In the faces of a hundred mourners, the grief and regret looming over Freret Street was illuminated by candlelight Wednesday night before a small memorial, a bare tree guarded by a little white picket fence and hung with teddy bears, balloons, flowers and a photo of a slain teenager in his favorite red cap.
Inconsolable sadness, uncontrollable anger, caution, duty, dismay and respect were all on display in the crowd, reflecting the widening sphere of damage since the life of 19-year-old Errol Meeks ended in gunfire late Monday night.
The predominant reaction was outright mourning, as those who loved the boy nicknamed Scooter wailed and wept openly at their loss. Only two nights after Meeks was slain in that exact spot, the sudden end of all of his 19-year-old promise and personality was still too painful for many family members to bear.
“He was a loving person,” said Kanika Franklin, one of the organizers of the vigil. “He wasn’t into no drama. He wasn’t into no beef. This was just senseless.”
Meeks had played high school basketball at McDonogh #35 when he was younger, “just a real cool person in general,” said 17-year-old Timothy Thompson, a friend who’d exchanged greetings with Meeks on the street Monday afternoon just hours before the shooting. Meeks was fiercely competitive at sports and video games, so loved the music of rapper Lil Boosie that when it came on he’d dance to it by himself, and was entering a job-training program.
“He said, ‘Y’all ain’t gonna see me for a minute,’” said Trekina Lacoste, recalling one of her last conversations with him. “I said, ‘Go ahead. You doing the right thing.’”
For others gathered on Freret Street, the pain manifested as anger. The sound of sobbing was occasionally interrupted by gruff shouts of pain and defiance, and friends would escort the shouters away. “This is not the time,” one man insisted to a visibly agitated friend, leading him away from the crowd as police watched carefully from a short distance away.
Meeks was shooting pool at Friar Tucks the night he was shot, and friends and investigators have said his slaying followed a fight he was not involved in but had tried to break up. Though Meeks was acting as a peacemaker, his death has the potential to ignite yet another fire in the tinderbox of New Orleans street culture. Police have named 25-year-old William Baham as the man who killed Meeks, and officers watching Wednesday night’s crowd said they fear that retaliatory shootings will follow if Baham is not arrested quickly.
The vigil took place at the corner of Freret and Dufossat, directly across from the now-shuttered bar where Meeks was played his last game of pool. Bar owner Jason Blitch said Tuesday that after the trauma of losing a well-known patron directly in front of his establishment, he will not reopen, and those who sat on the building’s steps and wept Wednesday did so on a darkened porch already stripped of all its old Friar Tucks signage.
Friar Tucks was already under the city’s scrutiny after being cited for underage drinking following a police raid last summer. Since that time, Blitch had done everything he was asked, police said, and following a 30-day suspension scheduled to start next month he was planning on reopening a different business, he said this week. Kellie Grengs, a neighbor who in the past has been vocal about problems she perceived with the bar, said Blitch had met with her Monday afternoon and laid out a plan to abandon the college bar altogether and open a restaurant. “His entire business model” was going to change, he said.
For Grengs and many others paying their respects Wednesday night, Meeks’ murder tragically mars the last few years of steady progress on Freret Street. New businesses continue to open on the historic corridor, and on Monday, a number of news outlets were reporting the appearance of bright new banners heralding “The New Freret.” That story was swept aside, of course, in the wave of reporting about Meeks’ death that evening, as was a more indepth account of tensions between the young entrepreneurs on Freret and the older landowners they say are hindering the redevelopment.
These thoughts were left unspoken Wednesday night, however, set aside out of respect for the loss of a young life that drew more than 100 people around an overburdened tree.
“When I saw him there with his eyes open, I thought he was still here,” Lacoste said. “But he was gone.”