Durham News

Jillian Johnson: Can activist also lead?

"I think we really need to consider the amount of money we're spending," says Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who spoke at the rally Monday, March 14, 2016, against a new $71 million Durham police headquarters planned for East Main Street downtown.
"I think we really need to consider the amount of money we're spending," says Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who spoke at the rally Monday, March 14, 2016, against a new $71 million Durham police headquarters planned for East Main Street downtown. mschultz@newsobserver.com

This spring Jillian Johnson stood outside a house riddled with bullets listening to a mother publicly question the fatal police shooting of her son.

Flanked by relatives and Durham NAACP members, Shanika Biggs asked how her son’s 911 call led to police firing 12 shots, five of which hit her son, and others that flew past him into his Angier Avenue home.

“This was a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Johnson said afterward. “Firing 10 shots and firing into an occupied residence certainly shouldn’t have happened.”

Controversy followed one of Johnson’s Facebook posts last week, but it wasn’t the first time the Durham City Councilwoman made a bold statement – before or since she was elected.

In 2013, she was arrested during a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh. About a week after being sworn in to the Durham City Council, she joined a demonstration about conditions at the Durham County jail. In March, during a protest that shut down part of Chapel Hill Street, she criticized the city spending millions of dollars on a new Police Department headquarters.

And in April, Johnson and fellow first-term member Councilman Charlie Reece stood quietly as the only elected officials at a press conference in which Biggs contended police had mishandled the shooting of her son La’Vante, 21.

Durham District Attorney Roger Echols cleared the Durham police of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting, and Reece and Johnson called for more police training.

Since being elected, Johnson along with Reece, have brought a more outspoken, social-media using style to the Durham City Council. Reece and Johnson post about council actions and considerations on social media, but they also respond to controversy in real-time, while other council members typically await more information from the city’s administration.

Reece said he has always used social media to reflect what he does.

“When I ran for City Council, I talked as much as I could about using social media to help more people understand what we’re doing on City Council,” said Reece, a 45-year-old attorney and father of two girls.

Johnson, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, ran for City Council, she said, because she was asked by a number of people who wanted someone who had been involved in community organizing. Her activism extends back to high school, when she came out as bisexual and fought for her school to recognize a queer student alliance as a club.

“We wanted a place for us to meet and talk and have some level of visibility in the school,” Johnson said. She went on to study at Duke University and continued to build on her experience in community organizing.

Her election comes at time people are having local and national conversations about racial profiling and police use of force, she said.

“I think there are truths that are important that we are willing to look at and address, and I think the city has been doing that,” she said.

Johnson doesn’t understand how saying she is concerned about the jail or questioning police use of force in the Biggs case is controversial, she said.

“Of course you should be concerned,” she said.


However, Johnson’s outspoken, activist style drew backlash last week after she posted a statement on Facebook as members of the U.S. House of Representatives unsuccessfully called for measures to curb gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists following the Orlando shooting in the Pulse nightclub.

“I am all about keeping guns away from dangerous people,” she wrote, “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 posted a clarification Wednesday morning, saying “state-sanctioned violence causes more harm” than non-state sanctioned violence.

Johnson’s initial post drew emails from residents, current and former members of the military and law enforcement calling for her resignation.

Johnson, who declined to apologize, said she plans to restrict who can view her personal Facebook posts to those she knows are willing to engage in reasonable political discourse.

In an interview a couple of months ago, Frank Hyman, a former City Council member who has taught classes on Durham politics, applauded Johnson’s outspokenness and activity.

But on Friday, he said Johnson “squandered a huge amount of political capital” with her Facebook statements.

“She gained almost nothing and lost a huge amount for her constituents,” he said.

Such statements could alienate political allies that could help her achieve her goals to help the undeserved in Durham.

“Making a big speech is easy,” he said. “Delivering a victory on the budget or on policies is hard.

Former City Councilman Eugene Brown described Johnson’s actions since being elected as a pattern of behavior that does not enhance City Council as a whole.

“It is very disappointing, and it is distracting,” Brown said. “In my judgment, her comments take away from the ability of the council to move forward to a certain extent. Now we are going to be engaged in what is she going to do or say next.”

She gained almost nothing and lost a huge amount for her constituents.

Frank Hyman, former City Council member


But not everyone feels that way.

Johnson supporters have been sending emails to City Council members saying they support the first-term progressive council member, describing her leadership as transparent and fulfilling a campaign to address gentrification pressures and concerns about police use of force and racial profiling.

Ian Kleinfeld wrote that he was disappointed that Johnson became the target of the kind of “jingoistic fervor and hysteria” for her opinion that state-sanctioned violence is bad.

“Jillian Johnson is courageous and outspoken,” Kleinfeld, 49, of Durham, wrote City Council members. “I can only hope the rest of you are as committed to real change in Durham, both economically, and for the physical safety of our citizens at the hands of the police.”

Nia Wilson, executive director of community organizing nonprofit Spirit House, said Johnson and Reece are more accessible to community members who have been underrepresented in Durham.

“Jillian has been a champion for community members who are marginalized or silenced here in Durham,” she said. “She was voted in and supported by people who understand the context of what she was speaking about.”

An organizer

Johnson came to Durham in 1999 to attend Duke University, where she majored in public policy and minored in women’s studies.

At Duke, Johnson worked on campaigns that opposed the Iraq war, sought to get Duke and other universities to divest from companies that were profiting off the occupation in Palestine and only license apparel produced in humane conditions. She also worked on campaigns that advocated for providing a living wage.

After graduating in 2003, Johnson has mainly worked for nonprofits. Currently Johnson is the director of operations for Southern Vision Alliance, a nonprofit that works with youth across the state on leadership development and civic engagement on social and environmental issues.

She is also active in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jillian has been a champion for community members who are marginalized or silenced here in Durham.

Nia Wilson, director, Spirit House

Before the jail protest in December, the Sheriff’s Office announced that two detention officers had been fired and faced simple assault and misdemeanor obstruction of justice charges after officials reviewed noncompliance reports that indicated they had used too much force on an inmate.

A self-appointed, community-based Durham Jail Investigation Team, which grew out of another organization that has been protesting jail conditions, demanded access to the facility to get more information about inmates’ claims of unsanitary conditions, inadequate food, a lack of access to medical treatment and other issues. The Sheriff’s Office ordered a federal assessment and released the results in June. The assessment said the jail met or exceeded state standards, but made 33 recommendations for administrative and other improvements.

At the jail protest in December, Johnson stood among protesters holding signs that said “We believe prisoners.”

“Folks in Durham are required to treat their pets better than we are treating folks here in this jail,” Johnson said.

After the protest, Sheriff Mike Andrews invited Johnson to tour the jail.

“She seemed interested and wanted to bring a group of observers with her,” Andrews wrote. “I told her the invitation is extended to elected, or appointed officials, and I have not received any further response.”

Johnson said the issue isn’t about her.

“There have been people who have been organizing around issues in the jail for years,” she said. “The sheriff not allowing them to do that, and then coming to elected officials and saying ‘OK you can come out to the jail,’ just feels wrong. I am not willing to be a gatekeeper in that way.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges