MIAMI, Fl. - Leonda Times, 12, lost his 15-year-old cousin in 2010 after she was struck in the head by a stray bullet while playing near her house near downtown Miami.
“She was just standing there in the street,” he said.
It’s become so dangerous that Times, who lives in the city’s notorious Pork ’n’ Beans housing project, is afraid to go outside. “I’ll just sit in the house, or maybe on the porch,” he said.
In the first four months of this year 13 children and teens have been killed by gun violence, mostly in Miami's inner-city neighborhoods that are home to the city's African-American population, according to the the Miami-Dade County medical examiner.
Since 2005 that number climbs to 276, the office said.
Most crimes go unsolved due to fear of gangs and an unwritten inner-city code of "no-snitching." But now the kids are speaking out.
Last week nearly three dozen people, most them students aged 15 and younger marched through Miami’s Overtown neighborhood calling for the end of the snitching code that intimidates witnesses and discourages them from talking to authorities. “Enough is enough,” students shouted in between cries of “see something, say something.”
Last week’s protest was the second time students have gathered since the death of six-year-old King Carter in late February, struck in the chest by a stray bullet as he was walking to buy some candy while feuding teenagers unleashed a hail of bullets.
As the community grieves, Carter’s name has become a rallying cry for fellow students and classmates, who during the protest shouted “save our kings and queens,” wearing shirts that read the same.
“Kids shouldn’t be dying just for coming outside,” said eight-year-old Robert Carr who marched carrying a black sign with white paint that read “our lives matter.”
Carr, who played football with Carter, also gave a poignant speech during his funeral recalling how the two would race after every practice. “I’m here to tell you that you beat me this time, you won the biggest race of all, and that’s the race to heaven,” he said.
The roots of the shootout that took Carter’s life began on Facebook and exploded as the teens took to the streets seeking vengeance, according to police. In late February officers arrested Irwen Pressley, 17, and Leonard Adams, 18, and charged them with Carter 's murder. Adams’ mother, Tameka Thompson, 41, was also arrested in late March and charged with two counts of tampering with evidence after police alleged she paid a friend $50 to dispose of the car used in the shooting.
Miami is not alone. In Chicago 10 teens have died due to gun violence in 2016, according to the GunViolence Archive. Nationally, 175 teens since the first of the year, according to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit.
While the number of youngsters falling to gun violence in Miami climbs, another jarring new trend has arisen: Funeral homes staging princess and super hero-themed funerals to celebrate the lives of lost youths.
On the day of King Carter’s funeral, a quartet of men dressed in lime green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes wheeled the budding football player’s casket through the New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International.
In late summer 2013, 12-year-old Tequila Forshee was laid to rest donning a glittering tiara, pink nail polish, and a Hello Kitty necklace. Over the year Miami funeral directors have prepared memorial services with Miami Dolphins, Barney, and Cabbage Patch Kids themes.
Yet the shock of losing so many children at such a young age may also be sparking some change in a community that some say has ignored this brutal reality for too long.
“While the crime statistics have been flat in Miami-Dade the age of victims and perpetrators has decreased considerably,” said Miami Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “The carnage has been increasing, not decreasing, and unless we first acknowledge that there’s no way to fix it.”
Advocacy groups have called for a witness protection legislation to help allay concerns of retaliation. While public officials have acknowledged the need for change, the gears of legislation are slow to turn.
“It took years to get where we are now,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson whose district includes a number of the city’s violence-riddled communities. “You can’t cure it overnight.”
County officials have hosted a series of meetings on how to tamp back the violence, though no legislation has yet been filed.
Meanwhile the Miami-Dade Police Department in late April began training a Youth Outreach Unit to provide more of the community-based, police mentoring programs many activists say could be critical to prevent at-risk children from following the wrong path. Twenty-five officers from the department’s neighborhood resource unit will be paired with 25 youths identified by the county’s juvenile services department for mentoring.
“Our most precious asset is our youth and they’re dying out there,” said Miami Dade Police Department Assistant Director Freddy Ramirez. “We have to do something about it, and arresting them isn’t the only mechanism to stop this."
The school system is hoping the police program will be part of a broader paln to identify the community’s most at-risk children and wrap them in a blanket of services in hopes of preventing them from becoming the next drive-by shooter.
“We know there are 3,000 school-aged children out of the 368,000 in Miami Dade Public Schools who are at risk of become the next victim or perpetrator,” Carvalho said. “They’re mainly all poor, children of color, many from broken homes where the availability of services or activities for them after school or before school was not on par with the availability of services in other zip codes,” he added.
Many of those children have passed through Tawana Akins’ classroom. The fourth grade teacher is King Carter’s aunt and helped organize recent student rallies. She said she’s lost four family members to gun violence since 2003.
The number rises when she includes pupils in the classes she has taught over 13 years in Miami’s inner city schools. Among them was Randall Robinson III, who in 2015 was shot multiple times during a drive-by and pronounced dead on the scene. Police have yet to identify or arrest any suspects. “He was a good student,” Akins said. “He would do anything to please the teacher.”
An activist since high school, Akins said she knew she had to do something. What she didn’t expect was for her students to follow her lead during the first march in mid April.
“A herd of them came down and they were so organized — it’s hard just to get them in a line at school — but they were ready with their chants and dance routines,” she said.
“It was a beautiful, heartbreaking moment.”