Earlier this month, in our Best of the Triangle issue, the INDY praised Durham City Councillor Jillian Johnson for her commitment to "keeping it real," noting that, even though she's now an elected official, Johnson continues to be an active presence at civil rights protests across Durham. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Johnson has landed in hot water less than two weeks later for getting a little too real.
"I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people," Johnson wrote on her personal Facebook page last Monday, "but I feel like more of us should be pointing out that the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers, and that the no-fly list and FBI anti-terror efforts are seriously corrupted by entrapment, racial profiling and Islamophobia."
Johnson was reacting to national news: the Senate was in the midst of a vote on expanding background checks for gun purchases and banning those on the FBI's no-fly list from purchasing guns. But her post generated a lot of local buzz.
A passive-aggressive press release (which didn't mention Johnson by name) arrived in local media inboxes on Wednesday, courtesy of C.J. Davis, the new Durham police chief. "The City of Durham is fortunate to have faithful, dedicated police officers who are committed to serving residents," Davis said. "The Durham Police Department, in conjunction with city leadership, recognizes the sacrifices our officers make daily and thank them for their service." The Durham County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 2 demanded an apology and called Johnson's post a "slap in the face of everyone that protects our city and our country."
Andy Miller, president of the North Carolina Sheriff Police Alliance, went further, calling for Johnson's resignation in a guest editorial published in the Herald-Sun. (Excerpt: "I will be the first to admit that cops or soldiers are not perfect, but neither is anyone else. The last perfect person died on the cross for the non-perfect ones.") The News & Observer rounded up comments from Mayor Bill Bell and Councillor Eddie Davis, who clarified that Johnson's words didn't reflect their thoughts. The story even found its way to a handful of conservative websites, like Townhall and Glenn Beck's The Blaze. On Tuesday morning, the N.C. GOP raged against Johnson's "deplorable remarks" in a fundraising email. "Because of the liberal media," it said, "standing up for America's military and police is not an easy job, but it's a job we take on proudly."
By the time Johnson took to her public Facebook page last week to clarify her comments, the new post rose to the level of "breaking news" on the ABC 11 homepage.
Here is the thing about Johnson, though: she's basically a radical, and she makes no secret of it.
Earlier this year, as debates were raging over the deportation of Riverside High School student Wildin Acosta, Johnson wrote—on her public Facebook page—that she was standing in solidarity with Acosta and "the right of all people to move freely on this earth." Last December, the day after she was sworn into office, Johnson participated in a rally organized by the Inside-Outside Alliance, which has called the Durham County Detention Center "the plantation on Mangum Street." She stood outside the jail and told a reporter that "folks in Durham are required to treat their pets better than we are treating folks here in this jail."
Durham prides itself on being one of North Carolina's liberal strongholds, so it makes sense that its representatives on the council reflect a spectrum of liberal thought. Johnson represents a far-left ideology, of which there is certainly a constituency. Indeed, her opposition to a variety of DPD policies is arguably what got her elected.
For her part, Johnson says she was making a broad point about policing and militarization to an audience—her private Facebook friends—that regularly engages in such conversations. "Outside my personal Facebook community, that message gets distorted and lost," she says.
"I don't think the police in Durham are more likely to cause harm to the Durham community than street violence," Johnson adds. "But I do think when they do cause harm—and they have—that needs to be quickly and effectively addressed."
Asked if her views on the political process had changed since taking office, Johnson doesn't respond with a bland statement about good people trying to do good work for the people of Durham. Instead, she mentions the recent independent study—commissioned by the DPD—that found that Durham cops disproportionately pull over black male drivers.
"When that came out, the city was very focused on this message that, in spite of the evidence that this is a serious problem, we continue to have highest level of support for our police department," she says. "And that is always the message. I think the message should be, 'No matter what, we need to ensure our police department is providing police services in ways that don't harm our community, and when that happens we need to put reforms in place to ensure doesn't happen again.
"This is the third time I've been told I should resign," Johnson continues. "And each time it's been related to my criticisms of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. I think that says a lot about the priorities of people in positions of power here in Durham."
Johnson, of course, is also a person in power now. It will be very interesting to see how she balances that responsibility with her activist impulses.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Radical Jillian Johnson"