Atlanta’s latest civil, human rights memorial: Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park

By David Pendered

The newly named Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park will forever remind that crimes against humanity still occur, and that strong community leaders prevented Johnston’s death by police bullets from becoming the catalyst for civil disturbances that could have rocked the city, according to Atlanta City Councilmember Ivory Young, Jr.

kathryn johnston, window artwork

This artwork covers an apparent window at the front of the house where Kathryn Johnston was shot. Credit: David Pendered

“We should never forget Ms. Johnston’s contribution to her neighborhood, to this city and the world,” Young said during a phone call Monday. “The park … will stand as a constant memorial to her as a person, and to the conditions that continue to rally against human beings.”

The Atlanta City Council voted Monday to rename the former Boone West Park to the Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park.

“This will be a kind of immunotherapy that would kill the carcinogens that would prevent the young people from this community from receiving an equal education, equal access to jobs and careers, and a chance to kill the cancer known as poverty, so that black people and white people could, in a legitimate way, look at each other as equals and know the world that Dr. King had dreamed is more than possible when we kill this cancer.” Young said.

This seems a lot to ask of a small park located a short distance from the home in the English Avenue neighborhood where police shot and killed Johnston during a dirty drug raid. This past weekend, portions of the neighborhood appeared much as they did the day of her death, Nov. 21, 2006.

Across the street from Johnston’s home, windows of an apparent apartment complex are boarded over and planks hang from the exterior walls. West of Johnston’s home, on Neal Street, burglar bars cover the windows on many homes. Broken furniture and boxes packed with someone’s life possessions rest on curbs and gutters throughout the neighborhood, awaiting pickup by the sanitation department.

Kathryn Johnson, portrait

Kathryn Johnston was alone in her home when Atlanta police burst in and fatally shot her in 2006. Credit: atlantablackstar.com

Signs of a healthy neighborhood also exist.

Women were sweeping porches and men were mowing grass. Some homes sport yard signs proclaiming, “We [love] English Avenue.” Drivers of vehicles edged close to curbs to share narrow streets. Men working on houses paused to smile and wave at a passing motorist.

These later signs represent the small but consistent steps of renewal Young describes as spreading across the neighborhood. Some of this renewal is sparked by the Westside Future Fund, which was formed to help neighborhoods west of the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Other projects stem from concerted efforts by neighborhood leaders to reclaim a community that gave birth to Gladys Knight, Herman Cain and other notables, Young said.

The spirit of these neighborhood leaders united to prevent violent protests from breaking out after Johnston was killed, Young said.

“Leaders like Tony Torrance, like “Able” Mable Thomas, like Pastor Anthony Motley, at Lindsay Baptist Church, like outraged businessman John Gordon, with Friends of English Avenue, are just a few who kept Atlanta from becoming Ferguson, Mo..,” Young said.

Young also cited then Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and other civic leaders who brought about change to right some of the wrongs that the GBI’s investigation into Johnston’s death revealed. They include:

english avenue home

Signs of renewal are visible across the English Avenue neighborhood, including this house with a tended lawn, a yard sign proclaiming, ‘We [love] English Avenue,” and construction documents in the box near the porch. Credit: David Pendered

  • The end of an infraction titled Disorderly Conduct 6. It empowered police to have no need of probable cause to arrest someone, and Young said it was used mainly to arrest African Americans. Some 7,700 DC-6 cases were filed in the year of Johnston’s death, and 6,400 cases were dropped, Young said – “Leaving 6,400 law-abiding citizens with an arrest record.”
  • A rejuvenated Citizens Review Board, which is a vehicle for private citizens to address allegations of over-zealous or illegal police action. “I went further, to add additional seats for the Metropolitan Urban League of Atlanta, as well as the Georgia Coalitions for the People’s Agenda,” Young said.

Johnston,. 92, was alone at home when officers broke into her home around 7 p.m. on the night of Nov. 21, 2006. Officers came with a search warrant that authorized them to enter and search the house without knocking on the door to gain entry. Johnston feared for her life in the high-crime neighborhood and, as officers burst into her living room, raised and fired a pistol she had in her lap at men she thought were intruders.

kathryn johnston's home

The house where Kathryn Johnston was killed sits behind a manicured yard and tended shrubs. Some tires on the beige vehicle are flat. Credit: David Pendered

Officers returned fire, striking her with several bullets, handcuffed her as she lay bleeding and dying, and planted marijuana in the house. Authorities later determined the “no knock” warrant had been obtained with false information that drugs were being dealt from Johnston’s house.

Two Atlanta police officers were charged with felony murder and other charges. They pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and other charges in Fulton County Superior Court.

In addition, the two officers and a third officer pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Atlanta to a charge of conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in the death of Johnston, according to a statement from the U.S. District Attorney.

The Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park is now a vacant tract of grass protected by a fence that doesn’t appear to keep anyone out. Young noted that the future park is made possible by the efforts of Park Pride and the Conservation Fund.

A groundbreaking is scheduled Aug. 23 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at 870 Proctor St.

 

english avenue, apartments

These apartment buildings are boarded over and decaying across Neal Street from the house in which Kathryn Johnston was killed. Credit: David Pendered

 

Ivory Lee Young, Jr.

Ivory Lee Young, Jr.

 

Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park

Atlanta memorialized Kathryn Johnson, a victim of a fatal police shooting, by naming a park for her in her English Avenue neighborhood. Credit: Google Earth Pro, David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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