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Jamal Johnson demonstrating. Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
Jamal Johnson demonstrating. Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

The man hunger striking until Philly Mayor Jim Kenney declares gun violence a citywide emergency

Jamal Johnson has been on a hunger strike since Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Sometimes it only takes one person to lead an entire movement and enact gradual change. 

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led a nonviolent resistance that eventually freed India from the rule of Great Britain, is a perfect example of this. 

In September 1932, Gandhi began one of many hunger strikes in his cell at Yerwada Jail in protest of the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste. His longest fast lasted 21 days. 

But as of February 2021, Philadelphia resident, Jamal Johnson, a Black, disabled, Marine Corps veteran has already surpassed Gandhi’s hunger strike record. 

Johnson has been on his hunger strike since January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in hopes that his sacrifice will draw attention to his cause: resolving the epidemic of gun violence in the city.

According to data published by the Institute for Better Gun Violence Reporting, 182 people in Philadelphia have been fatally shot this year, compared to 155 in 2020 in the same timeframe. 

In the first month of 2021, 50 people were killed, marking a 32% increase from last year. 

Johnson did not eat on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, and says he will not eat until Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney publicly acknowledges City Council Resolution No. 200447.

The resolution put forth by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and passed by 14 of 17 councilmembers in September called for declaring gun violence a citywide emergency. 

Around 1 p.m on Monday, Feb. 1, a visibly-thin Johnson stood alone on the north side of City Hall wearing a black-hooded jacket, carrying his megaphone. 

“The numbers show we are not doing enough, Mr. Mayor,” he hollered over the sound of falling sleet and a snow plow. “So come out, stop hiding behind COVID-19.” 

The 63-year-old crusader believes that the solution to Philly’s gun violence crisis leaves no room for nuance: the city should do everything in its power to alleviate it. 

The resolution set forth by Councilmember Gauthier outlined a number of action items that the administration ought to take to improve its existing response to the crisis, as well as add more transparency. 

She suggested the city conduct weekly public briefings on their current efforts and how residents can safeguard themselves, mobilize every city department to put gun violence at the top of their list, and leverage private sector and nonprofit resources to help fund anti-violence programming. 

In response to an inquiry about whether Kenney plans to acknowledge the resolution, a city spokesperson emailed a statement on Jan. 18, praising the work the city is already doing in regards to anti-violence work. 

“Instead of arguing over semantics, the City is interested in working together with all stakeholders to address our gun violence epidemic,” the statement reads. 

Kenney declared gun violence a public health crisis in 2018 and in late 2019, the city established grants of $700k for community-based anti-gun violence programs. But it seems that an updated approach is needed.

The city’s response to the pandemic allowed for the shutting down of businesses to work with private enterprise groups and distribute monetary relief resources. Johnson and Gauthier, along with most members of City Council, want the mayor to produce similar results with the gun violence epidemic. 

“You saw [Brian Roberts] putting $5 million on the table for laptops [for remote learning] and that was important, right, and I applaud that effort,” said Gauthier, “but why not do that with gun violence?”

In addition to his tireless City Hall demonstrations and record-long hunger strike, Johnson spends every weekend outside of the mayor’s residency. More than 1,000 people have signed his petition requesting that Kenny adopt the emergency declaration resolution. 

Johnson has been documenting his journey on social media, where he calls attention to daily gun violence victim numbers and tags the mayor. He also shouts out a vast array of friends doing similar organizing around the cause. 

“I’m doing this to show to the mayor that this is an extreme importance, even as important as the COVID crisis in some communities,” Johnson said. “My request is very minimal. And since he insists on still not, at least, doing that, I will continue to stay on this until such time that he does.”

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