Three years ago, activist and organizer Gary Johnson had the cold, hard barrel of a gun pressed to his head, his face smashed into the concrete. A group of men stood around him and deliberated his fate.
"Let me take him into this alley. I'm gonna kill him," one said.
"No. We want his money. We gonna put him in the trunk and we gonna get his money," another, the leader, said.
Johnson, then 27, was beyond fear. "This might be it," he thought.
One of the men pushed a gun into his side and dragged him to his feet. The man itching to kill pulled him toward an alley. Johnson stiff-armed the man and took off.
Bullets whizzed past his head. They made a "plink" sound as they bounced off the cars and buildings around him. One of the bullets pierced his back, below his shoulder blade.
He stumbled over his own feet, careened down an alley and ran into a man—until this moment, Johnson hadn't even realized he'd been shot. No longer on the sprint of his life, Johnson felt the bullet poking through his flesh with his fingertips.
The man he bumped into let him use his phone to call for an ambulance, but after that Johnson realized he had no time to wait around: The men could come around the corner any second to finish the job. He ran toward a gas station where another man, whom Johnson now calls "his angel," grabbed Johnson by the wrists, called him "young blood," and sat him down to take a breath.
Johnson passed out in the gas station parking lot and reawakened when EMTs arrived.
As the memory of the sound of bullets rings in his ears, Johnson sounds nearly thankful: He believes getting shot inspired him to keep other kids like him off the streets. Johnson now works with kids as a program director of The Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore and is frequently involved in other forms of activism in the city including marches against police brutality and the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.
"If I didn't go through exactly what I went through, how I went through it, when I went through it, I wouldn't be in a position right now to help how I'm helping," Johnson says as we sit surrounded by children milling about at the Boys and Girls Club.
"I wouldn't be capable or able to do what I'm doing right now [had the shooting not happened]," Johnson says, fielding intermittent requests from the kids for cookies or Goldfish. "I can tell the kid who's thinking of going to sell drugs [that] bullets hurt, son, you don't want to get shot, you don't want to go to jail, you don't want to have communication through letters."
Johnson explains that he's repeating the things he was told when he was young—that the things you do come back to bite you, and that you can always do better for yourself—in hopes they'd grasp the lessons he didn't when he was their age. He grew up in Northwest Baltimore, and he didn't always do the right thing but still tried to help out as much as possible: "Even when I was in the streets and I was hustlin' and I was doing whatever, I made sure my clique on my block, we did stuff like take the trash out for everybody."
When an ice cream truck would come around, he and his friends would each pitch in some money and buy everyone ice cream or they'd throw in some cash to help mothers who were struggling to buy school supplies for their kids. Now he helps kids in a more sustainable way, working with them nearly every day.
Johnson grew more active during the Baltimore Uprising, and says he was one of many who helped broker the union between Bloods and Crips when Baltimore was seething with fury after Freddie Gray's death.
In October 2015, as part of the organizing committee of the Million Man March, Johnson helped bring more than a thousand people down to D.C. from Baltimore on buses to hear Minister Louis Farrakhan's words echo between the Capitol and the Washington Monument during the 20th anniversary of the original march.
And in summer 2016, Johnson was the co-organizer of Operation Shut It Down, a march through Baltimore a few days after the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. That day, a group of about 50 marched from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Pennsylvania Avenue to downtown and back again. At the start of the march, Johnson said the goal was to "cut off the economic flow" in the downtown area "for a moment" and show "unity and solidarity" in calling attention to both the police shootings of Sterling and Castile and to others lost to gun violence. The march was energetic and at times fractious but Johnson remained the voice of calm and reason amid conflicting tactics and violent tempers.
Johnson says helping to organize events like these gives him with a sense of accountability and belonging. He often encounters people who are unaware of the message he and fellow protesters are trying to get across. This can be frustrating, and a "slap-in-the-face reminder of how much work we still need to do," he says. "[But] to be 100 percent honest it's a sense of almost helplessness [too], just feeling like you're not doing enough. You do the work and you see the fruits of the labor . . . but then another brother gets killed."
With the sound of bullets still clear in his memory, Johnson remains focused on advocacy. The uprising moved him to found Bridging the Gap with his friend Orlando Gilyard. It's an organization aimed at uniting the black community across barriers of age, gender, education, and other stratifications. So far the group has held two Thanksgiving turkey dinners for families in the community. The second and biggest one served more than 200 people.
Many kids that go to his program are children of the parents Bridging the Gap has fed at Thanksgiving.
"There have been times in my life where I've been hungry and had no food, no electricity," he says. "I know their day-to-day struggle."
Additional reporting by Brandon Soderberg.