KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knoxville Police investigators say they don’t have evidence “yet,” but are looking into the possibility of gang violence in the most recent teen-involved shooting.
Jamarion ‘Dada’ Gillette, 15, died as a result of shooting late Tuesday night.
Community leaders and law enforcement said there are gangs in Knoxville.
But, there are also groups trying to help kids stay out of them.
Stephanie Mitchum, a former youth group leader at Water Angels Ministry, said Gillette was in one of those groups years ago.
Mitchum first met Gillette when he was five or six years old. She said the Water Angels Ministry was just around the corner from where his family lived.
“I would go around the neighborhood and knock on doors and tell the families that we had a kids ministry, and so I knocked on their door,” Mitchum said.
Mitchum said Gillette and his siblings were at the ministry the next day, and continued coming.
“(Gillette) was really sweet. He and I bonded so well and (I) considered him a son,” Mitchum said.
Around the same time, Mitchum started her own “gang,” she said because of what was going on in the area.
“2006, I started a gang, because of the gang violence. And it was called the ‘180 gang,'” Mitchum.
Mitchum said she got the idea from one of her members. She said the member got drawn into a gang, and ended up in prison. Between prison stints, Mitchum said the member came back to the ministry and told her everything they had done.
“So, we made our gang kind of similar to their gang, but it was all Christian related,” Mitchum said.
Mitchum said the 180 gang had special ‘jumping in’ for new members, but it was praying over them.
The new member initiation once they were in was serving others.
“We took what Satan did and did totally the opposite,” Mitchum said.
She said Gillette was part of the 180 gang, and often sang or lead the group.
“Dada was, and loved it. You know, we had gang shirts and we had gang colors and we had purple which is royalty because they were the sons and daughters of the King,” Mitchum said.
Mitchum even had former gang members and a rapper visit the group, telling them how joining the gang life wasn’t worth it.
She said Gillette loved when the rapper visited.
“It was a Christian spin-off the gangs, and because the gangs were so prevalent, I wanted them to have a place to go where they felt safe, and where they can learn about Christ and really dive into the spiritual walk with Christ,” Mitchum said.
Mitchum had lost touch with Gillette in 2020.
New groups are forming to help kids stay off the streets.
Keven Perry, formerly with the city of Knoxville’s Save Our Sons initiative, created a new group.
He said Save Our Sons was no more, and there was a gap in the community that it had left.
So Perry is trying to fill that gap with the Amen Leadership Academy.
“Development and empowerment, we are going to be offering certified classes for financial literacy, leadership development, civic engagement career counseling, life skills training,” Perry said were the goals of the Academy.
He said it’s an opportunity to train young boys how to be men.
Perry, the Senior Pastor at Word of Life Ministries, is also a certified gang specialist.
He said part of the gang life is constant recruiting, and that includes the young men and women.
“We have to be as vigilant and as vigil as we possibly can and to make sure that these young people understand that there are some safe measures, there are some alternatives, there are some places you can go, some organizations that you can get connected to that can help kind of shield and buffer and protect you from that life,” Perry said.
Perry said the biggest reason why men and boys join gangs is to feel like they belong to something.
He said the gang can easily make others wanting to belong that they have family or security, especially if they don’t already have it in their own lives.
“You have a group of people that will come in and say, ‘I will give you somewhere to live, Imma help put some money in your pocket, I got your back, nobody’s going to mess with you, no one’s going to bother you.’ So they bring that sense of community,” Perry said.
Perry said economics also comes into play. The young men need jobs, but they need certification for those jobs. Perry said college isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK.
“We need to be offering jobs and positioning young men with certification so they can be productive citizens in their city and in their community. We need to have skills and trade,” Perry said.
Perry said certification training and on the job training are some aspects the Academy is currently trying to get a hold of. He wants the Academy to be a place where any young men, or any man in general, especially African Americans, can go to for mentorship and life skills.
He hopes it helps them stay off the streets and out of gang life.
“Our young men are being gunned down on a regular basis. So we want to ensure that, we want to ensure positive outcomes for young Black males to benefit, and it will benefit the entire community,” Perry said.
Perry said he is looking at an official launch of Amen Leadership Academy in May, and in the near future hold events like Youth Violence Prevention Week in the community.