Kendrick Johnson’s father, Kenneth, after a summer rally downtown Valdosta, graciously endured my camera the day this photo was taken. Neither Kendrick’s mother Jackie, or Kenneth, by this point would agree to an interview, which must have been late June or early July. For whatever reasons, I’d lost my window of opportunity to gain their confidence. I would continue doing whatever I could and hoped to at least earn their trust and respect. Too much of both had been squandered at the expense of these people, I knew. Their strength was a sobering source of inspiration and reminder to practice humility. And so I watched and listened, and waited for the same thing they were waiting for, I assumed – which wasn’t necessarily justice, I was beginning to sense. Justice in any traditional form I doubted was the remedy for a sickness as grave and grim as the one this place called home had become infected with – and felt a little bit more and more like hell everyday.
It had been a long hot day but the Johnsons and Tooleys – Jackie’s side of the family – along with a small battallion of loyal supporters, were still up for loading the trailer hitched to the back of Kenneth’s SUV with food, ice and drinks. The homeless who had been living under the downtown overpass, I was told, had been relocated by the Valdosta Police Department, allegedly because they’d learned the Johnsons had been taking them food following their rallies. Valdosta is not big enough to hide anyone who doesn’t care to be hidden so as I joined the family’s caravan we quickly found the encampment on an empty, grassy lot not far from downtown. There were nice tents set up on the property, but no sign of life – other than two bone-thin muts tied to a tree, the other to a fence post. Nearly 100 degrees and with an oily humidity laying over everything wet and heavy, the dogs panted wide-eyed without water or food. We fed them a hot dog bun, gave them some water, and I wished I could talk to everyone as I would those who knew me best. They had learned hard lessons, passed down through generations; don’t talk to strangers.
I was a stranger, and they were kind. They seemed to be waiting for the same something I’d been thinking about earlier and I wanted to ask them whatever the needed answers to and be able to give them what they deserved, which wasn’t extravagant or greedy or grand. They wanted the most basic of human rights to be acknowledged and met regarding their son, someone they’d led up through 17 short years and suddenly invisible. Ripped out of their lives but not their hearts or minds – while the community beyond those gathered daily for the protests of civil disobedience, for ralllies and marches seemed to not just forget him but curse him, and them.
The disrespect was painful to witness up close and personal, and from afar. When they were out of sight they were by no means out of mind.
Kendrick’s friends and cousin were standing together being quiet and I tried to hang out and make them forget I was the peg that didn’t fit, but I am impatient. They told me little, although looking back some of what they didn’t say told me more than I realized at the time. Common sense becomes obscured in the subjectivity of a tragic and mysterious event’s aftermath. Though many people have lost many, and much, in even more tragic ways, I instinctively knew that this was a unique combination concerning circumstances both beyond the control of those concerned, and the only circumstances they had to work with – which had to do. This was the rub.
Undeterred, they loaded the food and drinks and ice back onto the heavy metal trailer and headed back downtown to the bridge where it was assumed the homeless had returned, set the tables back up and laid the food back out. Kenneth – like everybody – was hot, slaking off sheets of sweat and managing a smile in spite of it. Kendrick’s cousins and friends and aunts and local civil rights activist and dogged videographer/journalist George Boston Rhynes and Waycross-based mover-and-shaker Bobby Worthy wound down and I stole photos because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was 6. When history is being made, you take photos – and you tell a story.
But nobody was talking, which I respected. They were speaking, but not talking – and here in the South, there’s a huge difference between the two. I felt defeated, as if I’d let them down by not doing more sooner. Feeling I could’ve, should’ve – confused by the reality and blindsided by the silence. Did it mean they knew or didn’t? I was in the dark and I’m not used to being in the dark. Bearing light is what I do best, and this has been a test – the most humbling personal experience of my life, I’ll be completely honest. In my heart I know I could’ve been the journalist required to report the unreported, solve the unsolved.
One day not long ago I met with a family member and she told me not to take it personal. I knew she was right. My mind continued to work on it the way an old lady’s hands will wind through yarn, or shell peas, always moving and working, as it is at this very moment.
Sometimes you have to let things be, no matter how unacceptable it is to you personally. Sometimes even when you know something, recognize it as plainly as you recognize your own face in the mirror – it might not know you enough to trust you. It takes the both of you to turn around fate, otherwise – you just gotta wait.
In this case, the wait is long, and though this might fade with time should its end come beyond my own means or method or map, I wonder…
I wonder what will become of us, this place…the good, the bad…
When I started pushing the story through the social media channels, people beyond Georgia were oblivious. Their eyes had been trained on the Zimmermann trial of Trayvon’s pointless death. And as tragic as it was, all I could think every time I passed the television and saw the coverage was, “It’s terrible what happened to him, but this Kendrick Johnson case makes that seem like playground scuffle.”
As it continued, I would talk out loud, hammer thousands of words at a time, thinking, writing and saying things I already knew and felt compelled to share with the Johnsons – but it was useless. I was not the one to crack the code, clearly. I continued because I couldn’t not continue, trying to get the facts as I was able to deduct from the actual hard data available and share with others who were unexposed to the case in hopes of raising awareness. I was happy when people reached out, most of them in private messages, but sincere all the same, expressing their appreciation for my speaking out about something they were deeply disturbed by but couldn’t – for whatever reason – find their own voice and add it to the supporters surrounding the Johnsons. There were people within the community, some former and active law enforcement personnel, some parents of children who had been in the gym the morning Kendrick was found, others who were strangers to me and the Johnsons but found it easy to cast their vote to the most contrary and despicable level of human behavior. Anonymously, comments were scattered throughout the underbelly of the internet’s Disqus tunnels – an ugly underground of what was left when you took away basic decency from a human being and left it to its own devices.
For the most part, those who I connected with on Facebook and Twitter were valiant and driven cyber-sleuths, were the discarded decency had found plenty of space.
It had become clear many in town feared how others would react, how they might be treated, if they expressed disdain or questioned the running nonsense of local and state authorities and their cronies. There was a widening divide. Not as simple and blunt as death threats, understand, although I can easily imagine given that it is hardly out of the realm of possibility. Elected officials, reputable professionals had publically forfieted their credibility in front of millions on CNN and the internet recanting their original statements regarding what they had without question considered a crime scene.
People have to work in the same building, barely scraping by – or go to church with people who disagree with them. Sounds insignificant in light of such a monumental tragedy (and it is monumentally significant, this case; don’t get too used to it to overlook how profound it is, how historically relevant, politically critical it is, because it is), but people in a small Southern town (100,000 is still small in a place like Lowndes County, Georgia) have to deal with vindictive members of their community, from Sunday school teachers, your sweet deacon, maybe your kid’s baseball coach – take your pick. When a community is galvanized in this way, it means full-on, long-waging war, that could literally continue for generations.
If this case remains unsolved, with no indictments or explanations, where will that leave this part of the country? It will set us back 50 years – this is something I said one day about a week ago and literally five minutes later when I was on the phone with videographer/historian/journalist George Boston Rhynes, he said the exact same thing. We aren’t psychic.
It is simple math.
It will empower those who presumably have allowed this to be dragged out without efficient investigation or remedy and that kind of unchecked power is not contained or diminished in any way by a small population or God-fearing community. Power without accountability of any kind to such a degree is a perfect storm waiting to happen at any moment; it will get worse before it gets better, and how much worse does it need to get or does anyone want it to get?
The smaller the place and the larger the power, the more volatile and corrupt the environment can become from having to continue the deception and cover up whatever time uncovers. A job I wouldn’t personally want, and a big enough job to keep a whole town busy. Doesn’t everybody just want to go fishing or catch a movie? Hold hands and sing Christmas Carrols?
Go roller skating maybe? Disney World?
When recently asked by DailyMail UK how long he would fight for answers regarding his 17-year-old son’s mysterious death on Lowndes High School’s campus in January 2013, his response was without deliberation. “Till I die,” he said, if that’s how long it will take. And you see the conviction in his face – he’s not bluffing.
Summers in South Georgia are no joke, either. They’ve been downtown almost everyday – and that means throughout the entire unholy hot summers not like they were lounging on a veranda enjoying the surf and sun. They’ve endured being arrested for Civil Disobedience, and the rude and ruthless remarks of those who call them liars and tell them to quit showing the death photo, tell them they’re doing all this for money, among other unspeakable comments fit for trolls and bastards only.
The determination and stamina of the Johnson family has been the catalytic force necessary to draw the all-too-often indifferent global spotlight to this part of the American Deep South. Why did it take daily congregations of protest for nearly a year?
Why are there still no answers?
Why is the public silent?
Why aren’t those who loved and admired and knew Kendrick well enough to know what happened to him speaking out? What could have silenced them?
If my best friend went missing mid-day in a crowded gym where everybody hung out and fucked off, talked shit, made out, I would like to think that I knew them well enough to know what most realistically and logically happened. His friends would know the names of his girlfriend(s) – and do. It defies logic that a popular kid like Kendrick didn’t have girls crushing over him and stealing kisses every chance they could. He was a good-looking, popular 17-year-old Lowndes High School athlete.
What could have been said and by whom to these students to almost pretend he never existed? What could be threatening enough, who could be responsible for silencing such a large number of students on a nearly 3,000-student campus in a city with a population of roughly 100,000?
Why don’t girls with broken hearts go sit by his grave and cry like a music video, or his teammates take a football jersey or a basketball and set it on his grass-covered grave, bearing only that one stainless steel plate staked into the ground bearing his name and year of birth and death – along with Harrington Funeral Home emblazoned across the top, as if that is particularly good advertising since the Secretary of State is reportedly investigating the business following the disturbing insult-to-injury news that all his organs were absent and replaced with Black Friday circulars from J.C. Penney’s.
Would someone do the right thing and make the world a better place? Please? Is it just because no one is asking the right people the questions? Twenty years from now will this be a cold case finally solved when some aging cheerleader gets saved or diagnosed with cancer, or maybe is finally asked, “What happened to Kendrick Johnson?”
Could it be that simple? That nobody’s asking the right people the right questions? And if so, what does that mean? Are we that removed from commons sense and logic? Are we too insecure and bashful or intimidated by dirty looks or worse to actually answer questions?
I do not know today. Some days the skies are clear and I can almost see Kendrick Johnson smiling and showing me how everything happened and saying in that laid-back, chill way of his that everything’s straight, and …….
He would have been a good father, from what I see in his family, his parents. They loved each other. They looked forward to hearing him come home, and I’m sure he and his dad wrestled and roughhoused and he and his sister Kenyetta mouthed off at each other and wound up laughing – being brother and sister is one of those things most people experience or at least understand. And there’s no faking the love here.
So, I see the love. I feel it.
But there’s still something missing.
Maybe Kendrick is laughing at all of us.
I, for one, hope so.