Annie Johnson is still haunted by the shooting death of her son a year after the fact. Adding to the pain of her loss is the fact that the gun was wielded by a police officer—and that the community says the officer brutally struck him down.
Annie Johnson walks back and forth along aisles of tombstones at Forest Home Cemetery looking for her son. She does not visit his grave often. She’s come here today to bring him flowers, pray with family and place a sign she has made in his honor. The sign says: “Lil’ A.O. We Will Never Forget You.” On it, pictures of the teenage boy are pasted next to a piece of art that reads: “Stop Police Brutality.”
Johnson is working her way methodically through the cemetery because she knows his grave is nearby, but she doesn’t remember much from the day she buried her son. She does recall he was buried near her mother. So she is searching the area around her mother’s tomb—flowers in hand.
It is August 6. One year ago today Johnson received the worst news of her life. Her eighteen-year-old son, Aaron Harrison Jr.— Lil’ A.O.—had been shot to death. Johnson always feared she might one day receive such news, in part because she already dealt with such a loss. In August of 1991, three years after Lil’ A. O. was born and while she was pregnant with her second son, Anton, their father Aaron Harrison Sr. was found dead of a gunshot wound.
This time it was different. Lil’ A.O. wasn’t killed by the street violence endemic in many of Chicago’s black communities. Rather, a member of the Chicago Police Department’s Special Operations Section, which had a mission of quelling the very violence of which Harrison Sr. was a victim, shot Lil’ A.O. in the back.
Like his father’s shooting, Lil’ A.O.’s death is shrouded in mystery, and for Annie there are no answers. When Harrison Sr. was struck down at the age of 21 near the Rockwell Gardens projects, Annie says the police called it gang-related and never investigated. A witness said he was shot trying to escape a robbery. She doesn’t really know what happened. She does know Harrison Sr. wasn’t in a gang and knows he was found wearing nothing but his jogging shorts. Even the plastic earrings he liked to wear, she says, were missing from his corpse.
Concerning Lil’ A.O.’s death, the police say he had a gun and was threatening to shoot an officer as he ran away. Witnesses say the police brutally shot him down.
Traffic flows along the Eisenhower Expressway and tree limbs, broken from a recent storm, scatter the cemetery grounds. Anton follows Johnson as she searches. Her boyfriend of five years, Ed Jackson, waits nearby with Johnson’s young cousin, Mia Brown, who she is raising as her daughter. She has been dreading this day for weeks now because she simply had no idea of how she would feel. She thought after a year she might be better, but she was wrong. The pain is still fresh.
Above the mantle in her home in Berwyn, Johnson has built a memorial to Lil’ A.O. with photos from his childhood and one taken the morning of his death. A soft-spoken woman, she talks low as she speaks about the memorial, which obviously makes her feel better. “He liked to dance,” she says pointing to photos. “See these. He was dancing here. He was real good.” Lil’ A.O. also was a comedian, she says. “We would be here watching a movie or something, all together you know, and it would be funny. But, we would be laughing at him more than the movie, ‘cause he was always clowning about.”
She smiles when she remembers times like that, but the smile always fades: “Sometimes we laugh still, but not like that anymore.”
Aaron didn’t grow up in Berwyn. Until a year before his death, the family lived in a section of Chicago’s tough North Lawndale community on the West Side, a place everyone in the neighborhood simply calls Mozart, after the local street. Even though it wasn’t as dangerous as other parts of North Lawndale, Johnson relocated the family to Berwyn. “The Chicago public school system is terrible,” she says. “I wanted my kids to have the best education they could get.”
But, with Berwyn being a primarily Hispanic community, Lil’ A.O. usually ended up hanging out with his old friends where he grew up. Johnson didn’t mind Lil’ A.O. hanging out in Mozart, because, she says, bad things can happen anywhere. “At least there he had his friends. The community knew who he was,” she says. “That is where his friends were, that is where his family was. He felt comfortable there.”
The photo taken the morning Aaron died has appeared on flyers that Johnson passes out at anti-police brutality marches. Underneath it says: This is how I saw Aaron the morning of August 6. Right next to it is another photo, and below that one it says: This is how I saw him the night of August 6. It is an autopsy photo of Aaron’s lifeless body. His face is shrunken in, his eyes, lifeless. His face is bruised on all sides; his upper lip is slashed open, up to the nose. You can see that a tooth is broken and his mouth is filled with dirt and grass. Another photo from that night shows where the bullet entered his back, and still another where it exited his neck. Both show bruises on each side of his body.
“How could he get all that from falling down after he was shot?” Johnson asks. “Autopsy folks told me they wouldn’t expect that from a fall other than if someone fell off a building or something.”
Such images are etched in her memory, and they lead her to no other conclusion than her son was badly beaten after he was shot. And if that is true, it leads her to another conclusion—or at least to the terrible question that haunts her. Was her son brutally struck down by law enforcement? The lack of any evidence suggesting otherwise—other than the word of the officer who shot him— as well as a near riot the night of his death, only re-enforces her thought that yes, yes he was.
Johnson had just come home from her job as a yard supervisor at the H and M Rail Yard when she got the call that Lil’ A.O. had been shot. “I had missed a bunch of calls because I was getting ready to shower,” she says. “It was my sister-in-law. She was hysterical. She said, ‘Aaron has been shot.’” It was hard for Johnson to comprehend what had happened she says, because of the frantic nature of the conversation, but says it was at that moment that she began to go numb.
Johnson and Jackson got in the car and started to drive to Mozart—she hadn’t heard where it happened but she assumed it was the old neighborhood—and she began thinking about what she would need to do to accommodate him. “I was wondering where he was shot. ‘Was it in the leg? The arm?’ I was thinking, ‘was he caught in the middle of a gang shooting? Was he a bystander?’ I had a million thoughts. But, mostly I thought about what I was going to need to do for him. How I was going to take care of my boy.”
Her cell phone began ringing incessantly at that point, with more panic-stricken calls. “Aaron has been shot!” they all said. “Calm down, calm down,” she tried to tell them. “What hospital is he in?” But, she never got that answer. Instead, she got a call from her nephew, who told her Lil’ A.O. wasn’t in a hospital. He was dead. His body was in a lot off Mozart.
When Annie and Ed arrived on the scene the entire block was filled with people. Annie still wasn’t sure what had happened, but the word in the crowd was the police had shot him. The news shocked her. Of all the worries she had about her children, she never thought the police would kill them.
They made their way through the crowd to a police officer that was guarding the yellow-taped police line. “Please let me in,” she cried. “That is my son.” All she wanted at that point was to see him. “I was hoping, hoping until the end they had made a mistake. That maybe it wasn’t my son. That maybe he was not dead, that they just thought he was dead. I just wanted to be by him. ”
The officer told her she could go up the gangway and enter from the back. When she got to the tapeline, though, another officer blocking off the lot stopped her and refused to let her through. “I was at the back of the building then. I could see part of his body on the other side of the rear porch,” she says. “I begged the officer to let me pass. I just wanted to be by Aaron, but they would not let me. I just wanted to see if maybe he was alive, to tell him to hang on—to be there for him.”
The officers did not let her pass. Frustrated, she went back down the gangway toward the street, when a resident in the building offered to let her look from his third floor apartment. “I went up and stuck my head out of the window. That is when I knew my son was dead. He was lying on the ground; his white t-shirt was red with blood. A bunch of police officers were standing around him. I looked over his body, up and down, trying to see what had happened. Eventually, I told Ed, ‘Take me to the car.’ I no longer knew what to do.”
That is the last time she remembers being herself. From then on, she says, she has been someone different.
She sat in the car for more than three hours before Lil’ A.O. was taken away. They never even covered his body, she says. The sun was setting. As she sat in the car her view was of a large, angry crowd. Beyond that, yellow tape and police officers. Anton and Mia called. She told them to turn on the news, that their brother had been shot, that their brother was dead. They cried, hysterically.
Johnson has sought solace after Aaron’s death from many sources. As long as she remains occupied, she is all right—as long as she can keep her mind off of that night. She readily admits she is in the midst of a battle with herself. “The truth is, it has all become too much. It makes you want to kill yourself. But, I have got to be here for my other kids. I have got to try and get justice for Aaron. So I try to be strong.”
Most of the time, she says, she doesn’t feel anything. But her mind is haunted. And sometimes she erratically breaks down. When that happens, she hides, locking her self in the bathroom, or hiding in the closet, to cry. She doesn’t want her kids to see her breaking down. So she tries to control it.
This summer, she planned a Back to School Barbecue in North Lawndale in honor of Aaron where they will be giving away school supplies and buttons with pictures of Lil’ A.O. she has made. Anton and Mia helped her put the school kits together, but she took them apart to re-arrange them. She says she didn’t like the order they were in, that she wants to match the colors in each kit better. However, she later admits, she just needs something to do.
“They try to make it sound like Aaron was in a gang or something. They try to make him look bad. But, he was soft. He was no gangster,” she says. “Whenever I’d sit him down and talk to him, you know, serious like, he would just start crying. ‘Sorry momma,’ he would say. ‘I know momma, you right.’ He was just a boy. I never got to see the man he would one day become.”
She thinks Aaron would have been a good man, like his father. “[Harrison Sr.] was a funny guy. He wanted to be a musician. But he was no good at it,” she says as she begins to roar with laughter. “Oh, I use to laugh at him so hard. He’d be writing these raps and stuff. He didn’t have all the equipment, but he would try with what he had. He was so terrible at it! But, that was just him. And he was a good man, so I didn’t say nothing about it. We was in love.”
Harrison Sr.’s death took a pretty large toll on Lil’ A.O., Johnson says. “He used to cry and cry after his daddy died. He had nightmares until he was eight. He always carried his father’s picture with him in his wallet. He had it with him when he was shot.” It is hard to go through the same thing again, she says. It is hard to not know what happened, to be neglected again. It is offensive to her. She thinks the police never investigated Harrison Sr.’s murder because he was black. That is what everyone she knows thinks.
Johnson has also kept busy with the small anti-police brutality movement that has started to develop in Chicago in response to what critics say is a growing problem. Johnson isn’t involved in the planning and such, but she attended all of the marches this summer that she could. When she cannot go, her sister-in-law Ashunda Harris goes in her place. They hand out the flyers at every event, which tend to be small but impassioned.
The protests aren’t the only evidence of unease and anger in communities like North Lawndale about excessive police violence. More than a hundred vodka bottles now mark the spot where Lil’ A.O. died, with flowers, candles and pictures stuffed into the bottlenecks, a makeshift memorial that stands a year later.
Aaron Johnson was the tenth of 13 people police shot to death in the 2007 “killing” season—the summer months in Chicago when violent crime spikes. He had been hanging out under the awning of a convenience store on the corner of Roosevelt and Francisco with some friends, waiting for the rain to pass after buying some snacks. Witnesses say that when a police cruiser abruptly pulled onto the sidewalk, the boys all ran. Aaron took off to his godmother’s home, the apartment building next to the lot where he was shot.
One of the officers chased after Aaron on foot. Unable to keep up, witnesses say, the officer pulled his gun and shot. Aaron fell into the alley after a bullet penetrated his back and exited his neck. The officer who killed Aaron said he shot because he felt his life was threatened. He said Aaron pointed a gun at him. A 9mm was retrieved from the scene.
North Lawndale, which had been through the gut-wrenching anger over the death of a local only two weeks earlier, when Lester Spruill died in jail after police allegedly beat him in his apartment, wasn’t buying it. “The community was already on edge. That night caused it to explode,” says Reverend Robin Hood, a local minister who was in the crowd that Annie Johnson encountered when she arrived at the scene that night.
The throng was getting increasingly hostile, recalls Cliff Manning, a detention officer at St. Charles Juvenile Facility and a resident of North Lawndale. At one point an officer with a metal rod began pushing into the crowd. “[He was] pushing a pregnant women next to me, an old lady,” Manning says. “I told him, ‘What are you doing, don’t you have enough problems here?’” Trying to help calm the situation, Manning told the officer he worked for the Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says was the officer’s response.
Later, Manning says, 50 to 75 officers began pushing the crowd back, at which point bricks and bottles were thrown. According to reports from then Harrison District Police Capt. John Kupczyk, five people were arrested for throwing bottles at police squad cars. Later that night, another person was arrested when roughly 100 people marched outside the Harrison District police station. “I am still enraged by the police’s actions that night,” Manning says. “Here’s a kid running away and the police shoot him down. Anywhere, people would have been upset.”
“The police are not all bad, but a bunch of them are. They harass young men, they threaten them and they brutalize them,” says Rev. Hood. Such allegations are not unfounded. Seven members of the CPD’s Special Operations Section, which was given the freedom to move about the city to reduce violence, are now facing charges of armed robbery, aggravated kidnapping and home invasion. The officer who killed Lil’ A. O. was a member of the unit, although he is not among those charged. The Special Operations Section was disbanded in October 2007, two months after Lil’ A.O. was shot.
The Independent Police Review Authority, the public body that was founded a year ago to investigate police misconduct, has yet to issue a judgment on Lil’ A.O.’s shooting. If the IPRA finds the shooting unjustified, it is possible the officer could face criminal charges for his actions. And that is all Johnson wants. “I want the officer to be held accountable for what he did,” she says. “I want him to be locked up, just like any other person would be for murdering someone.”
Despite the IPRA’s goal of closing cases such as Aaron’s shooting within six months, it has yet to indicate it is close to giving a ruling. Mark Payne, the spokesperson for the IPRA, says they are still investigating and also says they are having problems due to understaffing. The IPRA has yet to close any cases of police shootings.
“The Office of Professional Standards, [the former body investigating complaints against police], was shut down because it was a joke,” says Ben Nwoye, a civil rights lawyer who is currently representing Jonathon Pinkerton, a 16 year-old black student who was paralyzed from the waist down after a Chicago police officer shot him in the back in June. “I see nothing that indicates the IPRA is any different.”
This year Johnson says she sees the same thing happening again, which further compounds her troubles. To date, police have shot 13 people this summer, killing seven of them. “Our system is failing,” she says. “Something needs to be done to stop this, but I am not sure what.”
At the cemetery, Johnson continues to look for Lil’ A.O.’s grave. It has been nearly fifteen minutes. It is difficult because Annie hasn’t been able to afford a tombstone for him. So she is looking for a marker— marker 43 in section 56. She is in section 56, but she cannot find anything that says 43. She is not even sure what it may look like.
The sky is grey, the air cool and the grass is damp. It appears it may rain. The rest of her family joins in search.
Finally, Annie finds Lil’ A.O.’s grave. An overgrown round cement marker that says 43 marks the head of his coffin. The family draws together. They place the sign Annie has made into the ground and another that says, “Son” in front of it. They lay the flowers down, placing them along the side of the sign. They stand and look for a moment and then gather around and hold hands. Annie’s nephew leads them in prayer.
“Oh God, oh God. Please let us know why this has happened. Why we had to suffer this loss. Please let us know why Aaron was taken from us. Please let there be justice...”