Why This Germantown Man Shows Up on the Scene of Every Philly Murder With a Folding Chair and a Bullhorn
"What we really need are boots on the ground," says anti-violence advocate Jamal Johnson.
Sunday, January 29th, 11:05 a.m.
That date might not ring a bell now, but it was the day the San Francisco 49ers came to South Philly and lost to the Eagles, punching our ticket to the Super Bowl. At that time of morning, some fans were already pre-gaming outside the Linc, or inside their local bars ahead of the 3 p.m. kickoff, or stopping by the grocery store, seeking deals on chicken wings and hot dogs.
But one lifelong Eagles fan who wasn’t doing any of those things was 66-year-old Germantown grandfather Jamal Johnson, a Marine veteran. A few moments earlier, Johnson had arrived in his white Lexus at the intersection of West Godfrey Avenue and Front Street in Olney. The blustery wind whipping around his large frame, he slowly dragged his black camping chair, the word KILLADELPHIA emblazoned across the back, to the corner. He crossed to the other side of Front Street, a megaphone slung over his shoulder.
In addition to his bulky black-and-green Eagles jacket, he wore a tattered gray baseball cap reading STOP KILLING US. His face mask bore the same message. And his impossible-to-miss sign read, in all caps, STOP SHOOTING PEOPLE — a sign he held up to limited honks of support from the many passing cars at the bustling intersection.
Johnson didn’t pick this corner at random.
The day before, 62-year-old Larry Scott was gunned down here, steps from his home. As part of his grassroots anti-violence initiative, Johnson is committed to bringing his sign, his chair and his megaphone to the location of every single homicide in the city within 24 hours. Earlier on Sunday morning, he had shown up on a corner in Overbrook where 19-year-old Emilio Alvarado of Strawberry Mansion had lost his life to gun violence a day earlier. And after wrapping up his “community engagement,” as he calls it, at Godfrey and Front, he would move on to the 5600 block of Rising Sun Avenue, where 23-year-old Maison Hernandez of Feltonville was gunned down in a parking lot not 24 hours before.
“There are lots of people talking a lot of talk and spending a lot of taxpayer dollars,” Johnson told me as we stood on Front Street. “But what we really need are boots on the ground. We need to have a presence in these communities. And we need to keep this epidemic in people’s view and in their consciousness.”
Johnson is often joined by James Lambert, a 72-year-old West Oak Lane resident. Lambert spent many years in prison — his latest stint of 35 years ended in 2018 — and when he got out, he was alarmed by what he saw.
“The gun violence was already out of hand,” Lambert said as he held up his own sign. “But now, it’s beyond out of hand. I used to be angry. Now, I’m absolutely pained. And I’m just trying to do my part.”
A woman in a Nissan stopped at the red light, a young child in the back seat. “There’s too many children being taken,” she shouted out the window at Lambert. “We need more people like you!”
“We need more people like you to do what I’m out here doing,” he tried to reply, but she’d sped off.
Meanwhile, Johnson fired up his megaphone. “People of Philadelphia,” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the neighborhood. “We need to solve this problem. City Hall isn’t going to get it done. We need to get it done. You’re terrified, you’re horrified, and you’re sickened. But you don’t say nothing. You don’t do nothing. Come out here and join me.”
Nobody did. Hardly anybody ever does.
Johnson’s activities aren’t limited to these street-corner events. In 2020, Councilperson Jamie Gauthier introduced a resolution demanding that Mayor Jim Kenney declare gun violence a citywide emergency and take action accordingly. Kenney refused to do so. So Johnson started showing up at Kenney’s home every day, reading the resolution aloud on his megaphone from the street. Then he went on a 26-day hunger strike outside of City Hall. Kenney didn’t comply with all of Gauthier’s demands, but he did enact some of the measures.
“Jamal’s determination is unmatched,” says Gauthier, who checked on him daily during his hunger strike. “The fact that he, as a singular person, can make an impact on this issue is incredibly inspiring, and it has truly inspired me not to take no for an answer.”
Johnson has also marched all the way from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to bring his anti-violence message to legislators there — a feat he embarked upon again on March 10th, his 66th birthday. He plans to march for 21 days, with Lambert expected to join him for part of the trek.
“So who is going to man the corners while you’re gone for three weeks?” I asked Johnson before he left for his next stop. He paused, looked at me with soft, sorrowful eyes. And I immediately knew what was about to come out of his mouth.
“Why not you?”
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Published as “Boots on the Ground” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.