On a recent Saturday afternoon at Flea Market USA in West Little River, Susan Kennedy wove through bustling tattoo parlors, barber shops and jewelry stores clutching a black shoe box filled with bullets.
She approached a young man sitting outside a tattoo parlor in a neon green “Miami” shirt and asked if he had any bullets he would be willing to donate. “I don’t mess with guns,” the man said. At another tattoo parlor, across the passageway, a man in a red baseball cap showed Kennedy his knuckles: four bullets, one tattooed on each finger. He said he also had a gun inked on his stomach, but no real ammunition to give her.
But further down the lane, Alex McCoy, a community organizer working with Kennedy, started talking to a young man outside a barber shop. When McCoy explained what he and Kennedy were trying to do, the man reached into the pocket of his jean shorts and pulled out the contents: a dime and two .22 caliber bullets.
He handed the bullets to McCoy, and Kennedy put them in her shoe box. Then the man, who declined to give his name, went back to work, draping a red smock over a customer waiting for a haircut.
The moment I heard he died, I felt like that was my child.
Susan Kennedy, the founder of Bullets4Life
Kennedy had been thinking about doing something like this since last February, when 6-year-old King Carter was shot on his way to buy candy.
“The moment I heard he died, I felt like that was my child,” she said.
The 40-year-old mother of three didn’t know Carter personally, but she started to have nightmares and fell into a deep depression. Kennedy turned to the pastor at her Miami Gardens church and prayed for guidance, and the phrase “Donate a bullet, save a life” kept popping into her head. She felt it was a message from God.
After 8-year-old Jada Page died in August, Kennedy started collecting bullets. At first, she kept her job at an upscale department store in Aventura, but when people started showing up at work to give her bullets, she realized she couldn’t keep doing both. Kennedy quit her job and dedicated herself to violence prevention full time. She has since walked the streets in some of Miami-Dade’s most dangerous neighborhoods with a group of volunteers, talking to residents about the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 children over the past 15 years.
So far, Kennedy’s group — Bullets4Life — has collected more than 300 bullets. Kennedy takes them to a gunsmith, who removes the gunpowder, and turns them into jewelry. Once she has enough pieces of jewelry, Kennedy plans to sell them to raise money for the families of shooting victims.
Some of the bullets, their owners told Kennedy, had names on them — people whose lives they planned to take in the endless cycle of retaliations.
It’s a dynamic all too familiar to the vendors and patrons at Flea Market USA, which is located in one of the epicenters of gun violence. The shopping center sits in the county zip code where the greatest number of young people were shot between 2011 and 2015, the most recent years for which hospital data is available. During those four years, 48 people under the age of 18 were struck by bullets in the area. Eight of them died and another 40 were admitted to the hospital or the emergency room, according to data compiled by the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County.
I’m telling you, even if you don’t live in the neighborhood, it hurts.
Charline Stewart, a volunteer with Bullets4Life
Frank, a vendor selling conch salad and fruit at his family’s food stall, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said security in the area has gotten worse over the past few years. His family used to have food trucks, but after several robberies, they stopped using them. This year, Frank’s family didn’t even sell food at the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration because they were afraid it would be too dangerous. And it was. Eight people were shot and injured during the festivities at a park in Brownsville. The youngest victim was 11.
But it’s not just those neighborhoods that have suffered. The day before Kennedy visited the flea market, three shootings took place at or near Miami-Dade schools. The first hit a van carrying students with BB pellets near Brownsville Middle School and the second sent three Carol City teens to the hospital. The third struck an elementary school in Little Haiti.
“It’s hurting me,” said Charline Stewart, a friend of Kennedy’s who accompanied her to the flea market. “I’m telling you, even if you don’t live in the neighborhood, it hurts.”
But rooting out the violence, and convincing young men to give up their ammunition, isn’t an easy task.
At Studio X T-Shirts, photos of young victims are plastered on every inch of the flea market stall, each one stamped with the victim’s nickname: Sticks, Kiki, Wolf, Bug. The words “Rest In Peace” are repeated over and over again like a mantra.
“When I first started working here, it was kind of weird,” said Jakeem Atwell, a graphic designer who makes the RIP shirts. But now, Atwell said, he’s used to it. Although Studio X also designs logos and T-shirts for companies, Atwell said the RIP shirts are a big part of their business. In the past year, he has designed shirts in remembrance of both Jada Page and King Carter.
Nearly every young death in the area is marked with a T-shirt. So much so that if teens are trying to find out whether a friend died, they come to Studio X, said manager Hai Haliva. If there’s an order for a shirt in the store’s computer system, that’s as good as a death certificate.
At the other end of the flea market, Chris Shod carries scars from the night he almost became one of the young men on Studio X’s wall. His torso is etched with the marks left by 13 bullets fired by a 16-year-old kid after what Shod says was an argument “over nothing.”
When you’re trying to protect yourself, each bullet counts.
T. Cates, a vendor at Flea Market USA
Shod didn’t have any bullets to donate, but his friend, who identified himself as T. Cates, did. Cates reached into his waistband and pulled out a handgun, then emptied three bullets out of the clip and into Kennedy’s outstretched palm. After almost being robbed six times, Cates said he “had to think about it” before giving Kennedy those bullets.
“When you’re trying to protect yourself, each bullet counts,” he said. “Every bullet in a clip means you got a second chance to live.”
But for Kennedy, those three bullets were three lives saved. After four hours at the flea market, she had six new bullets in her shoe box and the promise of several more from shoppers who had taken her business card and promised to spread the word.
“Even if we take one bullet off the street, that’s a life saved,” she said.