Philadelphia activist Jamal Johnson started marching to Washington five years ago, after a police officer killed David Jones in North Philadelphia by shooting him twice in the back. Johnson’s goal each time he marched the 150 miles was to demand the passage of police reform legislation.
On Monday in Center City, Johnson began the first leg of his fifth “Stop Killing Us” march to the nation’s capital. But this year is different.
Philadelphia, like many major cities, is in the midst of a violence crisis that has left 324 people dead this year, more than were killed in all of 2017. And Johnson gained new visibility earlier this year by parking a chair outside Philadelphia City Hall in the dead of winter and embarking on a hunger strike with the goal of getting Mayor Jim Kenney to take bold action to stem the tide of shootings.
So this year’s march has dual purposes: to urge lawmakers to pass police reform legislation and to ask members of the Congressional Black Caucus to advocate for new federal resources to slow the flow of illegal guns into the city.
“This is not just a local thing,” he said. “That’s why I’m taking this to D.C.”
Johnson, a 64-year-old Marine veteran, said this year was also the first time he was joined on the march by sitting elected officials. District Attorney Larry Krasner and Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia, accompanied Johnson on Monday on the first leg of his three-week march.
“He’s one of the most passionate activists I know on the cause of saving Black people’s lives,” Gauthier said.
Dozens of supporters gathered Monday at City Hall to send Johnson off, some telling of loved ones they have lost to gun violence.
Galen Tyler, 52, an organizer with the political advocacy group Poor People’s Army, said he was victimized in May by the surge in violence: He was shot in the leg while coming out of a bodega in the city’s Frankford section. He said he was listening to a Zoom call from his phone and was caught between gunmen firing at each other.
It’s why he said Johnson’s work to bring awareness to rising violence is critical.
“It is much bigger than the youth and people on the street,” he said. “We need to hold elected officials accountable. … These kids in North Philly, South Philly, West Philly, they’re not making these guns.”
In addition to the adults who gathered, two dozen kids came to stand behind Tyrique Glasgow, the founder of the Young Chances Foundation, an organization that provides after-school and recreational programs to children in the city.
And Naheim Gaymon-Hill, a 10-year-old fifth grader who lives in West Philadelphia, performed an original rap called “Better Days.” Among the lyrics are: “Look at these people dying, we see too many mamas crying.” He wore a bulletproof vest.
“I worked really hard on it,” he said of the song, “because violence is not the key.”
Johnson said the weeks-long march is physically trying, and among the hardest things he’s put his body through, besides going on a 26-day hunger strike to urge Kenney to declare gun violence a citywide emergency. (The mayor said he would not do so.)
Some supporters will join Johnson for most of the march or provide a place to rest when he passes through town. Others will walk alongside him for an hour or two.
But Johnson won’t stop until he gets to D.C. And he’ll probably be back next summer, he said, doing the same thing.
“Once I see the change,” he said, “then I can enjoy my retirement.”