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Let’s Honor Kevin Johnson by Dismantling the Systems That Failed Him

The execution of Kevin Johnson exposes the dysfunction and cruelty of this country, which failed him his whole life.

Protesters raise their fists in front of police in riot gear during a protest against police brutality in Rock Hill, South Carolina on June 24, 2021.

To be Black in the U.S. is to hope in the face of a continuum of social, political, economic and psychological “death sentences.” As Black people, many of us have learned to hope against hope. It is hard because it is such a fragile thing — to hope that we might be shown grace.

Despite what I have come to know about the anti-Black hydraulics of the criminal legal system, and the ontological criminalization and profoundly problematic ungrievability of Black male bodies, I had hoped that perhaps, just perhaps, 37-year-old Kevin Johnson — the Black man scheduled to be executed this week in Missouri — would be allowed to live.

Just two weeks ago, when I learned about Johnson’s situation, there was still some hope of generating the necessary push for a stay of execution. Clemency was the watchword; mercy was what was being requested.

But this week, on November 29, the State of Missouri killed Kevin Johnson.

It is days like these that make me see hope as the enemy of a people who have suffered pain and agony for which there is no release, no grace.

There was no denial on the part of Johnson regarding the killing for which he was executed. He confessed that he had shot and killed Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee, a white man, in 2005. At that time, Johnson was only 19. Johnson had blamed Sgt. William McEntee and other officers for being uncaring and indifferent to his 12-year-old brother (known as “Bam Bam”) who had a seizure and collapsed in his grandmother’s house after police had arrived looking for Johnson to serve a warrant for his arrest. Johnson said he had watched McEntee prevent his mother from helping his younger brother when he collapsed. “Bam Bam” was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Distraught, when Johnson later saw McEntee, who had returned to the neighborhood, he shot him several times, resulting in his death.

The pain that McEntee’s family had to endure requires empathy from all of us. Trying to put myself in the place of McEntee’s family produced feelings of profound sadness. Before Johnson was executed, however, I also began to feel that familiar gravity of suffering the weight of something unjust: the taking of a life of a transformed man who regretted the actions of his younger self. That was hard to bear, hard to imagine. It is not mutually exclusive to grieve the death of McEntee, and yet to fight for, to hope for, to plead for, the life of Johnson.

As I read Kalonji Changa and Joy James’s interview with Kevin Johnson in Truthout just days ago, I began to think about what it would mean for me to have only days left to live before being dreadfully and mercilessly executed by the state. What would I say to those whom I love? How would I use these last precious moments? How would I say goodbye to life, to living? How would I let go? How would I face the abyss that awaits me? And is there more?

I then began to weave my voice with what I imagined as Johnson’s voice, which now seems more like a form of advocacy, a demonstration of loving kindness mixed with deep anger. Johnson’s early life invokes unconditional grace because it speaks so powerfully to a world, our world, that failed him. The polyvocal weaving of our voices goes something like this: How do I stop carrying the hate that I feel for a system that has violent, transgenerational implications for bringing me to this place? Why is the adult me still being criminalized for the actions of a younger me who I’ve already forgiven, outgrown, grieved? I am no longer that young boy. He existed in a different time and place, a time and place of tremendous struggle and turmoil. He was a younger me that needed love and needed it desperately. There is a way in which I’m not even the one who is being executed by the state; the state is executing the younger me who has long died, who I’ve left behind. Why can’t the state see this new me? Why can’t the McEntee family see that I’m not the murderer; I’m the phoenix who has managed to rise from the ashes of a world that is still on fire. And because I am this new me, isn’t the state putting to death a transformed man? Isn’t the state putting to death a confused young boy from the past? As I continued to merge my voice with Johnson’s, I felt the emergence of anger and deep frustration. Once again, as when he was 19, the world didn’t see him. I wanted to scream!

After hearing that Johnson had been murdered by the state, it was with painful clarity that I understood just how inhumane, callous and appallingly unethical it was to put this precious soul to death. The state that was so hellbent on putting Johnson to death is the same state that catastrophically failed to act earlier in his life.

The state should have instead “executed” the systemic poverty that Johnson and his brother, Marcus, had to live with. Where was the state when, living in extreme poverty, they were forced to sleep in a garage that was converted into a house? Where was the state when Johnson and Marcus were separated? Where was the state when their mother was addicted to crack cocaine, which was forced into the neighborhoods of Black people? Where were the caring, loving and robust therapeutic and interventionist systems in place for his mother? Goddamn, where was the state when Johnson was so hungry that he ate roaches, or when he and his brother tried to catch a mouse and eat it?

Looking back, how can one not see a young Black child in desperate need, who needed grace from the state. It is here that James Baldwin provides the grammar: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason.” This is not about “playing the victim.” Johnson’s life mocks such an assumption. Who has time to “play the victim” when being beaten daily by an aunt and uncle, being forced to hop on one leg while standing in the corner of a room for punishment. Who has time to “play the victim” being sent to school as a child with clothes smelling of urine. Imagine being beaten/spanked so bad that there is no response from your body, where the adult hitting you receives no response. That is violence, that is abuse. It is no wonder Johnson, at 13 years old, attempted suicide by trying to hang himself with bed sheets.

Where was the state when he was clearly crying out for help: Somebody help me! Somebody see me? Somebody show me lasting love! Perhaps this is why his younger brother, “Bam Bam,” meant so much to him. He could give him the love that the world refused him. My sense is that “Bam Bam” was a constant in Johnson’s life. Born with a congenital heart defect, “Bam Bam” reflected back to Johnson something of the profound tragedy of life within our world.

Johnson, like many young children when their worlds fall apart, blamed himself. Add to this the socially and interpersonally pervasive trauma, the head trauma and concussions that Johnson endured as boy playing football, the trauma of his father’s incarceration and the murder of his daughter’s mother by a rejected suitor. It is no wonder that Johnson lived with major depression, suicidal ideation and hallucinations. Bear in mind that his daughter, Corionsa “Khorry” Ramey, who is now 19 years old, was there to witness the murder of her mother, to witness the results of being shot in the head. At only 4 years old, she communicated to Johnson: “My mom’s dead. She had Kool-Aid coming out of her head.”

The state arrived too late. It was not Johnson who should have been executed. It is systems that fail Black children that need to be ended, once and for all; it is systems that don’t provide proper family services that need to die. It is anti-Black racism that blames Black people for their own condition that needs to die. It is the U.S.’s barbaric practice of capital punishment that needs to die.

Johnson was so much more than the single, deeply tragic, decision he made at age 19. As he said, “That moment doesn’t define me.” McEntee was also much more than his tragic death. The state’s response: More death! No grace! No forgiveness! No recognition of transformation!

I mourn here with Johnson’s daughter, Corionsa. Both her parents have now been taken. I don’t have the language, but I do have the anger, and I do have the grace to see that there was so much more to her father than the state was capable of seeing. This is my offering to Johnson and to his extended family. I see you — Kevin Johnson. I see the younger you and I mourn him, and I forgive him. And while I can’t bring you back, I celebrate what you became.

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