The group of family and friends formed a circle around the parents of King Javon Carter at a park in Miami. They bowed their heads and held hands and prayed moments before the beginning of a community kickball game held in the child’s honor.
They prayed for King, caught in the deadly crossfire of unchecked violence. And they prayed for larger Miami, where the 6-year-old was born, lived and died, a community that has been burying children and teens nearly every week since the beginning of 2016. King, shot in the chest last month, on the way to buy candy with three $1 bills, was the 10th and youngest victim.
“This has to stop,” said the boy’s father, Santonio Carter, 29, with the same plain-spoken grief he bared to the world on social media in the hours and days after his son died. The kickball game, called Kick for King, is part of his burgeoning Save Our Kings anti-violence campaign — even as he struggles with his own pain. “I was only allowed six years to live with my son.”
Six minutes away from the park on that same Sunday, in a Liberty City catering hall, King’s great-aunt, Tawana Akins, stood behind a podium reciting the names of four family members felled by bullets: Javon. Patrick. Santana. King. In a voice that shifted between exasperation and resolve, Akins, an award-winning fourth-grade teacher, asked parents, pastors, educators and community leaders to help launch an enduring movement that will slow generational violence.
The aunt and the nephew. The teacher and the rapper. The community activist and the father. Bound by family ties and death and the transformative power of grief, they are now embarking on the same mission, much of it powered by social media.
Akins and Carter hope to make a difference in the communities that took their own. Akins is working with law enforcement, school and faith leaders to launch new initiatives in Brownsville, Overtown, Liberty City, Miami Gardens and Opa-locka. Every Thursday since King’s death, she has led rallies through the targeted areas to “end gun violence and reinvest in our kids.”
As part of Save Our Kings, Carter and Akins are organizing a community Easter egg hunt, reading nights, a basketball tournament, picnics and fishing trips, the kinds of activities designed to keep teens out of trouble. Carter also wants to start a mentoring program and eventually open a King Carter community center for neighborhood youth.
The family, large and deeply rooted in Miami, has buried young family members since 2003, starting with Javon, 14, Carter’s younger brother. Two years later, Patrick Parker, 21, was shot dead Christmas Day. In 2015, one year and nine days before King was shot, Santana Akins, was fatally shot. He was 19. On February 20, King became the fourth member to be killed by gun violence.
“No one should have to continuously see their family members shot down one by one, name by name,” said Akins, who teaches at Holmes Elementary School in Miami, at the gathering.
Akins has been down this path before. At marches and rallies. In conversations with police. In the offices of the Miami-Dade school superintendent and at churches with pastors, looking for ways to curb gun violence, looking for ways to save children. Much of her passion has been fueled by tragedy and familiar names. Three of her childhood friends lost their children to violence. And last summer, one of her 10-year-old students was shot in the leg while riding his bike.
“I am helping with funeral arrangements for children that should not have died,” she said, sitting in her classroom one afternoon last week. “This is a deep issue, a mixture of a lack of parenting and lack of education. They don’t value life. They don’t value themselves or other people. I honestly don’t understand how they can know so much hate at such a young age.”
Akins was raised in an apartment complex in the Brownsville section of Miami in the late 1980s. She lived with her parents and five siblings in a two-bedroom unit. Her father was the maintenance worker at the apartments. Akins became a mother at 15, graduating from COPE Center North, a school for pregnant girls, where she was class president, her first dip in community activism.
“I didn’t grow up feeling poor, there was so much love in our home,” said Akins, who was named a Miami-Dade school district regional Teacher of the Year last year. “I used to take my students back there so they could see where I came from. I tell them that this is where I grew up, and now I am a homeowner. I want to be a guide to kids, to show them a better way.”
Akins earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at Florida Memorial University and began teaching 13 years ago. It wasn’t long before she became known as a nurturer, someone whose work extended well beyond the 3:05 p.m. school bell. Akins spent her days teaching students how to read and encouraging them to explore the estimated 2,000 books in her classroom. But she also tried to steel them with confidence and motivation to soar beyond their beginnings. On the weekends, she mentors and runs a girls’ dance troupe — one of their annual performances last summer was dedicated to friends and relatives lost to gun violence.
That was eight months before King.
For Carter, the death of his only son on a Saturday afternoon — steps from his home, a block from the child’s elementary school — inspired him, he said, to spearhead a community effort in King's name. He said he wants the legacy of his child — known for his big personality and love of football and french toast — to be about changing a community permanently.
Carter, 29, who raps as Blaze Carter, spoke out publicly for the first time moments after King was pronounced dead. He walked outside the trauma wing of Jackson Memorial Hospital into the parking lot to shoot a video, an urgent call to stop the unrelenting and reckless shootings and murders. The toll, as counted by the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's office: 316 children and teens dead by gunfire in just over a decade. King was No. 316, the latest in a tragic procession.
In the 15-second video clip, Carter speaks calmly: “Sitting here at Jackson Memorial. Just lost my son, 6-year-old King Carter. Y’all see me with him everyday....the gun violence. N----- doing dumb s----. Stray bullet. It’s stupid, man.”
Two restless days later, he posted another video to Facebook — shared 3,674 times — sharing his grief in between waves of tears: “I never been cut so deep in my life.” Out of that rawness, he said, Save Our Kings was born, the anti-violence message spread by the same social media means he uses to promote his rap CDs.
More videos followed, the latest posted week when he spoke to members of the 5000 Role Models chapter at Jan Mann Opportunity School in Miami Gardens.
Carter said he hopes some good can come from his personal tragedy. He believes his familiar name, his own place in the community, his own history gives him a distinct perspective.
“People see my gold teeth and tattoos. They judge me. They look at me and think that I am a thug or a gangster or they think, how can he know God,” said Carter, who also has a 12-year-old daughter and owns a t-shirt business. “But I believe I am built for this. I hope that people will listen to me. We have to take back our streets. Have to.”
Carter, a graduate of Miami Northwestern Senior High School, was born at Jackson, the same hospital where his son died. He met the woman who would become King’s mother and his fiancee, Monica Smith, when they were just in pre-kindergarten. He was rapping by the time he was was eight years old. Back then, his message was about saying no to drugs and staying in school.
“He was always rapping. That was the way he expressed himself,” said Smith, 29, who works at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach.
In high school, he performed at Northwestern.
“He stood out for his love and affinity for rap. I remember him spending time during his lunch hour competing with others. We invited him back for our pep rallies,” said Steve Gallon III, who was Northwestern’s principal at the time Carter attended. “He was present in his son’s life, which is critical.”
As an adult rapper, Carter’s lyrics detail the harsh realities of Miami living, some of it crude and violent.
“I have seen it all,” Carter said, who has an arrest record with one conviction for marijuana possession. “I have had a tough life and I rap about that.”
When Carter was 16, his younger brother was fatally shot in the chest on Father’s Day near their home in Opa-locka. Javon Carter had turned 14 a month earlier.
Carter carries the scars of death: tattoos dedicated to his brother, six in all, including Ecclesiastes 3:3 — A time to kill, a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build up — are on his arm, leg, neck, hand and upper shoulder. The dates of Javon’s birth and death — 5-14-89 to 6-15-03 — became the first of 14 RIP tattoos, including tombstones and doves on his legs, cataloging years and years of personal loss.
At his two-bedroom apartment where he lives with Smith and her two children, King is surrounded by hulking studio equipment, stacks of CDs, Save Our King t-shirts and the artistic canvas renderings of King. In one of them, he is wearing his black Bandits football uniform, arms outstretched, doves flying above. In another, King is is wearing a gold crown and the wings of an angel.
Carter glances over at the art, transported back to that Saturday.
It was just before 3 p.m. and King had been inside their unit in the Blue Lake Village apartments in Northwest Miami-Dade, playing videos with friends. The boys left go get chewy candy, King’s favorite, from the gas station on the corner. Moments later, Carter heard the unmistakable sound of rapid-fire gunshots, more than a dozen. He burst out the door of his third floor apartment, descending the 26 steps, screaming King’s name. He ran to the store but couldn’t find his son. As he ran back toward his building, Carter saw his son lying still on his side near the front of the apartment rental office. The crinkled money was still in King’s hand.
“I heard the shots. I ran outside knowing my son needed me,” he said, tears in his eyes at he sat in the apartment he hopes to move from soon. “King was so special...he touched so many people.”
Now, the afternoon hours are the worst for Carter. It is when King would dash from Van E. Blanton Elementary School and toss his red backpack to his father who was waiting at the entrance. Then they raced home. The first-grader always won.
The afternoon was when King was killed. And it is when King was carried to his final resting place next to Carter’s brother.
The mornings are the most difficult for Smith, King’s mother. It was their mommy-son time, before she headed to work. Sometimes, she forgets her baby is gone and then it all rushes back.
Two Sundays ago, she took her children to McDonald’s for ice cream. “I bought this Oreo McFlurry and was going to save it for King and then I caught myself.”
The chaotic, unfathomable circumstances of King’s death outraged the community and made painfully clear the growing need to make children safe. Within hours of the shooting, police had identified one of the three teen gunmen. Within a week, all three had been arrested. They were formally charged as adults on Wednesday with second-degree murder and attempted murder.
“You have a beloved 6-year-old buying candy, blocks from his school. It was like the crescendo of an orchestra,” said Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle “The community stepped up. They are tired of it. My hope is that this is the turning point.”
About two weeks ago, a garden honoring King was planted at Blanton Elementary. It is in the school’s interior courtyard where children play, under the broad shade of an old oak tree. The garden is shaped as a heart and filled with pink and red flowers. The marker reads: KING CARTER 2009-2016. Your smile, gentle spirit and kind heart will always be with us; you will forever be a BULLDOG.