Jamal Johnson has been in Minneapolis, Minn. the past three days during protests over the death of George Floyd, an African-American who died Monday after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd’s hands were cuffed behind his back. Minneapolis police were investigating the use of a counterfeit $20 bill at a nearby store.
Protests throughout the country have turned violent, especially in Minneapolis. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis police officers at the scene have been fired.
I met Jamal last September, when we were among a group volunteering in Tijuana and San Diego. He and I took part in a water drop in the California desert with the advocacy group Border Angels. I spoke with Jamal by telephone Sunday. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
What is your role in Minneapolis?
I see my role as being supportive. One of the things I do consistently is speak out about police brutality. This was something I thought I needed to be a part of. I was out on the west coast working on the community gun violence issue in Seattle, and I came here via Phoenix, Arizona, where there was a protest for George Floyd.
Who are you with?
I came here alone and reunited with some people and groups I’ve done work with in the past . . . one was Black Lives Matter New York. We’ve done some work recently; last year we did the march against white supremacy in D.C. The guys here this morning from Alabama, we did work for a young brother, EJ Bradford, who was killed at a mall in Alabama (in 2018 by police).
What have you seen so far in Minneapolis?
Last night the word was out they were going to squash everything at 8 o’clock, one way or another. I chose not to partake in any of that. The night before, there was burning and looting. It was a peaceful protest originally, in the daytime. At night, that’s when for whatever reason, people started destroying property.
What’s your take on the “outside agitators” claims?
There’s definitely people not from here who I know for a fact are involved in some of this stuff. Some of the fringe groups they talk about, they are in fact here and have made their voice known. I’ve seen them myself — like any other thing that gets a lot of attention, they’re going to be a part of it to get their message across. Their message is not our message. Unfortunately it’s been tied to our message, and we’re getting the wrong end of the stick. They’ve taken attention off the main issue, which is George Floyd and police brutality.
I think I saw a Facebook post about you being confronted by police?
A few of us were heading back after the fires and everything — it got kind of chaotic, the National Guard was moving in and all that, so we just wanted to get out of there. On our way out, we were walking down the street and didn’t realize the area was quarantined off. There was nothing there to let us know not to go there. Out of nowhere they drew guns on us, they said to stop. I won’t lie to you, we ran. They could have shot us. We ran and got away from that situation. That’s just how sensitive and volatile it’s been around here the last couple of days.
Other cities around the country now, too.
I saw Philadelphia yesterday. It’s ridiculous.
What is your message to people, whether they’re activist, white, black, people in power — what do you want to say to them?
People want to concentrate on one issue, and we have many issues to be addressed. When they come out to places like this and support what’s going on in this unfortunate situation with George, they also have to remember there are other factors that need to be addressed, one of them being community gun violence — the killing of us, by us. People seem to want to jump on the bandwagon when it’s the police killing us, but they don’t seem to want to voice anything when it’s the kind of violence we’re creating in our own neighborhoods. I’m adamant about this. Look at all the support for this, but when it comes down to all the bodies dropping dead in our communities, there’s silence as far as I’m concerned. They both amount to death. It doesn’t take a white cop to be the only one to instigate black death. If you’re serious about humanity as a whole, everybody black and white should be addressing that issue.
That’s probably an opinion that gets you some criticism?
A whole lot. I’m going to stick to it because I believe it. If people are truly out here about George Floyd and what happened to him and other black people in this country when it comes to police, which has happened for years, they need to keep focused on that. And to extinguish the narrative that this is all about looting, instead of brutality and the killing put upon people in this country by the police. And they need to not get caught up in the aesthetics of it all. In other words, these things happen, people go back home and it’s back to things as usual. If you’re not in it for the long haul, just stay home.
Do you have a message for the president?
Yeah. Quit. Simple as that. As a veteran, I have to say I’m truly ashamed of our commander in chief. I’m truly ashamed of him. I know people who are Republicans who truly love this guy, more power to ’em. But I cannot see how he’s the best example of what America is, of our county, with the things that he’s done and said.
It feels like it’s going to be a long, hot summer.
It’s just starting. It’s a shame when we think about other issues — the immigration situation and a lot of domestic issues. People just can’t seem to want to band together to solve problems. We can talk about things day and night, but we need to start solving some of these issues. When we get together like out here, if it’s only about making noise and getting on TV, it’s not going to stop. We have to have solutions.
Do you have ideas for solutions?
Depending on the issue, the first thing we have to do is talk. Everybody has a common enemy right now, supposedly — the system, the police, etc. You’re yelling at them, but you’re not talking to guy sitting next to you. And then you go home to your little enclaves and that’s it. People need to start collaborating, networking, keeping the fervor up and keep it alive. When the news goes away, we gotta keep this alive. This issue has gone on for decades. That’s one reason why every year I do the (Stop Killing Us) Philly to DC march, talking about police brutality and community gun violence, and I’m going to keep doing it. Come August, there’s Jamal walking down the highway again, talking about community gun violence and police brutality.
What would you say to police chiefs and unions?
Get involved in your community, let them know you care. We’re out here all the time struggling. Don’t talk it, walk it. Let us know you’re with us. You’re going to need us in the end. We’re here to help you, not to hurt you, but you gotta let us know you care about the things we care about in the community.
What should be done, or should have been done, about Officer Chauvin?
Considering he had a history, a long history, not only should he go down, but everyone who was connected to him and kept him in the police department should go down. People need to be held accountable. If we can weed out more of these bad cops, some of the good cops will start snitching and get rid of others who are no good. But as long as good cops have to fight the power structure, they have to look out for themselves. I don’t blame them. They need to go against the system if it doesn’t support what they claim they’re about.
Words matter. Activist? Witness? Protestor? Some people see a word and react differently. What word should I use to describe you?
Human being . . . a human who cares about other human beings. Simple as that.