While grieving the death of her son, Dorothy Holmes kept coming back to one thought: She would never be able to give him another gift.
Her son Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson was born in December and loved stockpiling gifts from having his birthday and Christmas so close together.
“There wasn’t a room that his smile couldn’t brighten up during the holidays,” Holmes said. “When it gets close to the holidays, it’s hard for me to go to places and be in rooms that I know he loved to be at.”
It’s been that way for Holmes since Oct. 12, 2014, the day Johnson was killed by Chicago Police Officer George Hernandez.
But she has tried to bring her own light into the world by ensuring South Side kids are loved and cared for.
This year marks the sixth annual ‘‘Ronnieman Holiday Toy Drive.’’ Since 2015, Holmes has given out roughly $3,000 in items and hopes to distribute another $2,000 worth of gifts this year — not just toys but also winter coats, gloves and hats.
Starting in October, her living room, brimming with artwork of her son by artists from around the country, begins to fill with toys. By December, the room is almost impassable.
That effort also got a boost on Dec. 14, which would have been her son’s 32nd birthday, with a toy collection at the Black Lives Matter Chicago office.
One memorial to her son shows his face above an excerpt from “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel about the horrors of American slavery and a mother’s painstaking attempts to free her children from shackles.
“My love for my baby is too strong for me to ever let him be forgotten. The toy drive helps others not forget, too,” Holmes said.
Johnson, 25, was shot and killed near 53rd Street and Martin Luther King Drive. It was about 12:30 a.m., and he had just gotten into a car with three other people when a gunman opened fire on the vehicle.
Officers responding to reports of shots fired saw Johnson running and gave chase. Police later would say they saw an object in his hand. As Johnson was running into Washington Park, Hernandez arrived. He jumped out of his unmarked squad car and within just a few seconds fired five shots, hitting Johnson in his back and killing him.
For the first few months after Johnson died, Holmes spent hours pacing the streets near where he died.
Every visit, she noticed the same group of kids outside, poorly dressed for the winter chill. After a few visits, they approached her and asked why she spent so much time walking those blocks. She learned the kids lived in the building where Johnson had attended a party that night.
The conversation made her think about the different ways she could help that community.
Six years later, Holmes and volunteers from organizations such as Black Lives Matter and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression have expanded far beyond Washington Park.
They have graced the Roseland and West Pullman neighborhoods with their presence, door knocking with gifts and hugs. She has spoken and distributed gifts at a handful of elementary schools and daycare centers as well.
This year there will be fewer hugs and more socially-distanced drop-offs, but she still expects to feel the love.
“It’s just about loving each other. The love I’ve felt fighting for justice with my community has been enormous in the face of the constant police violence we face,” she said.
Holmes says she was “targeted” by the police and forced to move after attorneys for Hernandez tried to bring sanctions against her, claiming she had threatened Hernandez and his family. That motion for sanctions later was dropped.
In 2016, a Chicago police officer shot and killed her dog at her Washington Park home. Police said the dog was killed because it charged at officers as they responded to a report of a vicious animal.
“My family was constantly getting pulled over and targeted. I didn’t feel safe,” she said, looking at a living room poster that reads “NoGunCPD.”
Holmes’ two living children, Brielle, 28, and Rosalyn Johnson, 30, have been with their mom every step of the way, passing out toys and marching in the streets.
Brielle Johnson, who lives with Holmes, says she’s seen her mom at her best and her worst, but even at her worst, she’s “better than most.”
“My mom has always had the biggest heart, but for her to put the community on her back — it’s so special,” she said.
Holmes has marched and organized across the city, country and globe. She’s given talks about her experience and is writing a book she’s titled: “Life After Death: Losing a Child to Police Murder.”
She often returns to Washington Park, holding regular community discussions about policing and an annual Father’s Day BBQ to unite mothers of sons killed by police.
The grandmother of 11 is always there for her family, too, Brielle Johnson said. When Holmes is not organizing for her community, she’s at home helping her grandkids with virtual learning.
“Dorothy has been an example for so many of us around how to fight and maintain perspective, but also how to reimagine and redefine what is justice. She embodies a way to move forward, even while grieving, which is very helpful for our communities facing trauma,” said Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, who helps with the toy drive every year.
Holmes’s work centers on loved ones of people killed by police.
“I know grieving can also kill us. I’ve struggled with my health due to the pain and stress from a wound that’ll never heal, so I’ll do anything to help others going through the same things,” Holmes said.
In December 2014, Holmes filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking that video of the shooting to be released. That same month, she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and Hernandez.
The video was ultimately released in December 2015, two weeks after the release of footage of Laquan McDonald’s killing drew attention from around the world. McDonald was killed just eight days after Ronald Johnson.
In June 2016, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced Hernandez would not be charged in Johnson’s shooting. She said video appeared to show a gun in Johnson’s hand. Police said they found a pistol at the scene with Johnson’s DNA on it.
In December 2016, the Independent Police Review Authority cleared Hernandez.
In 2017, an attorney for the family arranged for two forensic video analysts to review the case. They concluded errors by an FBI lab handling the footage stretched the pixels, creating the shape of a gun.
Today, the lawsuit is still pending, and Hernandez remains on active duty.
Michael Oppenheimer, attorney for Johnson’s family, says the city has tried to downplay Johnson’s death.
“They’ll go through anything to make it look like the police did nothing wrong, even when we know that’s simply not true. We saw this summer what side the city is on, and with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the country now knows, too,” he said.
Between January 2015 and May 31, 2020, Chicago paid at least $350 million in settlements and legal fees related to lawsuits involving police, according to the City Law Department.
But Holmes says it’s not about the money.
“None of our lives have a price tag on them. Even if I settle with the city, I can’t go to the cemetery and buy my baby back.”
The Law Department declined to comment on Johnson’s case.
After a Department of Justice review highlighted problems at CPD, IPRA was replaced by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in 2017.
Whenever Chicago police use deadly force, COPA is required to release video, audio and other documents from that incident within 60 days. But according to a recent audit by Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General, COPA failed to meet that deadline more than one-fourth of the time through 2019.
CPD said they were “confident” in IPRA and COPA’s handling of the footage of Ronald Johnson’s case and all other cases involving audio and video.
Those failures are among the reasons Holmes said she doesn’t trust the city or police reforms to keep her community safe.
“All of my work now is to get the police out of our neighborhoods — to defund them. I’ll continue to do my best in my community, but we should be using [the police’s] money to support our families so that the burden isn’t on all of us who are already hurting,” Holmes said.
Her son is just one on a long list of Black people killed by police, she noted.
“When I speak my son’s name, I am saying as many names as I can remember with it because I know another family has lost someone too,” Holmes said.
“I don’t care how long it takes, I’m never going to give up the fight.”