Knoxville, Tennessee, is reeling after another Black high school student is killed -- this time by police

The April 12 police killing of Black teenager Anthony Thompson Jr. inside of a bathroom at Knoxville's Austin-East Magnet High School has sparked a wave of protests throughout the city. Thompson is the school's fifth student to die at the hands of gun violence this year, and many in the Black community say they've reached a boiling point. We go to the frontlines of demonstrations to speak with activists, teachers, and longtime city residents who say they're committed to disrupting the peace in order to call attention to systemic failures plaguing the Black community in Knoxville. CNN's Chris James reports.

Posted: May 11, 2021 9:00 AM
Updated: May 11, 2021 9:00 AM

The Rev. Calvin Skinner has given hundreds of sermons, but he says this past Sunday's felt more urgent than ever.

"The city of Knoxville has hit its boiling point," he told CNN. "The case of Anthony Thompson Jr. really solidifies this feeling that enough is enough."

Thompson, 17, was fatally shot by police when officers said they tried to disarm him inside a bathroom at Austin-East Magnet High School on April 12. He was the fifth Black student from that school to die due to gun violence this year.

Four other students were victims of separate shooting incidents.

"To know that in what should be one of the safest places that a kid should be, that their life can be taken at the hands of law enforcement. That's traumatizing," Skinner said of Thompson's death.

"It's not that these students, these young people don't care about dying. It's that we are not offering them real ways of thriving in life. And if this doesn't wake us up, I don't know what will."

With his voice shaking and eyes welling with tears, Skinner's voice pierces through the nearly empty Mt. Zion Baptist Church, as he speaks to a virtual congregation watching from home amid the pandemic.

"God wants to use us so we don't have to see another Anthony Thompson Jr.," he cried out.

District attorney announces no charges against officers

In a news conference on April 21, Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen released police body camera and surveillance footage of the incident and laid out the details of her office's investigation into Thompson's death.

Police say Thompson fired his gun first -- hitting a trash can in the bathroom. A responding officer returned fire, fatally wounding Thompson, officials said. But some people in the community said they don't believe that account.

Allen said after reviewing the evidence that no charges would be brought against the responding officers because it was reasonable for the officer who shot Thompson to feel that his and the other officers' lives were in danger.

Allen said police were initially called to the school after Thompson allegedly had a physical fight with his former girlfriend, who left school early to tell her mom about what she said had occurred.

The former girlfriend's mother told the Knoxville News Sentinel she now regrets making the police report.

"I never meant for any of this to happen," Regina Perkins said. "I'm sorry. I hope that we can get justice in this case."

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump is representing the Thompson family. He's previously taken on the high-profile cases of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and Breonna Taylor.

In a tweet earlier this week, Crump said he'd be reviewing video and reports to try to get answers for the Thompson family.

Protests in Knoxville

The district attorney's decision has angered many in the Black community and sparked larger protests. Activists in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are calling for an independent federal investigation into Thompson's death.

On the evening of April 24, dozens of people marched through downtown Knoxville as people watched from behind the windows of restaurants and bars.

When the peaceful crowd got to Market Square, Constance Every, a local activist, got on a loudspeaker to lead a chant: "Say his name: Anthony Thompson Jr.!"

Every is the founder of Black Coffee Justice, a nonprofit organization "committed to fighting injustice in all forms," according to its website. She and has lived in Knoxville her whole life. She said she's never before seen a sustained protest movement like the one currently spreading through the city.

Several bystanders expressed frustration and confusion about the protest, which was snarling traffic. At 10 p.m. the protest ended peacefully, with no reported damage or arrests, according to the protest organizers.

Every said she believes many of the community's problems stem from an overall lack of resources.

"Governments who invest in social services and resources have lower gun violence, lower poverty and crime, and better thriving communities," she said.

Last December, the city approved a resolution brought forth by Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie to provide funding to boost economic opportunities for the Black community and create a task force that will help develop future policies.

CNN reached out to McKenzie but did not hear back.

One school, five violent deaths

Austin-East Magnet High School is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives federal financial assistance because its student population has high numbers or percentages of children from low-income families, according to the Department of Education. The school's website says it has "a performing arts focus that offers resources including visual arts, CTE and rigorous academic courses."

On the afternoon of April 25, residents organized a youth rally to commemorate the five recent deaths of Austin-East High School students.

Jacqueline Muhammad wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the faces of all five students -- the phrase "Fallen Angels" in bold letters across the top. She points lovingly to her daughter's image, in the middle.

Janaria Muhammad, 15, was the co-captain of the Austin East dance team. Her mother said she was a caring child who loved her friends.

"My daughter was targeted at our home. She died right there on our sidewalk in her daddy's arms," she said.

Police do not currently have any suspects in the killing of Janaria Muhammad.

The rally also honored the lives of the other students who died after gun violence incidents this year -- Stanley Freeman Jr., Justin Taylor, and Jamarion Gillette.

Authorities have made arrests in the cases of Freeman Jr. and Taylor, according to local media.

'Overcoming violence through expression'

As the smell of burgers and hot dogs waft through the afternoon air, a stage is set up for kids to showcase their talent.

Organizer Felecia Outsey organized the event to help empower young people.

Over a dozen young people from the community waited excitedly as they signed up to perform.

"We're motivating everybody to overcome violence through expression," Outsey said. "Let's rap about life. Let's rap about love. Let's rap about hope. Let's rap about your pains and what you need, and let's get you an audience."

In one of the final performances, a trio of kids between the ages of eight and 10 took the stage to perform a song called "Kidd Maggic."

The crowd cheered loudly as they confidently belted out lyrics like, "All these A's... it's the honor roll gang."

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