It all started in August 2016.
Natasha Hays, a young mother of three, was killed in her sleep in a drive-by shooting in Northeast Kansas City, Kansas.
Days later, another drive-by took the life of 15-year-old Brannae Browne. Hays’ teenage son, Michael Adams Jr., was charged with first-degree murder, though a jury later found him not guilty.
What followed was a string of killings that left four teenagers dead in less than a year — one that doesn’t seem to be over yet.
After Brannae, it was two teens in Hays’ family — Adarius Barber and Le’Andrew Vaughn — then Brannae's younger brother, Brandon.
“It's so muddled. People don't even know what they're fighting for,” said Kim Monroe. “That's scary.”
The sixth victim
Monroe started hearing about it a lot last year from Taveon Brooks, 15, and his friends. Monroe isn’t his birth mom, but she’s raised Brooks since he was about 9 months old.
Brandon Browne was a friend, Brooks told her, which is why he and his friends were all using a hashtag on social media — something Monroe had never heard before — “BBUx2.”
Brooks and his friends told her it was a movement, to honor the killing of the brother and sister. “Tasha Gang” is a tag for Natasha Hays and the so-called “other side.”
“This sounds like a gang to me, because you have an enemy,” Monroe said.
She told the kids, especially Brooks, not to use the hashtag anymore, and she said they listened.
It seemed to Monroe the rivalry between the groups was far from over, but she didn't think the violence would show up on her doorstep.
On a cold December morning last year, it did. The police came knocking around 5 a.m.
Her boy — her Tavy — had been killed overnight in a drive-by shooting on North 52nd Street, just around the corner from his high school.
“No mother should have her child gunned down like an animal … for no reason other than a hashtag. Are you kidding me?” Monroe said.
A sense of belonging
When Brooks first started coming to her office, F.L. Schlagle counselor Amanda Davis remembers asking him and other students what their plans were after high school. One student said he probably wouldn’t make it out alive.
“I was shocked,” Davis said. “And Taveon said, ‘People get gunned down all the time. People get shot at all the time. It's Wyandotte County, you know, it's, it's where we live and we can't get out.’”
For many kids in Wyandotte County, violence is a part of daily life, and, Davis said, there’s a lot of trauma among the students because of it. She thinks that’s one thing that drives their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. She said she hears about the hashtags all the time — that her students talk openly about them.
“They want someone to hear them. They want to feel loved. They join in on these and they’re like a band of brothers, an instant family,” she said.
That desire is normal for teenagers, Davis said. The problem is that throwing shade on social media seems to be causing real consequences, even though many of the kids seem to think it’s a game, she said.
But she wouldn’t call these gangs.
“These are children and they have good hearts,” Davis said.
When Shanta Barnett started BBU, she didn’t have any idea this is where it would lead.
Barnett is Brannae and Brandon Browne’s mom. She started BBU to honor her daughter — “Brannae Browne’s Universe.” She printed it on T-shirts with photos of her daughter, then added the “x2” when her son died.
But now, she said, it’s out of her hands.
“Another child is gone. I think it’s spreading,” Barnett said.
But Barnett agrees with Davis — these aren’t gangs.
“They’re kids, so they're not mature and as responsible as adults should be,” she said.
Kids, she said, that need parents to be there for them and tell them right from wrong.
“I would love for our kids to start being kids again,” she said. “But, these kids, I don't even think it's no coming back for some of them, but I pray for them every day.”
'We're killing off our youth'
It’s been six months since Brooks was killed, but no arrests have been made. In a statement, Kansas City, Kansas, police said the circumstances of the killing are still under investigation, and that tips are encouraged and rewarded.
Monroe has been sending police screenshots, information from witnesses, names and videos from Facebook where it appears teens are openly talking about the killing of her son.
“It’s maddening,” she said. “I gave up really. I don't know what else to say to them and I don't think they know what else to say to me.”
On some level, she said, she understands that the police need hard evidence to make an arrest. What she, and Barnett, don’t understand, is how it can be that the community seems to know who killed Brooks, but police haven’t made any arrests.
That’s why, in part, Barnett is not surprised that the violence has continued.
“Not when the police is steadily letting the same ones out to do what they're doing and letting them harm other people,” she said.
Even though the jury found him not guilty, Barnett still believes Michael Adams Jr. — whose mother, Natasha Hays, was killed — killed her daughter, Brannae Browne.
As of October, Adams Jr., now 18, is in jail again, awaiting trial for a separate incident of aggravated battery and criminal possession of a firearm. His bond was set for $250,000.
According to court records, after he was booked, a judge ordered him to have “no contact with gang members” and to “not engage in gang activity.” Multiple requests for bond reduction and release on house arrest by his attorney were denied due to “concerns for staff and community.”
Youth homicides are down in KCK — according to police, there were seven in 2016, five in 2017 and one in 2018: Taveon Brooks.
“I think it goes without saying we don’t want there to be any homicides. Unfortunately, some people are simply dangerous and violent,” said KCKPD Officer Zac Blair.
But, he added, “I would not say teenagers are in any more danger than anyone else would be.”
The community would beg to differ.
“We are killing off our youth,” Monroe said.
Barnett said the community talks about the violence among teenagers a lot.
“A lot of people is upset, and I don't blame them. Because this is our generation. This is our future,” she said. “What are we going to have if all the ones we're left with are the ones doing all this? It's going to be a messed up world.”
Justice for peace
Taveon Brooks was the life of the party, Monroe said, ever since he was little.
“He was a sweet person, a kind person, a generous person, a loving person,” she said.
He loved to rap, and had dreams of becoming a basketball star. It kills her that he’ll never reach that goal. Even more than justice for Brooks, Monroe wants the string of violence to stop.
“If nobody ever does a day in jail for his murder, I will feel like this is a victory. I would trade justice for peace, I swear I would,” she said.
No mother, she said, should have to bury her child.
“Tavy lived such a short life and died such a tragic, senseless death,” she said. “If it can mean something, if it can change something for somebody, then it’s still a tragedy. But not just an empty tragedy.”
Monroe is not alone in her fight.