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Richmonders flood the streets to focus attention on gun-violence deaths

Karen Cheatham takes part of a rally.
Karen Cheatham — the grandmother of Tynashia Humphrey, a 15-year-old Richmond Public Schools freshman who was killed Sept. 12 — attends a Sunday rally to focus attention on gun violence in Richmond. (Photos: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

About 100 people chanted “save our children” and “stop the killing” on Sunday afternoon while holding signs, posters and photos of loved ones killed by gun violence. They took over the streets, marching from Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church to the steps of the John Marshall Courts Building.

The number of young people ages 18 and younger killed in Richmond firearm homicides jumped from 5 in 2019 to 10 in 2020 and to 12 in 2021, according data from the state medical examiner’s office. 

Tynashia Humphrey, a 15-year-old Richmond Public Schools freshman, was caught in crossfire while walking to the store with friends on Sept. 12. She died the same day. Red memorial balloons across the street from Mount Moriah — just down the street from Gilpin Court — mark the location where Humphrey was shot and killed.

“She liked to hang out with friends, and that’s what she was doing that day,” said Ricky Johnson, Humphrey’s cousin. “She was an innocent person just trying to go to the store, a jolly soul, an [honor-roll] student in school. And because of one person's bad decision, it has changed my family’s life, and this community’s life forever.”

Johnson made red T-shirts with white text: “I was only going to the store.”

He said he prefers people to wear shirts with the slogan, instead of “RIP” shirts. Johnson hopes the line emblazoned on the T-shirts will send a message to the community and start a conversation about the work that needs to be done to end gun violence in Richmond.

Karen Cheatham, Humphrey’s grandmother, wore one of those red T-shirts on Sunday. She was among several people with family members who died from gun violence to speak on the courthouse steps on Sunday. A slew of public officials also spoke.

Humphrey lived with Cheatham, who had full custody of her, and said she left behind five siblings, including a one-year-old sister.

“She was out of my hands for two hours. She was supposed to return back to me at 9 o’clock to get ready for school,” the grandmother said.

Cheatham said that senseless gun violence has to stop. Her firstborn son was also shot and killed in November 2002. He was 18 and was celebrating landing his first job.

“This is the second baby I have to bury,” said Cheatham.

Taking action on gun violence

Both Cheatham and Johnson have a message for other families.

“Hold on to your babies and hold on to them tight. Because tomorrow’s not promised to no one. And I held on to her so hard to prevent this. And it still came. And it breaks my heart because I still couldn’t protect her,” said Cheatham.

To Johnson, gun-violence prevention starts with learning self-respect.

“A lot of people ask me: ‘What do we want to do? Why are we out here right now?’ Honestly, it goes back to self-respect,” he said. “We have to get the community to start respecting themselves before they can respect somebody else.”

That means, Johnson explained, ensuring parents are teaching kids self-respect and the respect of others, in addition to respecting their neighborhoods and the places where they live, work and play.

He said that includes everyone doing their part to maintain their living environment, but also demanding accountability if a landlord isn’t fixing problems. A recent VCU study found a link between higher rates of violence with areas where there is negligence by commercial landlords and larger companies — as opposed to individual, private owners.

“If your landlord is not doing what they’re supposed to, you need to take them to court,” Johnson said. “Why? Because you want to make sure that where you live is a good environment. That's about respecting where you lay your head.”

Johnson also is in the process of purchasing a casket that he plans to move from corner to corner in the city, hoping it will spark conversations about how to end gun violence. The approach isn’t new to Richmond, as it was implemented under the late community activist Alicia Rasin.

“We're gonna have people stand guard and say, ‘Is this the image that you want to see in your neighborhood?’ Because it will continue to happen if change is not made,” Johnson said.

Others who attended the Sunday march want to get more involved to help stop the violence, including Shaka Woodberry, who recently moved back to Richmond after living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta. 

“We can’t depend on the police just to solve our problems; we have to start in the home,” Woodberry said. “So, we have to get at our own communities, and talk to each other and mingle like we used to do — like the old days.” 

Navian Brown, Woodberry’s fiancée, agreed. She’s volunteered with VCU’s agricultural department to help get kids off the streets and involved in productive activities.

“Getting kids to come in and see how we're growing things, growing tilapia. And just taking them out of the streets and doing something else with them, teaching them how to farm,” Brown said. “It may help and it may help them in the future not to go toward violence, because of touching the earth, watching fish grow. So, [it’s the] small things you can still do.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.