A 7-year-old boy looked out at dozens of people around him carrying balloons, praying and speaking through a microphone about love and death on the streets of Baltimore.
“Why are all these people here?” he asked.
“They are here because of your mother,” Monica Johnson told him gently, tears running down her face.
His mother, Renika Howard, was fatally shot just feet away from where he stood bundled up in his snow jacket and a thick hat. The boy was still trying to understand, his relatives said, how his mother could have died just 24 hours before — on his 7th birthday.
Police said Howard was shot at 5:21 p.m. Thursday in the 2700 block of Fisk Road. She died at a local hospital.
Despite biting cold, dozens of neighbors as well as the principal of a nearby school, community activists, police and politicians attended a vigil in the Cherry Hill community of South Baltimore on Friday evening to remember Howard, a woman described as a churchgoer who spent most of her time with her son and who was a well-respected, positive spirit in the community.
“It has hit the hood,” said Johnson of Howard’s death. “This touched Cherry Hill.”
Johnson recalled that when Howard was growing up, she called her “Auntie” and would knock on her door to talk to her.
As a mother, Howard and her son were inseparable, friends and family members said. Howard volunteered at the boy’s elementary school, and they went everywhere together.
“It was him and her,” Johnson said. “She was beautiful. Everybody [asks], ‘why her?’”
That’s a question Howard’s mother, Sherese Baynes is also asking.
“I am looking for answers,” Baynes said. “She is a good girl, a good mom. Why? Why? I don’t know.”
One neighbor at the vigil said she had nearly witnessed the shooting. She had parked her car and was walking her groceries into the house. She saw Howard, also carrying bags from the store, the neighbor said.
The neighbor thought about going back to her car to get more, but decided to drop her bags inside her house. Once inside, she heard five or six shots. “I just froze and I said, ‘Whoever that is I hope they are OK.’”
She hadn’t seen a gunman. “I just seen her fall,” she said. Then she called 911.
The woman said she was shaken, and now wants to move out of the area.
Also at the vigil were other families that have lost loved ones and best friends. Two women stood together — one whose son had died a year ago blocks away, and another who had lost her son three years ago to gun violence.
A few feet away a young woman talked about still not having really gotten over her best friend’s death.
After so many deaths in the city, the mood at the vigil was one of self-reflection. Speakers said the community needs to look at taking care of itself and its youth — and of convincing people who might know who shot Howard to speak up.