Suisun man fights violence after shooting death of son

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

RICHMOND - The pain of losing a son carries on for life.

Brenda Johnson recalls vividly the phone call from the Fairfield Police Department. It was 1:30 a.m., July 9, 2004, when she learned her 26-year-old son, Bennie Johnson Jr., was killed.

His body, riddled by almost a dozen bullets, lay motionless on the ground outside of Lou's Junction on North Texas Street when Brenda arrived to see him. Helplessly, she stared at her son - the ropes around the area wouldn't allow her to "get to him."

She replays this scene every day in her mind, constantly bringing horrific images to life. Sleep is almost impossible.

"He was murdered, I saw him laying there. I have a lot of flashbacks, visualizing him and seeing him that way. It was unnecessary," she says.

Bennie Johnson Sr., a man whose eyes release pain through forged smiles, says his son was gunned down from behind with a shot to his heart.

"He never saw them coming. He's probably laying in his grave wondering how he got there," he says of his son, who lived in Richmond. He pauses for a moment before adding quietly, "He was a good kid."

Two years later, Bennie Sr., is standing inside one of Richmond's four Tent Cities, an encampment created as a stand against violence in the heart of the Iron Triangle infamous for its high crime.

For 30 consecutive days, Bennie Sr., and a parade of supporters have made a piece of Nevin Park on Fourth Street and MacDonald Avenue their home. They spent days and nights in an area once populated by drug dealers and prostitutes in hopes of reducing rampant violence in Richmond.

The community responded immediately, bringing clothing, baked goods and sleeping supplies almost on a daily basis. Ultimately, a difference was made.

"The people who actively went down felt they were getting the word out that there are problems and violence here," says Lt. Enos Johnson, watch commander for the Richmond police. "They wanted to reach the young kids involved in these incidents and tell them there are other ways to settle problems. They got the word out, it was accomplished."

On this particular weekday, Bennie Sr., surrounded by run-down grocery stores with gated windows and faded signs, appeared serious as he looked around the enclosed area of 13 tents, a locale that quickly became a tourist attraction during October.

"When we first got here, we could feel the vibe from drug dealers, like we're blocking their deals, their money," he says. "But we didn't care. We're tired of seeing our children dead."

Saving Souls

He couldn't imagine any parent enduring the pain he encountered. Something had to be done.

Soon after his son died, Johnson created a nonprofit organization named Stop the Violence, whose mission is to increase peace in the communities of Northern California.

To date, Johnson says, he and a group of supporters have contributed more than $8,000 "from their own pockets."

"The good God will know what to do when it's time. But our goal is not the money. The issue is that we don't want to see parents go through what we went through and it happens every night," he says. "It's about saving souls."

Richmond, a city with miles of serene shoreline jarred by 37 homicides this year, is a place where Johnson hopes to prevent unnecessary deaths, like the myriad ones whose photos and obituaries shroud four tables beneath a canopy inside Nevin Park's Tent City.

It is his hometown, a city where children once had parks to play in, activities to enjoy and a life that didn't include carrying handguns to the store.

"I asked the kids around here what would it take to put the guns down," he says. He looks at the various young men standing outside the gated Tent City, walking around aimlessly, occasionally stopping to converse with someone and then adds, "They said they need jobs. That's what would stop the crimes, getting jobs."

According to Johnson, only 5 percent of Richmond's population causes the major problems in the town. An effort to educate the community, he says, will hopefully curb the crime.

"They have to help us and in turn, we'll help by cleaning up the areas and putting these people causing the problems in jail or prison," Johnson said. "But we still need the community help to do that."

Shields-Reid Park

Less than a half-mile from Johnson is Garland Harper, a 43-year-old man who once called San Quentin Prison his home and who now spends his days in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

Harper, who oversees the Tent City at the Shields-Reid Park in North Richmond, lost his son in April when he was murdered in Richmond's South Side.

Equipped with a cell phone and respect from the surrounding youth, Harper, a Richmond native, describes himself as a product of the environment.

"That's why I'm doing what I'm doing here today," he says.

Two decades ago, he was selling drugs in the very park where he now sits in a wheelchair and hopes for peace.

"We've got to get the message to our young brothers and sisters who are locked up. When they get out, they got to have something to do," he says. "We want our community back."

Johnson, standing close to Harper, smiles at hearing the words said by the man with gaudy jewelry. And the children nearby, trying to find ways of entertaining themselves, eventually follow the smell of a warm meal. Within minutes, everyone at Tent City is being fed.

Iron Triangle

Back at Nevin Park, where a 55-gallon drum fueled with fire breathes smoke into the city air, supporters of the Tent City movement begin to gather momentum in the narrow but spacious site.

A longtime friend of Johnson, the Rev. Andre Shumake, walks in to the concrete area speckled with more than 10 tents and supporters with strong convictions.

"This is my home, right here in Iron Triangle," he says. "This is where I was raised and where I raised my family."

Shumake, along with the Rev. Charles Newsome and community activist Freddie Jackson, assembled to create Tent City as a means to stop the violence in their neighboring streets.

"These are our kids and it's our responsibility to reel them in," Shumake says. "We want to engage people in this process, bring them together so they can live long lives, beyond 21 years of age.

"This isn't about race, it's about humanity," he continues. "No one wants to live in fear. Tent City is for people who believe in peace and who want peace."

During their 30-day stay, there were two homicides in Richmond, two weeks apart, both near two Tent City locations.

The future

Johnson is back at his home in Suisun City, having suffered a heart attack the last day of Tent City in Richmond.

"All my life I've been in good shape but after my son died, I needed heart surgery," he says of the operation he had last year. "I'm living witness to when you lose a child it can affect you mentally and physically. I never had a heart problem before."

He plans to create a program in Fairfield for teenagers, such as an anger management class, to help curb violent actions.

"I feel that teenagers from ages 14 to 18 should have an anger-management class because a lot of these kids are doing crime," he says. "We need to have different things for them to do and they need people to talk to them."

As for his wife of 32 years, who also spent time in Richmond at the various locations, memories of her son remain as a connection to the boy she once held in her arms.

"He helped a lot of people and he was the type of person who talked a lot to children, trying to get them from selling drugs and instead finding jobs," she recalls. "He knew the families of people who went to jail and he would help them by getting Christmas toys for the kids and bringing them food.

"He did a lot of goodness while he was here," she says. She takes a deep breath, perhaps reflecting on her son and then adds, "If we don't stop the violence now, it will be worse."