The paint on the wall was barely dry when a teenage girl stepped up to the mural of faces — young faces, brown faces — and lifted her arms to brush the cheek of a boy who was killed before he turned 15.
They were elementary school classmates, she said, so she came to the wall to honor him. She came, she said, to honor all of them.
Five teenagers whose lives were cut short by gunfire during the 2017-18 school year are memorialized on a new mural in Southeast Washington. Dreamed up by a high school student who lost two classmates in shootings that year, the mural seeks to inspire a conversation about gun violence and the indiscriminate nature of killing.
“These five stories are representative of our entire homicide rate and — unfortunately — are not rare because black, brown, young and old people die every day in our city,” said Lauryn Renford, now 17, who devised the mural as she was grieving for her boyfriend. “The narrative of being in the wrong place at the wrong time does not apply here. Right now in our city, you can do everything right and still be unsafe.”
All five grew up and went to school in the District. All five also shared the same fate — killed in the city they called home.
Paris Brown, 19, was a poet and a rapper, determined to make change through his words.
Jamahri Sydnor, 17, was the captain of her high school cheerleading squad and had begun packing for college at Florida A&M University.
Steve Slaughter, 14, dreamed of getting a football scholarship to college.
Taiyania Thompson, 16, was called “Sunny” by her friends and classmates, who knew her as the kind of girl who could light up a room.
Zaire Kelly, 16, was a junior Olympian who planned to become a forensic scientist. He was also Lauryn’s high school sweetheart.
In the hot sun during a dedication ceremony Friday, the faces glistened. Flecks of gold and silver oil paint lit up their silhouettes as dozens of friends, family and city leaders gathered outside a Capitol Hill art space known as The Fridge to honor the names on the wall — and the countless others who are not.
Artist Martin Swift, 29, who painted the mural, said he adorned the wall with roses to signify other gun violence victims.
“I wanted a way to also honor the many victims who aren’t on this wall, and all the victims who will be shot in the future,” Swift said. “My hope is it will continue to put youth gun violence in front of people who are not interested or not aware of it, while also creating a space for those who are, and for those who have been affected.”
The ceremony was about more than the art.
Victims’ parents, siblings and loved ones stepped up to the microphone to tell the crowd about the young life they lost. There were tears, anger and, ultimately, there was gratitude.
“Some things you just got to accept, and not let your child’s name die in vain,” said Seditra Brown, Paris’s mom. “I feel like as long as I can keep his name alive and use it to make a difference, then I will never feel like he’s not coming back to me.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said part of the challenge in fighting youth violence is refusing to accept killings as “normal.”
“What Lauryn has done in making sure that this mural is right here in Ward 6 is making sure people know … every murder impacts every resident of the District of Columbia,” he told the crowd.
But those assembled said awareness wasn’t enough.
“My baby shouldn’t be on this wall,” said Que Wallace, a recently retired D.C. homicide detective whose daughter, Jamahri Sydnor, died in 2017 after being hit by a stray bullet as she drove through the Brentwood neighborhood.
Wallace said she retired from the department after her daughter was killed because she felt that, as a homicide detective, she was arriving at the scene of violence too late — after a gun had been fired, after a person had been killed.
“At that point, we’re just scooping up the bodies,” she said. “Whatever it is we’re doing now is not good enough.”
Lauryn, who has pushed for stricter gun control measures and protested an increase in deaths over the past two years, has criticized District officials for not doing more to elevate the issue of youth homicides.
On Friday, she emphasized the mural came together without the help of elected leaders.
Her classmates in a group called Pathways 2 Power, run out of Thurgood Marshall Academy, raised nearly $13,000 from more than 175 donors to fund the wall. Alex Goldstein, an artist and owner of The Fridge, donated the wall space.
On Monday, a 20-year-old man was fatally shot near the Barry Farm neighborhood in Southeast Washington, according to D.C. police. It was the city’s 101st homicide of the year, up from 94 at this time last year.
Five of those slain this year were between the ages of 10 and 17. In 2018, nine victims were in that age range.
Deciding which teenagers to put on the wall was the hardest part of the project, Lauryn said. She started with Zaire, who was shot dead in September 2017 on his way home from a college prep class. She and Zaire were dating at the time.
“Losing Zaire was extremely difficult, but it also really helped me see that I have a bigger purpose in life,” she said. “He is the inspiration behind my work.”
She kept track of all the youth killings in the city for more than a year. Then, it came time to call the families.
She sat with a school counselor as she dialed the parents of dead children, asking if they would consent to their child being memorialized on her wall. Five said yes.
On Friday, the families held hands with strangers during a moment of silence.
Lauryn said she hopes to add biographies of each youth next to the photos, and name the ward in which each was killed. She hopes it can be used by schools and youth programs as a teaching tool, to reach kids and talk to them about gun violence.
“These kids shouldn’t be on this wall. They should be living,” said Karen Lee, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy. “The question I hope we’re all thinking about now is how can we use this wall as a call to action? How can we use this for our community as a way to heal?”