Knoxville's Black community protests after student deaths

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In this April 21, 2021 photo, a memorial is seen after a shooting at Austin-East Magnet High School, in Knoxville, Tenn. Members of the Black community in Knoxville are calling for reforms to dispel longstanding disparities between Blacks and whites. They say that is one of the steps that needs to be taken to reduce increasing violence that has claimed the lives of five high school-age students this year. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – His final plea was uttered quietly but urgently.

“Wait. Wait. Wait.”

But in a flash, a police officer had shot and killed 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. during a short struggle after authorities say a handgun Thompson was carrying went off and struck a trash can. As Thompson lay on the school bathroom floor with officers on top of him, another student — who also had been shoved to the ground and handcuffed — screamed, "What are you all doing?”

The April 12 fatal shooting took place at Austin-East High School, an arts magnet school nestled inside a quiet Knoxville neighborhood near the zoo. A funeral home sits directly across the street. Painted prominently on the road separating the two buildings are the words “Black Lives Matter.”

The majority-Black student population had already been grappling with the deaths of four students in gun violence since January, all of which took place outside of school and none of which involved police officers.

The students "have dealt with a lot of loss,” said Breyauna Holloway, who has two children attending the school. “They’re here one day and literally the next, they’re gone.”

The police body camera video, released under public pressure more than a week after Thompson's death, hasn't helped ease the growing angst surrounding law enforcement officials' response to the shooting. If anything, the questions have gotten more pointed.

“If Anthony Thompson was white, he would still be here. And that's where the anger comes from,” said Knox County Commissioner Dasha Lundy, the only Black member on the 11-person board, who has advocated for better communications between the police and the Black community. “There had to be something to save his life."