Teen killings put Knoxville’s soul on trial

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Jamarion Gillette, 15, was shot and killed Wednesday. He was the fourth Austin-East student to be slain since late January.

Knoxville seemed on Wednesday to plunge even deeper into what Martin Luther King Jr. once described as the “darkness of a night already devoid of stars.”

Yet another child died violently, his body riddled with bullets, mourned by a tight-knit community that’s buried far too many of its own.  

Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette, 15, was the fourth teenager and Austin-East Magnet High School student to be shot to death in a seven -week period.

Whatever comes next is to be found on that darkest of paths: the unknown.

The unprecedented wave of violence has shocked the City’s leaders. It’s shocked the people who live in the East Knoxville neighborhoods that surround Austin-East, even though two generations of them have learned to sleep through the night despite the sound of gunfire. It’s even shocked hardened veterans of the Knoxville Police Department, men and women who have seen some of the worst atrocities that human beings can commit.

All are being forced to deal with something that’s never happened in Knoxville before, not even during the 1990s when it seemed at times that the inner city’s streets were being painted red by gang warfare. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, who campaigned on a platform that stressed items like green spaces and affordable housing,  has been thrust into a role that must feel as uncomfortable as it is unexpected.

She clearly wants to be remembered as a progressive who supported education and grew the economy in sustainable ways without leaving behind the poor.

Instead, the defining issue of her term might not be schooling children but rather shielding them from bullets.

Eight hours after Gillette was pronounced dead following the unsuccessful efforts of surgeons to save his young life, Kincannon had a message for the families of the recent victims.

“We are working on this,” she said. “This is not your fault. This is not your fight.”

“Fluid investigation”

The most recent act in Knoxville’s ongoing tragedy opened late Tuesday night when a woman (who hasn’t been publicly named by KPD) spotted Gillette while she was driving along Cherokee Trail in South Knoxville. 

Sections of the narrow, winding road are flanked by upscale apartment complexes built largely to attract college students and young professionals. Only a couple of streets away, however,  lies Vestal, long recognized as one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Police haven’t said where exactly Gillette was found.

The woman put Gillette, who was obviously injured, into her vehicle and rushed him to the emergency room at the nearby University of Tennessee Medical Center. KPD officers were dispatched to the hospital as soon as they were notified that a shooting victim had been dropped off, but they would never have a chance to ask the boy what happened to him. 

Gillette was rushed into surgery shortly after he was admitted. Despite the best efforts of the hospital’s doctors, however, he died about 5:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Authorities haven’t disclosed anything about Gillette’s wounds other than he was shot at least one time. 

KPD Chief Eve Thomas said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference that investigators didn’t know the location where the teen was shot.

“This remains a very active and fluid investigation,” Thomas said. “We are still working to piece this together.” 

There were reports of shots being fired at an apartment complex near KPD headquarters on Howard Baker Jr. Avenue a little less than an hour before police were notified of his arrival at the hospital.  Several spent rounds were recovered but no victims were found, and investigators couldn’t say if there was any connection to Gillette’s shooting.

As is the case on most nights, the call about the apartment complex wasn’t the only reported instance of gunplay in the city, officials said.

“We had several ‘shots fired’ calls from across the city during the night,” KPD spokesman Scott Erland said.

Gillette’s death was only the most recent tragedy in the midst of an unprecedented surge of  violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.

There were 37 homicides in the city in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 14 slayings, all of them involving firearms. In comparison, there were only six homicides as of this time last year, according to Erland.

The Austin-East community is still very much in mourning over last month’s loss of 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr., who was killed while leaving school, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, who was shot outside her home. Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend in January.

KPD units at the scene of the shooting death of Janaria Muhammad, 15, on Feb. 16.

Authorities were still looking for the killers of Freeman and Muhammad when Gillette was slain. No witnesses have come forward with information, prompting the FBI to offer a $5,000 reward in the Freeman and Muhammad cases. 

Teacher: “I loved him.”

Gillette’s family declined to speak to the media Wednesday and requested through a family spokesman for their privacy to be respected.

Gillette had attended schools in Knox County nearly all his life, starting when he was of elementary school age. He was technically still enrolled at Austin-East when he died although he’d last attended classes there Sept. 22, said Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington.

Gillette was placed into the custody of the state Department of Children’s Services and then escaped from a residential facility in Crossville in October. He was classified as a runaway, and authorities said they thought he’d returned to Knoxville.

Other than in the homes of the dead teens’ families, there’s no doubt where the most tears have been shed.

Teachers everywhere love their students like they love their own sons and daughters. Austin-East and the elementary and middle schools that feed it are no exception.

Losing so many kids in such a short time to any cause would have been hard to swallow. But to lose them to such senseless acts of violence, with no answers and no resolution, is traumatic. 

As Wednesday waned and midnight approached, several teachers who’d once had the dead children in their classrooms sought reassurance by sharing memories in various online forums.

“This is heartbreaking,” said one teacher on SPEAK, a public internet forum for educators, parents and students. “Much sadness for Jamarion and his family. I will always remember him as a seventh grader with a sweet smile.”

“I still see his little 8th grade face in my head,” recalled another. “I finally got Janaria’s face to stop replaying in my head constantly, and now Jamarion’s face is flashing through my mind. This has been a hard year.”

Another teacher wrote simply: “Jamarion was my student. He was left handed. He was good at math. I loved him. This is unacceptable and has to stop.”

Austin-East, Vine Middle Magnet and Sarah Moore Greene Magnet schools will move to online learning today and tomorrow “to provide an opportunity for healing in light of recent events,” according to a school system press release. In-person classes are scheduled to resume after Spring Break on March 22. 

Residents of East Knoxville, where violent crime has long been a relatively common occurrence, have staged several memorials and community meetings demanding different police tactics and more social programs. 

The lack of arrests or visible progress in the murder investigations has led to further estrangement between the City and the Black community. Many residents already believed that problems in their inner city neighborhoods were usually ignored or even written off as “normal” by officials from more affluent, white sections of town. 

Kincannon has vowed this time will be different and funneled resources into programs meant to quell violence. She recently secured an emergency $1 million appropriation from City Council to fund such efforts, including a possible contract with a national nonprofit organization called Cities United that specializes in reducing inner city violence.

But the Big Question now isn’t how much money will be thrown at the issue, or which agencies will get the biggest contracts. 

The question is will any amount of resources, no matter how vast, prove to be too little too late? 

In the eyes of many in East Knoxville, “too late” came and went a long, long time ago. 

Those same eyes watched as literally hundreds of men, women, and children were killed or maimed since the 1980s in the area known derisively to residents and beat cops alike as “The Gun Zone.”

This poster was circulated after Jamarion Gillette, 15, escaped from a state-run residential facility last October. He was still technically registered as a student at Austin-East. Police haven’t said If they have any clues as to where he was staying while on runaway status.

They know there is no way to make their communities whole again. Sure, it’d be nice to see the City spend real money on violence intervention and youth programs. It would feel miraculous if somehow a balance was struck between having a police presence strong enough to maintain the peace without also making residents feel like they live in a prison. 

 But there’s no bringing back the dead.

“You have the choice”

A senior at Austin-East, Loren Seagrave, attended Wednesday’s meeting of the School Board because he had a message to deliver: what’s been done so far isn’t going to work.

Seagrave, one of the school’s Top 10 students in the class of 2021, pointed out that the teens were gunned down off school property and questioned why Austin-East students should be subjected to a stronger police presence and forced to use see-through backpacks. “Instead of directly fighting the root of the problem, things were changed at the school,” he said.

He criticized the administration for past attempts to cut funding to magnet schools and argued passionately for programs like Project GRAD. He also said Black students were far more likely to see their futures ruined by minor instances of misconduct than white students. 

“The root of the problem is the social and economic problems these kids are forced to endure because of where they grow up,” Seagrave said. “These kids don’t know how to get out. They turn to gangs, drugs and sex after school to deal with their problems that begin to get bigger and bigger.”

He continued, voice trembling with emotion: “The gangs and Stanley’s murderers prey on the young, weak and abandoned that are somewhat caused by you….You have the choice to change this problem.”

Seagrave, like the rest of the Austin-East family, has seen into the abyss caused by violence and senseless death. He’s had no choice, and neither have his peers; turning away hasn’t been an option. That lack of choice might turn out to be essential when it comes time to formulate policies for a community that’s far too savvy to believe in the promises of more politicians, no matter how well-intentioned. 

East Knoxville residents have long accused their more affluent neighbors of ignoring them. If they are correct, maybe it’s because human nature is to prefer dwelling over one’s own good fortune rather than worrying about the poor and disadvantaged, especially when the ones who don’t look like you are conveniently out-of-sight on the other side of town. 

It’s worth remembering, however, that the past 15 months’ worth of murder and mayhem has been spread throughout the city. While East Knoxville has seen more than its fair share (as always) there have also been killings in North, South, and West Knoxville. This week, in fact, marked the one-year anniversary of a shooting spree just west of downtown that left three women dead.

Knoxville faces stark choices in the days and weeks to come. 

There may also be even darker times ahead. There’s no reason as of now to expect the violence to slacken.

Instead of ignoring them, maybe it’s time for all of Knoxville to listen to those who’ve learned how to look into the darkness without blinking. 

If it’s true that we’re lost in a night with no stars, who better to find the way out? 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 865-243-4768.

Published on March 11, 2021