In Knoxville, a Black high school contends with a massive rise in teen shootings
The Black community that surrounds Austin-East Magnet High School was still mourning its dead — four students gunned down this year — when the news broke.
Another shooting, this one inside the school.
With Austin-East in lockdown and police with rifles patrolling the halls, it was hours before officials announced that a fifth student had been fatally shot.
For many, this killing was the hardest to take: The shooter was a police officer, and he was Black.
The extraordinary streak of violence has spurred both anger and reflection as parents, teachers and students at Knoxville’s only predominantly Black high school — long a source of pride and affection in the community — contemplate how to stop the killing and what role the police should play in any solution.
“We have a threat inside the school, we have a threat on the streets, and then we’ve got a police department we can’t trust,” said Clifford Bishop, 59, whose great-nephew Stanley Freeman Jr. was the second student killed.
“We are not just blaming the system,” he said. “We’re saying all hands on deck. It’s going to take a whole village of people.”
The killings occurred as much of the nation was focused on police brutality and racism highlighted by the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering an unarmed Black man.
But the deaths in Knoxville — even the police shooting — don’t yield to the familiar narratives of white versus Black, cop versus community, the armed versus the unarmed. The reality in many places is that the causes of violence are often grimly unknowable.
The killings of the high school students have two things in common: All involved guns, and all the victims and all the known suspects were Black.
Much of the rest remains a mystery, leaving residents to speculate about gangs or revenge or mistaken identities or stray bullets.
The killings began Jan. 27 when Justin Taylor, 15, was found unconscious and bleeding in a car. He was pronounced dead at a hospital, and the next day a 17-year-old — his friend — was charged with criminally negligent homicide. The shooting is believed to be an accident.
On Feb. 12, Stanley, a 16-year-old junior, was gunned down as he left the school in his car to go to work. Surveillance videos showed that multiple Austin-East students witnessed the shooting, but few came forward. Even so, a month later a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old — both already in custody after firing multiple rounds at a vehicle in January — were charged with first-degree murder.
Stanley’s grandmother, who had custody, said she believes it was a case of mistaken identity: He was not affiliated with any gang, but he looked like a boy targeted by gang members.
On Feb. 16, Janaria “Nana” Muhammad, a 15-year-old co-captain of the school’s dance team, was killed by gunfire outside her home. No one has been charged, and no witnesses have come forward.
In response to the deaths, the City Council approved a $1-million proposal to fund programs to stem gun violence.
The Knoxville Police Department increased patrols around Austin-East, allocated three officers to the area when school dismissed students, and activated a team to reduce violent crime, sending uniformed and plainclothes officers to areas of East Knoxville, the Black side of town.
Some students, parents and teachers said it was too much. Some worried it wasn’t enough.
On March 9, Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette, a 15-year-old aspiring rapper and runaway who had not attended classes since the fall, died after showing up at a hospital with gunshot wounds. No one has been charged.
Then on April 12, a mother called 911 to report that her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17, had pushed her daughter and pulled her hair. Sometimes he carried a gun, she said.
Three police officers arrived at the school to look for Anthony, joining a resource officer assigned there. Body-camera videos show them finding Anthony in a bathroom stall and ordering him to show his hands. As Anthony stood up, saying, “My bad, my bad,” one officer grabbed and cuffed his left hand while another struggled to pull his right hand from inside his hoodie pocket.
“Wait! Wait!” a voice cried.
Suddenly, the officers reached for their guns and several shots went off. When it was over, one officer was wounded and Anthony was dead.
Like much of the U.S., this Southern Appalachian city has experienced a sharp rise in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 37 homicides last year — up from 22 in 2019 — and five months into this year, the total is already 16.
Black neighborhoods have felt the toll most acutely. About 17% of the city’s 188,000 residents are Black, but since 2019 they have accounted for 63% of the homicide victims and 65% of the known suspects.
The violence is widely viewed as a legacy of systemic racism — including Jim Crow segregation and redlining — that is reflected today in a Black poverty rate of 42%. That is significantly higher than in many other Southern cities.
Relations between Black residents and the Police Department have long been tense. Of Knoxville’s 374 sworn officers, 20 are Black, and from 2005 to 2019, Black men accounted for six of 18 people shot dead by police.
Throughout the hardships of poverty, racism and violence, Austin-East has been a source of community for East Knoxville.
It was founded in 1968 when two segregated schools — one Black, the other white — merged, and it quickly became segregated itself after many white parents began pulling out their children.
Though the school has struggled — more than a decade ago, it failed to meet performance benchmarks in math and reading under the No Child Left Behind Act — teachers, parents and alumni are proud of its cultural legacy and tout its strong dance and music programs that emphasize African traditions.
“We send our kids there because we feel that they cannot get this same cultural experience, the same love and the same community feel anywhere else,” said Breyauna Holloway, a 36-year-old alumna who graduated in 2003 and owns a vintage thrift store a mile from the school.
Holloway fondly recalled the Black teachers who instilled her with pride in herself and her community.
No other school had such a huge, joyous homecoming parade. No other marching band would let her dance and twirl to old-school Isley Brothers hits and Lil Jon and Atlanta trap music.
“It just gives you chills to see Black positivity when so much that is being presented is negativity and violence,” she said. “There was this common bond that we have by being looked down upon as if we should be ashamed to be at that school. We held each other up in a way that I think only we could understand.”
The spate of killings has made Holloway question whether she should continue to keep sending her son and daughter to Austin-East.
On April 21, Charme P. Allen, the Knox County district attorney general, announced that criminal charges would not be brought against the officer who shot Anthony.
She said that Anthony had a gun in his hoodie pocket that went off as he struggled with police — and that the officer, Jonathan Clabough, had seen the barrel peeking out. The bullet from Anthony’s gun hit a trash can, and the bullet that struck an officer had been fired by another officer.
More than 100 Austin-East students, parents, teachers and alumni took to the downtown streets, chanting “Black youth matter,” pumping their fists in the air and calling for the arrest of the officer who shot Anthony.
“Indict! Convict! Put that killer cop in jail!” they shouted. “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Some protesters said they felt particularly aggrieved that two of the officers — Clabough and Lt. Stanley Cash — were Black.
“Stanley Cash is a disgrace because he was born and raised over here; he played basketball with us,” said Constance Every, a 35-year-old Army veteran, activist and founder of a nonprofit, Black Coffee Justice. “You turned back on your people.”
Even as the protests focused on Anthony’s death at the hands of the police, many demonstrators said that the challenge facing Black communities extended beyond law enforcement to deeply entrenched poverty, growing community trauma and a proliferation of guns.
Dominique Cade, who graduated from Austin-East in 2016, said the officer who shot Anthony overreacted and should have used de-escalation techniques. But Cade, 22, also said that gang violence was rife in East Knoxville and that teens were increasingly out of control.
“We are the problem too,” she said softly amid Black Lives Matter chants. “It’s not just the police. It’s us as Black people. We all just have to try to come together and stop fighting each other.”
Cade said students today seemed much more exposed to criminal behavior and weapons.
“They want to be in gangs, have guns,” she said. “They’re growing up too much and seeing too much.”
Less than four months before Stanley was gunned down on his way to work, his grandmother Darlene Ngom, 56, watched from her porch as a teen drove by and shot her 12-year-old grandson in the leg as he played basketball on the street.
A 15-year-old boy was arrested.
“I got to get away from here,” said Ngom, who is trying to raise funds to leave the neighborhood. “We bury our children and the next day, or next week, it’s on again.”
Since the police killing of Anthony, other high schools have stopped sending teams to Austin-East to compete.
“They refuse to play us at our home field, because they label our school as unsafe,” said Sheenan Lundy, 36, whose daughter, Shaniya Cherry, a 15-year-old freshman, is on the softball team.
The girls, she said, now have to travel a mile and a half to compete in a park closer to downtown.
“Our kids feel like criminals,” she said.
After police killed Anthony, Austin-East shut down for the next week and a half.
When classes resumed April 22, a pair of armed police officers guarded the entrance of the sprawling brick campus as students lined up. More officers searched their backpacks and scanned hand-held metal detector wands over their bodies.
“I don’t trust the cops,” said D. Ogle, a 16-year-old sophomore. “It’s not really because I’m scared of them. It’s because they’re scared of me. I’m scared of that. I don’t know what the hell they’re fixin’ to do…. Why are they in a school full of kids?”
Inside the school, the hallways felt more hushed than usual. More than a third of the school’s 459 in-person students did not show up. An additional 180 students were already attending remotely because of the pandemic.
“I’m afraid for my child,” said C. Walker, 33, a stay-at-home mom who had walked to Austin-East with her son, a 15-year-old freshman, to ask about state tests — and then headed back home with him.
“They’ve got all those police in there checking those babies — after you’re the ones who shot the babies,” she said. “What the hell?”
Other parents and teachers said they were relieved the school system was introducing extra security measures.
“That’s what we pay our taxes for — to keep our kids safe,” Jerrick Jones, a 39-year-old graduate who operates the Just Blaze hot dog stand outside Austin-East. His daughter, Justice, is a 15-year-old freshman cheerleader.
After school was out, hundreds of students, parents, teachers and alumni took to the streets again to protest the killing of Anthony. It was the night before prom, but valedictorian Ahya Moreno, 17, said she felt compelled to make her voice heard.
“They murdered him, and it killed me,” she said.
They marched for miles, from the police station to downtown and the University of Tennessee campus. Just before 11 p.m., the protesters formed a circle around the students.
“Don’t believe the hype! Austin-East kids are amazing,” a teacher shouted into a bullhorn. “We have got to band together to keep Austin-East alive.”
The students started swaying and clapping their hands.
“I’m so glad I go to A.E. I’m so glad I go to A.E.,” they sang.
“I’m so, so glad that I go to A.E. Singing glory hallelujah — wooh! — I’m so glad.”
They jumped and whooped and cheered. Then they kept on marching, back to the police station.
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