When I went to meet with Christopher Johnson, I was intimidated. Not because of the topic we were about to discuss but because I’ve heard of him, I know of him and he’s a Writer — capital W. In fact, and in full disclosure, he’s written for Motif in the past and has been in the running for state poet laureate (Tina Cane, who Johnson says is “amazing,” was given the title). He’s known nationally for his poetry and now is a Rhode Island State Council of the Arts (RISCA) fellowship recipient for his play, New and Dangerous Ideas, which premiered in 2017 at The Wilbury Theater Group. It was inspired by Johnson’s assault and subsequent arrest from an officer on the Providence Police Force. He filed a lawsuit on May 16 of this year seeking damages for the way he was treated during this arrest.
“It was around 11 or 12, relatively early for a night going out. I was walking home and a police officer drove past me and did a u-turn to come back and talk to me … he drove in front of me and asked me what my name was.”
Johnson refused to give him his name and reminded him of his rights. The officer got out of the car and threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice. As Johnson continued to tell the officer to stay away, the officer pursued him. Johnson recalls saying to the officer, “If you shoot me, you’re gonna get away with it, we all know this. Just let me go.” He said, further, “I know you’re a police officer. I know you can shoot me. I have a daughter, I want to live.” The police report that was filed by Officer Sheridan says that he slammed Johnson into the passenger door of his police car so hard that it, “…dented the rear passenger side door…”
According to MappingtheViolence.org, in 2018 alone there were 1,164 deaths from police brutality.
Patrolman Sheridan is a five-year member of the Providence Police Department and is also the subject of two other lawsuits, from Esmelin Fajardo and Charm Howie, both of whom have similar stories to that of Johnson. There is even video of Sheridan allegedly assaulting Fajardo, which you can find on Google, but trust me, it’s not an easy video to watch.
Johnson was arrested. He was charged with assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. All of which were dropped in 2017. The NAACP reports that “African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.”
Johnson says that he has been dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that it took him a full year to be able to actually file the lawsuit and that he almost hadn’t done it if not for the help from his lawyer. “I shut down,” he says. “I shut down for a lot of different reasons.”
As for his interaction with Sheridan since the incident? “He [Sheridan] came to my house. I had to call the police.” Then, I asked him, simply whether he feels safe in the city. “As safe as anywhere I feel in the country,” Johnson replied. I probed him one more time, curious about how he felt, how this trauma was affecting him, and Johnson completely put me in my place. “You keep asking, the problem is not that it’s a matter of feeling unsafe … this is just how it is.”
This is the reality. Forty percent of the US incarcerated population is black, according to the 2010 US Census data.
But what now? Johnson will be called into court for his case and will be required to sit for a deposition, as will the Providence Police Department and Patrolman Sheridan. Johnson feels though that this couldn’t have happened to someone else because he is a writer. Johnson feels that he has given a voice to those who might not be able to use their own. He asserts that he is not championing some noble cause, he’s trying to serve those who have come before him and those who will, sadly, come after him. “I’m the guy who holds the sword for the guy that fights. I’m just a page,” he said.
Johnson’s play New and Dangerous Ideas will return to the Wilbury Theater Group in April 2020. Sheridan is still serving on active duty as a police officer for the City of Providence. Ninety-nine percent of all cases against police for violence in 2015 went without punishment or ruled in officers not being convicted of a crime.
A call placed to the Providence Police Department for comment was not returned by press time.