Thurgood Marshall Senior Zion Kelly was returning home when a man asked to use his phone in Brentwood Park. Zion refused. The man immediately flashed his firearm, demanding that he hand over his valuables. Terrified, Zion sprinted back to his home, luckily without injury. He texted his twin brother, who was at a college mentoring class, to be careful.
His twin brother Zaire Kelly, who also attended Thurgood Marshall Academy, texted back that he should be fine, reminding Zion that he was carrying a pocket knife, a weapon he had bought a few months earlier at his father’s behest.
Twenty minutes later, Zaire was finishing the final leg of his walk home, strolling through Brentwood Park. About 300 feet from the front door of their home, he faced the same man who threatened his brother: Nineteen-year-old Sequan Gillis. Gillis was facing charges of using a vehicle without permission and consequently had a tracking bracelet around his ankle. This impediment did not stop him from brandishing his firearm at Zaire, in another attempted robbery.
Zaire — a track star who could run a mile in under five minutes — did not flee like his brother. He stabbed Gillis with his pocket knife. The injury would eventually prove fatal for Gillis, though Gillis had enough time to fire his gun once into Zaire Kelly’s head. They died within minutes of each other in the same hospital. The date was September 20th, 2017. Zaire was sixteen.
Zion and the Kelly family were devastated. Later that night, Zion posted on his twitter, “I lost my twin brother tonight to a gun. We were the closest of all people[.] I love you, rest easy brother.” His family expressed similar sentiments, writing, “Words cannot even begin to express the profound grief we are feeling.” His father, though mourning, remained grateful that he did not lose both Zion and Zaire that night.
Zaire Kelly was a standout scholar and athlete at Thurgood Marshall. During Thurgood Marshall’s annual oral presentations, he sought out the toughest, most critical teachers. Zaire wanted to prove to himself and everyone else that he was ready for the challenge, and, more importantly, wanted to learn where he could improve. His grades were strong; his CollegeBound mentor noted he was “a good person.”
Zion described Zaire’s character best at his March for Our Lives speech: “Zaire had a personality that would light up the room. He was energetic and full of dreams and aspirations.”
Zaire’s accomplishments as a high school student were tremendous: He was the captain of the track team, was a Ward 5 youth leadership representative, and was considering a run for senior class president. His impressive 4.2-minute mile-time placed him at the forefront of college interest. That Friday, in fact, Zaire was planning to meet with representatives from Florida A&M, his top choice university. He wanted to major in chemistry as an undergraduate. Once he left college, Zaire aspired to become a forensic scientist.
His father said that Zaire eventually wanted to become Mayor of DC “or something like that.”
Besides the pain Zion felt at losing his twin, he felt like he could have done more. Zion was tortured by the fact that he already knew that this gun-toting criminal was lurking in Brentwood Park and that perhaps had he called 911 or really warned his brother, the whole tragedy could have been avoided.
Today, he transforms that frustration into political activism, using Zaire’s story and his experiences to fight for gun control. Zaire’s death, after all, could have been avoided if firearm ownership were more strictly regulated. Gillis, Zion points out, was wearing an ankle monitor and should have been watched by the police. Despite this, he was able to obtain a gun illegally with ease, eventually using it to kill Zaire.
Zion spoke passionately at the March for Our Lives protest. “I am here to represent the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students who live in constant paranoia and fear on their way to and from school.” He said. Zion then asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they had been affected by gun violence.
His Twitter account — followed by nearly fifteen thousand people — is filled with political messages, taking aim at the NRA and lending support to underrepresented figures in the war against gun violence.
His plan for DC, however, is more specific. His father, Curtis Kelly explained their goal during a meeting he and others affected by gun violence held by President Trump: “I agree we need to protect our kids in schools, but we need to protect them on their safe passageways home as well, and their extracurricular activities, and their parks and recreations, and everything, that they try to go for their peace in.”
During Zion’s tearful speech at the March for Our Lives protest, he announced the “Zaire Kelly Public Safety Zones Amendment Act of 2018,” which aims to extend school protection to those areas outside of schools in D.C. that students utilize. This bill would likely include gun-free zones in areas between school and after-school activities as well as in recreational centers. The definition of students and the firearm protections that go with it would be expanded to include secondary schools, junior high schools, vocational schools, and universities.
As Zion put it, “[With the Amendment Act] every student in Washington, D.C. will carry the protection of my brother’s name.”
On March 25, Zion went farther than local legislation; he announced on Twitter the creation of an annual scholarship in Zaire Kelly’s name. The scholarship, started by the CollegeBound mentoring program Zaire attended before his death, was created — according to its web page — to “provide financial support to young men like Zaire [for] the opportunity to further their education and pursue their dreams.” Donations to the scholarship fund can be made on the CollegeBound website on a page entitled “The Year of Zaire.”
In an interview with News4, Zion expressed the motivation behind this campaign: “I didn’t want my brother’s name to go in vain. I wanted to keep his legacy alive and keep his name alive.”