ST. PETERSBURG — In one room sat 70 kids, some grade-schoolers, some teenagers, some friends of Javon Dawson, fatally shot by police two weeks ago outside a graduation party.
In another room were their parents.
This was a night for young people to come forward, to talk about safety, the police, right and wrong. They spoke of fear, frustration and a community divided by both.
"I see little young — 5- or 6-year-olds — coming around with BB guns and you look at these young kids like, 'They're fixing to end up being like their older brother or daddy,' " said Roman Elkahly, 17, a Gibbs High School student.
Police have not found a single witness to the shooting, except Officer Terrence Nemeth, who fired the fatal shots.
On Wednesday, Pastor Louis Murphy of the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church sought to hear the voices of Javon Dawson's peers.
"I was at that party and from what I witnessed and what I heard, something doesn't add up," said Noel Sanchez, 18, a Gibbs graduate.
So why not speak up, a moderator asked.
"That's my homeboy," said Andrew Boose, a 17-year-old friend of Dawson's. "But other people who know Javon are scared to speak up with what they know."
So would speaking up be considered snitching, Murphy asked the crowd of about 70 young people.
"No," said Tyler Birdie Martin, a 19-year-old Boca Ciega graduate.
"Snitching is telling on your homeboy to get out of something that you did," said Martin, who is studying to become a medical assistant at Everest University. "But if you telling on someone that you know is wrong, that's just 'looking out.' "
Some questioned police tactics. Some questioned whether Dawson pointed a gun at Officer Nemeth. Some wondered about their community.
"As much as we talk about how we need to make a change in the community, how can we make that change when you've got your boy's cousin shooting your cousin from down the street?" asked Jermaine Carter, 17.
No solutions were found, but on at least one matter the group reached consensus.
"It's messed up," said Darius Woods, 17. "Innocent lives being taken for no reason."
At the end of the evening, Pastor Murphy and the group of young people formed a circle and bowed their heads.
They prayed for Javon Dawson and his family, and for Terrence Nemeth.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8828.