An Ohio city struggles to make sense of another fatal police shooting of a Black man
It was just after 1 a.m. on May 28 when the future that Jayland Walkerwas planning shattered in an instant.
His fiancée, Jaymeisha Beasley, was traveling with family outside Cincinnati when they were hit by a tractor-trailer. Beasley wasn't wearing a seatbelt, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and was thrown from the van onto the interstate. Within moments, she was struck by a passing vehicle, leaving her with fatal injuries. A hit and run. She was 27.
For those who knew Walker, the next 30 days are hard to make sense of. The person they remember loved sports — wrestling most of all — and was quiet and kind. He was a fiancé, son, brother and friend who knew how to make people laugh. And he was never one for trouble, they say.
Which is what makes the final moments of his life all the more painful and confounding. With Walker's funeral scheduled for Wednesday, they are struggling to understand what may have caused him to flee police on June 27 during what should have been a routine traffic stop. They don't understand why a 25-year-old with no criminal record was shot dozens of times by officers in Akron, Ohio, leaving him with more than 60 gunshot wounds. And they don't understand why after years of nationwide protests over racial injustice, young Black men like Walker continue to be killed by police at a rate that is more than twice as high as that of white Americans.
Police in Akron say they sought to stop Walker for a "traffic and equipment violation." Video of the ensuing chase shows what police say is a muzzle flash coming from Walker's driver-side door. Walker was unarmed when he was shot, according to authorities, but police say a handgun was later found in the car.
"It's just not matching the person that I know, because he's not into that and that's not him," his sister, Jada Walker, told ABC. "That's not Jayland."
A community remembers a wrestling fan who loved to laugh
Walker and his sister grew up in a blue-collar community on the west side of Akron. Their parents separated when he was still in school, but friends recalled a close and supportive family despite the separation.
"You can tell he came from a good home, because he was polite, he was respectful," says Brian Turner, formerly a dean of students at Buchtel High School in Akron, where Walker studied. "He would say things such as 'please, thank you, excuse me' — things some students kind of struggle with these days."
For the men in the Walker family, wrestling was life. Walker's uncle and father both wrestled, so by the time he made it to Buchtel, a school where the student body is majority-minority, there was little doubt he would follow in their footsteps.
On the wrestling team, Walker made friends with Tyler Cox, who remembered him as "one of the funniest people you would ever meet."
"He was a natural comedian," Cox says.
Cox says Walker was a leader — a captain during his sophomore year on the team and someone who spent his summers volunteering to help coach the youth team underneath them.
But he also described a unique closeness with Walker shaped not just by wrestling, but by shared challenges the team faced.
"We all became family," Cox says. "We had problems and struggles within wrestling that we all went through together as a team that made us closer."
He recalled the story of how one day after school, the police were called on the team after a disagreement with a school staff member over whether they were allowed to be on campus. The issue was not that they didn't want to leave, says Cox, but that they were with an immune-compromised parent who could not safely wait outside in the cold with them.
"It was something that we just couldn't let it slide. That was when everybody really locked in" and grew closer, Cox says.
Their coach during that time was Robert Hubbard, who says Walker wasn't just a "really sweet kid," but also one of the most motivated wrestlers he can remember.
"Wrestling as a high school sport is probably the toughest one out there, so if I'm saying you're a hard worker, you're a hard worker," says Hubbard.
He was also one of the friendliest kids at the school, remembers Norma James, a former assistant principal at Buchtel.
"What it was for me, it was the smile," James says. "Every morning I stood in the hall and I was the one looking at kids as they came in because we have a dress code ... I was always 'the bad guy' in the morning," James says, the one who had to enforce the rules. "That really kind of crushed my day ... I got to the point where I was looking forward to seeing him come in because I knew I would see him smile."
Walker faced immeasurable loss after high school
Walker would stay in Akron after graduating from Buchtel in 2015, working for Amazon for a time before taking a job as a delivery driver for DoorDash.
His life after high school wasn't always an easy time. In 2018, his father, Edward "Pete" Walker, died at the age of 57. In 2020 came the pandemic, followed by the death of his fiancée earlier this year.
"That's a lot," says Cox, Walker's former teammate. Cox says he and Walker eventually lost touch after high school, but that "I can only imagine what was really going through his mind."
Walker's death has sparked days of protest in Akron over what many of the city's residents see as a continuing double standard around race in policing.
James pointed to the confessed shooter in Highland Park, Ill. — the 21-year-old white man who killed seven people during a parade on July Fourth before he was chased hours later and apprehended by police without a single bullet fired.
Eight officers who were involved in Walker's death have been placed on administrative leave, and the shooting remains under investigation.
"At some point you got to realize something is going to give," Cox says. "It's like you pretty much filling up a water balloon and you just keep continuously filling this water balloon. At some point that water balloon is going to pop."
For James, the death of the young man whose smile she once sought out every morning has been difficult to process.
"All those bullets for a traffic violation," James says. "They shot him as many times as they shot up Bonnie and Clyde, and they robbed and killed across the country. I mean, I can't wrap my head around the why of it. The why so much."
It's left her struggling when she thinks about what she might one day have to tell her grandchildren.
"How do you tell children that when you go outside, because of something you have no control over, there are people who not only hate you enough to discriminate and hurt you, but some even want to kill you. How do you tell them that?" she says.
"And then how do you live with that each day knowing that at any given time, everything you've done and accomplished is stripped away from you and the only thing you are is a person of color. Or a person that other people hate for whatever reason. That's a hard conversation to have."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.