By Rose Farley
The neurology unit at the University of Illinois at Chicago hospital is usually a quiet place. Nurses roam from room to room, tending to incisions carved into freshly shaved heads.
But on this June afternoon, a steady rap inside room 628 breaks the silence. Calvin “Omar” Johnson is being prepped for a trip to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center. There a technician will scan Johnson’s brain to see if a tumor is to blame for the blackouts he’s been experiencing recently.
The gravity of the situation and the sedatives a nurse injected into his arm don’t seem to be having much effect on Johnson’s usual ebullient manner. An IV needle stuck in his arm, Johnson climbs onto a gurney and a nurse’s aide pushes him in the direction of the MRI Center.
“You look familiar,” Johnson tells him, “where you from?”
“West side,” the aide answers.
“How old are you, 30?” Johnson guesses. The aide blushes.
“Something like that,” he says. Then he admits to being 25.
“Where do you go to school?” Johnson asks. The aide doesn’t answer. Instead, the smile on his face dissolves. Bad subject. Johnson switches course. “So you work here,” he continues. “How much you make? Five, six bucks an hour?”
“Nine dollars an hour,” the aide corrects him. “But they take most of it. I don’t have no dependents.”
He seems to be losing interest. Straight-faced and silent, he keeps pushing.
“You ain’t a slave,” proclaims Johnson.
He flops over on his side and props his head up on his hand. The movement tears the IV loose and blood begins to drip down his arm. Johnson doesn’t seem to notice. Neither does the aide: Johnson’s spiel has got his attention.
“You a man,” Johnson declares. “You ain’t no slave. You can make more than $9 an hour.”
The aide quietly considers the suggestion, then confesses: “I want to be an electrician.” He mumbles something about plans to go to a trade school, and Johnson tells him today’s his lucky day. His organization, the Work Ship Coalition, is all about helping brothers like him get construction jobs.
“I know all the electricians,” Johnson boasts. “My guys make $24 an hour starting. You can make that. After five years, you can be a journeyman. A journeyman, he make $80 an hour.”
Johnson rattles off his phone number and tells the aide to call him. The aide leans over the stretcher, cocks an eyebrow suspiciously, and scans Johnson’s upside-down face. Is this guy for real, or is it the sedatives talking?
“So what type of line of work you in?” he asks.
Johnson casually crosses his feet and chuckles. The Hard-Hat Hustler has struck again.
That day Johnson told the aide he was a politician. And it’s true: he’s the Republican committeeman in the 24th Ward, twice elected in fact. But Johnson is also an activist and his cause is the construction industry.
Growing up in North Lawndale, Johnson went into what seemed like the most promising local business: dealing drugs. Now 42, he says he’s completely reformed and he’s leading a movement to get jobs for guys like him, recruiting one man at a time. He’s convinced that construction jobs are the ticket to an honest, blue-collar life for young black men who are trapped by the notion that drug dealing is the only way to make a living.
But Johnson’s mission doesn’t stop with recruitment. The way he sees it, corruption and cronyism in the construction industry prevent hardworking blacks from getting their share of the work. Specifically, Johnson complains that politically connected companies are awarded the lion’s share of government construction contracts, leaving smaller, black-owned companies little chance to compete. He’s infuriated by news reports of government contractors attempting to skirt minority hiring requirements laid out in the law, and particularly by recent allegations that minority figureheads have been used by contractors to obtain contracts set aside for minority companies.
Johnson isn’t content to sit back and marvel at the way local politicians have turned corruption into an art form. Instead, he gathers up the members of his Work Ship Coalition and marches them down the path of civil disobedience, staging shutdowns at construction sites and publicly calling for investigations into every government agency that awards contracts, from City Hall to Springfield.
Although Johnson calls his events “press conferences,” until recently they’ve failed to attract much attention. Since last summer he’s orchestrated four rush-hour protests designed to shut down traffic on local expressways, three on the Stevenson, one at the Hillside Strangler.
The last time Johnson struck was shortly before 7 AM on April 25, when he led 17 protesters onto the Stevenson Expressway near Kedzie. The protesters, all men decked out in white hard hats, toting placards with slogans like “If we don’t work nobody works,” brought traffic to a screeching, horn-honking, obscenity-shouting halt.
For the first time, Johnson’s protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing. As reporters gathered, Johnson declared victory, saying he and his men were being arrested because irate drivers, tired of getting stuck in his traffic jams, had pressured the state police into action with a flood of complaints. The police, however, say the group has generated no such outcry.
“The last few times we said, ‘Stop stopping traffic.’ We let them make their statement to the media” and then they left, says spokeswoman Heather Hansen. “This last time they said they’re not cooperating. That’s why we arrested them.”
Media attention or no, Johnson has earned the respect of influential figures in the black activist community, including Reverend Al Sampson, who is credited with bringing out black voters for Harold Washington in 1983. To Sampson, Johnson is a welcome addition to the team.
“At any table of leadership, there’s always been a seat for Omar Johnson because he has an army, he’s maintained his integrity, and he’s paid his dues,” Sampson says. “Any table of leadership that I have been at, Omar Johnson doesn’t have to be invited. He’s earned his seat.”
But once Johnson takes his seat, his critics say, his message isn’t always clear.
Brad Goodrich, the executive director of the Illinois Republican Party, says he was stunned when Johnson and his men, hard hats and banners in tow, showed up at the party’s fund-raiser at the Westin in May, demanding to be let into the event. Instead the group was asked to leave and the police were called. No arrests were made, but Johnson used the confrontation to accuse the party of excluding blacks, later claiming they wouldn’t accept his check.
“The event was a seated event and we did not take any checks at the door. It wasn’t like we took checks from others and not him,” says Goodrich, who adds that, “I did not see Mr. Johnson with a checkbook. There was never a check.”
Instead of voicing a specific problem he has with the party’s attitude toward blacks, Goodrich says, Johnson has a “different agenda.” But Goodrich, like many others who have been on the receiving end of Johnson’s verbal slaps, is at a loss to explain what that agenda is beyond his desire to attract attention.
It’s clear that Johnson is trying to shout his way into the political arena. Whether he deserves a spotlight, not to mention what he’d do with it if he got it, is a difficult question to answer–even for Johnson.
The most remarkable aspect of the Work Ship Coalition headquarters is the fact that there is a headquarters at all.
For the last couple of years, the coalition worked out of a donated office in the Westside Baptist Ministers Conference building at 325 S. California. Then Johnson, through no means that are apparent, scraped together enough cash to rent a storefront office and pop for a few phones and a fax machine. He set up shop in his own space at the corner of Western and Roosevelt in January. The new headquarters consists of two workrooms and a john. The front room has potential as a waiting area, but as it is, the group’s furniture–two folding tables and a handful of dented metal chairs–are barely enough to fill the back room.
As of May, Johnson was already two months behind in rent and making a mental note to hold some sort of fund-raiser. Money, he says, is not a priority. (Johnson formally incorporated the group as a nonprofit organization in April 1999, but it is already in bad standing with the Illinois secretary of state’s office because he failed to file an annual report and pay a routine fee.)
On a Thursday afternoon early in May, Johnson is surrounded by a half dozen of his men, who have removed their hard hats and stacked them on a table, alongside a pile of miniature flags that bear the red, green, and black stripes of the black nationalist movement.
Some of the men here are homeless, others have spent years in prison, and few have gotten much education beyond high school, if that. Although their personal stories vary, they all face the same dilemma: they are eager to work but employers are reluctant to hire them because of their backgrounds. And that’s where the coalition comes in.
“The words ‘Work Ship’ come from the word ‘worship,'” Johnson explains. “We are a spiritual organization–a group of men that came together to work on their lives.”
Johnson claims that over the last two years he has helped some 45 men get construction jobs. He can’t document the number, but he can and will drag anyone who doubts him to construction sites to personally interview the men.
Take Earl, for example, who on one recent afternoon was busy working as a laborer at 2822 W. Jackson Boulevard, the future home of the Rebecca Johnson Apartments, which are currently being renovated by the shelter Deborah’s Place to be used as apartments for battered women. A little more than a year ago, Earl says, he was sitting in jail for selling drugs.
“When I was released, I heard about the program in the neighborhood,” Earl says. Johnson hooked him up with this job and now he’s making $24.35 an hour. If he weren’t, Earl says, “I’d probably be locked up right now, to be honest.”
The coalition is helping put men to work, but getting Johnson to explain how he does it isn’t easy. The question sets him off on an oratory journey. In fact, almost any question can set him off on an oratory journey, and his response doesn’t always connect in obvious ways to the question at hand.
Johnson instructs two of the men in the office to unfurl a banner showing the group’s logo. “The mind can only work successfully on the truth,” he says, reading and pointing. On the banner is a white bird. “It stands for peace.” Beneath the bird is a ship. “It’s the ship of Zion,” he says. “Not the Titanic, we all know what happened to the Titanic. It sank.” There’s also a helmet, representing employment. Johnson repeats, “The mind can only work successfully on the truth.”
Johnson pauses to let the motto sink in.
But in terms of the construction industry, what is the truth?
To Johnson, the truth is as plain as day.
“It’s the Irish connection in the state of Illinois,” he says. He begins rattling off names–Richard Daley, Jim Ryan–all part of an Irish cabal he believes controls the construction industry.
“There’s a story about a rainbow. At the end of the rainbow is a pot of gold. A leprechaun guards the pot of gold,” Johnson says. And who is that leprechaun? Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson? “Jesse Jackson does not represent all African-Americans. We ask him a question, Is he a civil rights leader or an entrepreneur? We don’t need no entrepreneurial hustler.”
If that’s the truth, how does it help a guy get a job on a construction site? According to Johnson, a man can’t get the truth–or a job–unless he agrees to follow Johnson’s two ground rules: don’t eat meat and stop having sex, at least for 90 days. The men in the office, who have no doubt heard this spiel several times before, listen in silence. Johnson’s words, “90 days,” hang in the air like a hammer.
“I made it,” one guy says. “I just thought about other things.”
Under the law Johnson lays down at coalition headquarters, members should not have sex unless they’re procreating. And if they are going to procreate, Johnson says, it doesn’t hurt if they do it across race lines because “that eliminates racism.” The journey continues.
“God said be fruitful and multiply–not sexually, but mentally,” Johnson says. “Thy should procreate. Not fuck. The penis and the vagina are not to be sucked on.”
Johnson, with his six-foot frame and middle-age hunch, stands before the group doing what appears to be his best imitation of a preacher. From his invisible pulpit, he begins pacing the floor, his body bending and dipping with his words.
“Can’t no sex addict solve no problem!”
“Can’t no fornicator solve no problem!”
“Can’t no homosexual solve no problem!”
“Can’t no flesh eater solve no problem!”
Johnson is pacing and pumping, twisting and turning. He’s heading into battle.
“They’ve called us extortionists. They’ve called us drug dealers. They’ve called us anything but children of God,” he thunders.
Johnson stops. His mind has jumped off the track of fornication and is racing down another. “Vallas,” he says out of the blue, “don’t want to talk about the facts. He tries to discredit them. If he doesn’t have the facts, why doesn’t he confess?”
Johnson issues a declaration, evidently meant for Paul Vallas–the Chicago Public Schools chief is one of his favorite targets–and anyone else who questions his authority. “You can not put a wedge between the Work Ship Coalition and the African-American community and try to destroy its leader.”
That would be Johnson, of course.
Despite numerous requests, Paul Vallas would not share his thoughts about Johnson with the Reader. That may be because he doesn’t want to give Johnson a reason to hold another protest, which is what happened the last time he opened his mouth.
In April Vallas told the Chicago Defender Johnson was a “hustler” and accused him of “trying to shake me down.” He said, “It was Omar threatening to shut down the schools and the job sites unless we awarded contracts to his cronies, but I’m not giving in to his demands.”
Although Vallas didn’t return calls, his spokesman was one of several people who quietly suggested the Reader ought to investigate Johnson’s criminal background.
Little did they realize Johnson is happy to talk about his past. In fact, he provides references, who, it seems, can be found just about anywhere in the vacant-lot-pocked neighborhood where he was born and raised.
On a recent afternoon, Johnson spies Frank standing with a group of men amid the empty liquor bottles strewn about a convenience-store parking lot at the corner of Lexington and Kedzie. The overgrown lot next to the store is where Jackson’s Lock & Key hardware store once stood. Johnson worked there as a boy. Across the street, a razor-wire fence runs along the perimeter of the old YMCA, where Johnson and the other kids in the neighborhood used to swim. Years ago it was turned into a work release center for convicts. Johnson calls it a prison.
This corner is also the place where Johnson used to deal drugs, back in the days when he was a Conservative Vice Lord and guys like Frank called him “Cash.” The way Frank tells it, if Johnson were just a hustler he’d be better off dealing drugs.
Frank, who’s blind, grips his cane and starts recounting war stories about when he was one of Johnson’s runners. He cackles as he recalls how Johnson used to think that the cops would never suspect a blind man was hustling drugs.
“I made good money with him. We had two houses. We got so good, we turned $80,000 in a week. After we paid off all the workers, we cleared $30,000 in pure profit,” Frank says, adding, “That’s an estimate.”
As drug dealers go, Frank says, Johnson was a benevolent boss. “I got locked up a couple of times. He came and got me out. He takes care of you. If you cross him, he don’t beat you. He just cuts you off the payroll,” Frank says. “Calvin is a survivor because he wasn’t a gun-slinging person. He wasn’t no thug, but they got him plugged as a thug. He looked out for the community. He’s Robin Hood.”
Johnson likes that comparison. In fact, he uses it a lot himself. When people needed food, he says, he gave them money. If a utility bill was due, he’d help them beat the deadline. Johnson says he even paid for funerals. “Even when I was selling drugs I took care of the community,” he says. “We was Robin Hood and criminals at the same time.”
Johnson’s court records, however, contain no hint that he was taking money from the rich or anyone other than his low-income neighbors. Taken as a whole, they paint a portrait of a troubled young man–a drug dealer who, contrary to Frank’s claims, toted a gun and lived in a world filled with fights, syringes, and cops.
The records begin in 1984, when Johnson was 27 years old. Every year after that except one Johnson was picked up on one offense or another, usually a drug or weapons charge.
Thanks to the services of his lawyer, Tim Biasiello, Johnson has never been convicted. The closest he came to doing any serious time was in 1991, when a cop busted him after watching him stash two garbage bags in the back of his house, the same place where he still lives on the 3200 block of West Polk Street. Inside the bags, the cop found an estimated $2,592 worth of suspected heroin and $14,000 worth of cocaine. Johnson beat those charges when it was ruled that the police had no probable cause to search the house.
Even though Johnson admits he dealt drugs, he steadfastly maintains that he always cared about his “community.” He says he simply didn’t realize he was profiting off of other people’s addictions. Nevertheless he brags about the creativity he employed as king of his urban jungle.
“The lion will eat the meat. The elephant will eat the peanuts,” Johnson explained one day. “The guy who liked peanuts, I made him sell meat. The guy who likes meat, I had him sell peanuts. You give an alcoholic a pop. And that’s how you make a profit.”
There are other contradictions in the Robin Hood image.
In 1987, a girlfriend of 12 years told police that Johnson became upset after she borrowed his car and, after threatening to kill her, he pulled out a handgun and fired it once in the air. The next year, Johnson was arrested after he allegedly threatened another girlfriend’s 16-year-old son with a handgun. Again, nothing ever came of the charges and today Johnson is on good terms with both women. Things didn’t turn out so well for the boy: he’s now in prison serving two 30-year sentences, one for murder and another for armed robbery.
Just nine days after the boy was convicted, Johnson’s own life took a turn for the worse. In July 1990 he tried to protect his cousin from an adversary who wanted to collect a drug debt. The man–whom Johnson says he’s never identified to police–approached Johnson and his cousin shortly after 8 PM just outside Johnson’s house and demanded payment. During the confrontation, Johnson says, the man’s gun went off.
“My cousin took a bullet in the heart. I broke and ran,” Johnson says.
A responding police officer chased him into his apartment. According to testimony the officer later gave in court, Johnson tried to hide some heroin he had piled on top of a dresser. Johnson was arrested and slapped with a $200,000 bail–which he couldn’t make. For that, Johnson is now thankful.
“It prevented me from retaliating,” he says. “If I had got out that same night, there would have been hell to pay.”
Instead, he sat and stewed. He also began to think: His cousin was dead and his common-law stepson was in prison. It seemed he might be the next to go.
“That changed me,” he says.
But the change didn’t come overnight.
After Johnson was released from jail, he returned to the neighborhood and picked up right where he’d left off. Only this time, his records show, the police department’s gang unit was onto him. According to information they provided in an affidavit for a warrant to search Johnson’s house in September 1992, Gang Crimes used an informant to collect information about Johnson’s drug operation.
Search warrant in hand, the police raided Johnson’s house. The police thought Johnson was sitting on a cache of drugs and weapons, but all they found was a .25 caliber blue steel automatic and six 12-gauge shotgun shells. Again, Johnson found himself sitting in jail on charges he would later beat.
Johnson was adept at outsmarting the cops. The problem, he says, was he could no longer fool himself.
“When I was selling drugs, I got tired of seeing people on drugs–women giving up sex for drugs. You can’t be intelligent and not have that shit affect you. I was intelligent and that shit affected me. My stepson, when he went to jail–” Johnson stops. Even after all these years, getting personal isn’t easy for him. He exhales a long, deep sigh. “He was a young child. One of my sons, his mother was on drugs. That affected me.”
Johnson took a hard look at his life. His father, an alcoholic who would die three years later, had introduced him to the world of hustling by having him run bets out to the horse track when he was a kid. But he also introduced Johnson to the construction business. A cabinetmaker by trade, he taught Johnson how to tape and drywall.
He says he did well in high school, then he jumped into two parallel careers–one in construction, the other in gambling and, later, drug dealing. In the summer of 1986, Johnson started a construction company called Starline. Two years later, he started another company called Cash Racing Stable, Inc., and invested in racehorses.
“I made my money racing horses,” Johnson says. “Then I got into the drug game and it all went downhill.” He’d had five children with three different mothers.
By 1992, the memory of jail fresh in his mind, Johnson decided to change.
“I quit, just like that,” Johnson says. “People thought I was crazy.”
Ms. Suzy lives in a handsome two-flat just two doors down from Johnson’s house on Polk Street. A note taped to her door tells passersby “The candy store is open.” For 30-some years, Ms. Suzy says, she’s been peddling candy for two cents a piece from her perch behind a massive steel gate in the doorway of her second-floor apartment. “Ms. Suzy?” yelled Johnson, when he stopped by for a visit recently. He poked his head inside the front door and peered up a steep stairway covered by a worn, plastic-coated brown carpet.
Behind the gate, Ms. Suzy was hunched over a table piled with chocolate chip cookies, lollipops, and pixie sticks. There were jars filled with strawberry, grape, and watermelon taffy twists, and one sorely out of place plastic-wrapped package of red bell peppers.
“They all call me mama on the street,” Ms. Suzy said. When Ms. Suzy smiles, her missing teeth suggest that the neighborhood kids aren’t the only ones getting into the candy. From her living room window, Ms. Suzy can keep an eye on the kids down on Polk Street–as well as the convicts behind the razor-wire fence at the old YMCA. She says she doesn’t let any kids who sell drugs come to her house and, for a long time, Johnson was one of them. But now Ms. Suzy is one of Johnson’s references, another neighborhood resident who’ll vouch for his transformation.
She still remembers the day Johnson showed up at her metal gate to ask her forgiveness. “When he told me ‘I’m all done,’ I said, ‘Are you sure you’re all done?’ He said, ‘I’m all done.’ I said, ‘That’s all I need to know.'” Ms. Suzy says Johnson can look her in the eye and that’s enough. “As far as I know, he’s clean,” she says, unblinking. “As far as I know, he’s a changed young man.”
Johnson briefly stayed involved with the gang, but he says instead of selling drugs he began to hustle something new. He took on an informal role as a “negotiator,” resolving disputes between gangs as part of an effort that culminated in the national gang summit, which was held in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1993.
The following year, Johnson worked as an organizer for the Million Man March. To Johnson, the 1995 march was a powerful, symbolic event that finally gave him the “atonement” he needed to steer himself onto a better path. The event also introduced him to several influential leaders in Chicago’s black activist community. Chief among them was Reverend James Luther Bevel, a man who once advised Martin Luther King Jr. and who ultimately became Johnson’s spiritual mentor.
When he first met Johnson, Bevel says, he impressed him as a man who took seriously the “eight steps of atonement,” which is the map Bevel uses to guide his followers.
“He really did an about-face and became serious as an organizer and a preacher,” Bevel says.
From Bevel’s perspective, Johnson is “one of the few young guys” who understands that constitutional rights do not come without social responsibilities. Johnson’s days as a Conservative Vice Lord, Bevel says, made his transition into a leader all the more convincing. “When he turned, a lot of the gang people respected him.”
Today, that respect is one of Johnson’s most powerful weapons, says Reverend George Henderson, the president of the Westside Baptist Ministers Conference and the man who once donated space to Johnson and the Work Ship Coalition. “As pastors, there are some young men we cannot reach. Omar can reach them. The young men who are loud and disorderly are now following him,” Henderson says. “We have a lot of young men over in the streets that have no hope. They’ve been in jail. They’ve got records. Because of their records, they can’t get good jobs. He brings them in and shows them his past life experience. And that’s what people need now, an example.”
After the Million Man March, Johnson returned to Chicago determined to commit himself to activism. In 1996, he cofounded a group called PRIME, which he says was short for Political Renaissance and Motion to Emancipate. “It was a new birth,” he explains, “a motion to set us free.”
PRIME ran candidates for committeeman in six of the city’s predominantly black wards, hoping to give a voice to poor voters unsatisfied with the representation they were getting.
Johnson ran against Brenda Bradley Bell in the 24th Ward, but he discovered that winning respect as a politician would be much harder off Polk Street.
The only citywide coverage the race got was in the Tribune’s “Inc.” column, which reported that the Republicans, “just recovering from the embarrassment of a clown–Ray ‘Spanky’ Wardingley–capturing last year’s mayoral nomination,” were now “casting a wary eye” toward Johnson. In the article, Johnson was described only as a “former Vice Lord gang member.”
Despite the barb, Johnson unseated Bell. With his first successful election under his belt, he focused his efforts on getting jobs for blacks in the construction industry. As part of the effort, he won the support of longtime activist Eddie Read, who has been protesting discrimination in the construction industry since the early 1990s and is now the president of the United Independent Workers International Union.
To Read, the construction industry is an obvious target for activists seeking to erase social and racial inequalities: it is the one industry where blacks can get jobs that will lift them out of poverty and into the middle class.
“Construction is a ready-made industry for that to happen. It is also one of the most racist, insidious industries in the country,” Read says. “We decided to take that on and turn it around.”
Read wanted to concentrate on his union, and during a meeting in 1998, Johnson agreed to take over Read’s role leading demonstrations at construction sites across the city. So Johnson put on his hard hat and started hammering away at the construction industry. Since then, his life has been a blur of protests, shutdowns, and the largely ignored press conferences.
Johnson’s frustrated by how little effect he’s had, and he blames his past.
“We come along and because of our background as drug dealers and gangbangers, our concerns are not valid,” Johnson says. “I’m bringing legitimate issues to the table. When do I be vindicated? When will society vindicate me?”
But even his supporters say that his anger overshadows his message, that Johnson may be his own worst enemy.
Paul King heads up a trade group called Black Contractors United and he agrees that blacks too often get the door slammed in their faces when they seek government contracts. While he supports Johnson’s strategy of protesting, King says Johnson is caught in a catch-22: he convinces people to sit down with him once, but they run away as soon as he starts talking.
“I don’t think anybody is going to say, ‘OK, you got me, Work Ship. Now let’s try and do this thing the right way,'” King says. “That’s never going to happen because that’s going to require somebody to admit they did something wrong. I don’t think anybody wants to run that risk.”
Besides his anger, Johnson’s tendency to mix his moral theories with his political message makes him difficult to stomach. Put the two together and Johnson can spend hours telling someone what they should do (hire more blacks) and what they shouldn’t do (fornicate), but calling for investigations appears to be the extent of his ideas on how to balance the scales for black workers.
The way King sees it, Johnson’s enemies use his personality flaws against him.
“We stood with Work Ship in one City Hall demonstration,” says King. “I made the point that if you’ve got a problem sitting down talking with Calvin there’s plenty of other people to talk to.” It’s easy for public officials to dismiss a hothead like Johnson, but if they agree there are problems, King says, they should sit down with someone more reasonable. “I can’t get a sit-down with anybody of any decision-making abilities at City Hall, CPS, anywhere–not to make money or to get us in there, but as a legitimate attempt at a solution to the problems.”
Although Johnson was reelected committeeman earlier this year, he can’t get any respect among Republican Party officials either. Rather, he is the bane of their meager Chicago existence. In Cook County, party officials have given up trying to work with Johnson because they say all he ever does is insist that they give him jobs. Chairman Manny Hoffman says he’s tried to explain to Johnson the ways his men can apply for government contracts and jobs, but Johnson ignores the advice.
“I’ve gone through this thing over and over with him. I explained to all the committeemen how it works. I brought in people from the state. He wasn’t interested in filling out forms,” Hoffman says. “Everybody would like to say, ‘OK, call Manny and say, Manny, where do I send five guys?’ It doesn’t work that way.”
State GOP executive director Brad Goodrich says, “I’ve never had anybody talk to me the way he does when he calls. I don’t know how to explain the venom. There’s nothing quite like it. He spews hate and everything is conspiracy. He threatens pickets and boycotts.
“The Republican Party is not a job bank. We don’t have contracts to give out. We’re about electing people and getting out our message about limited government and economic growth. Mr. Johnson has a different agenda.”
Hoffman believes Johnson has good intentions, but says he appears more interested in attracting attention than helping people get jobs.
“You give him a lot of publicity and Calvin thinks he’s a hero,” Hoffman says. “If I gave him 100 jobs today, tomorrow he’d be back for another 100. That’s the way he is. He’s a nice enough guy. It’s just that he doesn’t want to abide by the rules.”
But lots of other people don’t play by the rules either, which is why the shouting will continue–which King says won’t help black workers or the city as a whole.
“At some point somebody with a modicum of sense in the city is going to realize that [Johnson] represents an issue that’s going to lead to a voter drive. But I think when that happens, it’s going to be too late,” King says. In the meantime, “they’re going to try to ride it out and hope that he just goes away. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it’s all going to come down to his strength.”
Johnson knows some people whisper about his background but he says he doesn’t care.
“I can’t wipe that past out,” he says. “The community I did it in knows I don’t do it anymore. The same people that used to call the police on me respect me. That’s all that counts.”
On a Tuesday in late May, Johnson is propped up behind a table inside Captain’s Hard Time, a restaurant on 79th Street near Martin Luther King Drive. Members of the Prison Action Committee are discussing ways to bring attention to problems in the state prison system. They are hoping Johnson might provide some bodies for an upcoming event. Seated at the head of the table, Reverend Al Sampson turns his attention to Johnson, who looks like he’s about to fall out of his chair. Earlier today Johnson dragged himself to a protest outside the Daley Center and now he can barely keep his eyes open.
“Calvin?” Sampson asks. The voice causes Johnson to snap to attention. He apologizes to the group. He was listening, he says, but sometimes his blood pressure gets too high.
In his haze, Johnson says his men will be there. And then he begins one of his oratory journeys.
“I ain’t gonna play no fucking games,” Johnson says. “That’s what they be talking about on the street–fucking and sucking…”
Later that evening, Johnson actually collapsed. When he came to, he made his way to the hospital. The results of his MRI revealed no tumor, but doctors have determined that he’d had a stroke–right there at Captain’s Hard Time. It was caused by a congenital heart condition he was unaware of. He’s scheduled to undergo surgery to correct the problem this month. In the meantime, Johnson says, he has no plans to stop protesting.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.