In the early fall 2008, Gregory Johnson Jr. could be found riding around the San Jose State University campus on his longboard, going from his classes to his job as a personal trainer at Bally’s Total Fitness nearby.
He was an exemplary student, excelling in his classes and on the school’s wrestling team. He aspired to become a sports medicine doctor. He had a lot of friends and he liked to cook.
That’s why Denise Johnson knew with a mother’s instinct that something wasn’t adding up when his death in the basement of the Sigma Chi fraternity house where he lived was ruled a suicide.
Now, her calls for justice on behalf of her son are being amplified by a second wave of activism that surged this year after the police killing of George Floyd led to a national reckoning with racism and police violence in the United States.
“Greg was not a depressed person,” Johnson told San José Spotlight. “He had no mental issues. He knew who he was. He was a strong person.”
Reports from campus police and the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office are inconsistent with Johnson’s own observations of the body two weeks after it was found by the fraternity members. She only received redacted and incomplete versions of police reports.
An FBI agent from the Campbell office investigated the case as a hate crime, as Gregory was the only Black member living at the house. The investigation generated a 300-page report but Johnson was denied a copy of the report on the basis of national security.
“With suicide, you’re supposed to get all the paperwork,” Johnson said. “Time is past due for the truth.”
Johnson believes Gregory was murdered, and that the murder was covered up by campus, city and federal law enforcement.
Now, more than a dozen activists are drawing attention to the case again — a dozen years later.
Tiffany Yepp, a student at SJSU, launched a petition in June demanding justice for Gregory Johnson addressed to the San Jose and SJSU police departments, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“Gregory’s case always gets brought up consistently every year,” Yepp said. “It’s always been something that people have talked about but nothing was ever really done by students recently… but it’s good that now people are becoming more aware of it and they’re caring.”
The petition now has more than 90,000 signatures. Yepp’s Instagram post about the case got about 10,000 views.
“Everybody moved on from 12 years ago and this is an entirely new group,” Johnson said about her son’s case. “I was shocked because I thought people had forgotten. I was shocked and I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know if you can be happy and sad at the same time because this brings on a lot of memories.”
The petition and some of Yepp’s other posts drew the attention of Symone Jackson, who was a student at Santa Clara University when she met Johnson in 2013. About 15 other activists have now organized around the name Justice For Gregory Johnson Jr., launching a website and an Instagram account, where they share information about the case and resources for contacting the state and university officials.
“Because of the political moment, a lot of people are like, ‘how can I get involved?’” Jackson said. “That was a challenge in the past. People cared, but everyone has their own lives. But I think right now, a lot of people are looking to get involved in community organizing.”
The second wave of activism around Gregory’s case comes against the backdrop of a national conversation about systemic racism and a resurgence of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of that activism is taking place on social media, where links to petitions, bail funds and educational resources are widely shared. Those posts helped raise a second round of awareness for Gregory Johnson’s case and a demand for justice.
“It’s all connected,” said Anna Filanowski, an SJSU student involved with the Justice for Gregory Johnson Jr. campaign. “Anything that has to do with the Black Lives Matter movement is helpful for Black, Indigenous and other people of color and for Gregory’s case it’s no different.”
In addition to gathering donations for Johnson to hire a private investigator, the group is looking for a lawyer to appeal the dismissal of a federal civil rights case Johnson and her husband filed in 2015. The Johnsons were forced to represent themselves because they couldn’t afford a lawyer.
“This is stamped in my heart until I die,” Johnson said. “This is stamped into my brain. I’m a different person. Nobody takes the place of your child. Nobody can take the place of Gregory.”
Contact Stella Lorence at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @slorence3.