On a rainy day in October 2022, K.G. Wilson rolled down Colfax Avenue in his burgundy Cadillac between the makeshift memorials to children who’ve been shot in North Minneapolis. He pointed to the street that was dedicated to a 12-year-old boy who was shot to death in front of his mother by a teenager after a fight. Farther north, he tended to the plastic flowers on a pole at Lowry and Penn, marking the spot where a 2-year-old was shot in the chest and killed in 2016 by shooters aiming for his stepfather. The boy’s younger sister was also shot, but she survived. 

On 26th and Colfax, Wilson got out and touched the 11-year-old bullet holes in the gray clapboard house where 3-year-old Terrell Mayes, Jr. was killed by a stray bullet the day after Christmas. He had been climbing the carpeted stairs with his siblings, holding a bowl of spaghetti. Around the corner, as we passed Terrell’s memorial garden, Wilson recalled how, at the time, he’d told the boy’s mom that he’d be there for her when the community moved on, as he knew it would and which it did six months later, when a 5-year-old was shot in the back and killed as he slept on his grandmother’s couch; Wilson carried the blood-stained furniture out of the house. 

Wilson, 56 and a former gang member from Chicago, started his community activism as a preacher on the streets of Minneapolis in 2004. In 2007, he was about to quit and go back to Chicago when a 14-year-old girl was caught in the crossfire outside a house party on Humboldt Avenue. Since then, Wilson has been called upon in his community for all manner of prayer, memorialization, eulogy, or vigil. He’s done the informal work of grief support and mentorship as a mostly one-man operation, broadcasting his speeches and publishing his emotive writings on social media, engaging community members, and working with local networks to prevent violence among young people by providing food, comfort, and other vital resources.

“K.G. is really one of our kind of OG community elders,” said Jennifer White, a former City Hall policy advisor and manager of the city’s first Office of Violence Prevention. White said Wilson’s “been doing this street-level work for many, many, many years, and really was doing it before it kind of became a thing named violence intervention.”

We left 26th and Colfax and drove to the red house where Wilson had spontaneously held a vigil for the 14-year-old girl after hearing about her death on the news. He straightened the stuffed Minnie Mouse on the tree in front and recalled how her father had initially wanted vengeance. But after Wilson took a video of the vigil and showed it to him, the father asked him to lead a foundation in his daughter’s name instead. 

“These have become my lifelong friends, the families of the children that were murdered,” said Wilson, a flash of rage in his hazel eyes.

Despite his proximity to the daily violence in his community, and the fact that his own son had recently been shot, Wilson had never lost a family member. In fact, he said he never could’ve imagined that, one day, the prayer he lifted or the vigil he held, the coffin he raised or watched as it entered hallowed ground, would be for someone he loved. Then, one night in May 2021, Wilson’s phone lit up with missed calls and text messages. When he finally went to check it, his daughter was calling. She was repeating herself, as if to fully realize the meaning of the words: “They shot Aniya. They shot Aniya in the head.”

Wilson doesn’t remember ever stopping as he drove that night to North Memorial Hospital, where his 6-year-old granddaughter was clinging to life. In an aberration, he was the last to know. “All I could think of was getting to this hospital and I think I had in my mind, ‘OK, this is not that bad, this is going to be OK, maybe it was a graze or something,’” he said to himself. “‘There’s no way that my Aniya is gone. There’s no way that that could happen to my angel.’” 

When he got to the hospital, the police lights, the neighborly crowd at the entrance, were all too familiar. It was a scene that for nearly two decades the self-proclaimed peace activist had usually been at the center of, lifting a prayer for a victim of gun violence, often a child. Just two weeks earlier, he’d been praying for a 10-year-old boy who was shot in the head in North Minneapolis as he rode in the backseat of his parents’ car. And just two days earlier, Wilson had been standing vigil in front of a house in North Minneapolis where a 9-year-old girl was shot in the head while jumping on a trampoline at a birthday party. 

“I send a prayer of protection over North Minneapolis that none of your children are next, none of my children are next,” Wilson said to his Facebook followers at the time. “I pray that these people who are doing these shootings are apprehended and taken off of the streets before they actually are able to do this to another child again.”

As those two children lay in critical condition in side-by-side rooms at a different hospital, Aniya’s brain was swelling and she was put on a ventilator. Her mother, Antrice Sease, the former partner of Wilson’s son, was covered in her girl’s blood. 

Aniya, who was 6-and-a-half, died two days later, on May 19, 2021.

“The vision that I have all the time is my baby in the backseat with blood gushing out of her head, into her Happy Meal,” Wilson said. “None of those horror movies compare to what I keep seeing in my head. Her wanting to call me ‘Papa’ and the blood in her mouth, and she can’t get it out. That’s what I see, and it won’t go away.”

Despite a $180,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest in the shootings of any of the three children struck in 2021, only the 9-year-old’s teenage shooter was convicted and sentenced — to 37.5 years, more than sentencing guidelines suggested, because children were present. 

Of the six cases in which stray bullets killed kids in North Minneapolis since 2007, when Wilson began his outreach work, just two have been solved, thanks to word of mouth and witness testimony. For surviving family members and some local activists, the community’s silence is a particularly devastating aspect of their grief: They believe their neighbors know who these killers are and refuse to turn them in, putting more families — more babies — at risk. For Wilson, the pain is sometimes so great he does not think he can go on. 

“All I can do is wait,” he said. 

Immediately after Aniya’s death, Wilson left his activism and mentoring. He said he couldn’t sit still in church and, celebrating 19 years of sobriety, he no longer attended daily AA meetings, as was his habit for 17 years. He couldn’t stand talk of forgiveness. He was haunted by the certainty that someone in the neighborhood knows who his granddaughter’s shooter is, and that whoever killed her is someone he has mentored, someone whose family he’s helped, someone standing around on the corner, or driving by in the car, or sitting in the restaurant booth next to him. 

“The thing to terrify a community is to do something to the kids,” Wilson said. “That means like, OK, we’ll kill yours, too. We’ll kill you and your kids, too.”

He knows what it’s like to think that the epidemic won’t hit you directly. Until it does.   

Lisa Clemons, founder and director of A Mother’s Love Initiative, a grassroots community organization working to prevent violence on the Northside, said there isn’t a Black family that hasn’t been affected by this violence, in some way. “In my very own family, my niece was shot to death. I have a nephew, a great nephew, right now accused of a murder,” she said. “We are not unscathed by any of this; it’s touching everybody.”

Since 2014, when the Gun Violence Archive started collecting data, 18 children under the age of 11 have been struck by stray bullets in North Minneapolis. Six of them were shot in 2021, and three, including Aniya, during that particularly violent spring, in the depths of the pandemic and amid a simmering police abolition movement motivated by the murder of George Floyd the year before. A referendum to replace the city’s Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety, which would have included unarmed response providers, was decisively rejected in Minneapolis, in part by Northside and Black voters who wanted more police presence in their communities, not less. “We need police,” one Black activist told me. “I don’t care if they pull over every Black man in every car; pull them over, if they have nothing, let them go.” The Minneapolis Police Department declined to be interviewed for this story, and after asking for questions in writing, did not respond to them.

To help during the rioting and protests, Wilson temporarily joined forces with A Mother’s Love, organizing youth groups and providing anti-violence mentorship to young people, boys and young men in particular. He told them that he knew life on the streets, and it would not return any favors. He’d try to give them a hug if the timing was right. Most importantly, he told them, don’t pick up a gun. “All the gun says is you’re ready to shoot. That’s all it says,” he repeated to me. Fear is understandable, and getting a gun is easy, he explained, but he would show them a different kind of strength, a new strain of masculinity. “They’re afraid of love.”

Wilson was also actively helping to raise Aniya to be a community leader, picking her up every Friday to go for McDonald’s and take her to her grandmother’s house. She’d be a senator, a pastor, a governor, or activist, they imagined aloud. Like his own daughter had, Aniya witnessed the work her grandfather was doing, talking to the community, providing for it, and demanding justice on the news for people randomly removed from their lives, often with bullets. Aniya asked him questions, and he watched her as she’d try to work out the differences between right and wrong, even between peace and justice.

“If you would have met her, you would’ve knew: She’s different,” Wilson said.

But even as Wilson filled his car with food, water, and prescriptions, and went door-to-door delivering aid, particularly to the elderly, the events of that summer signaled backward movement. His hope that things in America would soon change became tainted by a persistent rage, left over from the experiences of his former life and underscored by the events he witnessed daily. 

During the protests against police brutality, he said he saw young men he had mentored and stopped them from looting. He documented the transmogrified streets of his adopted home, parts of which, miles away from what is now officially George Perry Floyd Square, became quickly unrecognizable from the destruction: graffiti, broken or boarded-up storefronts, a sea of glass and litter.

“People couldn’t look at me because they knew I was hurt,” he said, referring to residents and friends. “Because I put in so much work over the years, trying to help rebuild the communities, and give people jobs, and promote people’s businesses, you know, just trying to help. That’s what I knew how to do.” 

Wilson also became a kind of guide to Minneapolis for reporters and other civil rights leaders. He worked to keep young Black people from North Minneapolis away from the temptations of drugs, guns, and gang violence. Local leaders sought Wilson’s input about how to provide for struggling parents, and stem the drug dealing and carjackings that were leading to shootings and retaliatory killings. In a pattern of deepening poverty that set in during the 1980s, residents of North Minneapolis were struggling to keep food on their tables, and their kids out of trouble. 

Wilson, who knew Floyd cursorily, was angry. He was angry with the officers who killed him, angry with the dealers who supplied him, angry with Floyd for his vulnerabilities, inextricable from his race, and angry with the opportunists who burned the city in his name. He was angry with himself for his unsuccessful appeals to Floyd to seek help, and for not being in the corner store that day, which was one block from where he lived at the time. But he had no plans to stop his outreach work. As tumultuous as the events of 2020 were, he didn’t doubt his ability to help. 

“They always look at what happened right here, but they don’t never look at what led up to it,” he said. Therefore, he tried to tell his own story in the hope that people would hear what happened to him — what could have happened to him — and change the direction of their lives, as he did. Or the same thing is going to happen over and over again, he said. “They have to see that. And that’s why I always say, ‘I’m one of those who barely escaped. I barely escaped.’ And so my life became dedicated to trying to help others escape.”

Beginning in 2012, Wilson had received a series of awards that lent unique credibility to work he was doing in the summer of 2020, and which Aniya was watching so intently. As we sit in his car, a bouquet of dried roses and faded programs from Aniya’s funeral on the dash, he swipes between photographs of various award ceremonies on his phone. There were recognitions for service and leadership, he recalled, altruism, community work against violence, and the Police Chief’s Award of Merit by the Minneapolis Police Department, “in grateful acknowledgement of your outstanding contribution to law enforcement and the people we serve.” 

In 2020, according to police data, there were twice as many homicides in Minneapolis as the year before, and 75 percent of all homicides in the state were committed with a firearm. Black residents were disproportionately represented among the victims; in Minneapolis, according to  an analysis of FBI data by Everytown for Gun Safety (which provides grants to The Trace), Black people are 27.2 times more likely to die by gun homicide than white people. Among 84 people killed by guns in the city that year, four were children, according to GVA, and all were children of North Minneapolis. As national gun violence numbers reached their historic peak the following year, 10 children — including Aniya — were shot in Minneapolis, and eight of them were from the Northside.

“North Minneapolis failed me and my family,” said Sharrie Greer, the grandmother and sole caregiver of La’Davionne Garrett Jr., a 13-year-old who was shot in the head weeks before Aniya, but who would survive, unable to walk or talk. He’s since endured three brain surgeries, and is scheduled for a fourth. He recently had his spine straightened with 36 screws and two rods. The bullet remains lodged in his head. “I ran in those same streets that my grandkids played there. And for this to happen to me and my family, and we don’t still know no answers, that’s not acceptable to me,” Greer said.

The destruction wrought on the city “had a direct effect on those in the community, and on emotions, and on feelings of hopelessness,” said Connie Rhodes, who has worked in community trauma for more than three decades and is the executive director of Restoration Inc., a community organization that serves North Minneapolis. When the children were shot, “It added another layer of deep grief and community trauma — very complex, very compounding trauma.”

Ethropic Burnett, who has worked for the city on community-focused policy since 2018 and helps lead its coordinated violence prevention efforts, said the city did rally somewhat, forming the inaugural Office of Violence Prevention, and establishing the Violence Prevention Fund to support community-driven strategies. “They saw the need: This is the impact of 2020, and centuries of trauma,” Burnett said. Aniya’s corner is “one of the big hotspots on our route with the violence interrupter work that we do,” she said, and has taken on monumental significance to their work, as well as among residents. “I say when we’re doing that work, ‘No longer, no longer can our babies die in the streets.’ You know, we just can’t have that, we just can’t have that.”

‘Aniya’s Corner,’ shown here on her heavenly birthday, September 5, 2023. The North Minneapolis intersection memorializes Aniya Allen, who was shot here in May, 2021. It was recently updated with a custom altar and banner that reads “Justice for Aniya Allen.” Andrea Ellen Reed for The Trace

And though city leaders have credited a new public safety plan with a significant citywide decrease in crime, the 2021 child deaths in North Minneapolis carry a grim, seismic weight that will affect generations to come. 

“When you start shooting babies, and everybody wants to be silent about you shooting babies, we’re at a crossroads here,” said Clemons, founder of A Mother’s Love. She said the old street codes — no shooting if there are kids outside, women or older people present, at vigils or funerals; no shooting on playgrounds, churches, cemeteries — no longer apply. The deepening trauma is overwhelming community values that once made this place what it is. “There are parents who don’t want to turn their kids in, because their mindset is, [the victim] is already dead,” she said. “Me, I can’t bring him back to life. So why would I want my kid to go sit in prison for the rest of his life? There’s just a different mindset today.”

The pain is sharp for the families who made the Northside their intergenerational home. Sasha Cotton, a public safety advocate and director of the National Network for Safe Communities, spent many summers and holidays visiting relatives in North Minneapolis. “There’s a slogan,” she said. “NFL — Northside for Life. People who are from that community have a deep affection for it, despite the challenges. There’s great things that have come out of the Northside; I don’t ever for a minute want to make it seem like we’re saying it’s a terrible place, but it is facing some real problems.”

Some community members who grew up in North Minneapolis have been forced to leave because of the violence, a social and economic vacuum that carries forward the legacy of redlining, said Burnett. “We never, never, decided to go to the root of the violence.” Those who stay to ensure that the history and the beauty of the neighborhood is preserved remain fearful for the children residing there, for their safety but also for their internalized response to the killings of kids like them: Black, playing in their house or the yard, gunned down and removed from their community in a body bag. They see the impunity, though they may not yet be able to name it.

To honor the children who’ve been killed by gunfire on the Northside in the 16 years since Charez Jones died, Wilson has sent up prayers, held vigils, tied up teddy bears; organized “heavenly birthday” parties and “angel-versaries” to commemorate the shooting victims, released balloons, tended to memorials, and cleared debris year after year after year. Now, after his own grandchild’s shooting, Wilson feels isolated by the community’s pervasive silence, unable to serve in the outreach work to which he was so pivotal for so long. 

“I had so much love. I was willing to give my life daily in Minneapolis, for total strangers. I stood up to the murderers and the killers, and I called them out and told them they were wrong. I was there,” he said. “And I feel like all I got in return was a murdered 6-year-old, innocent grandchild. That’s what I feel like the city of Minneapolis gave me.”

K.G. Wilson continues to put pressure on city officials to do more to find his granddaughter’s killer. Andrea Ellen Reed for The Trace

Last February, Wilson drove his Cadillac — the license plate reads ‘ANIYA6,’ the bumper sticker ‘Justice for Aniya Allen’ — to Charez’s grave, closed his eyes, and took a silent video of the sun and the geese congregating on the lawn. He is superstitious about moments like these; he never met Charez, but likes to say she saved him from heaven, because if he hadn’t been asked to lead her memorial foundation, he’s sure he’d be dead. “I know she’s looking out for Aniya up there,” he said. “The kids are all together.”

He drove to the intersection where La’Davionne was shot, the backyard where Trinity Ottoson-Smith was shot on the trampoline, and the corner store on 36th and Penn where Aniya was shot. Hers is the biggest memorial in North Minneapolis, the result of a toy drive Wilson organized to manage his grief leading into the first Christmas without her; more than 40,000 toys were given to children in Aniya’s name. As we pull up, Wilson notices my heavy sigh and tells me to watch as the drug dealers retreat to dark corners when they notice his car coming. They do. “Don’t be afraid,” he says as he emerges unhurriedly from his car. 

He prays and takes a video, one of hundreds he’s taken to document every inch of this fence, through every season, for nearly three years. He shows me Aniya and Trinity’s remembrance trees, marked by heart-shaped metal plaques made from melted down guns. A woman, an old neighbor, recognizes him: “Your grandbaby was in class with my grandbaby; she couldn’t stop crying,” she said as she continued walking. “God’s got her now.”

“You could have never told me that when she smiled at me and looked at me that she will be saying ‘Bye.’ Worst thing ever,” Wilson said to me after the woman walked on. “I would’ve rather them taken me. It’s horrible. It’s hard even talking about it. Still unbelievable when I see her pictures, I can’t. And I’m stuck. I’m stuck.”

Wilson recalled the lottery tickets residents gave him just after her death, in hopes he could raise the reward for information on Aniya’s killer. But then he started to be confronted with conspiracy theories about Aniya’s shooting at the security job he held, and explicit demands to let the crime lie.

“It was something that they wanted to cover up, like we need this to go away. Fast. It’s sad,” he said. “If Aniya would have been shot by the police, it would have been a police-involved shooting, there would have been protests, rallies, and tore up the city, everything broke in stores, everybody would have been on the news talking out, but because it was Black-on-Black, let’s cover it up. Let’s hide it. This can’t be known that somebody killed a prominent, long-time Black peace activist’s granddaughter. It was like news that they did not want to be put out there.”

So in July, he reluctantly quit the security job he loved and moved across the river to St. Paul, swearing off Minneapolis and what he saw as the hopeless cycle there, forever. “Every block knows who’s the shooter. They know,” he said. “They’ve been knowing for years. Some of these people out here been shooting people’s kids for years. They know who they are and they refuse to turn in their own family.”

Family comforts Antrice Sease at her daughter’s gravesite, where they celebrated her heavenly birthday on September 5, 2023. Andrea Ellen Reed for The Trace

“They shot my baby, they shot my baby,” screamed Antrice Sease, Aniya’s mother, when the shooting ended and she realized Aniya was bleeding in the backseat. 

That May morning, in 2021, Sease had gotten a call that she’d been praying for since the April shootings of La’Davionne and Trinity. The Housing Authority had approved her request to move out of the Northside and their new apartment in the Maple Grove suburb would be ready in a month. They’d been celebrating the news that day, shopping, playing by the lake, topped off with dinner from McDonald’s. As Aniya choked on their way to the hospital, Sease attempted to pull the french fries out of her daughter’s mouth.

“I’m trying to treat the situation like, you know, how your kid is with a boo-boo or scratch or something. I’m trying to think of it like that, like she’s going to be OK,” said Sease 18 months after the shooting. She sat in the living room of the apartment they’d been allotted and moved into, without Aniya. “You know, your kid plays and scrapes the knee or something, you’ve just got to put a little peroxide or alcohol in and put a bandaid, blow on it, kiss it and, you know, it goes away… I was trying to treat it like she was going to be OK. She wasn’t.”

The brain surgeon arrived at the hospital that night about an hour after Aniya. It wasn’t until two days later, after Sease saw the second X-ray, that she could bring herself to pull the plug on her daughter, whose brain activity never returned. The bullet had ricocheted off the far side of Aniya’s brain, doing more damage on the way back. As her baby took her last breath, Sease recalled, “I was just holding her hand and telling her I love her, just saying that I love her and kissing her.”

She explained to Aniya’s younger siblings that something terrible had happened. As the eldest, Aniya had been through rough times with her mom, when Sease was still a teenager and they were homeless and living on the streets. When Sease ran into some of their former neighbors and told them how Aniya died, they couldn’t believe that she was the little baby who they’d heard was shot that May. 

“Oh, my God, I knew that baby looked so familiar,” they’d told Sease. “I used to hug that baby. And hold that baby.”

Sease left her daughter’s pink casket open at her funeral. She wanted mourners “to see what they did.” Sease recalls hearing from police only once in the wake of Aniya’s killing, when they called her on burial day, to tell her they were releasing a man who, in a separate incident, was carrying the gun that killed her daughter. (The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to inquiries on this specific matter.)

Sease said she has never received another call from any of the officers investigating her daughter’s death, who only sporadically update Wilson on the still-open case. He, too, said the police have only contacted him a handful of times about the investigation, when they saw on his social media that he was angry, losing his patience, and wanted to act. But there’s a limit to what they can do without information from the streets, he said, and whatever they may have will be kept quiet because the case is so delicate.

Sease has since had a fourth baby, supporting her family with a new partner, but struggling constantly against the pull of her grief. She was diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder, she said, and had been dulling her depression with alcohol. 

More than two years — nearly 1,000 days — have passed, and no one has been held accountable for Aniya’s killing. As much as Sease wants the shooter to face justice, she said she forgives them.

“I was at war with the world. And I just had to let it go, you know, because holding all that negative energy in, you’re going to eventually explode,” she said. “You will lose your mind.” Wilson and Sease were connected only by grief, and finding Aniya’s killer was the only way Wilson thought he could help. 

“I will say, I didn’t understand him. Why is it every single time I turn it on, you’re on the TV talking about my daughter?” Sease said of Wilson, recalling the year of publicity after her daughter’s death. “It’s like I can’t breathe, it’s like I’m suffocated… It was always in my face, like reminder, reminder, reminder. I get where he was coming from. He was trying to not let other people forget her, or forget what happened, or just move on.” 

More recently, Sease said, “There hasn’t been any updates on my daughter’s case. All the people that said they were going to support me, they’re not there. They haven’t been around since. The only one that really has been supportive is K.G.; he had a really close relationship with my daughter.”

Outside of his job as a guard at a gas station, Wilson spends most of his days alone, the anger so sharp he considers giving up on peace and seeking vengeance for his granddaughter. “I’m alone in this,” he said. He’s estranged from the people he once considered friends. “I’ve been begging and pleading, I’ve been in every newspaper, everything, begging and pleading. And you still refuse to turn yourself in? The people who know still refuse to turn them in. What type of community is that? What type of people are we living around? That you can have a secret like that?”

Forsaking church, and the concept of forgiveness altogether, in the past year Wilson met with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and a former city commissioner who retired after a year on the job, as well as the former and current detectives leading his granddaughter’s case, which is still open. All assured him Aniya’s justice would come, that her shooter would be held accountable, a promise Wilson must choose to believe each day, and which stretches thinner. Despite his rage, Wilson has begun returning to the Northside in small doses, participating in vigils, tending to memorials.

Last year, he was called to the hospital room of 3-year-old Olivia Walker, who had been lying in bed next to her mother in North Minneapolis when she was shot through the temple. Because the bullet ricocheted multiple times before reaching her, she survived without lasting damage, and her family never spent another night in the neighborhood. Wilson felt grateful; he prayed with her parents and thanked God. But he also asked him why Aniya hadn’t been spared in the same way. Often, he didn’t think he was going to make it through the grief. 

The memorial of Aniya Allen at the corner of 36th and Penn includes this plaque, made of melted down bullets, commemorating her life. Another dedicated to Trinity Ottoson-Smith sits beside hers. Andrea Ellen Reed for The Trace

In May, Wilson organized an angel-versary on Aniya’s corner, and in September, they held a balloon release on what would’ve been her ninth birthday. In December, he began thinking about boots-on-the-ground anti-violence work again, in a new city. In January, he commemorated two decades of sobriety and was awarded a citizens honor by the Roseville Police, for following a man who was wielding a gun. The days tick, tick, tick slowly on. They are filled with rage, sorrow, but above all with longing. Longing for what was and what was lost, as if Aniya’s life was a shore from which each passing moment sweeps him further out to sea. He hears his granddaughter talking to him. “Truth is, I’d rather be dead than live without justice for Aniya Allen,” he said, as if to himself. “I mean this.”

His voice gets deeper, clearer. “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it, but I’m willing to die trying to get justice.”