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What does it take for Mayor Kenney to talk to a constituent about gun violence? A hunger strike and a Purple Queen. | Helen Ubiñas

If a man is willing to starve himself, right outside your doorstep, it’s time to accept that whatever you’ve said or done isn’t enough.

Underground radio personality Sajda "Purple Queen" Blackwell where she broadcasts from in Philadelphia, Pa. on February 16, 2021.
Underground radio personality Sajda "Purple Queen" Blackwell where she broadcasts from in Philadelphia, Pa. on February 16, 2021.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

I asked once: Why did it take 26 days for Mayor Kenney to respond to Jamal Johnson, a Philadelphia resident staging a hunger strike outside City Hall over the city’s gun violence?

Then twice.

And then, hoping that the expression “Third time’s the charm” was true, I asked again.

Finally, an answer of sorts from the city spokesperson with whom I was exchanging emails:

“He didn’t meet with him sooner because the Mayor was aware of Mr. Johnson’s position and believed that his own stance on the subject was well known through public reporting.”

Thought bubble: What about the other public reporting from Day 1 that clearly stated that 63-year-old Johnson wouldn’t eat until Kenney or someone in his administration addressed a resolution that, among other things, called for addressing gun violence with the same urgency we have for COVID-19?

“He initially did not think a conversation would be fruitful. After more consideration, the mayor changed his mind as his concern for Mr. Johnson grew and decided that even if he and Mr. Johnson were not in total agreement about the means by which to reduce gun violence, they ultimately share the same goal: reducing homicides and shootings in Philadelphia.”

Thought bubble: Plus, consider the optics of a city resident keeling over from starvation just steps from the mayor’s office.

I thought about pointing out how all of this was more justification than reasonable answer, but life’s too short.

After nearly a month of press attention, mostly from female journalists of color, the mayor last week finally made his way to Johnson because a Black woman led him there.

Sajda “Purple Queen” Blackwell is an underground radio personality. Last week she invited Johnson on her weekly internet show, A Moment With Purple, on, after Johnson saw an earlier interview she’d done with the mayor and wanted to set the record straight.

Despite what Kenney said, nothing in the resolution introduced by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier calls for a state of emergency, which conjures up images of heightened law enforcement. It does, however, call for treating gun violence as the citywide emergency that it is. On Wednesday afternoon, eight people were shot near the Olney Transportation Center. Police said people were struck in their backs, ankles, legs, and arms. Do we still want to debate the semantics of the word emergency as more people are shot and killed in Philadelphia every day?

Critics of the resolution have said it should have included more details. And sure, more specifics never hurt. But this was a four-page resolution from which to build, not a 32-page “Roadmap to Safer Communities,” the city’s five-year action plan to decrease gun violence that so far has not.

The day after she interviewed Johnson, Purple Queen was home before a long Presidents Day weekend. But she thought of Johnson, back out in the cold at City Hall, and decided to go to one of the mayor’s public events to talk to him again about the Marine Corps veteran.

She offered to connect the men via video call, or, she told the mayor, they could just head over to City Hall.

Kenney agreed, and within minutes they were standing before Johnson, slouched on a chair and bundled up against the biting cold, weary from hunger.

“I want to pledge to work to do what we can to fulfill the resolution and to get this violence under control,” Kenney can be heard on a video recorded by PQRADIO1. “We’ll try to implement what’s in this resolution as much as we can.”

That includes possible routine briefings about gun violence similar to the COVID-19 briefings and updating the Roadmap for Safer Communities by next month. Hopeful steps, but Johnson vowed to return to City Hall and his hunger strike if progress stalls again.

As I watched the video, I had a few reactions:

About damn time!

Thank goodness this man could get out from the cold and eat.

And also, who was this woman who orchestrated this meeting and spoke to my preoccupation with diversity in newsrooms but also news ecosystems that underserved communities value? Spoiler alert: The trusted messengers aren’t always who we think they are. (PQRADIO1 is a partner in the News and Information Community Exchange run by WHYY, Billy Penn’s parent company.)

First, let’s address her connections: The Blackwell surname Purple Queen got by marriage. Her husband, Thomas Blackwell VI, is the grandson of former City Councilmembers Jannie Blackwell and the late Lucien Blackwell.

Did her connections, coupled with the fact that she is much less critical than other reporters of Kenney’s style or policies, make the mayor more receptive to bartering a truce at her request?

I doubt it hurt. But, whom Kenney acknowledges says more about the mayor and his administration’s reluctance to be held accountable than it does about Purple Queen, who considers herself a “community action-ist.”

And by Day 26, I really didn’t care who finally got Kenney to do the one thing he inexplicably wouldn’t. I had initially dismissed theories that Kenney refused to talk to Johnson because he didn’t appreciate his previously protesting outside Kenney’s home. Until, unsolicited, his spokesperson said Kenney was well aware of Johnson’s positions “from his time outside of City Hall and multiple visits to the Mayor’s residence and residences of his loved ones.”

Well, that sounded a little salty.

I get why public officials might not appreciate protesters showing up outside their home. (Kenney’s former managing director certainly didn’t like it.)

But an almost foolproof way of keeping people from going to such lengths is ongoing communication, transparency, and respect for the residents you are duty-bound to answer.

If a man is willing to starve himself, right outside your doorstep, it’s time to accept that whatever you’ve said or done isn’t enough.