If you had asked him years ago, Anthony Johnson would have never seen himself in these shoes. Incarcerated? Sure. With a father who struggled with drugs and a stepfather who was in and out of his life as he served time in a federal penitentiary, the bright orange sneakers that serve as the standard footwear of the San Francisco County Jails wouldn’t have come as a surprise.
But a trainer in nonviolence? An inmate welcoming members of the community into jail so they can learn about peace from him? Building a positive community amongst his peers in the county jail?
“Never,” he laughed, as he reminisced about his upbringing. “Growing up in a house where we never communicated, witnessing the violence of the streets, I never thought I’d be doing nonviolence.”
Yet that is the somewhat contradictory situation he finds himself in. A trainer in Kingian Nonviolence and a leader of the East Point Peace Academy on the one hand, and an inmate in the San Francisco County jails facing years in prison on the other.
“My stepfather was a drug dealer, and he always made sure we were taken care of,” he said. “Clothes, sneakers, school supplies. I always wanted to emulate him. But it was the good and the bad of the streets. I also remember taking vacations to visit him in prison, seeing the violence and the drugs, seeing as a kid the police raiding our home on Christmas and opening up all our presents looking for drugs.”
At the age of 13, he lost his first friend to violence. While he remembers losing his father at a young age, the loss of his first peer weighed heavy. Yet it wasn’t until much later that he was able to learn about and commit to nonviolence.
“When I was young, I wanted to be an architect. I always loved to draw,” he remembered. “I don’t know what happened. Growing up with family members who were locked up, you start to think that’s what’s normal. I remember visiting my stepfather in prison, and now my sons are visiting me. When I saw my 3-year-old son walk through that visiting room floor for the first time, it brought me back. It hurt.”
That scene was something he knew he never wanted to witness, and served as one of the key motivations for change. “Everything I did to not be like my father and stepfather, I became,” he said. “I have two sons, and I want to be in their lives, but the cycles keep repeating. That’s why I know I need to make a change.”
Part of that change came in 2012, when he took part in his first Kingian Nonviolence training. Developed out of the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kingian Nonviolence is a training curriculum that inspires people to take action for peace and justice by analyzing human conflict, the roots of violence and the principles of nonviolent conflict reconciliation. Johnson wasn’t sold at first.
“I remember thinking to myself, What is this? Why are they waking us up early for this?” he said as he thought back to his first workshop. “But once I started to understand the material, it was empowering. It opened up my eyes.”
That’s when William Cooper, a program coordinator for Healthright 360, a service provider who manages programs inside the jail where he was incarcerated, recommended that he join East Point Peace Academy’s first training-of-trainers for inmates.
“When he first came to our unit, he was eager to change his life,” Cooper said. “I saw that he was very influential, and he had the potential to be a positive influence. He needed a change, to learn a different skill set to become a better leader.”
Six months later, he found himself and his cohort surrounded by other inmates, listening to former mayors, professors and legends of the civil rights movement congratulating him on graduating as a trainer in King’s philosophy.
“It was an honor to meet and hear from people like Dr. Bernard Lafayette, someone from the movement that lived the life,” Johnson said. “It felt good that someone like him took time out of his life to travel and come visit us in the jail. It felt good because it let us know that people care. To be part of something that Dr. King spoke about in his final words … It’s an honor.”
Training and practice
East Point Peace Academy, an organization I founded in 2013 to train and empower peace warriors like Johnson, emphasizes the importance of training and practice. Nonviolence, much like a martial art, is not something one becomes, as much as it is a practice that you commit yourself to and try to improve at each day. No one becomes nonviolent, just as no one becomes karate or kung-fu.
For Johnson and the other trainees, the six-month training was key in changing their perspective.
“When I took the initial trainings, it made sense, but it was when I started the training-of-trainers that my thinking started to change,” he said. “The way I communicated started to change. The way I was reacting to conflict started to change. I was less aggressive, more loving and empathetic.”
But change takes time, as East Point trainer Theresa Guy Moran can attest to. “At the start of our program, I remember Anthony being very tense and lacking confidence in his ability,” explained Moran. “But over time, he’s stepped into the work with more confidence, and with that some of the tension has fallen away.”
Johnson slowly emerged as a leader in his cohort, with the courage and ability to take conversations to a deeper level. He would often model the type of vulnerability that is so rare in environments like jail, creating space for others to express challenges they were going through.
“One day he started to challenge us, the trainers,” Moran recalled. “He began to ask us how long we were going to be working with them, what would happen to them afterwards, whether this was going to be just one more program they go through and never hear from us again.”
As he continued, he articulated a deeper fear: that he didn’t matter, that he was going to be thrown away, that he was irrelevant and will be forgotten because of where he was.
“That takes a lot of courage to be willing to say,” said Moran.
When he named that fear, it opened up space for the other men in the room to echo the same fear. The fear of being cast away by society. The fear of their children never getting a chance to know them. Of being forgotten. And being able to voice those fears, to release that internal violence, is an important act of nonviolence.
“He’s naturally empathetic, and excels at modeling vulnerability and creating a healing space,” Moran continued. “In that way, he can be a good counsel to others.”
Becoming a peace warrior
“When I was little, my nickname was Warrior. I guess now I’m a peaceful warrior,” he laughed as he thought about the changes he’s gone through.
East Point’s training is created with the intent of empowering those most directly impacted by violence to become the leaders of change. No one understands the impact that violence has had on our communities — and what it takes to change — than people like Johnson.
“People may hear about nonviolence and may not agree with it at first, but if they hear it from someone who looks like them, they respect it more,” he explained. “They see someone who looks like them, wearing the same orange jumpsuits making changes, and they respect that. After the workshop is over, we’re still in the jail with them so we can continue to teach them.”
Since completing their training, Johnson and his cohorts have facilitated workshops both for their peers inside the jail as well as members from the outside who came to learn from their wisdom.
“When we’re able to teach people from outside, it breaks down stereotypes,” he said. “People see that we’re good people who made bad choices, but we’re also furthering Dr. King’s work, helping people get back to their authentic selves. Nonviolence taught me that everybody is part of the Beloved Community. I want people to see that people can change. That we make decisions in a split second, but that’s not the entirety of who a person is. People don’t deserve to get cast out because of that split second.”
And he plans to continue to spread the message of nonviolence: in jails, prisons, with his family and in his neighborhood.
“I want to go to college to become a counselor for youth,” he said. “I want to introduce my family and neighborhood to nonviolence. I want to be a light of hope for those who are hopeless.”
Reflecting for a moment on the reality of the violence in his own experience, Johnson softly said, “I’m sick of seeing people die, I’m tired of losing loved ones. I don’t want to die on the streets, I don’t want to get shot over some nonsense and I don’t want to shoot anyone.”
And despite the violence that surrounds him to this day, nonviolence has given him faith in the possibility of change and a long-term commitment to being part of that change.
“I want people to know that Dr. King didn’t die in vain because we are continuing the work that he started,” he said. “It’s working. I know change is possible, because I’ve changed. We’re going to continue this work, so that my children’s children can see the results.”
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