants in federal drug cases.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal