I met Keke Collins at Gwynn Oak Park. It’s a pretty park with a pond and playground, a bucolic gem nestled in the midst of a chaotic city. It has been a difficult two years for Keke. In June of 2015, her boyfriend died after a long battle with cancer. Keke comes here from time to time to seek solace.
The day Jen took this photo was a humid July morning and our first photo shoot with rain. It wasn’t just rain, but a deluge that I’d later learn flooded my basement. Keke parked near me, and I rushed the few yards to her car. We looked at one another not saying a word but clearly communicating our shared concern that this photo would be impossible. “Jen will know what to do when she arrives,” I assured her.
We sat and laughed about the absurdity of attempting a photograph in these conditions. I asked her about a snapshot slipped into the visor of her car of her with three beautiful little boys. She told me it was a picture of Donta and his two brothers. Donta was the middle child. Even in this studio photo you can tell that this is a boy with spirit and heart. His eyes sparkle with curiosity. Keke smiled at her children, “If anyone was going to make sure that I was okay, it was Donta. He always watched out for me.”
Jen jumped into the back of Keke’s car. “Ok, we’ll make this work,” she said. “Let’s just give it some time.” We did. We sat in the car and talked about Donta. Keke showed us a video of Donta taken at a job training site. He’d been invited back by the school to talk about his success as a welder. The video shows a handsome charismatic young man. He looks at the audience, “You gave me the opportunity to go forward. I’m not going backwards.”
His smile is so infectious I couldn’t help returning it as tears streamed down my face. He tells the audience that as a child he made an oath to himself that he would never become one of the men he watched making drug deals “and stabbing their best friends in the back” on the corner. He was determined to get out of Baltimore.
He did it. He had a good paying welding job, a girlfriend, and an apartment outside of the city. He was living his childhood dream. Then, on July 31, 2016, he and his brother went to meet acquaintances with whom they had an altercation. The plan was to resolve their difference like men, the way that Keke taught her boys. You talk out your differences. You don’t fight them out. It isn’t clear what happened, but the meeting took a dreadful turn. Shots rang out. Donta was dead.
The news of Donta’s murder shocked his neighborhood. “No one could believe it,” Keke sighed. “I mean, my brother had been shot and survived it. When he heard about Donta, he told me it should have been him. That he should have been the one to die.”
Keke was never worried about her boys being hurt on the streets. Donta was a star basketball player and spent most of his free time traveling to games or practicing. “The only thing I ever worried about was the police hurting them. I taught my boys to respect people. I taught them manners. I know sometimes the police just see a black man and they get scared. But this? I still don’t understand.”Her son was determined to work hard and get out of Baltimore. Like so many, he didn't get out alive. Go #BehindTheStatisticsClick To Tweet
The day before our photo shot, Keke got a call from the State’s Attorney (SA). She anticipated that Donta’s murdered trial would begin the day after his one year death anniversary. She took comfort in that. The anniversary would be difficult, but on August 1 she could look at his killer and have some sense of justice. Keke says that when she saw the State’s Attorney’s phone number pop up on her cellphone screen, she knew it was going to be bad news.
The State’s Attorney apologized; there would be no trial. It was impossible, the State’s Attorney reasoned, as the key witness just died of an overdose and Keke’s older son had not witnessed the firing of the shot. The reality is the State’s Attorney couldn’t risk losing another case and this one didn’t look promising. No trial.
Keke, no stranger to trauma and loss, was now experiencing it all over again. This isn’t unusual for gun violence victims. They often feel abandoned and forgotten by a thoroughly flawed justice system.
“They tell us to keep our babies close,” Keke said to me with tears in her eyes. “I kept my babies close.” She shook her head in resignation. “I taught my boys about manners and respect. Their father held them close.” She sighs “I know,” I said in a futile attempt to comfort. And then the rain broke. Sun shone through. Jen, Keke and I all looked at one another. “Now,” Jen shouted. We had a half hour of gorgeous weather to take the photographs. I’m certain Jen got this photo in the first five takes. Keke is a striking woman. Capturing her beauty and strength is easy.
In the process of taking the photo, Keke mentioned that she hadn’t made plans to recognize the anniversary of Donta’s death. She was so focused on the upcoming court case. Now, there was no court case. Keke said she’d like to do something by Gwen Oak Pond. Jen and I agreed that would be a beautiful place for a vigil. Three days later, we met Keke in the same parking lot. This last-minute gathering turned into a beautiful celebration with well over 50 people. Donta’s family, basketball teammates, school friends, and the MOMs were all there. We laughed and cried. We lit candles. Keke smiles and speaks about all of her sons, “my boys have always given me purpose.” Her oldest son walks up and embraces her warmly. She holds him close.
Donta Duane Collins February 11, 1994- July 31, 2016
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence