Natasha Christopher’s 14-year-old son, Akeal, was visiting his grandmother a few miles away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So Christopher went to bed early, with her two younger sons asleep down the hall. When her boyfriend’s phone rang in their dark bedroom around 11 p.m., she could not imagine why someone would be calling so late. Then her boyfriend told her the unthinkable: Her oldest son had been shot in the back of his head as he walked to a friend’s house after a neighborhood party.
“Before that moment, if anybody told me that my son would become a victim of gun violence, I would have told them they were lying,” the 47-year-old mother said. “I was doing everything right. Akeal was a great kid. He never got into trouble.”
Christopher called a cab and rushed to Brooklyn’s Brookdale Hospital, her two younger sons in tow. As she ran through the emergency ward, she saw relatives — Akeal’s grandmother, his uncle — and was alarmed by the desperate looks on their faces. As they pointed her down the hall to where her child had been taken, she was horrified to see blood covering the floor. She heard shouting and beeping. Someone pulled a curtain back, and she saw her son. His face, which still had the softness and innocence of a young child, was swollen to twice its size. A doctor was on top of him, doing CPR.
For two weeks, Christopher slept on the hospital floor, never leaving her son’s side. “I remember just begging God to save him. I said, ‘If you save him, you can take me.’” One day, she watched a doctor who had been overseeing Akeal’s case step off an elevator after visiting his bedside. The doctor didn’t realize Christopher was watching, and as she paused outside the elevator, she wiped tears off her cheeks. Christopher realized then that her son was not going to recover.
A few days later, in July 2012, the family gathered at Akeal’s bedside, knowing he was taking his last breaths. “I put my head on his lap and I cried, and I cried, and I cried,” Christopher said. “I was never going to leave his side. If he had survived, I would still be by his side.” Akeal died on his fifteenth birthday.
Afterward, Christopher tried to piece together what had happened the night her son was shot. Family members told her that he had been with his cousin and several other teens at a graduation party in Bushwick when police broke it up. As Akeal and several other kids were walking to a friend’s house, two men approached them, and, according to news reports, one asked whether they belonged to a group called the Loot Crew. Akeal and the others took off running. At least one of the men began shooting at them. Only Akeal was hit.
Afterward, the kids who had been with Akeal when he was shot refused to speak to police or to Christopher about what happened. “Everybody went on mute,” Christopher said. Gradually, their silence destroyed Christopher’s once-close relationship with Akeal’s father’s family, she said. “For me, that was your cousin and, if you saw something, you should say something,” Christopher said.
Christopher, a native of Trinidad, also felt that the New York City Police officers who investigated her son’s death failed to demonstrate the sense of emergency that should surround a child homicide. “They treated me like my son and I did something wrong,” she said. “They make their minds up about every young Black man: that they are in a gang.”
Indeed, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said at a press conference after the shooting that Akeal, who had no criminal record, “may have been” a member of a “crew.” Christopher said it was an outrageous claim. “If my son had blonde hair and blue eyes, this case would have been investigated and would have been solved,” she said. The Trace asked the NYPD to respond to Christopher’s assertion that more resources would have been put into the investigation if Akeal had been white. In an email, a spokesperson said the NYPD “is fully committed to solving this homicide and the investigation is active and ongoing.” The spokesperson noted that the department participated in a recent peace walk in Akeal’s honor, and is offering up to $13,500 for information regarding the case through its Crime Stoppers Hotline (1-800-577-TIPS or, for Spanish, 1-888-57-PISTA).
But while city officials didn’t show the concern that Christopher expected, a few total strangers did. Lupe Estrella could not be reached for this story, but she told DNAinfo that she had heard shots outside her window and looked down to see Akeal’s body in the street. She ran outside and rolled him onto his back, performing CPR on him as she waited, covered in his blood, for police. In the days that followed, Estrada sat vigil in the hospital with Christopher, two strangers now connected by tragedy. She was at Akeal’s bedside when he died. To Christopher, the fact that someone had held her child as he lay in the street meant everything. He had not been alone.
For months, Christopher was filled with rage. She attended gun violence prevention rallies and public safety events held by the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, an alliance of faith leaders focused on diffusing neighborhood tensions, supporting grieving families, and fostering communication between community members and law enforcement. It was at one such event, outside Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2013, that Sandra Rougier noticed Christopher cursing to herself. “I was hearing her mouth,” said Rougier. “I thought, ‘This is such an angry woman.’” But she also admired her fire. Rougier, who like Christopher was born in Trinidad, had always been reserved. Fourteen years earlier, Rougier’s 18-year-old son, Teshawn T. Samuel, was gunned down in Brooklyn. For over a decade, Rougier had held her grief and anguish inside. Her family hadn’t known how to support her, and the community offered few resources. Then, in 2013, a friend invited her to a local church. During the service, a woman stood before the congregation and asked if anyone who had been affected by gun violence would be willing to share their story. Rougier stood up. After years of silence, she told a packed room of strangers about her son. Days later, she was interviewed on a local radio talk show and shared more about the agony of not really knowing what had happened, about the anger she felt that no one had been held accountable. It was unsettling to crack open the protective shell she’d been living inside, but there was no closing it back up. Soon after that, someone who had heard her speak introduced her to Pastor Gilford Monrose, president of the 67th Precinct Council and head of the historic Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day Church.
A few months before that, Monrose had offered the basement of his church as a gathering place for what became monthly meetings of mothers who had lost children. Christopher attended. Sometimes the mothers talked about happy times they had shared with their children. Sometimes they released balloons to remember a life lost. They met for special dinners before emotional holidays like Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Christopher and Rougier both created organizations to honor their sons and raise money to help other Brooklyn families affected by gun violence. “We just did anything to stay sane,” Rougier said. “Anything to say, ‘We are still here.’”
Month by month, more mothers of murdered children kept turning up at their meetings. About 30 of them formed a text group. They’ll note birthdays and death anniversaries via text, and the others will send prayers and strength. When there is a shooting in Brooklyn, Monrose notifies the group and they join him to walk the neighborhood en force. “We want to let people know that somebody got shot here, that this is unacceptable, and that we are here,” Christopher said. “We can’t let these cowards and monsters see that we are scared. They will control the community. It’s time for us to take our communities back.”
A few months ago, a guidance counselor from Christopher’s younger son’s school called her to say that a graduate of the school had been shot and killed; his mother could use some support. Christopher and Monrose went to meet her. “She had just become part of the shittiest club,” Christopher said. The woman had just gotten her son’s death certificate — a moment Christopher said she remembers being especially devastating, because it brought back memories of receiving her child’s birth certificate. Christopher called on the mothers’ group to help raise funds to bury the child. One by one, often in donations of just a few dollars, they raised $700. “I told her, ‘You have to go through this, but you aren’t going to go through it alone. You have found a sister in me.’”
Monrose says he tries to remind the mothers that there is hope in their pain. Some days, that’s hard. “It troubles me that my son being murdered is what gives my life purpose,” said Christopher. She said she has struggled in her relationship with God since Akeal died. “Sometimes I used to feel like God and the Devil were battling for my soul,” she said. “I would ask God, ‘How come you are supposed to be such a powerful God, and yet when I offered you my life for my son’s life you did nothing?’” Other times, she thinks that while God denied her what she asked for, he gave her something else: the grace to go on. “Every day I open my eyes and I still can’t believe that this is my life,” she said. “But then I pick myself up and keep going.”
Correction: September 7, 2021
A previous version of this story’s headline misstated the length of time since Akeal’s death. He died nine years ago. This story also previously misstated where Akeal’s grandmother lived at the time of his shooting. He visited her in Crown Heights before being shot in Bushwick.