Oak Park resident Dalila Johnson, a retired Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher, walked almost dazed up to the door of the Chinese Consulate last Fri., June 19, flanked by state Rep. LaShawn K. Ford (8th), who was holding a bed of nearly 29,000 petition signatures he would hand deliver to Consulate officials.
They were there to protest the case of Johnson’s son, Ajamu Johnson, 38, a West Side native and entrepreneur who went to China to study and teach English. His family says has been languishing without cause in Qing Pu Prison on the outskirts of Shanghai since December 10, 2014 after he got into a physical altercation with another American media reports have identified as Andrez Ratajczak.
Since his imprisonment, both Johnson’s father and his aunt have died. His mother said the last time she talked with her son was the day he was arrested. She said her son has written her that he’s had the flu twice and has been without shoes or eyeglasses.
She fears his treatment may parallel that of Qin Jiang, a Chinese expatriate who had showed up to the Consulate with her husband that afternoon to protest her own mistreatment. Jiang claims that last year, the Chinese government took her property by force and when she protested the seizure, she was thrown in jail for three weeks and bound for more than 60 hours.
“They cuffed her to a cot so she couldn’t move, cuffed her legs,” said her husband, Phil Veitengruber, an American. “They try to intimidate you so you won’t give the government any trouble. This is typical. And here’s the problem, you go to these guys here [at the Consulate] and they say, ‘Well, that’s the legal system in China. Hire a lawyer.’ There is not a lawyer that will touch a case, because that will be the last case they ever do in China because the government will blackball ’em. If you take on a case like that, you’ll never get another case after that.”
The details of Johnson’s and Ratajczak’s altercation have not been fully explicated. Johnson’s family members, however, insist that their relative fought in self-defense and that the conflict between the two men was eventually resolved. But while Ratajczak was allowed to leave the country after the incident, Johnson was thrown in jail.
“AJ defended himself as would anybody,” Dalila wrote in the Change.org petition she started to raise awareness about her son’s imprisonment. “Unfortunately, the police were called and both men were charged. AJ had the facts on his side and we felt everything would be resolved. The attacker eventually admitted to starting the fight, AJ had no criminal record or history of violence, and AJ’s lawyer expected the charges to be dismissed at his hearing. We just had to wait for AJ’s day in court.
“While AJ waited to go to court, his father died. Chinese authorities refused to let him travel to attend the funeral. It was devastating for me not to have my son by my side to mourn his father. I tried not to imagine what he was going through knowing he couldn’t come home. Sadly, tragedy struck again. My sister, AJ’s aunt, died a few months later. AJ pleaded to be allowed home to say goodbye to his aunt. Instead of allowing him to go home, AJ was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for the April 3rd incident.”
According to statement issued by the Chinese Consulate and obtained by NBC 5 Chicago, “Ajamu caused physical injury […] China is a country, and everyone is equal before the law. The lawful rights and interests of aliens on Chinese territory are protected.”
Johnson’s brother, Jahi Johnson, 37, said when his older brother contacted him, “he kept asking, ‘Why am I being held?’ In so many words, he said the guys who were arresting him said, ‘We’ve never done this before, but we have to do what we’re told.'”
The younger Johnson said Ratajczak is in Seattle and has written him to apologize.
“He pretty much said he’s sorry for what he did to my brother,” said Johnson. “I told him, I’m not angry at either party. It’s just a matter of the law failing itself. Nobody’s really stepped up to endorse the fact that you have an innocent man in jail.”
Ajamu graduated with honors from Morehouse College, where he studied finance and international business. He worked at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Mercantile Exchange before going off to teach English in places such as Thailand, Dominican Republic, Korea, Namibia and Japan. Family members say he also speaks several languages.
“It was pretty much his desire to get as much information he could to come back and teach finance and trade in low-income communities. For the most part, his experience has been joyous. He loves China. He loves people. He’s never even gotten a speeding ticket,” said Jahi.
“If they were going to do it fairly, they should’ve either locked both of them up or sent them both home,” said April Johnson, Ajamu’s aunt.
Larry Howard, Johnson’s uncle, described the circumstances between Ratajczak, who is white, and his nephew, who is black, rather bluntly.
“When it comes down to the bottom line, when you’re in a Communist country, you never know what to expect,” he said. “Everywhere we go, the black man is persecuted. Everywhere we go.”
As Johnson’s roughly dozen supporters milled and chanted on the sidewalk, Elcie Redmond, an activist with the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC), was talking to a young Chinese national who couldn’t get into the consulate because officials there had locked the doors after allowing Rep. Ford and Johnson’s mother into the building.
“They locked the door sister, because we’re out here, so you can’t get your visa,” Redmond said in jocund defiance. “Sorry sister!”
Johnson’s family has argued that the consensus among prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses to the altercation is that something went wrong with his conviction and that, given the deaths of his relatives, he should at least have been allowed to return to the United States through the International Prison Exchange Program.
Johnson’s mother has solicited a range of prominent activists and elected officials, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Sen. Richard Durbin (IL) and Sen. John McCain (AZ), the latter of whom actually responded.
“That surprised me,” said Jahi of McCain’s response.
So far, Rep. Ford has been the most vocal elected official to advocate on Ajamu’s behalf. In January, he called for an investigation into Johnson’s sentencing by the Chinese.
“The United States and China continue to have a good diplomatic relationship,” Ford noted in a statement issued at the time. “This situation merits a full review to help bring justice for this American citizen, and bring him closer to his family.”
For activists like Redmond, the public outcry has been too tepid.
“She needs more attention drawn to what is happening to her son,” he said. “A lot of times in these situations people get lost in minutiae. We want to make sure we can come out here and draw attention to what’s happening. One of the things we want to do is if the Chinese Consulate informs the People’s Republic about what’s going on, we hope that that can move this process forward. And the more attention that we can draw to what’s happening to Johnson, the more that we can get some justice at this point.”
When Dalila and Rep. Ford emerged from the Chinese Consulate building, there appeared to have been some progress made.
“I told the guy in there, do to my son like you would want done to your son,” said Johnson. “He’s not a threat. He’s not a problem. He shouldn’t be incarcerated. I asked for his immediate release. He made some promises, because I made some serious accusations. I won’t quit. They promised me he could call me July 5 or July 10. We have a seven-minute conversation and we’re going to talk about a lot in seven minutes,” said Johnson, who seemed even more distraught and depleted now than before she went into the building.
“[AJ] deserves to be home. We need to get together, he needs some closure, he needs to come home and mourn with our family.”