BOP: Best Philadelphian 2007



IT’S LATE ON A FRIDAY NIGHT. Maybe early Saturday morning. Certainly past Dorothy Johnson-Speight’s usual bedtime. She stands huddled over a cup of coffee, on the north side of City Hall.

It’s the exact spot where, more than a century ago, legendary activist Mother Jones started her March of the Factory Children, an effort to reform child labor laws and save children’s lives. Johnson-Speight has a similar vision. But she, a matronly 50-something who took a long nap today, has a different approach.

You can hear her helpers before you see them, rumbling and whining somewhere to the east. Then suddenly several motorcycles round the corner of City Hall, and they sound like a ground-level thunderstorm.

“All right, then,” Johnson-Speight murmurs. She is a reserved woman, a poised woman, not given to outbursts and not easily impressed.
But several motorcycles become dozens, then dozens become scores, and then — as her eyes widen — the scores become hundreds. Maybe 300 motorcycles in all, roaring and screaming as they circle Philadelphia’s City Hall. Their riders wear tattoos and black leather, and one sports a skull mask. They park on the north side, at Johnson-Speight’s feet. Many are members of a Philadelphia-based group called Bikers Against Violence, but others came from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. They’ve come to give Johnson-Speight a hand in her mission tonight: to infiltrate some of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods, occupy them during the deadliest hours, and spread the word about the anti-violence group Johnson-Speight founded after her own profound encounter with violence.

It’s a tactic bordering on vigilantism, pushing into territory where government programs can’t reach. But the city’s murder rate has climbed beyond all accounting, and Johnson-Speight has called for action.

Before the bikers begin the night’s ride, they climb off their motorcycles and surround Johnson-Speight, who passes out doughnuts and worries for the riders’ safety, as some aren’t wearing helmets. “Anybody hungry?” she asks.

A massive biker named Darryl, in a head scarf and black leather vest, grabs a bullhorn and addresses the throng. He warns them about the neighborhoods they’ll be overtaking. They’re lethal. “But if we can stop one murder tonight,” he says, “we will have accomplished our goal.”

The bikers all raise a fist into the air. For a full minute they stand that way, still and silent as statues, with Johnson­Speight at the center.

“All right, then,” she says.

HE WAS, IN SOME sense, a mama’s boy. And she loved that.

Johnson-Speight worked in mental health, and her son, Khaaliq, worked in mental health. She focused on troubled children, and he focused on troubled children. She was working toward a postgraduate degree, and he was, too.

He was, above all, a good boy: He had just won acceptance to the master’s program at Springfield College in Delaware, and when he finished it, they — mother and son — planned to open a therapy practice together, working side by side.

In November 2001, Khaaliq, then 24, moved from his mother’s home to the Olney neighborhood, where he shared a house with his half-brother. Almost immediately he encountered Ernest Odom, his off-kilter neighbor. Odom had a fixation on parking spaces, to put it mildly, and one evening a friend of Khaaliq’s parked on the curb in front of Odom’s house. When Odom noticed, he started yelling, screaming about disrespect, so Khaaliq talked with him and — it seemed — defused the situation.

A couple of days later, Khaaliq returned home late, after a date. He parked behind his own home and walked around to the front. He didn’t know two critical facts: Someone, in his absence, had parked in front of Odom’s house. And Odom now hid there, waiting.

As Khaaliq passed, Odom stepped out and shot him eight times: Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

He only stopped when his gun jammed. Khaaliq’s alarmed brother peered out from a window and saw Odom standing over his brother.

Holding a gun. Kicking his face.

Khaaliq’s brother telephoned Khaaliq’s mother: “A man shot him—”

She rushed to the hospital. “I’m sorry,” a doctor said. She collapsed.

A moment like that alters a person, as surely as falling from a considerable height. The only question is how the person reacts. Some people fly from the pain, some people hide from it, and some people — a remarkable few — take action.

Since she was a little girl, life had prepared Dorothy Johnson-Speight for the decision: She chose action.

ONE DAY THIS SPRING, before the midnight ride with bikers, Johnson-Speight arrived at her office on Allegheny Avenue and examined her schedule. The office’s thin carpet and mismatched furniture bore witness that her organization, Mothers In Charge, is propelled not by money, but by an evangelistic sense of mission. Johnson-Speight flipped through a crowded calendar, grimacing. The work is sorrowful and repetitive. That’s the nature of putting a city on notice; people have to hear the message again and again.

“Where am I today?” she asked a young volunteer. The answer came back: Temple University. Speaking on a panel.

Johnson-Speight requires no preparation for this sort of public appearance. She can speak extemporaneously on her subject because her subject is all around. Through July 1st of this year, 203 people had been murdered in Philadelphia, as compared to 188 last year, leading to a total of 406 for that year, and 380 total the year before.

At Temple, the other panel members made their presentations — specifically about the danger of prison inmates returning to the general population without proper guidance — and the crowd listened politely. Then Johnson-Speight began, and a torrent of words poured from her, spilling details: She knows the danger of repeat offenders all too well. She held up a sheaf of papers.

“The man who shot my son,” she said, “had a record—”

Here her fist holding a sheet of paper slammed onto the panel’s table, wham.

“—eleven—”

Wham.

“—pages—”

Wham.

“—long. And through his entire trial, no one came to sit on his side of the courtroom. No one.”

Even years later, Johnson-Speight holds a seething rage toward not only Ernest Odom, but the family who abandoned him. They’re all complicit, in her view.

She gave the audience a succinct description of her group’s activities: They push for tougher gun legislation. They work with the FBI on a program called “Step Up, Speak Up,” encouraging witnesses to come forward after violent crimes. Last year they staged a mock wake, with a casket and weeping mothers, on the street outside the Pennsylvania State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden. They spend time with juvenile prisoners, and try to wake them before it’s too late. And it’s not too late, she told the crowd. Not for an angry young person, and not for the City of Philadelphia.

Johnson-Speight isn’t a chatty person, and speaking this way requires a specific act of will on her part. “I think it’s more important to listen than to talk,” she says later. “But sometimes, when it’s important, I will speak out.”

On the panel, she spoke out urgently, and heads began to nod. Afterward, two uniformed prison workers, both women, approached Johnson-Speight.

“My co-worker’s son was killed,” one of them said. “And I worry every night about my own son. How can we join you?”

MEMORIES ARE OFTEN LIARS. They fade. They reshape, hide, erase themselves. But sometimes, moments lodge themselves in the brain like thorns, and stay.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight remembers sitting in the living room of her family’s home at age 15. She was just Dot, then. Her father sat outside, nearby, playing checkers with a friend. That was a particularly hot July, and the heat lay on North Philadelphia like a blanket, so that even standing still required exertion. Dot’s mother had died of cancer just months before, so the daughter had hardly sorted out her role in the new, reshuffled family hierarchy.

Someone stepped into the living room, and Dot looked up. Your daddy, the person said. He’s gone. He’s had a heart attack.

Just like that. Checkers, then gone.

And in the span of a few months, the young girl found herself parentless.

She stood alone, then. And angry. She lashed out at the world, fought at school, stayed in trouble, and was eventually sent away to a school for at-risk children. But through it all, she says, a handful of people in the community, people who had known her parents, “rose to the occasion” and kept her from tumbling off society’s edge. She would remember that.

She stayed in school, went to college, and had children of her own — a son and a daughter. Then in 1986, the daughter, who was two years old, contracted bacterial meningitis. She, like everyone else close to Dorothy Johnson-Speight, died.

The mother reeled. But this time, instead of lashing out, she sought help. She joined a suburban branch of the London-based support network called The Compassionate Friends, and found support there, but not quite satisfaction. “The people at the meetings were good people, but none of them looked like me,” she says. “None of them lived in my neighborhood.” So she took her first step toward activism: She started a Philadelphia chapter of the organization. The group allowed grieving parents to gather and remember, to talk about — to cry about — the loss of their children.

And at the time, that seemed like enough.

ON A JULY NIGHT, after a block party in the Olney neighborhood, 19-year-old Justin Donnelly sat with a friend on a stoop and chatted. Probably about basketball, or his favorite subject, baseball.

A man approached on the sidewalk. He was looking for his dog. Had they seen it?

“No,” Justin said. “Haven’t seen it.”

The man seemed agitated by the answer. He turned away, then came stalking up the stoop and punched Justin in the chest. Then he turned and walked away.

Geez, the boys thought. What was his problem?

A dark red stain blossomed on Justin’s chest. The man hadn’t punched him—he had stabbed him. And the knife tip had nicked his heart.

Justin died a few minutes later, in a police car that was rushing him to the hospital.

That happened in the summer of 2001, just months before Khaaliq’s murder. Later, Dorothy Johnson-Speight watched Justin’s mother, Ruth, pour out her heart on television during a crime-stoppers segment of the evening news, pleading for information about the killer.
Johnson-Speight felt an immediate connection with the woman on television. Her son had died just a few blocks away. And he, too, had died for something so trivial as to be inexplicable. At least in Khaaliq’s shooting, the police had arrested Ernest Odom, whereas poor Ruth Donnelly had to beg for witnesses to come forward.

Johnson-Speight went to the Donnelly home, and sat down across from Ruth at the kitchen table. She felt a need to swap stories with this woman. Did she, too, take great detours around the city while running errands, to avoid passing reminders of her son’s death? Did she, too, keep her son’s final telephone message and listen to it repeatedly, to hear the tiniest lilts and inflections? If not, would she find that strange?

They talked about their sons, their young lives and their — no easy approach, in conversation — their slaughters. A few details emerged that froze both women.

Justin’s killer had been seen around the neighborhood with a pregnant woman a while back.

Huh. Did you know Ernest Odom’s girlfriend had a young baby?

It turned out that Justin’s killer was looking, more specifically, for his pit bull.

Well, that’s strange. Ernest Odom raised pit bulls.

The two women fell silent, at the kitchen table. They sat and stared at each other.

Perhaps, one of them said, perhaps we should call the police.

Ernest Odom, it turned out, had no business roaming the streets of Philadelphia. He had that 11-page rap sheet, and not for shoplifting or traffic tickets. His charges were for violence, and using weapons. But in nearly every charge, page after page, he received probation or light sentences from lenient judges, or no sentence at all when witnesses refused to show up in court.

The two mothers teamed up, and attended Odom’s trials for killing each of their sons, and watched as juries convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison.

Something about their meeting, and their joint effort — their unassailable motherly outrage — felt right to Johnson-Speight. It felt stronger and more active than simply attending group therapy and grieving together, as helpful as those things can be. This felt powerful.

ANOTHER NIGHT, AGAIN WATCHING the evening news. This time in May 2003. A bad night.

She missed her son terribly that night, and then saw a news segment about another boy, this one killed while someone tried to rob him as he exited a pizza parlor. A pizza parlor.

A pizza parlor.

Johnson-Speight sank to her bed, her spirit all but crushed, and suffered what she now calls “a psychotic breakdown.” She wept, and slipped into a state between sleep and wakefulness. That’s when the vision came to her: She saw the street outside the pizza parlor. In the street she saw a boxing ring, and in the ring she saw a group of angry mothers. Only they didn’t wear boxing gloves. They carried bullhorns, shouting to the City of Philadelphia, pleading for young men to leave their guns at home, demanding that passersby come forward to bear witness after crimes.

From that vision sprang Mothers In Charge, an organization Johnson-Speight founded with Ruth Donnelly and a couple of other women. They recruited another mother of a murdered child, and another. And another. And another. And in four years, the group has grown from three mothers to 300, most having lost someone to violence. That’s 300 existentially angry people, bent on extracting something meaningful from their loss.

Out of Johnson-Speight’s breakdown, an understanding has come. “I didn’t want this person who murdered my son to claim my life, too,” she says. She’s a woman so reserved that her words — especially about her son — seem to excrete from her lips like drops of blood. “I can’t have him here physically. To watch him walk down the aisle. To be in the hospital for the first grandbaby … ” Her words taper.

Yes, she says. The work hurts. “It is painful, reaching out and touching so many women who have lost their children,” she says. “Touching my own pain.”

SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT, on a Friday night: The bikers tear north on Broad Street, followed by a half-dozen women from Mothers In Charge in an SUV.

At intersections, several bikers stop, blocking cross traffic while the mothers pass through like heads of state. The mothers shatter this illusion by beeping their horn, waving, and tittering over the bikers’ muscles.

On a block near Stenton Park in North Philadelphia, the convoy enters a world entirely populated, it seems, by black males aged 17 to 35, who stand agape on street corners and watch the stream of chrome and leather flow past. These young men are, statistically, an endangered species; some of them — many of them — will die at someone else’s hand before the year ends.

Johnson-Speight grows quiet as the convoy pulls to a stop. She cares for these young men. She sees the killer in them, like Ernest Odom, but she also sees the victim, like her son. This creates a tension in her, working against one type and working for the other. She supports tough judges handing down tough sentences, for instance, but she worries that aggressive stop-and-frisk police tactics will target these men because of their skin color alone. “I go back and forth on that kind of thing,” she says. “I know that these police are out here sometimes facing criminals who have bigger guns than they do. I understand they’re fearful. And I’m afraid that’s going to lead to someone innocent being shot.”

The only solution, then, is to beat police to the spot. It helps to bring along a few hundred snarling bikers: As they rumble to a stop, people pour from their homes to see what’s creating all the noise. The bikers grab the men and talk with them about the pitfalls of guns, while Johnson-Speight stuffs literature in the women’s hands that reads, “Stop the Violence. Join Mothers In Charge.”

The neighborhood residents look stunned — Who are these people who arrived with a thunderclap? What do they know about life on this block? — but a few of the women nod quietly, and slip Johnson-Speight’s cards into the pockets of their housecoats.

THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, DOROTHY JOHNSON-SPEIGHT has refined herself, and her work: Again and again she melts down her pain, forges it into a useful tool, and sets to work repairing her city.

She suffered profound loss early in life, and struck at the world in anger. But she hammered that experience into something valuable: She climbed her way back into society, and became a therapist for at-risk youth.

Then the city’s violence — not just one crazed killer, but a systematic failure on society’s part — stole her son away. She shaped that loss into a weapon of sorts, which she uses to cut through the stagnation and complacency that binds Philadelphia in the face of violence. “I don’t know where she gets her strength,” says Natosha Gale at the Philadelphia FBI, who worked with her on the Step Up, Speak Up campaign. “This woman works nonstop. She gives her whole life to save other mothers from suffering that sort of pain.”

In the four years since Johnson­Speight started Mothers In Charge, the group has exerted influence on the city’s most important authorities; it has partnered with the police department, the district attorney’s office, and citizens’ groups like Men United. It worked with the Mayor’s office to organize the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership, which identifies and tries to help at-risk children before it’s too late. Its members go into Philadelphia’s juvenile prisons regularly, where they run a mentoring program. Politicians at local and state levels have endorsed Mothers In Charge, and sought endorsements of their own.

And all the while, more women join. They’ve lost brothers, sisters, sons, daughters.

A woman named Donna Giddings joined Mothers In Charge about a year ago, after a man entered her family’s home and killed her son, her mother and a friend. The massacre sprang from a disagreement over a thousand dollars someone owed her son, and could have been resolved without bullets. “I had heard of Mothers In Charge back then, but I didn’t pay attention because I thought it didn’t affect me,” she says. “Now I know. And I think other people are starting to understand that the problem affects us all. I do think things are changing in Philadelphia.”

Ruth Donnelly, Johnson-Speight’s founding partner, says, “We did this because we needed to let people know, ‘This could happen to you.’ I think that’s happening. I really do.”

Saving a city is too big a job for one woman to contemplate for more than a moment. When she is alone, away from the panels and government programs — when she puts down her bullhorn — Johnson-Speight describes a smaller, more personal motivation. She talks about her son, and the particular details of his life, and her attempt to keep them all at hand. “He and I were planning to work together, when he was here,” she says. “And now, somehow, it feels like he’s still living through the work I’m doing. I can keep him here, by working and remembering.”

What happens when she forgets the exact shade of white of his teeth when he smiled, the full catalog of grins, chuckles and laughs, the precise proportions of tooth, lip and cheek, or the crinkle around the eyes? If she ceases to carry on their work, will all those details pass away?

“As I get older, my memory is rusting,” she says, her voice fading again. “You don’t want to lose that. It’s almost like a death all over again.”
Such is a mother’s love: If saving the tiniest glint of her son’s smile means saving the city itself, so be it.

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