Public Safety

After teens shot to death, students and community demand action

Matrell Johnson, Royal Abram shot Saturday; police chief confident arrest will be made

Students walk out of class at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, May 20, 2019, to protest gun violence. The walkout was held response to the shooting deaths of Matrell Johnson and Royal Abram, who were killed in a shooting early Saturday morning in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Students walk out of class at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, May 20, 2019, to protest gun violence. The walkout was held response to the shooting deaths of Matrell Johnson and Royal Abram, who were killed in a shooting early Saturday morning in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — In the wake of the weekend shooting deaths of two of former classmates, students at Washington High School walked out of class Monday morning to call for an end to gun violence. That evening, members of the public walked into City Hall to call on city officials for help.

Matrell Johnson and Royal Abram, both 18, were shot and killed while sitting in a vehicle in the parking lot of Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW when someone walked up to the car and opened fire at about 1:20 a.m. Saturday. Two others in the vehicle — a man and woman, both 19 — suffered life-threatening gunshot wounds.

No arrests have been made and police have not released updates about the conditions of the two wounded.

During a Youth Services and Public Safety committee at City Hall on Monday evening, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said he had “every confidence that the murders on Saturday morning are going to be solved” and requested those with information come forward. Additional officers have been assigned to the investigation, he said.

While he said police know those involved, he stopped short of saying a suspect has been identified. He said police have spoken with several people of interest but have been thwarted by people who refuse to share information.

Some have been “so bold to tell the officer that they’ll take care of the matter themselves,” he said about an exchange and officer had with a person in the emergency room.

For students, a call to action

At Washington High, senior Lily Burns stood with her classmates around the flagpole at the front of the school after walking out at 10 a.m. Monday.

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“It’s very sad,” said Burns, 17, who grew up with Abram and remembered him as a friend she could always rely on. His death, she said, was heartbreaking.

“A lot of people are hurt and they’re upset and they’re angry and they want something to change because we can’t keep losing people,” she said of her fellow students. “It’s becoming almost like it’s second nature.”

During Monday’s walkout, the students carried a clear message: “We want change.”

“We want Matrell’s and Royal’s names to be the last names on that list (of students who have been killed) — not the beginning, not the middle, but the end,” said Washington High senior Quintin Gay. “We don’t want to see any more deaths.”

Gay, 17, said he went to middle school with Johnson and Abram.

“It’s hard to see students that you were in class with … are no longer here with us,” he said. “And our students are tired of losing their friends to violence, and tired of hearing about their peers getting shot or killed.”

Monday’s walkout, he said, was not only a way to remember their lost classmates, but it was also a call to action — a message to the community to step up and take action.

Hundreds of students participated in the walk out, which lasted about 15 minutes, many of them toting signs with messages such as “Give peace a chance,” “We want peace,” “Not 1 more,” and “Demand change.”

Burns said she learned of the shooting and death of her friend via social media. The information was later confirmed by a friend, she said.

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“It still just hasn’t hit me,” she said. “But I am sad and I am angry and I’m upset, and I want something done because it’s not fair that they were 18-years-old and have passed already. They’d barely gotten to live.”

With little action to combat gun violence having been taken thus far, Gay said he believes he and his peers will have to create the change their community is hoping for.

“It’s our responsibility to step up and take action,” he said. “It’s not enough to just say we want change. What we really want to happen is we want to see students taking that change and being empowered to make this community a safe place, whether that means finding new ways to resolve conflicts that don’t involve guns ... or whether that involves talking to the mayor, talking to the City Council.”

Gay said it is likely City Council meetings will see more young people in attendance as he and his peers “step up to demand change.”

“We need change, and we need to do better and we need to be bolder because we are losing so many people to gun violence and we need that to stop,” Burns said. “I have (seen) countless students pass away that should be graduating with me on Saturday, and they don’t get that chance.”

‘Hybrid gangs’ involved in shooting, others

During Monday’s meeting, Jerman said those involved in the shooting “are the same core or group of individuals” who have been linked to numerous other shootings recently and over the years, including the shooting death of Latasha Roundtree in 2012, Aaron Richardson in 2015 and a melee at Lindale Mall in 2014.

Jerman described the affiliation of those involved as a “hybrid gang” — different from traditional gangs with a hierarchy, a leader and an “undying loyalty” to their gang, such as Bloods, Crips or MS-13.

“Our information does not show that this exists with these gangs and groups within the city,” he said. “Cedar Rapids gangs do not, and in fact, some members become aligned with members of their rival group for a short time and then they revert back to their original group.

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“What is consistent is their blatant disregard for the safety of others in the city, and their obvious lack of respect for human life,” he said.

Members of the public at the meeting called on city officials to more directly engage with youths susceptible to crime and violence.

“Nobody’s really doing no investigating of what’s being said on Facebook until after the fact,” said Terry Aron, of Cedar Rapids. “That’s something that I wish that could be looked into. And also some of the kids you are dealing with have parents who are locked up. ... They are in crisis. Some are taken care of. Some are OK, and some get overlooked. Now, some of them have no respect for the law. You can punish them all you want to.”

Rebecca Grant, of Cedar Rapids, noted more programs are needed for the 18- to 25-year-olds.

Council member Dale Todd agreed and said the public would see more programs rolled out, but he turned the onus back to the community.

“This is not going to stop until parties involved in this agree it is going to stop,” Todd said. “We can’t stop it. It has to be them.”

Visitation for Johnson will be 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Brosh Chapel, 2121 Bowling St. SW 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.†The funeral will be†11 a.m. Tuesday at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.†

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