Neighbors attend prayer vigil for Willie Johnson

MD-Prayer vigil for Willie Johnson_3x Tawanda

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Tawanda Johnson holds her daughter while thanking the Cambridge police. From left, Daryl Ross, Capt. Mark Lewis, Mrs. Johnson, Sgt. John Lewis, Chief Dan Dvorak.

CAMBRIDGE — Friends, family, neighbors, police officers and community leaders gathered together on Monday evening, for a prayer vigil for Willie “Chan” Johnson, the Cambridge cab driver murdered on Jan. 14 in an apparent robbery attempt. The evening vigil was seen as a show of solidarity, for the neighborhood and for the family of the deceased.

Daryl Ross opened the preceedings, addressing a crowd of approximately 50 people, attendance suffering for the bitter cold and windy weather. “Churches, police department, community members, business owners,” Mr. Ross began, “we are here to say, we’ve had enough. We’ve had enough. Ms. Tawanda Johnson, our sympathy goes out to you.

“I personally knew Chan. I thought what he did was great — (I’ll tell you about) one of the great things I personally witnessed him doing. We have a thrift store over on Meadow Avenue. We have a food pantry, where we try to serve the community as best we can. We give away food daily. Some of our community members didn’t have a way to get out to pick the food up, and Chan would, out of the greatness of his heart, he would just pick them up and bring them up there. He’d wait for them to get their food, and then take them to wherever they needed to go, and he didn’t charge for that. He showed that he was a valuable member of this community. So to see all y’all out here, just to say we’re sorry, just to say enough is enough, it does my heart well to see it.”

Cesar Gonzales of the Dorchester County Faith Alliance gave the first prayer of the evening, and spoke briefly. “This is the most untied I’ve seen this town, I think it’s out of sheer self-preservation,” he said. “Dear friends, thank you so much for coming out. A lot of us are fed up. A lot of us feel that we have to put some things behind us and we have to move on. We want you to know that Chan didn’t die for no reason, it’s not in vain. We’re here for Chan, we’re here for this town.”

Tawanda Green, widow of Willie Johnson, was introduced and spoke to the crowd, with one of her daughters clutched tight to her chest. “As you know, this is very hard on me, and the kids and the family,” she said. “I thank everyone for everything they’ve done for me, all the support. The cab is still running, the number is still the same. I’ll still pick people up, and I’ll still carry people even if they don’t have the money to pay the fare. And I want to thank the Cambridge Police Department, the Chief and everyone else, especially John Lewis, Mark Lewis, Antoine Patton and everyone else. And I want to thank the community for everything y’all have done.”

Cambridge Police Chief Daniel Dvorak spoke next. Known locally as “Chief Dan,” he has taken this crime personally since Thursday night. “This weather is a testament to how much you care about this family and this city,” he said to the crowd. “When I talked to Pastor Gonzales about this, we just felt that there was a need to come out, and we needed some healing. We needed to get together like this, and it warms my heart to see you all here.

“I thought all day about what to say, and I couldn’t write anything down,” he said. “I think the biggest thing, and as your chief I’m telling you, that we can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing, again and again and again. We’ve got 48 police officers in this city who work hard to keep 12,000 residents safe. And it’s not working. What we’re doing is not working. We have to stop this and move on. We’re going to start a fresh day out of this.”

The chief pushed for greater communication between the community and police, and not necessarily for arrest as being the final answer. “We need your help, we need your partnership, we need you to communicate with us,” said Chief Dan. “We want to keep you safe, and we need you — you’ve got your ear to the ground, you know who’s doing what and what’s going on, and who’s acting up and who’s getting out of control, and who needs a hug. And you need to let us know.

“If somebody’s got an addiction — addiction is a terrible thing, and it’s going to kill us if we don’t do something about it. If you know somebody who is addicted, we have resources. I don’t need to arrest everybody. Arresting people just doesn’t do any good. You put them in jail, they get out, they’re still addicted, they’ll commit more crimes. The people who are breaking into your cars, breaking into your homes, robbing people, killing people, are going to bring us down. They can be helped. If you intervene, if you let us know — you can contact me, you can call our anonymous tip line at 410-228-DRUG. However you can communicate with us best, but I think this tragedy could have been prevented.

“That’s all I have to say. Tawanda, God bless. You know that we’re here to help with anything you need.”

Cambridge Second Ward Commissioner Donald Sydnor next spoke to his neighbors and constituents. “We are here for a sad occasion, and as the speakers have all mentioned, this did not have to happen. It is not for us to ask questions of the holy one. We don’t have the answers at this time. But as the song says, we will understand, by and by,” he said. “Mrs. Johnson, from the Mayor and the City Council, our deepest condolences to you. Under a sad situation like this, it is a testimony to Mr. Johnson of the life that he has lived. And for the people to come out here, in this kind of weather, it says something about the City of Cambridge. There is hope for us. There is unity that we can face under these situations we must come together. We must show our love for each other. Without that we are going to be lost. And we do not want that to happen. Again, my deepest condolences to you.”

Third Ward Councilman Frank Cooke also spoke on behalf of the city. “I do not believe that I am as eloquent as my fellow councilman, Mr. Sydnor,” said Mr. Cooke. “I hope that I never, ever have to come and talk about this again. Fortunately, we don’t have this sort of thing happen very often, but I’m going to tell you that when I heard about this, it really struck me right in the heart. I don’t know Mrs. Johnson, I can’t imagine what she feels like. Believe me, I do not know all the answers, about all the social problems, the addictions what they have to do to support that, but there are professionals in this town. Reach out to them. If you call me, I’ll try to find out for you, if you feel uncomfortable doing that. Please. I don’t want to come back here again.”

The crowd huddled together for warmth, and came forward to sign a poster created with pictures of Willie and his family, and to offer flowers and tokens to the widow. The sun was setting and the cold wind took the fire out of everyone, but the gathered friends bravely sang two choruses of Amazing Grace before parting.

“The Cambridge Police Department is doing a great job,” said Daryl Ross. “I personally think a lot of what we are seeing, the accomplishments of Cambridge P.D., comes from our new police chief.” He looked out over the shivering crowd and added, “I hate to say that it takes a tragedy to bring us together, but God says, whatever it takes.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.