Her son was killed in New Orleans, one of hundreds gunned down. Here’s why she’s marching
If you stand close enough, you can make out the names and numbers in small font on the beige plasterboard outside St. Anna’s Episcopal Church.
5/25/07 Montrell Faulkin 22 Shot
3/02/10 Kris Rink 24 Shot
9/19/12 Garold Lewis 25 Shot
There are so many names, dozens and dozens, that the display runs out of room with 2012 and resumes inside the church with more panels listing yet more names of people killed in gun violence in New Orleans. Among the victims — mostly black, mostly young, mostly male — is Deidra Smoot-Hall’s baby boy:
6/21/15 Kenneth Hall Jr. 27 Shot.
On the local nightly news, her son’s death was a blip, another name on the seemingly never-ending list of people killed with a firearm.
“I know he’s not coming back,” Smoot-Hall said. “But I refuse to allow him to become just another number. He was a victim of violence. Brutal gun violence.”
The Feb. 14 mass shooting at a South Florida high school captured the nation’s attention, leading to the passage of stricter gun laws, nationwide school walkouts and extensive media coverage. And yet, mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction of gun deaths.
So when tens of thousands of people gather Saturday for March for Our Lives — a nationwide protest of gun violence inspired by students from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — Smoot-Hall will march through the streets of New Orleans, calling attention to the deaths, like her son’s, that largely go unnoticed.
Nationwide, almost 100 people are killed with guns every day, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logging suicides, accidents and homicides.
Unlike the mass shootings where gunmen wielded semiautomatic rifles — notably the AR-15 — most gun violence involves handguns. In 2016, almost half of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a handgun, according to FBI data. By contrast, 5% of homicides that year involved a long gun.
In 157 homicides in New Orleans last year, about 85% of the victims died of gunshot wounds, according to data compiled by the Times-Picayune. The year before, New Orleans police responded to nearly 10 shooting incidents a week — a number that, per capita, was greater than Chicago, the third most populous city in the country.
Kenneth Hall Jr. died on Father’s Day 2015.
He was the youngest of Smoot-Hall’s three children — a boy with an entrepreneurial spirit.
When Hall turned 8 she bought him a lawn mower and rake, and he would go from house to house in their suburban neighborhood, with its neat lawns and towering magnolia trees, and offer to cut the grass. When he was a teenager, she took him to New York, where he stocked up on trendy shirts and pants, which he then sold for a profit back home.
After high school, Hall attended community college and got an associate’s degree in business. He then found his passion in music, helping to promote concerts and bring big hip-hop and R&B acts, including Tyga and Chrisette Michele, to New Orleans for shows. In the city’s music scene, he was known by the nickname StunnamanKen.
“It gave him so much happiness,” Smoot-Hall said of the young man who affectionately called her “Big D.” “He felt like he had a purpose.”
That Sunday in 2015, he was sitting in his black Nissan Titan in the city’s Algiers neighborhood, just across the murky Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Detectives believe he was waiting for someone who wanted to buy concert tickets. Then 12 shots from a 9-millimeter handgun pierced the quiet afternoon. Two of them tore through his body.
His slaying — one of 164 that year — remains unsolved.
Tamara Jackson, executive director of Silence is Violence, a local group that helps victims of gun violence, said that firearms are far too easy to get on the streets of New Orleans.
“No one seems to really care,” she said. “It hardly makes the news. Guns are wiping out generations right here in this city.”
Jackson, who also works as a victim advocate with the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office, has helped console families who have lost loved ones to assault-style weapons as well as handguns.
“AK-47s, AR-15s, you name it,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s out here on these streets.”
For years, Jackson worked alongside Smoot-Hall in the healthcare industry in New Orleans. The two were friends, and Jackson knew Smoot-Hall’s children and was working as a victim advocate that Father’s Day three years ago.
When she arrived at the bloody scene — one of hundreds she has been called to — she recognized the car and the name: Kenneth Hall Jr. She broke into tears.
“I was the one who had to call my friend. …Call her to let her know her baby was gone,” Jackson said.
In recent years, Smoot-Hall has joined Jackson at marches to combat gun violence. She’s spoken at Crime Stoppers events. Members of Silence is Violence, which consists of family members, mostly mothers who have lost sons, meet regularly at a churches and inside rec centers. Smoot-Hall has attended. It’s her therapy.
“Seeing other women and being able to look them in the eyes and know they can feel what I feel — it gives me comfort,” she said.
For some, the Victims of Violence Memorial at St. Anna’s offers comfort. Loved ones of shooting victims come to pray at the memorial situated in the 7th Ward, along an avenue dotted with pastel-colored Civil War-era mansions and shaded by oak trees.
The Rev. Bill Terry said the wall humanizes the victims. He was inspired to create it after a 17-year-old was killed on his stoop in 2005.
“In some ways I see this wall as a bit of social justice for these young men,” Terry said. “We’re recognizing that, no matter the circumstances, these young men should not have been gunned down in the streets. No one deserves to get shot in the streets.”
He began the wall with the new year in 2007 and soon had the first name: 1/1/07 Corey Hayes 28 Shot. Inside the church, boards with names of those killed since 2013 wait to be mounted outside along a cast-iron fence. The list only goes through Nov. 11 of last year. More names are to be added.
Terry, a native New Orleanian, has seen the gun violence destroy communities around his church. But he’s also experienced it on a personal level. Nearly 20 years ago, Terry’s oldest daughter, Tonya, who was bipolar, grabbed a handgun and shot herself during an argument with her boyfriend. She died instantly.
“More needs to be done with mental health and guns,” said Terry, who on Saturday will attend a march 80 miles north of here in Baton Rouge.
Louisiana, a deeply conservative state, has some of the most lax gun laws in the country. Anyone 18 or older can open-carry a firearm without a permit.
“The laws need to be changed,” said Terry, who owns several guns. “And we really need to crack down on illegal sales here in New Orleans.”
For Smoot-Hall, it’s frustrating to see focus on guns only come to the forefront of American debate after a mass shooting.
On a recent afternoon, she and her husband, Kenneth Hall Sr., and daughter, Delisha, visited the site of her son’s killing. She clutched a framed photograph of him. The neighborhood is lined with single-level, wood-paneled homes. A man pushed a mower across his front lawn as a strong wind blew clippings into the air.
The thought of such violence playing out on this street seemed so distant.
“No one, not a single politician, said anything when my brother was killed,” Delisha said.
“They never do, unless it’s out in the wealthy suburbs,” her mother said.
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