HARRISBURG — The first time violence tore through state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell’s family, she was 8 years old. Her father was shot and died in her mother’s arms on Easter Sunday, just outside of their home in West Philadelphia.
The next time, she was barely a teen. Charles Anthony was her brother and best friend; his throat was slashed while he was holding his toddler son.
Later, her teenage son — who had been named after her brother — was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity.
“In an all sterling-silver room, on a slab, zipped up to the neck in a white body bag was my son,” she said recently, recalling that day in 2011. “Everything inside of me broke.”
The devastating reality of gun violence didn’t just touch her family. It also was everywhere in her community, she said. And this year, it was what propelled her to run for the state House of Representatives when her predecessor, Vanessa Lowery Brown, resigned after being convicted of corruption.
“I ran because we need the bodies to stop dropping in every city across the nation,” said Johnson-Harrell, 53. “It’s our responsibility as legislators and leaders to do this.”
She took that message to the streets of the West Philadelphia district — and won with two-thirds of the vote in a special election in March, becoming the first Muslim woman in the House. Now she is speaking out in the state Capitol, where gun-control proposals rarely get a public airing, let alone a vote.
The road to public office was far from certain. She dropped out of high school, was living on welfare, and began “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol, she said.
Having children stopped the spiral and changed her life. Johnson-Harrell said she became laser-focused on protecting her daughter and three boys from violence. She got clean and earned her GED at age 30.
After that came community college for an associate’s degree in social work. She took night classes while working two jobs and made sure she got home in between to see her kids after school.
“When she sets out to do something, she succeeds,” said Theresa Thomas, Johnson-Harrell’s best friend of more than a decade. “Even if she gets a ‘no,’ it’s not a failure for her.”
For a while, life was better.
Her home, said Johnson-Harrell, was the kind that always had snacks and games at hand so the neighborhood kids could feel welcome. She and her husband rented vans and took other kids in the community on trips to the Poconos or the Jersey Shore. For some, it was their first experience traveling outside of West Philly.
“I thought, if I can protect these kids and we can protect this community, my kids can be safe,” she said.
One night, her sons came into her room. Choking back tears, they told her about the many classmates they knew who had been killed. Six months later, she had packed up her family and moved to Lansdowne.
“I decided my sons will not become statistics on the streets of Philadelphia,” she said. “Lansdowne is a place where everybody knows everybody’s dog’s name. I thought we were safe.”
Three years later, Johnson-Harrell received a call that shattered her world.
“Mom, Chuck got shot,” one of her sons said.
Charles Andre, or Chuck, was her youngest son. While on his way home from work in Philadelphia, he was killed in a case of mistaken identity.
She felt lost. She had done everything she could, but none of it mattered.
Just weeks before his death, Charles Andre had urged his mother to go back to school to get her doctorate.
Johnson-Harrell, encouraged by her academic adviser at community college, had already graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s in social work.
“For a little kid in my community, Penn was untouchable. It wasn’t somewhere that little black girls went.”
With her son’s encouragement in her mind, Johnson-Harrell went back to Penn to get a doctorate in social work. But she wasn’t done.
“Since my son died, I’ve been fighting,” she said.
She created the Charles Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for more restrictive gun legislation and targets poverty and childhood trauma.
It was a mission partly inspired by the trial of her son’s killers, when she realized that society had failed them as much as it had failed her. She asked for mercy in sentencing.
“While people call me the gun lady, I understand that the problem is so much bigger than the gun,” she said. “Social deterrents and other factors like education, housing and food insecurity, lack of economic opportunity or job availability all contribute to gun violence.”
During the 2016 election, living in Philadelphia again, Johnson-Harrell saw a chance to steer the conversation toward growing gun violence.
She ran for the state House and lost. But her message and spirit caught the attention of Larry Krasner, who recruited her to join his team after he was elected district attorney in 2017. In the DA’s office, Johnson-Harrell headed the Victim Services Unit, helping families who had been affected by homicide.
She had just settled into her new office and bought a fridge and coffee pot, she said, when party leaders approached her to run in the 2019 special election.
Again, Johnson-Harrell saw an opportunity — this time, to tackle the causes of gun violence.
“We look different, have different backgrounds and different experiences,” said Johnson-Harrell’s Harrisburg office mate, fellow state Rep. Bridget Kosierowski (D., Lackawanna). “But that’s great for our party. Those differences are how we can really make change as representatives.”
Johnson-Harrell made news on her swearing-in day, when a GOP colleague led the chamber in a controversial opening prayer that repeatedly invoked Jesus and Donald Trump. The prayer was viewed by some as an insult to Johnson-Harrell’s Muslim faith.
Since then, Johnson-Harrell has become known in the Capitol for talking openly about her personal experience with gun violence at rallies and other events.
“She’s just one of the girls on the block,” Thomas said. “She’s never become untouchable. She’s always been a motivator.”
Still, in a legislature controlled by Republicans, many of whom tout their support for Second Amendment rights, gun control bills do not get traction.
Shira Goodman, the executive director of CeaseFire PA, a gun-control advocacy group, said Johnson-Harrell’s powerful testimony could change minds.
“She brings a different story and has different access than lobbyists might have,” Goodman said. “She has different opportunities to be in the room where it happens and build bridges across the aisle.”
Johnson-Harrell said the legislature needs more people with her experiences.
“My story is not unique,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m just a mom. I want to show that everyday people can run and make a difference in their communities.”