116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Two teens who were shot and killed early Saturday were remembered Sunday as young men full of potential - with one a recent graduate of Metro High School and the other set to receive his diploma next weekend.
Police said Matrell E. Johnson and Royal C. Abram, both 18, were in a vehicle with a 19-year-old male and a 19-year-old female around 1:20 a.m. Saturday in the parking lot of Iowa Smoke Shop, 70 Kirkwood Ct. SW, when an individual walked up to the car and opened fire.
Johnson and Abram were killed, while the two 19-year-olds - whose identities have not been released - were gravely wounded and taken to an area hospital.
Ida Johnson, a relative of Matrell Johnson, told The Gazette on Saturday that her grandnephew and the others in the car had attended the funeral Friday morning of Tyrice D. 'Reese” Douglas. Douglas died May 6 from injuries sustained in a December shooting.
Police have charged Ezekiel C. Phillips Jr., 30, of Cedar Rapids, in connection with that December shooting. He is being held in jail.
On Sunday afternoon, a small group of people gathered near Hy-Vee at the corner of 15th Street NE and First Avenue East to peacefully protest the ongoing problem of gun violence in the city. Later Sunday, a vigil was held at Greene Square in memory of Johnson and Abram.
Among the speakers at Greene Square was Ethel Brown, Abram's mother.
She talked about the troubles her son faced growing up.
'He spent all of his junior high school years crying about not having friends,” she said of her son. 'He went to school every day and was bullied, he was beat up, and he was chased home because he wasn't like everybody else.”
Darshaun Smith, 17, was one of Abram's friends during the tumultuous years Brown described. Smith, who attended the afternoon protest, said he befriended Abram in sixth grade when the two attended McKinley Middle School. The two then attended Washington High School together until Abram transferred to Metro. He was set to graduate next Saturday.
'He was a nice, loving, caring person,” Smith said. 'He would sometimes put on that tough guy act, but really he was just a good guy.”
As a senior and class president at Washington, Smith said classmates often look to him as an example of positivity, encouragement and inspiration. But for him, Abram was that person.
'He impacted my life,” Smith said. 'He inspired me. He cared about people and supported and encouraged them. He just wanted the best for everybody.”
Smith also noted the added tragedy of the deaths happening at the height of graduation season.
'It's unreal,” he said. 'I can't imagine what the families are going through. We were literally just about to graduate high school and now we're going to funerals.”
The protest was organized by Christyonna Ray, who knew Johnson and his family well.
'These were just four young kids,” she said. 'They didn't deserve this. No father, no mother, no aunt, no uncle, no one should have to bury a child.”
Born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Ray, 21, said she had watched Johnson grow up.
'He was smart. He had just graduated (from Metro High School in January) and then this happens. Matrell was a good kid. He was goofy and always making people laugh. He didn't deserve this. None of those kids did.”
Ray said the community is 'at its wit's end” with the violence.
'We need to take initiative and deal with what's happening in this city,” she said. 'I don't know what the solution for the future might be, but I hope we see the community come together and start organizing to create more safe havens for young people.”
Abram's mother echoed that sentiment when she spoke at the vigil.
'It's time to step up and start helping each other so our community can go back to love and go back to comfort because this, it ain't working,” Brown said.
Carlos Grant, who was principal at Metro from 2014 to 2016 and interim principal at Washington from 2016 to 2017, attended the protest. He had known Abram and remembered him as 'a phenomenal young man.”
'He was talented and inquisitive and innovative, and he had a bright future ahead of him,” Grant said. 'And the thing that most impressed me about him was despite all of the adversity in his life, all the things he had to overcome and all the reasons he had to give up, he never gave up.”
Grant now is executive director of middle schools for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. He moved to Cedar Rapids about five years ago from South Carolina.
'In the five years I've been here, it's been so shocking to see the violence that occurs in this city,” he said. 'It just goes to show the symptoms of violence can exist anywhere, and it's a stark reminder that violence doesn't just happen - it's not an accidental thing. When you have communities that are experiencing hopelessness or systemic issues of poverty and lack of education, this is the result.”
In his four years at Washington High School, Smith said he knew or knew of roughly seven young people who died as the result of violence.
'It's scary,” he said. '... It really makes you think twice about where you are going and what you are doing.”
But, Smith said, he has not lost hope.
'This is a wake-up call,” he said. 'But I think it's also an opportunity for us to step up, to stand together and do something to make change happen so that this never happens again.”
Abram's mother encouraged vigil attendees to make the first steps toward change through small acts of kindness.
'Open a door. Make eye contact. Shake a hand. Buy a lunch. Give a hug. Tell someone you love them,” she said. 'If you can't do it for yourself, do it for my baby because that's what he would do.”
Visitation for Johnson will be 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Brosh Chapel in Cedar Rapids. The funeral will be 1 p.m. Saturday at Gospel Tabernacle Church, followed by burial in Oak Hill Cemetery.
Visitation for Abram will be 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at Brosh Chapel in Cedar Rapids. The funeral will be 11 a.m. Tuesday at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
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