Karon Butler rally on Jan. 10, 2023
Residents attended a community meeting on Jan. 10, 2023, to demand justice for Karon Blake and support his family. Credit: Mitch Ryals

Ayanna Mackins Free stepped to the microphone at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center Tuesday night, and showed her phone to the public officials standing in front of her. On the screen, she had pulled up a photo of Karon Blake as a first grader, smiling ear to ear next to a Lego tower he had just built.

“Karon was a loved person,” Mackins Free told Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker and D.C. Police Assistant Chief Morgan Kane. “He was not a perp. Not a suspect.”

She and a few hundred other people gathered at Turkey Thicket to get answers about the police investigation into Blake’s death. The 13-year-old was shot and killed early Saturday morning on Quincy Street NE, not far from the rec center, by a man who suspected him of “tampering” with cars, according to an initial press release from the Metropolitan Police Department.

Mackins Free requested that, going forward, the department refer to Blake as who he was, a “minor child,” a “community member,” and as the person she came to know as his grade school teacher: a boy who had many people in the community who loved him.

That initial release from police described in vague details a scene in which a “male resident” saw someone “tampering with vehicles,” went outside “armed with a registered firearm,” and shot the young boy multiple times. Blake was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The shooter has not been arrested nor publicly identified, despite intense pressure on the police from community members, advocates, and public officials, including Parker. The days since Blake’s death have become about what MPD has said and has left unsaid, just as much as they have been about a 13-year-old shot to death in the street over an alleged property crime.

And speculation and misinformation have spread into the void left by police.

Hours before the meeting at Turkey Thicket, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee delivered a heated spiel in which he offered some additional details about the incident and admonished those seeking to identify the shooter.

He said the misinformation “swirling” around the incident is unfair to Blake’s family, but still declined to identify the man. Doing so could jeopardize the investigation, he said.

“The fact that there’s misinformation out there and people are tying it to race and putting images next to young Karon … that’s reckless and that’s dangerous,” Contee said. “Let the police do their job. … Posting a photo of a citizen online saying, ‘I think this is the guy.’ C’mon, give me a break.”

Contee did provide some additional limited details Tuesday. He identified the shooter as a Black adult man who has a concealed carry license and had registered the firearm to his home. The chief also said the man is not a law enforcement officer, as some have suspected. The man has given police a brief account of what happened that night and has now retained an attorney, Contee said. The Post reported that the man is a D.C. government employee.

Contee declined to provide specific details about the interaction between the shooter and Blake and would not say how many times or where on his body he’d been shot. Contee said detectives are still gathering video evidence. “I don’t know if we have everything we need just yet,” the chief said, adding that they have been in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes most crimes in D.C.

Asked why the man wasn’t arrested, Contee said the officers on the scene did not believe they had enough probable cause. Other than the man’s name, that was one of the most pressing questions from community members gathered at Turkey Thicket. Police have said the man shot the boy. Even the initial police report lists “Murder II” as the offense. So what’s the delay?

Contee said it will be up to a grand jury to determine whether to bring criminal charges and that generally a person is legally allowed to use deadly force if they fear for their life or the life of another person. “Those are facts we still have to sift through,” he said.

Kane gave a similar explanation during the evening gathering at the rec center to the distinct and vocal displeasure of many in attendance, including Blake’s grandfather, Sean Long.

Long told the crowd at Turkey Thicket that he has seen a lot of death in his life, including when Blake’s father was killed in 2009. He described how he was arrested and incarcerated for selling drugs in the 1980s and ’90s. “But this man shoots somebody [who] ain’t got no weapons,” he said referring to his grandson. “Is walking down the street at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning … and gets killed. When did we start doing that?”

“Please, officer,” Long said to Kane, who was standing next to him. “I’m not against y’all. But do your job.”

Regina Pixley of Ward 8 compared the incident on Quincy Street NE to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Martin was 17 in 2012 when Zimmerman shot and killed him in a residential Florida neighborhood as the boy was returning from a convenience store. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was acquitted at trial. “No more, no more,” Pixley said at the microphone. “MPD, U.S. Attorney’s Office, do your job.”

After about an hour, several people in the crowd at Turkey Thicket grew frustrated with the lack of specific answers. Some started chanting “Where’s the mayor?” Members of Blake’s family asked for calm.

After the meeting, family members and other supporters, including young children, marched to Quincy Street carrying signs that said “Justice for Karon” and “Justice 4 My Nephew.”

Parker said he continues to stand with the family and will push for answers from the police. He said in a tweet that he has requested that Mayor Muriel Bowser authorize the release of body camera footage from the scene.

As she left Turkey Thicket, Mackins Free says that she showed up to correct the initial narrative about the boy she knew and who her son grew up with. The police narrative of Blake as someone accused of attempting to steal a car alongside that of the shooter as a legally registered gun owner, as well as initial headlines identifying the man as a “homeowner,” did not sit well in her mind.

She recalls that Blake was fiercely protective of his younger sister and describes how she would occasionally walk the two young kids home from school.

“If something like that happened to my son, I would want anyone who was able, because I wouldn’t be able, to scream to the rafters, ‘He was a loved person,’” she says.