Turning Pain into Action

Chapter 2 of Life After Death: Losing a Child to Police Murder

Dorothy Holmes

Dorothy Holmes recounts her fight just to learn the basic facts of her son’s murder and how she has fueled her long struggle toward justice with generosity. 

Chapter 1, Life After Death

The police have spent the last five years lying to the press and trying to intimidate me and my family. The last thing they would ever do would be to tell me the truth about what happened to my son. I’ve had to try to piece it together myself. 

What I know is that Ronald Johnson was murdered for being Black and leaving a party. 

He had been at his goddaughter’s house. They were having a memorial for her uncle who had been killed. The gathering was mostly family. But he left with his cousin and two other young men to get in the car and head back to the South Side. 

Their car was shot up. We still don’t know who did it, but I know it’s true the car was shot up. Everyone jumped out and ran different ways. He was the last one who was left outside. I don’t know if the people he was with were able to get back inside and the door closed without him, or what. They were trying to get to safety but instead they were shot at by police. 

Police started pulling up and officer George Hernandez shot my RonnieMan in the back while he was running into the park at 53rd and King Drive. 

So just imagine. The news stated that he pointed a gun and the officer shot him. Well that was a lie. There was a witness and a video. The young lady filming says, “That’s crazy, they just murdered him for no reason. Look, they over there sneaking.” And that’s what they were doing: sneaking. You see them cover up his body. But they said he died at the hospital. No, he didn’t. He was dead on the scene. 

How you go from a house party, to being shot at, to then having the police who respond kill you on sight? I don’t know where they got their training, but they need to go back. 

Nothing made sense. I went to this office downtown where you’re supposed to be able to get some assistance if you have a loved one who is the victim of a violent crime. But they denied my claim. 

A lawyer I spoke to told me to just take whatever money the city offered. There were so many lawyers calling me I don’t remember their names. But I called this one back a week later to tell him exactly why that hurt so bad. I can’t take that money up to Mt. Hope Cemetery and ask them to give me my son back. But I knew I would continue to fight for justice for my son. My son’s life didn’t have a price tag on it. 

Five, Six, or Seven Shots and a Cover-up

I started going to protests. I met Frank Chapman and started working with the Chicago Committee Against Racism and Political Repression. They helped me write an open letter demanding information and for criminal charges to be filed against the officer who shot RonnieMan. When we went to deliver a copy of the letter to IPRA (Illinois Police Review Authority), Larry Merritt slipped up and mentioned that there was dashcam video of my son’s death. 

It took more than a year for me to be allowed to see it. The only reason Rahm Emanuel got re-elected was he kept my son’s and Laquan’s murder videos hidden. It took the Department of Justice to come in and say Chicago PD is corrupt and it still keeps its code of silence going on. 

Throughout all this time, police parked their cars outside my home, pulled me over constantly. One day an officer walked up to my home right in front of my grandchildren. He started petting my dog, talking to her, playing with her. Then he claimed that when he stood up, the dog got aggressive, so he shot her in self-defense. But he also reported that he was only there because the dog had been running around the neighborhood, but really the dog was chained up in the yard and couldn’t have gotten away. He killed her right in front of the kids and everybody. I filed a complaint but I have never heard anything back from the police department about it. 

All that year the FOP had been saying my son had a gun. I was told by the other people in the car with him that night he didn’t have a gun. But when I finally got to see that video, I saw him running for his life, empty handed. 

I had heard that an officer had tried to stop RonnieMan, and when he got away and kept running, the officer had holstered his weapon. If my son had had a gun, why would the officer who just tried to tackle him have put his weapon away?

The dashcam footage shows George Hernandez pull up, jump out of his car, and open fire in less than 2 seconds. 

It took months to get copies of the official autopsy. It describes a bullet wound through RonnieMan’s shoulder and another through his leg. But if I can ever get the money together, I want him exhumed and have our own autopsy done, cause nothing the police have said has turned out to be true. Anita Alvarez had a statement on her webpage right after the murder saying RonnieMan was shot six or seven times. But the police reports say Hernandez fired 5 shots, and two of them struck my son. Somebody’s lying. 

We all know the state’s attorney didn’t like filing charges against police. But I feel like Alvarez should have been locked up. She came out a week after the city was forced to release the video of Jason van Dyke murdering Laquan McDonald and gave an hour-long press conference saying she couldn’t press charges against my son’s killer. She basically convicted RonnieMan of being guilty for his own murder on live TV. Except he didn’t get a jury or a defense or due process. 

She said he had a gun. No he didn’t. She said he could have turned around and fired on the police at any time. He was running for his life and they shot him in the back. She showed a version of the dash cam video that was distorted to make it look like my son had an object in his hands. My lawyer has to two investigators ready to prove how someone improperly resized the video to tamper with the image. 

When that trigger-happy cop murdered my son, it broke my family in half. A part of us died with him. Our lives feel so incomplete without RonnieMan. I will always say RonnieMan. RonnieMan will never be forgotten. RonnieMan will live through his sisters, his kids, through me. 

My fight for justice has turned into a community. 

It’s hard to live without my son. But I have to keep going, keep spreading the word about RonnieMan because if I don’t nobody else is. It was a lot of negative things said but I took all the negative and turned it to positive and that’s to fight for justice for my son and many others whose lives were stolen by police. I must say I have a lot of people that support me. My fight for justice has turned into a community. 

RonnieMan Foundation

December 14, 2014 was the first time I gave kids in the neighborhood toys. Only a few weeks had passed since RonnieMan’s murder. We set out a couple card tables and handed out little goodie bags of small toys at the entrance to Washington Park, the spot where my son’s blood has soaked the ground.

I knew December would be almost impossible to bear. My son’s birthday was December 14. I could still hear him asking me, every year, even when he was grown, “Mom, what you get for me?” He loved Christmas, loved getting presents. 

So I turned my pain in December into the month of happiness by collecting toys with the help of BLM Chicago. They have been very supporting of everything that I do, and so has Frank Chapman and CARPR. I will stand on the front lines with them and fight for CPAC, Civilian Police Accountability Council. We don’t need cops in our community. They are the problem. They don’t serve and protect, they stop and frisk, talk to people with no respect. That’s why we need CPAC to change the way we are treated. No justice, no peace. Stand up, fight back.  

No, we’re not terrorists. We are citizens that are tired and fed up with the corruption in our city against us. When I say “us” we are all citizens, no matter where we come from, our race, our sexuality, we are all living human beings—and they look at us as criminals. But we all know who the real criminals are. The mayor, the state’s attorney, the governor, CPD, the aldermen. 

All they want to talk about is “Black on Black crime.” All these murders that are being committed are because there’s nothing in the community for them to do but to hang out on the corner. You can’t get a job because there aren’t any and you didn’t graduate from high school and what does the city government do? Rahm Emanuel closed down fifty schools and made our kids have to travel to other neighborhoods to get to school where they are in danger because boys from that area have never seen them before. So now they drop out or they become part of that gang in that area.

I don’t wait on any of them to make things better in my community. I started my own organization, the Ronald Johnson Foundation. In December 2015, with BLM Chicago we brought huge boxes filled with gifts to Dewey elementary. I ran into a lot RonnieMan’s teachers there and they remembered him. A lot of kids from the neighborhood knew him, too. 

After that we started organizing for Father’s Day. We put on a huge party in Washington Park. It was around the time Philando Castile had just been killed. So we did a march from over there to Cottage Grove and then back over to the park. We cooked out and had a bounce house. For the next couple years, we kept it up, trying to make sure everybody has a good Father’s Day, even if they can’t be with their loved ones for one reason and another. 

We pushed for years to get Sophia King, the alderman in the neighborhood, to rename the park after RonnieMan and build a new playground there. What’s there is pretty run down. She said if I can get 100 people to come out and show support she’d take it into consideration. I haven’t given up on that. 

In 2019 it got a little too rough in the area, too many shootings, so I wasn’t able to do as much. I just keep a food donation box over there stocked up with nonperishable items. 

In the last two years we added a book bag and school supply drive over the summer. The first year we passed out everything from crayons to calculators at the Healing Village Black Lives Matter had built in an abandoned lot in Woodlawn. That space was there to give people the kind of resources the city won’t provide for people, like mental health care, emotional support, and community. It also ended up being the place where people came to heal from a mass act of police brutality. 

After CPD officers shot Harith “Snoop” Augustus in South Shore, witnesses and people all over the neighborhood gathered up in the streets. This was the third police shooting of a Black Chicagoan in two weeks. Police in riot gear beat on them, pushing the crowd back and busting heads. So Healing Village became the place where people talked about what they saw and felt that night and planned more protests. 

Looking Forward

This year’s toy drive started off really slow. Then the University of Chicago donated these big boxes of teddy bears. I was like, alright, this’ll work. I was out driving to pass them out at the Center for New Horizons. When I got home my husband said, “You got so many boxes delivered in our living room I can’t see my TV.” There were over 20 boxes and the UPS driver and the mail carrier had said they’d be back with more later. We got bikes. We got all kinds of toys. 

We gave some out at the elementary school at Parkway Gardens [63rd and Calumet]. But we mostly focused on the area we live in. My daughter set it up so all the toys were in the basement and families from the neighborhood could come down the stairs, and every kid got to pick two or three toys a piece. I had ordered all sorts of little jackets with paw patrol and all those characters on ’em, and every kid got to pick one of those, too. I would say this was my best year. 

I looked at the names on the packages of gifts people picked off the toy drive Amazon wish list and I’m thinking, I don’t know who this is but, I thank you. I have met so many people in these years who are organizing and fighting for all kinds of justice and so many people help spread the word for the toy drive it reaches all the way around the city now. 

My goal for this year is to invite all the kids in the neighborhood to come over and eat and celebrate on my son’s birthday. I’m starting to plan it now because I want them to have everything. I want to have cake for the kids, a pizza party, and then have the toys come in at the very end as a surprise. 

Focusing on the kids is how I keep myself busy from October to December every year. We are still living from day to day, wondering when we will be free from the corruption here in our city. 

When will the police stop killing us? When the people come together and stand up and fight back. Who can we trust to stand up for us? Nobody but ourselves, the people.

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