Amid Surge In Gun Violence, Charleston Remembers KJ Taylor
In the six years leading up to 2020, the average number of non-suicide related gun deaths per year in the United States hovered around 14,000. Last year, that death toll spiked, surpassing 19,000. And, this year isn’t much better. So far this year, 5,986 people have already died from a non-suicide related gun shot.
Recently, a Kanawha County teen, KJ Taylor, was shot and killed on Glenwood Avenue on Charleston’s West Side. In what his friends would say was either a stray bullet or a case of mistaken identity, KJ was hit in the chest and died moments later. The person who shot him has yet to be arrested.
Two days after his death, hundreds of people, mostly older teenagers, showed up to the eerily familiar site of a roadside vigil set up to honor a victim of gun violence.
"This was only about two days ago. Really doesn't seem real because it's not right," said David, one of KJ's friends, who can't believe his friend is gone. He said he's drawing inspiration by remembering how positive and supportive KJ was. “I'm just trying to let him live through me. He wouldn't want nobody to be down. He wasn't a down type of guy. He was always happy, joking around. He upped the mood. So, I try not to stay down.”
Everyone who spoke of KJ said he was an incredible person -- someone younger kids strived to be like.
Throughout the vigil, waves of attendees would approach the assortment of balloons, memorabilia and candles set up to honor KJ on the sidewalk where he laid after being shot.
After waiting his turn, a young man named Ekia approach the site, alone. Wearing a blue hat with an embroidered "LLKJ" for "long live KJ" he stood for a moment and started sobbing. His friend, Keyandra, rushed in to put her arms around him, holding him until he stopped crying.
After consoling Ekia, Keyandra said she’s thinking about KJ’s optimism and what he would do to help people right now. Through tears of her own she said, "It's not the point that KJ's not here. It’s the point of keeping other people strong right now. I don’t even need to know how other people feel about KJ because I know how I feel about KJ. That's my baby cousin. I just got to keep people's heads up.”
A couple hours into the vigil, news broke of another young person shot and killed in Charleston -- Chastanay Joseph, 22 years old. Martec Washington, a community organizer who helped arrange the vigil, held back tears having just heard the news.
"I’m tired and it hurts. Somebody else is not going to have their kid to go home to or to come home. When is this s--t going to stop? At some point, man. We all got to do better. We are failing each other," Washington said.
Washington said KJ’s death feels different because he was a young man who tried to stay away from anything that would result in violence, and yet, he couldn’t avoid being killed by it.
As Washington described all of the people he knew who died of gun violence, a teenager said he just saw on social media that someone was talking about shooting up this vigil. The mood of the crowd changed from somber mourning to agony and fear -- a fear punctuated by the fact the person who shot KJ hadn’t been arrested.
As the reaction from these rumors caused some attendees to fall to their knees, sobbing, 14-year-old Alexandria appeared relatively unphased.
"You don't feel sad, you don't feel… you don't feel anything really. Because things like this continuously happen over and over and over and over. It's just crazy, to be honest," she said.
Alexandria said the potential for gun violence to occur at any moment has robbed her of a normal childhood. "Imagine you're throwing the football, and then blam, you’re shot. We don't want that to happen. We need people who are shooting out of our neighborhoods so we can actually live. So we can actually play, like, I'm not allowed to play outside with my siblings."
Alexandria said she’s not sure what she wants to do when she grows up. But, she’s sure she won’t be staying here to do it. Her love for West Virginia is strong, she added, but she's terrified of how normal the loss of life has become to her as a child.
"Things like this have become so normalized in our community that you almost start to grow immune to it. You don't feel sad anymore. You just kind of feel like a shell of yourself."
As the sun started to go down and fear of another shooting escalated, the crowd began to disperse. Some people, including this reporter, broke out in a light jog to get away from the corner. Looking over was Ekia, the teenager who was being consoled earlier.
"You know, you can't have fun or where these people don't have any kind of respect. I don't know when they are going to stop. An innocent boy just passed away."
Ekia said despite the fact he’s running away from the threat of violence at this moment, he doesn’t share the view that a lot of young people expressed tonight. He doesn’t want to run away from Charleston.
"I love Charleston. I love Charleston but I’m going to say this. I don’t feel safe by myself. I don’t feel safe. But, I do love Charleston,” he said.
Over the next week, KJ’s passing prompted an outpouring of support. The City of Charleston held a public funeral for KJ in its 13,000-seat coliseum, and organized a memorial event at Laidley Field where he played football. After the services, a block party was held at 2nd Ave Community Center to celebrate KJ’s life.
Much like the vigil, the block party was packed with teenagers wearing clothing honoring KJ -- embroidered hoodies and shirts with his picture ironed on.
A familiar face among the kids playing basketball stood out. It was Ekia. He was beaming with joy, nearly unrecognizable from the teenager who attended the vigil last week.
"[KJ] loved Second Avenue. I'm glad we all can be on Second. It feels safe. I feel safe. I don't feel like I'll feel like nothing's going to happen. Nothing like last time. No threats. I feel actually safe this time. So, we just out here -- we out here we're grieving but we're actually celebrating. “
Ekia and his friends said that despite feeling safe in the moment, a young person was shot last summer just up the road from the community center. Ekia added that KJ had talked about remodeling the Second Avenue Center when he got older – expanding it to have indoor basketball courts. It was the last place KJ was before going to the corner where he was shot.
"We don't have nowhere else to go but Second Avenue. Walk around the West Side. There’s really nothing else to do. I think if they put more stuff in the community, I think it will definitely be better. I think it would definitely be better."