Update (May 1, 2023): This story has been corrected to reflect that Eden Barnes is a student at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
More than two weeks ago, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl rapped on the door of a home in Kansas City’s Northland and was shot twice by a man inside. The bullets knocked the Black teenager to the ground and left him with traumatic injuries. And they dealt a blow to the psyche of community members and institutions in and around Kansas City.
“It rocks us,” said Shelton Ponder, a 79-year-old Black man who is a U.S. Air Force veteran and member of the Liberty, Missouri, City Council. “This is going to happen again. We never know where, when or how. And we don’t recover. It stays with us.”
Yarl, a standout musician and honor student at Staley High School, had knocked on the door of 1100 N.E. 115th St. on April 13 to pick up his younger siblings, who were waiting for him at the same address on Northeast 115th Terrace, a block away. Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old white homeowner, responded to the knock by shooting the teenager through a glass pane, striking him in the forehead and the arm, according to court documents. Yarl is recovering at home.
It took a few days for news of the incident to penetrate the region’s conscience. But by April 16, protesters were gathered in front of Lester’s home, questioning why the suspect had been held for only a short time and released without charges being filed. The next day, the Clay County prosecuting attorney’s office charged Lester with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, both felonies.
The shooting and the protests quickly became national news. With an innocent knock on the wrong door, Ralph Yarl unwittingly became the focus of an emotional discussion about race, gun violence, self-defense and justice in America.
Since the news broke, The Beacon has been listening to community members and leaders as they have spoken about how Yarl’s story has affected them. Here are some of the voices.
‘There are no safe places in America’
The part of Kansas City north of the Missouri River, known as the Northland, has been under a microscope since the shooting. Its demographics are more white than other parts of Kansas City, residents are notably more supportive of the police and the Northland has long grappled with issues of race and inclusion. But Shelton Ponder, a Black man who holds a public office in nearby Liberty, thinks that what happened to Yarl could happen anywhere.
“This is America. There are no safe places in America,” he told The Beacon at a rally held for Yarl in the Northland. “The Northland is no different than anyplace else. I have seen it over the years. It’s all over the country. It’s in small towns, big towns, south, north.”
Ponder said he could focus on little else when he learned of Yarl’s story.
“I’m perturbed that it happened to a young man,” he said. “It impacts me every time I hear something happened to anybody, but especially to young people. Sometimes, it kind of just puts me on my back a little bit and then I have to recover. Get on with the day.”
Gina Houston, a pastor and diversity activist, has also been emotionally rocked by what happened to Yarl.
“Our hearts bleed because the incremental work that we have done and supposedly gained has fallen to the demise of a demonic entity called hatred,” said Houston, who is Black.
“People show their true colors behind closed doors, and this same instance happens in many communities across America — but when it hits home called Clay County, then it’s a different story, because our voices must be heard and we must ask for people to help us.”
Houston is the vice president of the board of Clay Countians for Inclusion, a group of citizens that formed in 2020 to push for the removal of a Confederate monument in Fairview Cemetery in Liberty. While the monument remains standing, Clay Countians for Inclusion is still asking for its removal and also works on educational events, book studies and other projects. It now has about 350 members.
The group has seen an uptick in engagement since Yarl’s shooting, and its president, David Sallee, said its leadership is working on a response.
“At our board meeting the other night, we established a small group to address the issue of what our org does in circumstances like Ralph Yarl’s shooting,” said Sallee, who is also the former president of William Jewell College. “We do find in this circumstance that other people turn to us and ask us what our response is.”
Younger people are also looking to take action. Gloria Lukadi, 19, attended a rally hosted by The People’s Coalition, a loosely formed collective of community members who seek to take action in moments of crisis. Lukadi, who is Black, said the shooting of Yarl has motivated her to watch and spread awareness about what happens in her community.
“I have younger siblings that are his age and friends that go to his school, and it’s just crazy to me that people I have known my entire life have the chance to die just from going to the wrong doorstep,” she said.
“I feel like, when it comes to the safety of children, it’s not really looked upon when you think of the Northland of KC,” Lukadi added.
“You think of safety, you think of family-oriented, but you don’t think about how racism is still a really big thing that’s going on in my community. It’s still very alive and going on every single day, and people need to understand that it’s an ongoing issue that we need to resolve.”
Eden Barnes, a student at Kansas City Kansas Community College, learned about the shooting when they noticed that Kansas City was trending on Twitter two nights after the shooting. They had assumed it was because of the upcoming NFL Draft, but when they realized the real reason, they felt a flurry of emotions.
Barnes is a member of The Kansas City Beacon’s Community Engagement Bureau.
First, Barnes was angry and filled with dread. Then, when they noticed that the shooting had happened two days prior, they were confused about why it took so long to hear about it.
“It’s hard to reconcile — there’s so much going on. What do we do with this?” Barnes said. “It would have been awful for anybody, but this is a child. It was a child and especially one so close in age to me, but even to my sister, who’s 16.”
Two weeks after the shooting, having had some time to sit with it, Barnes said that ultimately they’re frustrated, angry and disappointed, but not surprised — particularly with the police.
“Obviously, (the police) are not going to say anything,” they said. “Who expected them to? It’s not as if they’ve ever been useful or anything.”
Anastasia Pine, a high school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, found out about the shooting on the Saturday after and also found it distressing that it took so long for the news to reach her.
“It made me really angry and tearful. I mean, it could have been any of my students,” Pine said. “In their introduction letters at the beginning of the year, one of them wrote, ‘I don’t want to be a statistic. I want to survive.’ And then to hear about a kid that age getting shot for no reason made it hit home even more that like, that’s a real thing for him to write.”
She always worries about her students. But now, she finds herself scared of what will happen if they make the potentially grave error of going to the wrong house.
“I am afraid people are going to lose focus on it, and the pressure won’t be there,” Pine said. “I hope that the guy gets convicted for the charges … And I wish the ‘stand your ground’ laws weren’t a thing. Property rights are not fundamental rights. Human rights are fundamental rights.”
How the story took off
Ralph Yarl’s story began to garner international attention after the details were published by The Kansas City Defender, a local Black-owned news publication.
The first mention that a teenager had been shot was a brief news report on Fox4 TV. It mentioned that the victim had gone to the wrong house, but didn’t include details about race.
Ryan Sorrell, founder of The Defender, said readers began reaching out to him almost immediately.
Sorrell found Yarl’s aunt Faith Spoonmore on social media, where she had been documenting details of the shooting. He contacted her, and by that Saturday morning, the publication uploaded an Instagram post detailing the circumstances of the shooting and testimonies from Yarl’s aunt.
“We published on Saturday, Fox 4 published on Thursday night, and so there were two days where I’m pretty certain that the situation very easily could have just blown over or like have been nothing basically, or forgotten,” Sorrell told The Beacon.
Through its reporting on Black news, The Defender has amassed a social media following of Black journalists and public figures, including lawyer Lee Merritt, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and actress Halle Berry. Popular Black Instagram blogs, like The Shade Room, jumped on the story, and soon it was national news.
While Sorrell says attention from national media and figures can help spread awareness, he has noticed that it may also speed up the shelf life of a story for the general public.
“There’s like a cyclical nature to outrage and the action that people are willing to take,” he said.
Sorrell said he’d like to see more sustained coverage on stories affecting Black people and communities from local news outlets.
“When local news outlets are helping create movement and create awareness locally and build power locally, I think that’s an appropriate speed to the cycle,” he said.
“Whereas like, if it goes to CNN, and then it goes to Joe Biden, and that’s happened within two days, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing next to happen.”
Discussion at the police board meeting
In the weeks since the shooting, community leaders have criticized the Kansas City Police Department and Clay County prosecuting attorney’s office for their handling of the case.
Specifically, critics questioned why Lester was released after only an hour and a half in custody and why it took four days for the Clay County prosecutor to press charges. They wonder if Lester would have been charged at all if not for the national outcry spurred by The Defender.
The Beacon reached out to the prosecutor’s office but did not hear back from anyone there.
Roughly a week after Lester was charged, the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners held its regular monthly meeting at KCPD headquarters.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Police Chief Stacey Graves gave a statement, saying the department is committed to justice for all victims of violent crime.
“We have reviewed the incident internally to ensure we recognize and continue to put forth the needed efforts in our investigations,” Graves said. “I want to thank our Kansas Citians for understanding the need for their police department to thoroughly investigate incidents in our city within a timeline that is needed for the case at hand.”
Beyond the chief’s remarks, there was little indication from the police board, whose members are appointed by the governor of Missouri, that the shooting of Ralph Yarl would profoundly affect how the department does its work.
Commissioner Dawn Cramer, who lives in the Northland, expressed condolences to Yarl and his family and shared that her family had removed guns from the home of her father, who is showing signs of dementia. “It’s something that we as a community need to be aware of,” she said.
Mark Tolbert, the board’s president, praised the department for the way it handled the shooting.
“I want to thank the chief, who really kept the community informed of what was going on,” he said. “You kept things in shape, and we appreciate your leadership.”
Outside of the insular discussions of the police board, however, the department’s response to the shooting of Yarl has revved up the ongoing calls for locally elected leaders in Kansas City to govern KCPD, rather than the state-appointed board.
Mayor Quinton Lucas, who is the only elected member of the Board of Police Commissioners, has not criticized the police response but has restated his support for local control since the shooting. And at a news conference on April 18, Councilwoman Melissa Robinson called on more city officials to support the movement for local control.
While the Missouri legislature shows no signs of budging on state control, groups such as More2 and the Urban League of Greater Kansas City are actively working to increase local support and explore possible avenues for change.