Life After Death

Losing a Child to Police Murder

Dorothy Holmes

In 2014, Chicago police murdered Ronald Johnson. In the first installment of a multipart series, his mother Dorothy Holmes tells her story of growing up in Chicago and her courageous fight for justice for her son.

South Side, Born and Raised

I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. My mom was both parents to me and my three little brothers. She worked many jobs to make sure we had a place to stay. I’m my mom’s oldest child and my brothers looked up to me when they were little. I was the babysitter while our mom was at work. And yes, we all have high school diplomas, college diplomas, and a family Black-owned business my second brother opened up so that we don’t have to work for no one. My mom did a great job raising us. She was a workaholic and that kept a roof over our heads.

I will never forget as long as I live when I had gotten sick in fourth or fifth grade and had to be admitted to Louise Burg hospital. I shared a room with the hospital clown, Charles Montgomery. He kept me laughing when all I wanted to do was cry to go home. Once we were released we would see each other again. We ended up moving into a building where he lived and his mom became our babysitter. Pearl Montgomery and her daughters and sons became our family. We are all still close today.

But as we got older, I became the babysitter. Boy oh boy those lil’ boys were a handful. But I made sure my brothers were okay even though they think they’re older than I am. I was Grandma’s tattletale. I told on everyone. Grandma would come in after church and give me a peppermint or sweet potato pie and seven up. She knew everything that had happened the whole week and last week. My cousins and aunts stay mad at me right now. To this day they bring it up.

I used to look at all the violence in Chicago as a child growing up and use it to say if I have kids I want the best for them. I don’t want to depend on anyone to help me with my kids. I got pregnant my senior year of high school. I still graduated from Wendell Phillips High School, class of 88. Yes, I went to prom, walked across that stage like there was no tomorrow.

I lived at 5346 S. Union with my mom and brothers all the way until I had my first child. The love of my life, Ronald Johnson, was born at Chicago Lying-in Hospital on December 14, 1988. He weighed 7lbs 11 ½ oz. I was so excited for my baby words couldn’t explain. My brothers were excited, too. His dad’s side was excited. This lil guy brought joy to both sides of the family. My mom’s first grandchild. Of course, he got all the attention. He was my lil chunkyman. We all spoiled him.

His grandparents on both sides were very supportive of me raising him. He had his favorite aunts and uncles and cousins. Jerry was more of a big brother to him than an uncle. His cousin Tommy used to look out for him a lot. It meant a lot since he didn’t have a brother.

He had so many nicknames growing up. Mr. Stay Putt, Greedyman, and in the end RonnieMan stayed his nickname. RonnieMan attended Mays, Sherman, and Dewey elementary schools. But the gangs were bad in that area. So RonnieMan, his two sisters, Rosalyn (Ra-Ra), and Billie (Tay Tay), and I moved to Altgeld Gardens. Then he went to Aldridge, Wheatley, Carver Middle[1], and Corliss High School. Later he went to Kennedy King College to get his GED. Everywhere he went, my son got along with people. He wasn’t a troublemaker.

As he grew he became an animal lover: cats, snakes, frogs, and most of all, dogs. RonnieMan was known by many as “dog man” because if he found a stray it was his. If the dog was sick he would ask for money to nurse the dog back to health. He had love for the dogs. As long as they ate, he was happy. He and his sisters were close to each other growing up. They were overprotective of each other. You couldn’t do nothing to one of them without dealing with the others.

RonnieMan and me at a family reunion

RonnieMan became a father at the age of eighteen. Ronniyah, his lovely baby girl, was born May 20, 2007. My first grandbaby. He loved his daughter. Couldn’t tell him nothing. And then another one and another one and another one. Now he has four daughters: Ronniyah, Ronjonae, Brittney, and Harmony. Oh my, these lil ones keep us on our toes. They are his pride and joy. Then, on December 28, 2012, his first son was born. Karon Ronald Johnson, my grandson number two. RonnieMan was excited to finally have a boy. He did what he had to in taking care of his kids. He worked. He watched the kids while their mom was at work. He was a family man. His family meant the world to him.

The Worst Phone Call Ever

2014 was a tough year already for our family. My close friend, like a sister to me, Karen Smith passed in May. She wasn’t my blood family but we were close. My goddaughter passed July 4. A friend of Ronnieman’s, D-Man, was killed by Chicago police earlier that year. It was tragedy after tragedy.

Ronnieman was watching the news about Roshad MacIntosh. CPD shot Roshad two weeks after the murder of Mike Brown, on August 24. I never forget that date because that’s my daughter’s birthday. RonnieMan said to me, “Police out here killing everybody. I stay out their way.” I had already been following what Rekia Boyd’s family was going through. I thought I couldn’t imagine if that happened to me.

On October 11, 2014, I talked to RonnieMan all day. He was asking about everyone. He was to come to meet me at Beggar Pizza, but he didn’t come. Last time I talked to him that day was around 8 PM and he was asking about his girls. I told him they were OK and he said he was going to go hang out. He sounded so happy. Never heard from him again.

The next night around midnight I got the worst call ever. My daughter Rosalyn kept calling. I wouldn’t answer. I couldn’t imagine what she was calling about that couldn’t wait. My daughter Billie finally answered and she said, “They shot him.”

I said, “Who?”

She said, “RonnieMan.” My heart dropped.

I’m like, “Where he at?”

She said, “King Drive.”

I’m like, “Where, in Parkway?”

She said, “53rd and King Drive.”

I grabbed my keys, ran out the door. Made it from 122nd and Normal to 53rd and King Drive in five minutes. As I approached the area, all I saw was lights and yellow tape. I finally made it. I jump out the car and a young man approached and said they shot him. I said, “Who?”

“The police. They killed him for nothin’.”           

As If We Were the Killers

The police standing around in the blocked off streets told me RonnieMan was at Northwestern Hospital. They told someone else Stroger, another relative heard Mt. Sinai. As we were heading all the way to Evanston, my daughter called and said he was right there at University of Chicago on 58th and Maryland.[2] 

We went there and they said we can see him, then they said we can’t. So we were standing around waiting. A sergeant came out and I asked him, “Could you tell me how many times he was shot? Is he alive?”

The officer laughed and said he was shot only once. Our crowd got riled up at him laughing it off. The white-shirt called for backup. More cops came. They put the hospital on lockdown.

A doctor came out and asked for more time. So we kept waiting to see my son. That never happened. An officer came and told us we didn’t want to see him that way. He was pretty messed up. That white-shirt had lied.

They told us to go home because no one was going to see him that night. I couldn’t identify him that night. That was a Sunday. I went back Monday and he wasn’t ready. I was told I’d be called to come back. So now it’s Wednesday. I finally identify my son. Lord knows a part of me died with my son. Now my mind was all over the place. Another world, making arrangements, going to the cemetery for them to show me where he would be buried.

I wasn’t ready to lose my son.

We held Ronald Johnson’s funeral on October 22nd. So many people were standing around trying to get in to see him. The church was overcrowded. Soon as the service was over, on our way to the cemetery, police pulled our car over. They said they were looking for guns. They stopped as many cars in the funeral procession as they could and locked a few people up for traffic violations. When we made it over to the burial the police were everywhere, as if we were the killers. So, once I laid my son to rest, the fight for justice began.

[1] Closed and consolidated in 2008.

[2] At this time there were no trauma centers on the South Side of Chicago so it was possible they could have sent him to any of these hospitals, even though some of them are far from where he was shot.

Dorothy Holmes is a leading fighter in the movement to end police violence. She has spent the last five years marching, organizing, and speaking out all around the city, across the country, and internationally, alongside a growing network of family members of loved ones killed by police