Memphis students challenge the politics of mourning as cultures clash

As the sun set across Memphis Monday night, dozens of grieving students gathered at Hamilton High School for a vigil to mourn the life of 15-year-old shooting victim Phillexus Buchanan, but their grief turned to frustration as police officers ordered them off the campus. 

Instead of honoring their classmate with a balloon release on the grounds of her high school, the students, banned from campus after hours, left the large empty parking lot and huddled across the street on a small sidewalk. 

The moment, coming in the aftermath of a tragedy, illustrates how the politics of mourning can be complicated for Black children as their grief traditions clash with a litany of rules and regulations.

Donning a “rest in peace” T-shirt violates the dress code in schools with uniforms, a common requirement in Shelby County Schools, a majority Black district. Creating a TikTok tribute with classmates at lunch runs afoul of the district’s cell phone policy that warns that administrators may confiscate phones if they are visible during the school day. Planning a vigil means navigating the city’s park permit application or the district’s procedures.

“As part of district protocol, we require all requested use of facilities or school property to be submitted through our facilities portal which is reviewed by facilities, security, and school leadership,” said school spokesperson Jerica Phillips Monday night. “Unfortunately, we did not receive ample notification for this request to be reviewed.”

Gathering more than 100 shares on social media, posts about the vigil began circulating midday Sunday, two days after Buchanan was killed.

The Hamilton student, known as Lexus, was killed on Friday night after a high school basketball game when the car that she and other students were riding in was ambushed at a gas station, according to police reports. Also killed in the shooting was 16-year-old Breunna Woods, a cheerleader at Wooddale High School. 

Family members have announced a vigil and purple balloon release for Woods on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. on Riverfront Drive near Bass Pro Shop. 

A young mother and her infant were also wounded in the shooting, with the mother publicly sharing on social media that the “strong” baby boy is recovering from surgery. “Mommy [is] sorry Jr. I tried taking every bullet for you,” she wrote in a post that has been shared more than 2,000 times.

Lexus and Breunna’s deaths are the 28th and 29th youth homicides in Memphis this year, according to the Memphis Police Department. To their loved ones, they were much more than numbers. Lexus loved fashion and selfies and was a devoted friend, her family said. She went out on Friday to support Breunna, who was cheering at the game. 

Breunna was a rising hairstylist who aspired to be a brand ambassador. 

“Breunna was a gentle individual that performed exceptionally well within the classroom and on the court. Everyday, she embraced us with her smile and fashion,” Wooddale school administrators said in a statement posted on the school’s Facebook page.

Hamilton did not post a statement about Lexus on Monday, an oversight that some students at the vigil took as a slight.  

“Hamilton is not doing their job,” said 15-year-old Morgan Dandridge, who attended both middle school and high school with Lexus. “They didn’t even have a moment of silence for her.”

Morgan said the school provided grief counselors, and the counselors coached the students through relaxation techniques. “They say, take a deep breath, take a deep breath. I get tired of taking deep breaths,” she said. “I’m weary.”

Hamilton High proceeded with classes as usual Monday, added Morgan. 

The school’s approach is in stark contrast to the path Rhodes College took in October following the shooting death of one of its students. Campus leaders invited classmates to share public tributes to victim Andrew Rainer in the school newspaper, and the administration canceled classes to give students time to mourn. Rhodes is a $51,000-a-year liberal arts college with a majority white student body. Hamilton is a majority Black historic high school in a ZIP code where the median household income is less than Rhodes’ tuition. 

Wanting to do something on campus to remember Lexus, determined Hamilton students created and circulated a memorial poster for classmates to sign, a gesture that received mixed reactions from staff but that the principal ultimately allowed, Morgan said. Many students also promoted the vigil on Monday and came carrying balloons in Lexus’ favorite color, pink. No one at the vigil identified themselves to Chalkbeat as Hamilton High School staff.

Parents and older relatives on hand calmed and reassured frustrated students as they were forced off of their school parking lot. 

“I feel that it really made the kids feel as though the school was not concerned with the death of one of their fellow classmates,” said mom Melanie Harris, whose 15-year-old daughter had attended school with Lexus since middle school.

Just before 6 p.m. as the crowd size peaked, spilling over from the sidewalk to the street, mourners gathered around Lexus’ aunt Tanya Dockins to hear her tearful plea to “stop killing these babies who ain’t had a chance to find their way in life.” 

Students who had stood strong all night broke down. 

Classmates who were still composed comforted those around them. 

And a Memphis police officer got on his loudspeaker and admonished the crowd for standing in the street, ordering them back on the overcrowded sidewalk. 

Some booed the police while releasing their pink balloons to float freely in the air, and in the background, the flashing blue lights of police cars both protected attendants from drivers on the busy street and served as a reminder of how Black students are banned, policed, and surveilled, even while mourning.