Dozens of Chicago residents, school kids and anti-violence activists gathered on Thursday near the spot in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where pregnant teenager Treja Kelley was gunned down over the weekend.
The shooting came about three months after Kelley, 18, testified against the man who murdered her cousin.
Police have not determined if Kelley’s testimony was the motive for her murder, and organizers of Thursday’s event said Kelley’s history as a witness had nothing to do with the gathering.
Instead, the nonviolence groups barbecued and set up bouncy houses to bring the community together and send the message that the neighborhood would not be defined by one horrific act.
“Unfortunately we did lose a young lady in the community to senseless violence, in a very tragic way,” said Chris Patterson, senior director of program and policy at the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. “What we’re trying to do is show the community is that it’s not the norm, no matter how many times this may happen, that we’re standing up to violence.”
Patterson is a co-founder of the Institute for Nonviolence, which does gang outreach, and he helped organize Thursday’s festivities.
“We want to just show a response and show the family that we care first of all and show the community that we care, “Patterson said. “We do want to celebrate life and we want to celebrate the family that this community has to continue to strive and work together in order to achieve peace.
While the music blared and neighbors ate hamburgers and hot dogs, about a half block away supporters added to the shrine erected in front of Kelley’s house on the 5200 block of South Sangamon Street.
The shrine features a white cross, balloons and poster boards with photos of Kelley and handwritten messages addressed to her.
“This wasn’t for you I’m sorry,” one note read. “Rest up big cuz, we all love you,” said another.
Police said Kelley was walking near her South Side home on Sunday evening when a gunman emerged from an alley and the two started arguing. He pulled out a handgun and shot her multiple times before fleeing, according to police.
Cook County State’s Attorney spokeswoman Tandra Simonton said Kelley testified in June at the trial of Deonte Davis, who was convicted in the 2016 slaying of Kelley’s cousin, 17-year-old Christopher Fields.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said detectives haven’t yet determined a motive in Kelley’s killing, adding “everything is being considered.”
No arrests had been made as of Thursday night.
Jasmine Williams lives nearby and said her 12-year-old daughter goes to the elementary school just a few blocks away with Kelley’s youngest sister.
“We lost someone, you know it hit the whole block, the whole town that knew her,” Williams said. “At the end of the day it seems like it don’t matter what we all do…to stop the violence, people are going to still do what they want to do.”
Williams said her community needs more help from the city and other officials to address the gun violence problem.
Robbie York, an outreach supervisor with Breakthrough, a non-profit community development organization, said Thursday’s event was important to reinforce the value of life after a tragedy.
When asked if the community has a message for city leaders, he said “I think the community speaks loud, it’s about the people that need to listen.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.