Bill Johnson, Advocate for Democracy, Still Walking for Equality
By Jéan-Claude Quintyne
As he stood at the Victory Blvd. entrance holding a sign that read, “Let the People’s Voices Be Heard,” he continued holding it up despite whether or not the message was acknowledged.
When a driver stopped during a green light to roll down his window to say “Right on,” a fatigued smile formed on his face.
“The importance of this very troublesome time is for people to feel ownership of their own concerns” Bill Johnson said of his actions.
He was out there to bring attention to the “imposed restrictions” that the Staten Island Advance “placed on the basic freedom of speech” the afternoon before the Vincent Gentile and Daniel Donovan debate at the Williamson Theater.
The debate was held for the seat left vacant by Congressman Michael Grimm, who resigned from congress late last year after pleading guilty to a tax evasion charge.
“The Advance is restricting that freedom of speech by taking questions beforehand and putting them under the deck,” Johnson said.
“This is exactly what we don’t want after the Grimms, after the Hurricane Sandys: not getting responses from the city government, let alone state and federal government.”
Being an activist is something that Johnson knew he wanted to take on since he was 19 years old. He grew up on Jersey Street in Staten Island during its most vibrant era in the 1960s and 70s.
Early on he took up odd jobs–many of which featured heavy use of his hands–and used that opportunity as a means to meditate on the things he wanted to fight for.
Towards the end of the 70s, when he saw his neighborhood go downhill and transform from an independent and entrepreneurial paradise to a place where one had to “produce or perish,” he joined the Jersey St. Action Task Force.
Their mission focused on repairing decaying buildings for affordable housing and creating a Community Health PAV center. While the determination was there, plans fell apart due to lack of funding.
He also made attempts to bring back that independence with the New Citizens’ Coalition, only to meet the same result.
“Now is the time to concentrate on what democracy is, on what the involvement of the individual is,” Johnson expressed.
Johnson is an advocate of participatory democracy, a framework that fuels his motivation.
He noted that the key to it stems from focusing on the individual: having a sense of “you are wanted,” and “that you’re needed.”
Further inspiration came from looking up to Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. in his youth and the learning about the Civil Rights Movement.
But another figure that keeps him going, Johnson said, is his father.
“I have great respect for family,” Johnson said, “but my father–who was a gentleman–was always in the background.”
When he was kicked off the CSI Ferry Shuttle on a Wednesday in April, and couldn’t get answers why, he spoke about how it revealed a new aspect of the most important part of his activism: communication, especially face-to-face communication.
He worries that it’s fading quickly in this day and age and that the Internet makes us feel “as if we know everything.”
“[It’s also why] I put my body on the line,” Johnson added. “I walk 500 miles, 14 times around Staten Island.”
“I fight to beat drugs, beat racism, and I fight to be active in the community. And I’ll keep fighting until the day I die.”