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Stories about kids, guns and how to stop the violence. Precious Lives, created by 371 Productions, is a 2-year, 100-part weekly radio series about gun violence and young people in the Milwaukee area. The series applies a public health lens to each story to help listeners understand the full scope of the problem: who are the victims and the shooters; how are the weapons obtained; and what can we change about the environment that contributes to violence in Milwaukee?

Torre Johnson: 'Used to Be Example of What Not to Become, Now I'm What You Can Be'

Michelle Maternowski
Eric Von and Torre Johnson outside of a WUWM studio.

Torre Johnson, or ToeJoe as he is known on the streets, is a self-described former bad guy. But he is now reformed, working in the trenches with young people whose lives eerily resemble his some 30 to 40 years ago.

“When I went to jail I thought I was one of the toughest people, but then to be tough I had to humble myself,” Johnson says. “That’s the toughest thing in the world.”

And Johnson knows just how tough the world can be. He grew up on the streets of Milwaukee; admittedly, wreaking havoc in his neighborhood and beyond.

He quickly learned that there was a price to pay for his bad behavior.

"As a kid, I blocked the pain out. You can't hurt me... I refused to be hurt."

“When I was a kid, I was in jail, I went to Wales, Ethan Allen for armed robbery, I think I was like 12 and half or thirteen,” Johnson explains. “So then I just acted a fool, it was me against the world. My father died when I was 7, my biological mother died when I was two months [old]… I don’t know what caused me to actually flip, but I guess I thought that everybody was against me. So I didn’t really like nobody.”

And he thought nobody liked him. Johnson says he was searching for love that he felt he wasn’t receiving.

It wasn’t love that he found in the system. Instead, he says it was a series of band aids that really didn’t resolve his issues.

Johnson’s personal experience provides insight on what may be the root cause of the behavior of the people he works with at Wisconsin Community Services, a 100-year-old organization that provides a variety of services for individuals involved in or at risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

He says he received more attention for his bad behavior than he did for his good. “You don’t get that pat on the back all the time ‘cause that’s what you’re supposed to be [acting]. But when you act a fool, you get a psychologist, now you get a crisis stabilizer, you got a P.O., you got everybody,” Johnson says. “People don’t really kind of see that…you might not be getting attention that they think you need to be getting, but you’re getting attention.”

However, all of the attention Johnson received failed to work. He found himself returning to the criminal justice system as a young adult.

“I went to prison in 1990, first degree reckless injury, somebody died,” he says. “It was a shooting in the tavern and the guy with me died… I was charged as if I shot him because they’re saying when you shoot at somebody and they shoot back at you, you know, like a felony homicide, you get that same charge.”

Johnson did six years of a ten year sentence for first degree intentional homicide, armed robbery of the tavern where his accomplice was killed; he was also convicted of escape.

In 1998, he went back to prison for possession and intent to deliver cocaine. Pretty serious stuff. He has the wounds, both physical and emotional to show just how challenging his life has been.

“My brother said, ‘Torre, you act like you didn’t hear the judge give you ten years.’ And I was like, ‘uh, man, what you want me to do, faint or something?’ Because I was still emotionless,” Johnson explains.

Credit Michelle Maternowski
Johnson says that he's been shot and stabbed multiple times, and has scars everywhere.

“As a child, I blacked a lot of stuff out. I’ve been in critical condition like 4 times, I’ve been shot like 3 or 4 times, I’ve been stabbed in my chest, neck, back… I’ve got scars everywhere,” he says. “It was like I stood in front of people and fought them even though I knew you were going to cut me or stab me, because as a kid I blocked the pain out. You can’t hurt me. You know, I refused to be hurt.”

Johnson has walked on both sides of the street, to turn a phrase. The bad…

“So, it’s like, when you walk down the block and people like move out your way, and say, here he come, it’s like a feel of strength and power,” Johnson says.

And the good.

“When I was trying to be a kingpin in the neighborhood, now I am actually a kingpin,” he says. Johnson says now when people come to him for help, he can actually help them.

It’s a complex story but Johnson credits his mother and community members with helping to turn his life around. They always believed in him more than he believed in himself. Their continued support gave him confidence to turn his life in a new direction.

Now Johnson preaches what he has learned to the men and women he counsels. They are hard lessons but they work…for some.

“It’s like, you ain’t got to take them drugs man, because if you just wait you gonna get a job,” he says. “You ain’t got to rob nobody because if you wait and keep trying you gonna get a job. And that’s what we try to convince people…when they call me and say, ‘aw ToeJoe, I can’t handle it no mo’…I say, you were in the penitentiary 18 years, you been out here about 18 months…so how you handle it then? Go home and sit on the couch and watch TV as if you went to your cell.”

I asked him if he considers himself a role model, using his past life as an example of how not to live. “I consider myself as leading by example. I don’t know what a role model actually is, but I believe that I lead by example and a lot of people appreciate that,” Johnson says.

Leading by example is apparently working for Johnson and the people whose lives he has touched. His plan is to keep doing just what he’s doing.

He says, “I used to be the example of what not to become, but now I am the sample of the what you can be.”

Precious Lives: Before the Gunshots is produced by Eric Von and brought to you by WUWM in collaboration with 371 Productions, as part of Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Eric Von was the host of Precious Lives, a series that was created in partnership with 371 Productions, WUWM 89.7 FM - Milwaukee Public Radio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WNOV and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
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