Imez Wright, the man killed last month while working security around the now infamous south Minneapolis corner store where he roamed the aisles as a child, was gunned down while serving as a positive fixture at George Floyd Square, his family said, mentoring Black youth and training to be a mental health practitioner.
Wright's suspected killer, Shantaello Christianson, has since been arrested and charged with murder. But that fact has done little to ease the grief of his friends and relatives, who said that at 30 Wright had just begun to experience life. He was working with at-risk youths to help steer them from gangs and drugs, they said, and was a father to an infant son and a daughter.
His death reignited a citywide debate about reopening the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue — the site of George Floyd's fatal encounter with police last year, which set off nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, and underscores rising crime surrounding a space many now consider sacred.
Ernest McCurty questioned why someone would want to kill his nephew, who everyone knew as "Mez."
"My nephew will be missed by many," McCurty wrote in a Twitter message. "I want to get something nice for him placed on 38th, with no disrespect to George Floyd family at all — we are grieving for George as well as Mez."
On March 6, Wright was outside Cup Foods, 3759 S. Chicago Av., about 5:45 p.m. when surveillance video showed a man jumping out of a cream-colored Chevy Suburban and starting to argue with Wright. Police said that Christianson, whose wife is related to the other man, then opened fire. Wright was hit several times in the chest and the hand. He died later at HCMC. Christianson and his wife were arrested four days later in Brooklyn Center.
Wright grew up in the area and had been going to Cup Foods since he was kid. At some point, he joined the Rolling 30s Bloods gang, which despite its reputation for violence has long been a part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
Prosecutors say that recent years had brought infighting among factions within the gang, which they suggested was the cause of the argument that preceded Wright's death.
Court records show that Wright had several brushes with the law, including a conviction for domestic abuse and another for the sale of narcotics in 2012.
But friends and relatives say that he seemed to be turning a corner and was putting his gifts to use by helping others like him who were trying to escape their circumstances.
A former supervisor of Wright's told the Star Tribune that Wright was passionate about changing his life. Quinton Bonds got to know Wright at Change Inc., a local outreach organization, where Wright was part of a team of staffers who mentored Black youth in St. Paul. He was also training to be a mental health practitioner.
"It is a huge loss for our organization, our team," Bonds said in a previous interview with the newspaper. "Our team is like family. We lost a family member."
At the time of his death, Wright was working for the Agape movement, a community protection program for George Floyd Square. Agape's staff includes ex-gang members from the neighborhood. The group is on contract with the city to keep watch over the area, including businesses like Cup Foods.
On social media, news of his death was met with an outpouring of condolences and tributes, with one commenter on Facebook recalling how Wright was always "lighting up the room with the smile." Another wrote that Wright's "vibe is unmatched" and that he had helped her through "one of the hardest times" of her life.
A post on Instagram showed several people gathering at a makeshift memorial outside Cup Foods, where they had spelled out the words, "IMEZ PLAY" with candles at the spot where he was shot.
McCurty, the uncle, wrote that Wright was a "great mentor" to young people, in whom he instilled the importance of going to school and being respectful to their elders.
He said many people looked up to Wright.
"Imez was known in his neighborhood," McCurty wrote. He said it means a lot to Wright's family and friends that the "whole community had love for Imez."
The shooting renewed concerns about the future of the intersection, which has been closed off to traffic by city-erected concrete barricades. City officials for months have signaled their desire to reopen the area, but recently said they would not do so until after the conclusion of the murder trial of since-fired police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges in Floyd's death. Now that timetable could be moved up.
Several weeks after Wright's death, officials announced that they had enlisted help from federal law enforcement to help fight crime and monitor 38th and Chicago, citing the recent surge in gun violence at the once-peaceful memorial. The move has been met with deep mistrust from some in the area, which became a spot for mourning and reflection after Floyd died.
Some accuse officials of using the violence that has long been a problem in the area as justification for increased enforcement.
Federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pledged their support and resources at a news conference announcing the initiative.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany