Jammie Franklin stares at the name of a friend killed by gun violence. / RALPH PRUITT for Protect MN
The question hung in the air like church incense: “How many of y’all have lost someone to gun violence?”
After a few moments, a couple dozen hands went up, as their owners looked around the room to see how many others had lost a son, father or cousin to the bullet.
On this particular afternoon on the South Side of Minneapolis, they were far from alone – nearly 100 of their fellow sufferers gathered at Urban Ventures, a non-profit that helps low-income families in the area, to mourn the deaths of loved ones at the aptly-named “Remembrance of Life.”
Among those remembered was James Cole, a 23-year-old aspiring rapper who was shot and killed last November while sitting in his sport utility vehicle near Folwell Park, after an apparent dispute over the sale of merchandise.
His death, like those of Nehemiah Steverson, 17, and 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., are an all-too-familiar part of everyday life in the city’s neediest neighborhoods, where residents are wary of official assurances that the city is a safer place to live these days.
On that Sunday, some of those residents read aloud the names of relatives and friends killed by guns, and displayed their photos.
“It makes us not want to see the summer sometimes,” said V.J. Smith, founder of the anti-violence group MADDADS and the night’s emcee. “We love to see the sunshine but we hate to see the destruction that comes with it.”
“Sometimes, people will say, ‘well, you’ll get over it,’ but it’s not that easy,” said Smith, who has attended dozens of funerals over the years.
Listening to his words from the front row was T.J. Neely, a former gang member turned community activist, there to honor the memory of his 17-year-old sister, Alisha – known to everyone as "Princess Shay" – whose life was cut short by gunfire five years ago while hanging out with friends outside a house party in the Folwell neighborhood.
Neely recalled his anger after learning of his sister’s death, just days before his release from prison.
“I got a gun before I got a hug when I got out,” Neely told the audience. “And the first thing that came to my head was who’s gotta go keep her company?”
In a strange twist of fate, he says he came face to face with his sister’s suspected killer at her funeral, sitting among her friends, family and neighbors.
“I don’t know how I didn’t shoot that man,” he said. “That was my moment of renewal.”
The mourners gathered at the remembrance included Mary Johnson and other members of From Death to Life, who know too well the indiscriminate nature of gun violence: all have either had a son murdered or had one who has taken another’s life.
“We are actually able to come together and heal together,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she formed the group in 2005, with the aim of helping others through the same inconsolable grief she had endured when her only son, Laramiun Byrd, was gunned down in 1993 – “empowering parents to come to terms with the impact of homicide through emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical healing,” as the group’s website puts it.
Speaker after speaker at the gathering urged the audience to honor the memories of their loved ones by devoting themselves to reducing gun violence.
Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a local advocacy group that works to pass gun-control laws, said as the event closed: “We realized that when one life is lost, the family is affected by this, and so is the community.